Beginner’s Mind

Beginner’s Mind

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.” 

            Zen Mind: Beginner’s Mind” by Suzuki.

Jim wrote previously about our initial Spanish real estate experience. I am happy to update that we finally found our new apartment and just moved in last week. We love our new place; more importantly, the cats seem to love it, too.  

A week after moving in, our cat – Sangria – has approved of the new apartment.

As Jim mentioned, we thought that because we had experience with renting apartments and buying two houses in the US, finding an apartment in Spain would not be that difficult.

We were so wrong.

It was a frustrating experience that caused us a lot of stress during the process. Even though we have lived in Granada almost a year and have gotten used to the más o menos (more or less) way of doing things, nothing prepared us for the ultimate más o menos way of Spanish real estate. 

Spanish realtors only work from properties on their own list.  

I once asked a realtor I met at weekly expat meetup group if she could help us look for rental property. She immediately answered that she only had property for sale on her list, but none for rent. I was confused then, but I thought maybe we had a miscommunication. 

Subsequently, we looked at a place and, even though we didn’t like it, we asked the realtor if he could help us look for an apartment. He gave us the same answer – he had no apartment that fit our criteria on his list

Seeing the pattern, we later confirmed with a lawyer and two of our Spanish friends that each real estate office has their own property list and don’t share their database of listings; the realtors only work off their own company’s (or even just office’s) listings.  

Don’t expect the Spanish realtors to know about their own properties. 

Even though the Spanish realtors only work off their own listings, don’t expect them to know the places they show, though they still expect a full commission for their mere presence. Through it all, we met so many realtors; some were very helpful and conscientious, but many say nothing or when asked basic questions about property (does it have AC?) say “Good question, I don’t know.” They then return to their personal texting while you look around yourself.

The email is the black hole in the real estate business.

We learned that mas o menos applies often even to getting an email response!

The majority of email communications were not returned. When we do, it’s often late. Last week, while we were in the middle of our move to a new apartment, Jim got an email response from one of the realtors about the property he inquired 4 months ago! 

If there was a property that we really liked, we asked our friend who is fluent in Spanish to call for us. It is still best to contact them the old-fashioned way – calling.  However, the good thing is Whatsapp is widely used in Spain, which enabled us to communicate with our realtor through writing so we can use a translator program. 

The early bird doesn’t get the worm…or the apartment.

Our lease expired at the end of August (when many are away on vacation) so we made the mistake of starting our apartment search in mid-May to try to lock down something early with a deposit.  The realty office that one of the expats highly recommended stopped returning our calls, emails, and Whatsapp texts after they found out that we were looking to start a new lease so far in advance.

We had to let go of a few of the apartments we liked in May and June because we could not move in within two weeks even if we told them we would be willing to pay three months in advance or sign a two-year lease.  

So, we learned it is best to look when we are ready to move within two weeks. 

Spaniards still transact business the old-fashioned way – by feeling and guts.

Forget about credit ratings that we Americans know as FICO scores.  It doesn’t exist in Spain. Most landlord asks to get the bank guarantee or proof of income or assets to ensure one is able to make payments on time and fulfil the lease.

Still, we found that in many (including our) cases, more important than a bank guarantee is the personal assessment by the landlord (or her agent). Landlords openly “size you up” to determine if they want to rent to you personally.

The apartment that we were particularly interested in belonged to a Madrid surgeon. We were asked to meet the owner’s sister (who is in Granada) at the realtor’s office Friday evening at 8 pm. If her sister agreed, then we had a deal.  

We brought our dear friend who speaks Spanish fluently to help facilitate the meeting. We met with the realtor, the owner’s sister and her friend for about an hour.   

There were two unexpected things about us that impressed the sister. One was that we are writers on economics and personal finance (we showed her one of Jim’s books). Second, she liked that I do yoga and meditate regularly. We talked more about these things than the apartment itself.

To our surprise, the topic of our financial ability never even came up. We were never asked to provide a bank guarantee or any evidence of our financial situation. 

We sensed that she like us and we liked her. That was enough, apparently, as the deal was made by the end of the meeting.

More surprises at closing

We thought the contract signing would be a mere formality, but in the ever-improvising world of Spanish business, there was bound to be a más or a menos. 

First, the contract signing day and handover (keys) was not the same as the move-in date; it was two weeks before. The realtor changed the date because…he wanted to go on vacation. We were told we could come and go as we wanted now, but to try to keep utility use to a minimum till the bills started in our name. Before we even finished the handover, the realtor left (as soon as he received his commission). 

We met our landlord (the Madrid surgeon), who also supplied us with a few extra items – plates, pots and pans, a new mattress, sheets, towels, etc. She obviously went out of her way to ensure we had what we needed! 

Second, there is no “standard” contract. In Texas, we have the Texas Apartment Association’s lease, a comprehensive form (updated regularly to comply with state law) used all over the state. 

Not so in Spain. The realtor emailed our attorney the lease in advance. The contract left out some small details about the property, and some provisions of our last lease, such as requirements that we get rental insurance, were not mentioned. We were supposed to pay the first month’s rent and a deposit for damages, but our landlord didn’t ask for it at signing. She trusted that we would send in the payment to her eventually.

Nitty-gritty

According to our lawyer, “good practice” is for the landlord to clean and repaint the apartment and make all the necessary repairs.

For our new apartment, it was mostly clean but not repainted. The living room opens to a huge terrace, but that also allowed layers of dust and dirt to blow in that three floor- moppings are just starting to break through. The paint is peeled off in some parts of the apartment.  However, everything seems to be in working order. It’s mostly cosmetic, and as we said, the important thing is that the cats don’t seem to mind.

When in Espana…

Keep in mind that this is our experience. I know some of our expat friends had a much easier time buying or renting than we did.  We also received a lot of feedback after we posted the first part from other expats and local friends that real estate is one of the areas that most people, including native Spaniards, find most frustrating.  

The important thing for us in this experience (aside from getting a great place!) is that our frustration came from bringing our expectations from the US into this (or any other) Spanish process. As one of the main characters in our favorite show, El Ministerio del Tiempo, says, “We are Spanish; we have no plan. We improvise.”

We need to be open and have a beginner’s mind, not an expert mind. 

Bonus Notes and tips

To help those who are searching for a long-term apartment in Spain, I include resources below. 

  • These are the on-line sites that we used to search for places: Idealista, Habitaclia, Milanuncios, and Pisos.  Because realtors only work from their own lists, it’s best to do a lot of the searching yourself.
  • It is best, if possible, to rent the apartment directly from the owner. You can find a clue by looking at the property contact whether it is a company or an individual, or filter through Milanuncios (this is the only site you can filter properties listed by owner).  
  • If you can, hire an attorney to help negotiate, review the contract, and ensure that the owner has properly followed the law (such as it is). We used the same bilingual lawyer for both our leases. She charged 100 euros to review the contract or 300 euros to review, check all paperwork, and work with the owner to ensure he followed the law, such as that security payments are deposited with the city, or even that the owner is the true owner of the property and it was not a scam (which has been known to happen). Because we were living in Dallas back when we were obtaining our first lease, we found it was very helpful to hire her. 

There is a lot of information on Spanish rental laws at Citizens Advice Bureau Spain, especially on the new rental law that just changed in 2019. You can make a small donation (which we did) and ask them questions directly. They also cover many topics like immigration, visas, etc. I found them to be very useful.

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