If you travel much, you know that the heaviest bags we carry are the invisible ones, the expectations that “there” will be meet our presumptions based on what we are used to.
Even when we know things will be different, there are just some ways of doing things we either expect to be the same or just take for granted that there can be no other way.
For Jiab and me, we’ve been tripping over our invisible bags for the last week or so, specifically in looking for a new place to live in Granada now that our lease will be coming to an end.
To be sure, we are becoming veterans at handling the Spanish mas o menos way of doing things, where one office will require one set of documents, another (or even a different person in the same office) will require other papers, and that work never gets in the way of enjoying life.
We once went to a government office to file some important paperwork, only to find the clerk standing in the doorway at around 11:00 am saying his network was down. When we asked how long it would be, he said he didn’t know, didn’t care, and, as he brushed by us, was going home for the rest of the day because of it.
We generally shrug and laugh off such situations (with the phrase Eso es españa!), and even have come to embrace the outlook.
So, when our landlord told us he would not renew our lease, but that he wanted the apartment back for his own family, we felt we could easily handle finding a new place here.
After all, we had dealt with the real estate industry back in the States in buying two houses together, and before that each of us had looked for and secured houses and apartments…How different could it be?
And if the Spanish way is a little more relaxed about everything, it still can’t be that different, can it?
It can. It is.
Real Estate Agents are secret agents here
In the States, talking to a real estate agent is like getting a new best friend/therapist/life consultant, even if only temporary. They will ask you a million questions, then will take you on whirlwind tours of places as they explain in excruciating detail how each place perfectly fits your particular lifestyle.
They will take you from place to place till it’s all a blur and you can only remember homes by odd references such “the place with the circus-themed living room” or “the one with the avocado-colored toilets.”
In Spain, each real estate agent has their personal, secret list.
When we told agents what we wanted (and had been repeatedly assured our desires, such as a bathtub, were not extravagant), they would merely shrug and say they didn’t have anything on their list like that. No perusing their list by us, and no looking by the real estate agent on this new-fangled thing called the internet. They also have no idea what’s on anyone else’s list, so you have to check around.
Will the real price, specs, and availability please stand up?
So, we looked. We found a couple of internet listing sites, Idealista.com, fotocasa.com, and a few others. They are pretty easy to search and filter what you are looking for and by area of town.
You get a nice list of potentials, at least until you start looking carefully.
- Many places are double, even triple listed (sometimes by the owner and 1 -2 different agents)
- There are different price listings for the same place.
- There are different specs (some include the terrace in size, some do not).
- We were told places listed were no longer available, but then received notices of the same place as a “new listing.”
- Speaking of new listings, I received a notice three days in a row of a new listing that day, each time the same place!
We chose properties that looked most like they met our criteria and sent out email requests to view the apartment. Many emails were not answered.
Jiab reached out to a realtor that was recommended by a friend for help, ready to give our research over and let the realtor merely make contact. Again, no answer or response. It seems like realtors didn’t want to go out of their way to do their job, even if we did it for them.
To date, we have only received a few responses to our emails. We book visit, each time bringing with us a friend gracious enough to be our translator. We usually buy her lunch, and for that she does the heavy work of helping us ask questions, usually of the owner who is present.
The owner, often, has their agent there, who does…well, we are not really sure.
- One owner’s agent opened the door for us and then stood to the side while we talked only with the owner.
- Another kept texting on her phone, stepping out to take calls, and then rushed out to her next appointment.
- Another had never seen the place and saw it for the first time with us. She knew nothing about the place but still wanted her full commission.
For their presence, each realtor demands one month’s rent as payment, often paid by the renter.
Of course, we have met some helpful and conscientious agents, but many more say nothing or when asked about the property say “Good question, I don’t know.” Some also think that looking in early May for a place to move into as early as late June or July is “way too early.” Why the American rush?
Many locals here say that they do not like or need realtors and that one is best served by contacting the owner directly. After all, the owners are the people you would think would be the most straightforward so as to make an easy and quick deal.
Some owners we met would have been great landlords had their places measured up. One couple said they would go out and get anything we needed for their “duplex” (which we learned does not mean a side-by-side place like in America, but a two-story home with narrow stairs in between). Another couple were so much fun, we ran into them at midnight in a local pub and drank and talked (too bad their nice place had no bathtub, only small showers).
Other landlords, however, have been iffy.
Many fudge the descriptions, rounding 1 ½ baths to 2 full, and the definition of “with gorgeous terrace” can range from a 60 sq. meter rooftop showplace to “You can stick your foot halfway out the window, so it’s a terrace.”
Others will tell you everything is your responsibility for fixing/cleaning up (BEFORE you move in!), and demand to see all your financial statements to make sure you can pay (and are not a student in this university-dominated town).
And everything is negotiable. Places come with a parking space, unless you want to negotiate that away. Absolutely no pets, unless we make a deal. The tyranny of choices and a la carte menu options is exhausting to navigate.
SOP, not SOP
Honestly, Jiab and I were taken by surprise by the complications and strange combination of non-standardization and Byzantine morass that the real estate business is here. Coming from the States, we were used to a SOP, or Standard Operating Procedure, for an industry that gets streamlined and more efficient over the years, especially with the internet. The term, SOP, is often credited to the military, and so we think of businesses with SOPs as being run the same way all over.
The military has another definition of SOP, however, Standing Operating Procedure. This is the idea that each unit might have a particular way of carrying out Standard OP, and to the extent they differ, each unit has its own Standing OP.
We came to Spain thinking America’s real estate Standing OP was the world’s Standard OP as well.
Ride the train
After one exhaustive (the enchanting hills of Granada can quickly lose their enchantment walking up and down them in vain) and fruitless (another misdescribed place) day, Jiab and I, along with our friend and translator, went back to our soon-to-be-former apartment.
We sat on the terrace, drinking wine and sharing home-made tapas, trying to let the cool breeze that sweeps from the mountain and crashes the evening temperature twenty degrees cooler than at the height of the day blow our frustration and growing anxiety away.
As we lamented, and the wine poured, our friend came to tell us her life story. She grew up in a developing country, became a single mother young, and then, just as she was getting her life on firm ground, lost most all her property and savings due to political upheaval. She barely got out, and now lives with her family here in Granada and spends most days volunteering at the Red Cross.
Despite her challenges, she is always upbeat. She is the cheerleader and encourager to the people in our group, like the hip abuela who knows just the right thing to say to discouraged friends and family.
When we asked her how she does it, she said, “I’m just like anyone with life adventures…we just have to enjoy life, we are in the bus of life and never know when our trip will stop, so let’s have fun during the journey…”
So, bring on the crazy, incongruent, inconsistent, inconceivable world of Spanish real estate, plus anything else. Our CA (Commanding Abuela) just issued new Standing Operating Procedures, to have fun on this journey! We’ll let you know how this one ends…just as soon as we know!