Number one worry for most inbound expats, even before packing their suitcases, concerns finding a proper house or apartment in Brussels. Where to live? What are the rental prices and conditions? How does it work with utilities? And more basic, where should I start with my search for a new home? Everyone struggles with these and several other related questions, but luckily there are many resources online to make the move into your new home town much easier. What often misses though, are the practical lessons of other expats when they first arrived, and which they had to learn the hard way. In this article you will find EIGHT important lessons to bear in mind when you start your house search. And if you have already settled down, maybe you want to share this article with people who are currently trying to find a house or will arrive soon.
1. Contacting rental agents
I often questioned whether rental agencies were at all interested in helping me when I contacted them after I had noticed a property on Immoweb or somewhere in Brussels while scooting the city. The response time was often incredibly bad, if there was a response to begin with. My experience is that the only way to inquire about houses is to get someone on the line. Just forget about emails… CALL! Also for the next step, visiting one or more house, I would strongly suggest to get the actual agent who is going to drive you around on the phone and make clear appointments (see next point).
2. Don’t let the rental agency take you for a ride, literally
I still don’t fully get the economics of rental agencies, but one thing I do know… it’s a numbers game for them! The more houses an agent shows to a potential tenant, the higher the chance he will close a deal. And the more potential tenants he does this with, the more deals he will close. Driving you around costs time, but when he organizes this well he can maximize the number of visits. My experience, and that of many other people, is that Brussels’ agents don’t listen well to your needs and preferences. They show you anything that kind of fits your budget: 2 bedrooms become 3, a balcony becomes a nice view, close to the metro becomes close to a bus or tram line, and in my case living near Place Châtelain becomes looking at houses far out into the Woluwes and Uccle. There is nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t what I wanted. Kindness and naivety can waste you a lot of time and if you’re stupid enough it may land you in a place that you initially didn’t want to live in. So, be strict with agents from the very beginning: “I want ABC in location XYZ. If you don’t have it, don’t waste my time.”
3. Define your location
Brussels may not be the biggest city and the distance between a house that is on your mind for renting and your work or your children’s school may also not be too far. Still, the city changes dramatically at 7h30 in the morning and after 16h00 in the afternoon. A quick 10 minute commute may easily become 45 minutes or more. Perhaps you’ve lived in a city like Tokyo, Los Angeles or (like me) Mumbai, and such a commute seems like nothing and you wonder why everybody is complaining so much about traffic. But be advised that your views will definitely change on this after having lived in Brussels for some time. Being stuck in the tunnels or even the smaller neighbourhood roads every day is no fun. So make sure to really understand the impact on your commuting time before you sign a contract.
4. Make sure you live in the right area!
The Capital of Brussels is a strange place. There are 19 different communes within the outer ring road, and if you thought that it doesn’t make a difference where you live, think again! Personally I wanted to live in 1050 and not in 1000 for administrative reasons (immigration of my non-Western spouse). Whereas my house was advertised as 1050, on the day I wanted to sign the contract I coincidentally figured out that my house was located in 1000 after all. Living close to Avenue Louise (1000 & 1050, I still don’t understand which numbers are what postal code), I figured out that some of the side streets are partially 1000, even though you’re in the middle of Ixelles. Two doors down the street the postal code 1050 begins, and with that also a better parking policy (luckily I have a garage), and more importantly (easier) access to official daycare centers and schools in Ixelles.
5. Look around
Often people forget to look around the street or the neighbourhood when they visit a potentially new home. The house may be great, but the neighbourhood could be unsafe. When the streets are messy and houses look dilapidated, try to see if there is any construction going on or maybe will start in the near future. This may be reason not to choose that house due to possible noise pollution. From my own experience, however, I know that construction makes relatively little noise if it’s not in the apartment directly above or next to you. Several upcoming projects in my neighbourhood during the time I was looking for an apartment gave me the confidence that the neighbourhood (Louise/Vleurgat) would become (even) better. Besides, it provided me with a strong argument I could use to lower the rent a little (see point 10).
6. Watch for the extra charges
Make sure you understand fully what is and what is not included in your rental price. Often a monthly service charged is added and most of the times this doesn’t include gas and electricity. However, now that you know energy costs are not included, you should definitely check to get a precise understanding of what you will pay. During my first call with Electrabel they told me I would be pre-charged about €125 per month. In reality, however, I now pay almost twice that amount! Despite having energy-efficient lights everywhere that are turned of when not in use and watching the temperature in house, paying double the initial amount is still a financial backfall. I would advise you to ask your new neighbours if their house is comparable in size and isolation.
7. Understand the contract
If you rent through an agency, chances are that the contract you will get are pretty straightforward and according to local laws. The 3-6-9 clause may be strange to you, but is normal. Also the rental cancellation penalties are often the same, namely 3 months rent to cancel during the first year, 2 months during the second, and 1 during the third. If you are not sure that you will stay for more than a year, maybe you want to suggest an extra clause that states you will not pay a penalty if you can find another rentee that will sign a new contract under the same conditions. Just know that a contract is nothing more than a proposal and that you can also suggest some conditions. If an intermediary is negotiating with you, make clear what you want and make a case why. Chances are good he will do his very best to get the changes into the contract. After all, he wants to come to an agreement with you to earn his living!
This should actually be the first piece of advise to every expat looking for a new home. But since negotiation without knowledge is like sailing without a compass, you first need to know what you’re talking about. My straightforward belief is that rental prices are significantly too high, probably by 10-25%. Homeowners and rental agencies know this, but still try to squeeze some extra money out of your expat pockets. You should know that many expats will get their house for free from their employers and they often have rather big budgets. Therefore their willingness to negotiate is rather low compared to those who must pay their house from their own salaries. So do your research, compare and make counter offers. If you don’t you will easily lose out on one or more nice holidays per year. Indeed, do the math, 12 months x €100 off the asking price is €1200. Ka-Ching! Btw, if you don’t you help to perpetuate the cycle of charging too much for expat-rentals…
9. Bonus tip
I personally believe that your house is the single most important expenditure. Unless you need to live somewhere only for a very short time (lets say up to 3 months), then living in a nice house in a good location is the wisest decision and the best gift for yourself. Feeling good, safe and comfortable starts with the place where you live. If our budgets were unlimited we would all be living the top floor or in that villa with garden, but of course the reality is different. We do have limited budgets, but I think you should not be too strict with it. If your pre-defined budget is €1000 and you come to Brussels, you may find that your “dream house” with 2 bedrooms and a balcony at a certain location is €1200. Instead of taking a 1-bedroom or living 3 kilometers from where you actually really want to live, you may want to adapt your budget and save on other expenditures (going out, clothes, holiday etc). Just commuting 15 or 20 minutes less to work means you save 2,5 to 3,5 hours per week that you can spend on other things (reading books, your family, gym etc). The quality of your life would go up a lot.