Tuesday, 6 November 2018

For rent (Ενοικιάζεται)

If you follow the local news in Hania, you will know how difficult it has become to find a home to rent in my town in recent times: just look at the news headings floating around (translated from the original Greek):
Species extinction in the case of apartments for rent 
Desperation in Hania: Students cant find homes to rent - they're deserting their studies
Chania: More demonstrations by students who can't find accomodation

So I didn't think I would have any problem trying to find a tenant for my late dad's apartment. I've always found tenants for the flat on my own in the past, and I decided to follow the same path. The times have not changed the tenants - but they have changed the way people look for a place to rent. We have more choices these days as to where to look, due to the use of the internet. Facebook Marketplace, ad in the paper, For Rent sign on the balcony, flyer at the university, and word-of-mouth. These different forms of advertising all gave me different kinds of responses.The ad was written in Greek: 
"68sq.m. furnished apartment in the centre of town, 2 bedrooms, each with a double bed and wardrobes, living room with 2 sofas and a small balcony with a street view, separate kitchen, bathroom with new whiteware, and a security door (no wifi). Rental includes power, water and utilities charges. No central heating. Suitable for students (2 flatmates)."
In Greece, square metres are always stated for an apartment, sometimes even taking precedence over the number of rooms which are also always stated. The living room/lounge also counts as a separate room. So if an apartment has two bedrooms and a living room, it is labelled as a three-room house (not a 2-bedroom house, even though that is what it is. It's also important to include information about heating and shared utilities fees (because they raise the price of the rental).

searching for a tenant gave me a chance to meet a wide range of people in my little town. Here's a cross-section of the kind of people I met, and who ended up renting the apartment.

The Student
This was the category of tenant I was counting on: a couple of students, flat-sharing for economic reasons, and enjoying the delights of living in the middle of town near all buzz areas. In fact, only one student - a young girl that didn't look much older than my own daughter - responded to the newspaper ad. "Could you lower the rent?" she asked me. I told her that the rent was already a very good price for two people sharing. "But I'm on my own," she said. So I guess that meant that she wanted to rent a 2-bedroom flat for the price of a smaller space.
   Students who don't suit the fiscal criteria required to stay in the state-provided accommodation near the university campus look for studio flats (known in Greece as 'garsoniera', from the French word garçonnière). Education in Greece is free, but parents optionally pay for private cramming-style tutoring for university entrnace examinations starting from high school, and if they enter tertiary education, for their children's accommodation while they are students - there is no such thing as student loans in Greece (bachelor university education carries no fees). So it's understandable that parents will want to rent a private space for their children. It's only in recent times - when we became short of money - that people realised it will be cheaper to flat-share. Nevertheless, it is actually still not so common for Greek students to flat-share. When they do it, it's with someone they know well enough to trust. The idea of 'flatting' with random people (that you never knew before you started living in the same house with them) is something they will be forced to do if they decide to go abroad to work (eg in the UK - they have no other choice, due to the high costs of accommodation there).
   From my side, as the landlord, I couldn't run the risk of subletting: there is no guarantee that a student renting a large house won't think about sharing a flat, if a suitable roommate came along. So I couldn't lower the rent for 'philanthropic' reasons. Airbnb has made us all think of ways to make a little money on the side. This has caused rents to rise - after they had dropped rock-bottom during the crisis.
   The funny thing is that while most students in Hania are looking for a home in the centre of town, the local tertiary institutes are not actually located here. Some students may also find work while they are studying, which alleviates the financial burden for their parents who may still be paying for their child's main expenses eg rent and bills. Students prefer to live in the town because the campuses are out of the way and not close to where the buzz of the town is. The new rental situation - rising rents caused by landlords wanting to maximise their profits via airbnb - has made everyone think along more western terms concerning location: if you want to live close to your own comfort zone, you have to pay for it. As someone recently wrote on a Greek forum for airbnb hosts:
If a student can't afford to rent in the area they want, they must put some water in their wine. You can not have it all. So if they were living in, say, a northern suburb in Athens, ad they passed into the Panteio university in Pireas, what would they do? Would they leave Halandri and rent in Pireas? Of course not, no one would do that. There are buses and a metro now. Self-evident things. Apart from that, we are talking about reality. Do you want a home in a certain area? You have to pay more money to live where you want. Do you want something cheaper? You have to be prepared to travel a little further away. You don't want to pay anything at all? Stay at home then. 
The Young Working Man/Woman
While the Greek student generally doesn't flat-share, because they are still not accustomed to this concept and they don't make their own financial decisions, many young working people are learning the importance of doing so once they start paying their own expenses. These kinds of tenants are more likely to have a better idea of what they are looking for in life, since they are more independent and no longer rely on their parents. That's why I really like these kinds of tenants - and I always drop the rent for them, because Greek salaries are generally still low, and I believe in giving people the chance to save money. This category of prospective tenants are more likely to request permission about what they can do in the apartment (a sign of political correctness, perhaps): one asked me if I don't mind smoking ("it's your life," I replied) and another asked if they could bring their pet dog (of course: there are big dogs living in other apartments in the block). These young working people show the direction which Greece is going towards: a modern global western open-minded outlook. So you can imagine how saddened I was that such people did not end up renting the apartment.
   The greatest problem with the young working people was that they already owned their own furniture, which complicated matters since I was renting out a fully furnished apartment. Nowadays, it's very easy to get rid of furniture that you don't want, but we are also living in a very material world which makes us attached to our belongings. Our spending power makes us place high value on what we already own because we are emotionally attached to it. We don't part with it easily when we think that it may not be easily replaced. It also takes a lot of will power not to become a hoarder. Second-hand furniture is now available all over the town (not so common pre-crisis in Hania), another sign of a changed society as we  come out of a crisis.
   Αs the landlords, we had made up our mind to keep the flat furnished. After renovating it at the beginning of the year, we replaced the old furnishings with new ones: new stove, new fridge, new washing machine, new double beds. I believe you have to keep the airbnb idea on your mind: the crisis has made us all more flexible.

The Older Greek
As I've mentioned many times in the past, most Greeks generally own their own home. In the days when property was not taxed, it was cheap to build, and cheap to inherit. Renting was for out of towners and immigrants. Half the people who repsonded to my ads were in fact Greek. I also got a couple of older Greeks responding to my Marketplace and newspaper ads. Greeks who need to find a place to live in Hania still tend to be out-of-towners, who often own property elsewhere in Greece. Locals who rent homes at an older age may own a property in a nearby village, but they may want to help their children who live in the town, to look after the grandchildren while the parents work. The furniture was a sticking point, as they all had their own, having accumulated it over the years. They also tend to have much higher expectations of what a home should be like, so I wasn't surprised that they didn't call me back (see the paragraph below).
   It was once very common for Greeks to let go of the family home and hand it over to younger people. Wherever possible, Greeks would try to make a suitable living space for their children within the family home. Those days are pretty much over for now. Peple have higher expectations of what a home is, and the state has found ways to catch people building irregularly.

The Well-Dressed Lady
We had spoken twice over the phone to arrange a time for her to see the apartment, which showed that she was very interested in the flat. But when I saw the woman in person, I realised that she would probably not be so interested after all.
   All landlords know the pros and cons of what they are renting out even though some try to hide the cons, showcasing only the pros. Not everything is mentioned in an ad. In our case, the pros are that the apartment is in a highly desirable location and a very peaceful neighbourhood (except when the rubbish collectors pass by - you eventually get used to that noise). We also haven't skimped on making the apartment safe: it's been completely rewired, and we have installed a security door. The apartment has radiators installed but they are no longer in use... If you are Greek, you will know why. Even before the crisis, apartments that were heated via central heating stopped using the system because not everyone was fair in paying their share of the usage. And ever since the crisis, it's become very rare for buildings with central heating to be heated, unless the heating system is autonomous (pay-as-you-use).
   And now for the stuff you don't mention in an ad. The bathroom floor is badly stained; we couldn't afford to change that. The kitchen cupboards are also old-fashioned; they are clean and tidy, but not in the style associated with a newly-fitted kitchen. Potential tenants of our apartment will not see the bathroom floor and old kitchen as priorities. They will view the location in relation to the price. The Well Dressed Lady looked very high maintenance... I never heard back from her.

The Albanian
Albanians started coming in great numbers to Greece once communism broke down. Albanian immigrants remind me of Eastern European migrants of the 60s generation - people like my parents who went to New Zealand. They are quite hard-working, and they are also good savers. For this last reason, they were the kind of people who showed interest in buying rundown/cheap property during the downturn. Albanians have integrated well into Greek society because they don't look too different from us - their children even intermarry with Greeks, and they pick up Greek very quickly. They also see themselves as living in Greece permanently. Their own country still has too many problems to make them think about going back home.
   Still, some made that mistake during the crisis, like the family I met, who answered to the classic Greek yellow ENOIKIAZETAI sign that I had pasted on the balcony of the apartment, for people to see at street level. They had been working on another Greek island, and when the crisis came, they found it difficult to survive there. So they went back home... where they also found it difficult to survive. They made the difficult decision to return to Greece, this time choosing Crete because it had more jobs available, being a bigger island. They were very keen on renting the apartment, and I was quite happy to rent it to them. I asked them for their tax registration number, which is required by law for the rental agreement. "We don't have one," they said. They were here 'without papers', undocumented migrants, so to speak. I had to decline the offer: I can't really afford to go down the illegal path... 
   I got quite a few calls from Albanians as well as other immigrants from former communist countries, mainly people who saw the ENOIKIAZETAI sign, and the ad in Facebook's Marketplace (there are differences in who looks for ads where). Pre-crisis, these people were the kind who wanted to live in the centre of town in rundown apartments that the locals had left for a place in the countryside: they didn't always own a car, they wanted to live close to their jobs, and those kinds of rentals were often quite cheap. Landlords did not take care of their properties in the same way they do now, in this changed social and economic environment. Then the crisis came, which brought about job losses in the private sector, meaning that immigrants couldn't afford even low rentals. Rentals dropped, airbnb came into the picture, landlords began doing up their properties and rent prices rose again. These are the kinds of tenants that are being pushed out of the rental market in the city centre. Either it's unaffordable, or the homes are no longer being used for long-term rentals. What's more, according to Greek law, you cannot do both: even if the landlord stipulates a short rental term (eg 6 months), a tenant has rights after living in rental accomodation for 3 months, and therefore cannot be evicted for three years. Tenants are still much more protected against landlords' demands, than landlords are protected against tenants' missed rental payments. Evicting a bad tenant takes time (about 6 months) and it's very costly, involving bailiffs and lawyers. (Sadly, I've been through this - I am prepared to do it all over again to protect my property.)

The Western European
I got one Marketplace respose from a Dutch woman. But she never came to view the apartment. No one else from Northern Europe answered to my ad. These kinds of tenants usually rent out of the town, in the countryside, preferring villa-style accomodation, at high prices, near other Western Europeans. If they rent in the town, they usually want a place with a garden (they often have pets). 

The Family with Three Kids
I felt most sorry for this case of potential tenants, because I could read the desperation on their faces. Our apartment is not set up for a family of more than one child because it has a double bed in each bedroom. While you can get away with two children of the same sex sleeping on one bed, it is unhygienic. But three kids? "One can sleep on the sofa," the mother assured me. So the living room would be its bedroom. What if someone wanted to watch TV all night? Presumably, the child would have to stay up until the TV was turned off. Or it would go and sleep in another person's bed (again, unhygienic) - and maybe asked to move later in the evening, disrupting its sleep routine. Where would it do its homework? This is the only category of potential tenant that I actually refused: I said something to the likes of "I'm sorry, but this home is not designed for your needs".

The Neighbour
I got quite a few calls from people in the neighbourhood, who had obviously seen the ENOIKIAZETAI sign on the balcony. "Hello, I'm calling about the apartment, on behalf of a beloved cousin/friend/aunt of mine..." I would ask the caller to have the interested party call me themselves. It never happened. My guess is that some people are just being nosy. One woman called me to tell me about a real estate agent who doesn't charge the landlord for finding a tenant (she charges the tenant instead). I thanked her for the information, but I didn't act on the suggestion. And then the real estate agent called me - my guess is that the agent got the information from the neighbour (read on).

The Real Estate Agent 
After 6 weeks of trying to find a suitable tenant, I decided that the time had come to hand over the reigns to someone else who would do the job for me. I had gotten quite tired of driving into the town centre after work, finding a place to park (usually not at all close to the apartment), losing precious relaxation time traipsing up and down the streets. I invited the real estate agent to the apartment to take pictures. She came with her partner, who took the photos.
   "Why are you renting it out with furniture?" she asked me. I was taken aback by this question. Hadn't she heard of airbnb? (Probably not, because, as I discovered later, she doesn;t speak English. Very unusual when you are dealing with property these days in Greece...) And anyway, airbnb or not, that's how I had been renting out the apartment for a long time. I couldn't see what was wrong with that.
   "My customer wants to rent an unfurnished flat." She actually kept mentioning this one specific customer that she had in mind. She even tried lowering the rent at one point. I didn't budge. I gathered that she was talking about a friend. Aren't there other customers too, I asked. She smiled. She knew I was on to her.
      "Can't you store your furniture somewhere?" Yet again, I had to remind her I didn't want to rent it out unfurnished. I explained that I was in the middle of a new renovation project, and those apartments will also be furnished. At that point - as you can imagine - she took a greater interest in me. And obviously, she stopped contradicting everything I said. And her next question was quite predictable:
   "Where?" I explained the location. "Oh, THAT one!" Her partner had already seen the renovations taking place which surprised me. But maybe it shouldn't. Construction has started up. I see many skips in the town filling up with old building materials. This is a sign in greater trust of the Greek property market. The economy may not be perfect, but property investment is paying off. 
   Even though I was not really enthralled by this real estate agent, since it wasn't going to cost me anything, I reluctantly handed her the keys. I was truly too tired to continue after that point. I explained that the ad in the paper was still going to be there for the next day but given the way the last 6 weeks had gone, I wasn't super hopeful. Her final question:
   "Are you interested in buying another property?" That kind of question gives you a clue as to what the property market is like at the moment: a lot of owners want to sell (presumably because they have too many properties and/or they can't afford to maintain them all tax-wise), but there aren't enough suitable homes to rent (due to the move to airbnb). 

From the university ad, I got no responses. There is state student housing available at the university, but this is reserved for low income families. The only place I could advertise there was outside a cafe, where there was a big billboard. It was covered in posters advertising political events. I felt that there wasn't much point advertising the apartment on that billboard, because the messages on it were very anarchic: capitalism is not welcome at state Greek universities. My guess is that the sign would disappear quite quickly. I still have no idea what happened to my ad. That no longer matters to me, because...

Late in the afternoon on the last day of the ad being run in the local paper, I got a call from a man who asked to view the apartment. His wife and young son came along with him. They were out of towners who had initially chosen a seaside suburb, which ended up being too far from their jobs. They regarded the location of my apartment as suitable for their work and their child's school. I noticed that they owned small model cars: that will help them with the parking issue in the middle of town. By the time I returned home, they had already called me to seal the deal. Phew. My patience won out.

(Spare a thought for the real estate agent - she called me the next day just before I called her to tell about my success.)

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