International Apartment Hunters: Iceland

We’re apartment hunting! And, surprise! It’s hard! I’m not going to try and explain all the complexities of the Icelandic real estate market (I don’t understand all of them, certainly), but for a nice little mini-crash course on this, see a recent article from the Reykjavik Grapevine (in English): “A Black Box: Post-crash realities of the housing market explored,” by Anna Andersen. For the time being, though, I can provide some basic context:

  • The percentage of people (including young people) who own their own homes in Iceland is extremely high: “about 75-85% of the housing stock” is privately owned homes or, 83% of households  owned their own home, as of 2007 (those are pre-crash numbers, but still).
  • As follows, there is not much of a rental market in Iceland, even in Reykjavik.
  • There are basically no real estate agents in Iceland who deal in residential properties, unless those properties are incredibly expensive, luxury rentals. As one of my scholarship advisors explained, if you want to rent an apartment, you “usually rent from a family member or someone you know.” Otherwise, there are about four or five small ad and classified websites where people post the apartments, rooms, and houses they have to rent. People also post want ads when they are looking for apartments on the same sites.
  • As an útlendingur, it can be difficult to get locals to rent to you, or even just answer your email inquiries.

Now, Mark and I have been google-translating real estate ads and using my pidgin Icelandic to parse through the not insignificant number of rental ads on all of the websites that seem to exist for such purposes. We’ve told everyone we’ve met–our temporary landlord, my advisors at Fulbright and Arni Magnusson, fellow expats met through Facebook groups, our friends who know people in Iceland, our one friend in Iceland–that we are looking for a place. We’ve reconsidered what we thought our budget was, per the apparent demands of the market. And, although we’ve gotten very few responses (save the multiple negative replies saying that a place has been rented or that it is not “suitable” for two people), I’m fairly confident that we’re doing it right because pretty much every informational site/ advisor/neighbor gives you the same advice: check the classifieds, tell everyone you know you need an apartment, be patient.

Normally, I could be patient. We’ve only been here five days, after all. But the thing is, until we have a residence–until someone will sign a lease and a housing certificate for us–Mark can’t get his ID card, or his kennitala–and we know what you can do without a kennitala in Iceland. (This is not actually a pressing issue for me, paperwork-wise, because I was given an address to use by Fulbright while I look for a permanent place to stay.) Besides the more practical day-to-day reasons to get our housing taken care of (it’d be really nice to unpack; we’d like to check out some of the many video rental places in the city…), there’s also a bigger deadline looming: according the the information from the directorate, you have two weeks to register a domicile before…well, we don’t know. But it’s not good. So we’ve got to be diligent.

So far, we’ve seen four places–every place that we’ve gotten an even mildly positive response from and where the landlord was willing to show the apartment. None of them have been ideal, and they’ve all had some rather insurmountable problems–even with us being pretty flexible, given our constraints at this point.

Anyone for a mini-version of International House Hunters: Reykjavík? (BTW: I have not been able to find either one of the two Reykjavík episodes of that show anywhere on the internet at all. This confuses me.)

The Shared Downtown Apartment: First, we saw a private room in a three room flat on the ground floor of a  building in the middle of the old city center. The room faced a garden, we would have had access to laundry facilities, a kitchen, and a bath, and internet and utilities were included in the monthly rent. The landlord was a very kind older gentlemen who seemed pretty pleased with my response when he told me to say something in Icelandic (“Ég er að læra íslensku” — “I am learning Icelandic”), and happy to provide a little grammar lesson to further my efforts.

  • Pros: nice landlord, immediately available, good location, good rent, furnished.
  • Cons: very small room, no common area in the apartment, potential for us to have up to *5* other roommates (he had already rented two beds to a couple of Norwegian students who were apparently living in tents until they could move in, but was also trying to rent out the last bed in their room and the couch-bed in what could have otherwise been a living room), absolutely no storage space/closets/room for dresser/work space in bedroom.

The Cozy Seaside Basement Flat: We had very high hopes for this one. It was in a lovely residential neighborhood facing the southwest coast, about 15-20 minutes walk from school, and near to a bus stop. The woman who was renting it wasn’t sure if it was big enough for two people (it was 30 sq. meters, which at least by New York standards is definitely manageable for a couple), but she agreed to show it to us on the same day we emailed. It had a separate entrance under her home, a bedroom with a window facing the backyard, a bathroom that she had been fixing up, and a small kitchen.

  • Pros: lovely location–we would have been able to walk/jog along the seashore every day, the space was perfectly reasonable, nice landlord, good price, lots of closet space along one wall.
  • Cons: location was pretty far away from grocery stores/shops/and one of the only laundromats (which is also a great restaurant) in the city. The latter point was a problem because there was no washing machine in the apartment, nor access to the landlord’s.  The other main problem was the kitchen: there was a mini-fridge (no freezer), two hotplates, a smallish convection oven, a microwave, and a tiny sink. In a city where we’re going to need to be cooking all the time (eating out is super expensive), this poses a multitude of problems. This was a flat for a) someone(s) who either had a car to drive to the store/laundry or lived close enough to home to do their clothes there, and b) didn’t have any real need to cook beyond frozen dinners and the occasional can of soup.

The shared luxury home in the country: We’ve been under the impression that if we look outside of the immediate capital area, we’ll find more affordable apartments. Plus, the bus system here is really very good and it’s possible to get to the city center from four or five surrounding suburbs in less than an hour, even with bus transfers. Without owning a car, living further away would mean having something of a curfew (the buses stop running after about 11:30 PM and taxis are very expensive), but that wouldn’t be the end of everything if we found a good place.Our first opportunity to see a rental in ‘the country’ was two rooms in a private residence in a recently created housing development (Krikahverfi) in Mosfellsbær, a beautiful valley community known for its sporting facilities and for being the lifelong home of Halldór Laxness. The owner of the home  we were looking at (we’ll call him G) picked us up from the bus stop (his email he said he’d just keep an eye out for “strange looking foreigners!”). On the way to the house, G explained that he had gotten amicably divorced not long ago, (“I’m telling you so you understand–not because it is all about me!”) and decided that rather than go live in a small apartment in the city, he would embrace the moment, so to speak, and “build a palace!”And he did, certainly. Or rather, he was in the process of doing so.

G’s plan was to rent out three of the four rooms in his still very-much-under-construction home, in order to finance the project quickly enough that when he remarried (he was engaged), the home would be finished. The house was certainly lovely. Not only were there huge windows everywhere facing the town and surrounding mountains, G had also used all natural, local materials (a type of tree that grows in Iceland had been used to create the ceiling; stones from around where he grew up in the east of Iceland had been used to pave the floors. Moreover, he was basically doing everything by hand, down to curing each individual ceiling plank with oil. Still, half the house was unfinished–he kept pulling on electrical wires and pointing to half-finished light fixtures/shower faucets/unpainted walls and saying that it would be done in just a few days because he was working day and night to get it ready. After we saw the two available rooms (one had a loft built in for sleeping and, he suggested, “cuddling!”), G took us on a short walk up a hiking trail just behind the house, drove us around the neighborhood, and introduced us to his adorable white Icelandic sheep dog, Bangsi (which means teddy bear).

    • Pros: G seemed like a really friendly, easy-going guy who was also a hiking guide in the area–he would have been a very interesting person to get to know; the nature in the area is absolutely stunning; the rent was affordable; there was a direct bus and a decent commute time–about 40 minutes; there was a grocery store in walking distance, very nice shared kitchen/bath/laundry.
    • Cons: The house was still being built; G would have wanted us to move out around December or January, when, presumably, his new wife would be moving in; the distance to school; the town itself wasn’t great–there were two very nice pools and lovely trails, but the city center, according to G, had been condemned by a local pastor for tarnishing the surrounding beauty of nature and looking more and more like an “American highway town.” Couldn’t really argue with that assessment: the first business you see upon entering the square is a big KFC, which is right by a Subway sandwich shop.

The guesthouse-turned-residence in the city center: This place was a bit out of our price range (and required a few month’s deposit, insurance, and did not include heating costs), but was a private apartment in the very center of the city, right around the corner from where we are staying now. We had some very confusing email exchanges with the landlord, but ultimately were told to come see it at 7:30 this morning. The apartment had its own entrance and was divided into two rooms–one large bedroom facing the street which blended into a small kitchen (no freezer on the fridge, but a nice little stovetop), and a bathroom. There was a small armoire in the main room, which was also furnished with two twin beds, a desk, and a small table.

    • Pros: Location; decent kitchen/bath; private apartment
    • Cons: Very unpleasant, twitchy landlord who took an argumentative stance on everything we asked. When we asked about how much heating costs would be, he told us that we should know that it was based on how much we used. When we asked about the deposit (we wanted to know if it was going to be returned, as is the way it’s often handled in the states, or put toward last month’s rent) he interrupted to ask where we were from and angrily say that deposits are always required in New York, too–sometimes three or four months in advance (not exactly, no). When I said that we didn’t yet have our kennitalas and wanted to know if that would be a problem in terms of writing up a rental agreement, he scoffed, looked at me like I was stupid, and said that it didn’t make a difference at all for a lease. There were some other problems with the place, but none worth bothering with outside of That Guy. Next!

Tomorrow we have an appointment to see a place in the nearby suburb of Garðabær and we’ve corresponded with a few other possibilities. So the great search continues.

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