Sorry for my inactivity on the blog this past week. I caught my first cold in Denmark, and it was a doozy. It totally knocked me off my feet for all of last week. All I could get my brain to do was watch Bunheads reruns online. (That is one crazy show, by the way. I wish that they hadn’t decided to cancel it, though I also wish that the story and plotting were a little tighter. It’s a bit all over the place, and I still think Gilmore Girls was better.)
Anyway, this week I’ve decided to write a blog post about our apartment search here in Aarhus, because it was also a doozy and almost got the better of us.
Apparently, searching for an apartment in Aarhus or Copenhagen is notoriously difficult. This was something we were not aware of when we left St. Louis. Also unbeknownst to us, we arrived in Aarhus at the worst possible time for apartment searching: August, i.e. just before the new semester at Aarhus University when all the university students descend upon the city.
Naively, we assumed that there would be someone – some real estate agency or something – to assist us in our apartment search. This is, after all, what you do when you move to Boston or New York or other big cities in the US. Because it’s ridiculous to think that you can just move cities, move countries, and navigate a housing search all by yourself!
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to us. We asked everyone we knew – which, only one week into our time here, was about 5 people – how to find an apartment, and they all directed us to one single website: BoligPortal.dk, a kind of Craig’s List for apartments in Denmark. (bolig = housing)
That’s it. There were no other options. We had one month until our temporary apartment, paid for by the company, ran out, and any hope we had of finding a place to live after that lay with this one website.
We spent a day or so exclaiming our disbelief and putting off paying the sign up fee for the website. We were still exploring all the different neighborhoods of Aarhus, and we just didn’t really believe everyone who told us that finding an apartment would be difficult, that we should get started right away. All we had to go off of was our experience in St. Louis, which is as different from apartment searching in Denmark as chocolate is from licorice. Sure, we knew it would be difficult. We just didn’t how how difficult. Oh hindsight.
A day or so later, Brian and I bit the bullet joined the website and posted our add. Our search had begun.
The most important thing to remember when conducting your apartment search in Aarhus is that the landlord has all the power. Literally. His power is absolute. There’s so much demand for apartments in the city. It is not unusual that within two hours of posting their add, a landlord will have anywhere from 150 to 200 responses from prospective renters. Landlords have so many tenants to choose from, they can basically do anything they want.
In fact, when you rent an apartment you pay 6 months rent upfront. (Jump back! as Ren McCormack would say.) 3 months rent are for the security deposit, which you almost never get back, no matter in what condition you leave the apartment. The landlords spend all of it on painting all the surfaces white and sanding and refinishing the floors after you move out. The other 3 months is the last 3 months’ rent. You can leave your apartment at any time (the only power a renter has) as long as you give your landlord 3 months notice. At that point, you stop paying rent, and the landlord pulls from this deposit.
Let me put into perspective for you the kind of demand we’re talking about. There are so many students coming into Aarhus that some of them are completely unable to find a place to live. This is a known problem and has been for years. To help alleviate this and keep more students at AU, this year the government set up shipping containers as temporary housing. Each student pays something like 3,000 DKK to rent a private space of 4 meters squared – essentially enough space for a bed – and a small shared space. There’s 3-4 people to each shipping container. This is how bad the housing crisis is in Aarhus. It’s the same in Copenhagen. Students cannot come to the universities to study because they cannot find a place to live.
This is the housing market we entered.
Boligportal for non-Danes is a nightmare. I mean, the website itself is fine, totally usable, except for the fact that it’s all in Danish. Thanks goodness for Google Chrome automatic translate! But the experience of using boligportal is a ridiculous, stressful joke.
You start your search by entering your search parameters – zip codes, number of rooms, cost – and getting a list of available apartments that meet your criteria. Oh, surprise #1, 60% of the listings don’t have images. In the US, we would never consider renting an apartment that was posted online without images because that must mean that something is wrong with it. But remember, the landlord is king here. They just don’t want to go through the trouble of taking and uploading photos. So we had to learn to go by location (also thank god for Google street view) and the short description of the flat, which included a lot of reading between the lines.
If an apartment looks good and you think you want to view it, you contact the landlord. All adds have the ability to contact the landlord by phone or email, but about 95% of landlords do not include a phone number in their adds. Which means you end up sending emails and then never hearing back. At this point, the apartment search starts to feel like the worst job search experience ever.
Brian and I sent inquiries to about 40 apartments before we heard our first response, which was a rote “this apartment has already been rented.” We sent about 60 inquiries before we got a response saying we could actually view an apartment. The email invited everyone who was interested to show up for an open house at 2pm on a Tuesday. Another trick landlords have is that they do these open houses in the middle of the work day, trying to thin the number of people who show up to only those who are really serious about the property.
About halfway through our search, Brian asked one of his coworkers to translate our response email to Danish. This way, we figured we wouldn’t be ignored right off the bat simply because our response was in English. If you’ve got 200 responses, 194 of which are in Danish, you’re not going to both with 6 in another language no matter how attractive the applicants might be. This helped a little, and our response rate rose from 2% to 4%. We were incredibly grateful for this at the time.
All told, Brian and I probably sent off 100-150 emails, got back maybe 10 responses that the apartment had been rented, and were able to view 5 apartments.
The week our temporary apartment was about to run out, we were deciding between two apartments that were overpriced and far outside of the city center, trying to figure out which would be the lesser of two evils. We were about to make our decision when we got a call from a landlord asking if we were interested in viewing an apartment. This turned out to be the apartment we got, city center, in our budget, the number of rooms we wanted, in a small building, with free laundry. We’re so so so grateful and appreciative of how lucky we were to get this apartment. The landlords happened to want a quiet couple, so we got through their first filter. They also weren’t averse to English speaking renters. Check two. And for some reason, we really got on with the landlord when we met. Just by a fluke and the force of Brian’s charm did we happen to get our wonderful apartment. I still shudder to think what would have happened if we hadn’t found it.
It’s not that the inventory wasn’t there. We would have been happy to live in about 85% of the apartments we applied for. And as we got towards the end of our month of temporary living, we got less and less picky. We considered flats in huge apartment buildings, on the 5th or 6th floor, with one pay washer/dryer in the basement. Fine, whatever, we’ll deal. Just give us somewhere to live! But it didn’t seem to make a difference to whether we heard back or not.
Probably the worst thing about the whole apartment search experience is how abandoned we felt. Well, that’s how I felt at least. We were totally new to this country, this city. We barely knew the neighborhoods. We had no idea of the social customs regarding contacting landlords (should you be pushy and call multiple times?). And it just felt like there wasn’t a lot of support to be had. Brian’s coworkers were lovely and did what they could. They translated our ad, they offered to come view places with us to make sure we weren’t getting taken advantage of, they translated contracts, they let Brian off early to go look at places. But there wasn’t a lot of institutional support from either the company or governmental organizations. Which surprised me, given how many other forms of support Danish companies provide for their employees. They have cars you can borrow, subsidized lunches, fitness centers and changing rooms, a barber that comes in once a month. But help with your apartment search? Nope, you’re on your own.
I guess in a way, it’s very Danish. We’ve been told that Danes are big on independence and self-sufficiency. Micromanaging is not a problem here. Children go to school from the time they’re one year old and ride the buses alone as young as 10. You’re expected to fend for yourself from a very early age. So I guess we got caught in that cultural difference.
So while our apartment search turned out all right, the experience was not a very nice welcome to Denmark. It’s just what life as an expat is like a lot of the time. Things that the people around you take for granted you are doing for the very first time. People don’t even think to explain it to you because they can’t even imagine not knowing what you don’t know. So you have to be persistent. You have to ask questions. You have to take the 10 extra steps and not get frustrated and remember that it’s all a growth experience.