Apartment Hunting in Aarhus: Cross Your Fingers

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!

Isn’t it?

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.

Our New Home

Our New Home

 

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27 thoughts on “Apartment Hunting in Aarhus: Cross Your Fingers

  1. I really had no idea…you hid the anxiety well. And as with everything about this adventure, you’re karma clicked in and all fell into place! I couldn’t be happier for you:)

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  2. Woah! That is one hell of a complicated apartment hunting experience. No photos in the ads?! That’s rough haha. Anyway, I’m glad the story had a happy ending. Your apartment looks quite airy, clean, and with nice natural light. Sorry you were sick btw.

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  3. I have danish friends who have been on the waiting list for apartments in Århus, for at least 12 months. You certainly were very lucky. But what a nail-biting experience! Shipping containers ( shuddder ) can have formaldehyde residues within them. Not good for our bodies! They found this out when they used them up in north western Australia, in the mining centres where pressure to house workers is bordering on the ridiculous. The pub closed down and is now walled up into apartments as there is more money in housing people than in selling beer!

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    • I can imagine! I didn’t even get into the issue of waiting lists to get an apartment in Denmark. I know that’s a big thing here, that you put your child’s name on the list when they’re born or something crazy like that, but since we didn’t deal with it and my post was already reaching epic lengths I decided to leave it off 🙂

      That’s crazy about the shipping containers in Australia. Hopefully they cleaned the containers out before using them here!

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  4. Wow, what a crazy story! Glad to hear that you guys did get the apartment that you wanted, that’s awesome. There were two sentences in your post in particular that stuck out to me as making so much sense in so many different expat moments – “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.” This is said perfectly. I have felt that in various situations, it is as if they expect you to know this or they don’t think about how new everything is and therefore stressful for someone new to the country.

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    • Thanks Josh! I think one of the things I appreciate most about this experience is the insight it’s giving me into life as an immigrant. Of course I think going through all of this can be much worse for immigrants coming to the US, and all I can do is speak from my own small experience, but it just gives you such a different perspective to be the guest in another country.

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      • Definitely! I think although we can only relate to our own cities, experiences and difficulties that we learn and grow as a person and, like you said, as an immigrant. It definitely does give you a different perspective on some things.

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  5. I just had that cold too. OMG, it’s the worst.
    Please, print this post off and get Brian to give it to his boss/relocation department.
    And email it to the “International Community” people. You are completely right, finding an apartment is a nightmare for Danes, it’s a gazillion times worse for foreigners. If this country/that company is serious about retention of foreign talent, then they must stop letting people sink or swim.

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    • Thanks for your support, Kel. Brian and I are in kind of a strange situation in that our transfer here was initiated by Brian. Because it 1/2 benefits him – he’s earning his PhD – and 1/2 benefits the company, we weren’t given the full relocation package but only bits and pieces. So the whole thing has been kind of a mess. But even given all of that, I did expect more support and am a bit miffed that we didn’t get it. I would like to somehow convey this to his company’s HR department, but I’m not sure how!

      I also am surprised that the International Community people don’t offer more help for finding housing. They have so many helpful seminars for finding a job – via Workindenmark, Connect Aarhus, etc. – that it seems like they should have something for navigating the housing market as well. I didn’t form this opinion until after the fact, though.

      I hope you’re feeling better after your cold! It seems to be going around. I guess cold season is upon us.

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  6. What an experience! I had no idea how it was in Denmark compared to Norway (it’s just crazy expensive here, but housing is available), but it makes sense as there isn’t as much space in Aarhus and Copenhagen! Your words were so informative yet expressed the emotional aspect of confused immigrants, and the comments have added to the post. So glad to read of the happy outcome! Enjoy your new place; it looks bright and beautiful!

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    • Thanks Cindi! People tried to tell us before we came, but we didn’t fully appreciate how hard it was until we went through the process. Of course, it’s much easier if you’re looking outside the cities. I’m glad you haven’t had to deal with anything like it in Norway! Of course, prices are high here in the city center, but not nearly as high as we feared. So it’s really just the availability that’s a problem here.

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  7. Sounds like an opportunity for some enterprising entrepreneur to help expats find housing there. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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  8. I’m so fucking scared now!!! I’m searching a flat/room for me and my girlfriend (we are starting our studies 25th of august). We can’t move in sooner than 10 august… and our budget is very, very little- we’ll only have like 7320dkk/month for both living and rent. We are from Poland, so we won’t be able to see whatever we can get. Fuck, I hope I’ll find something.
    Best regards,
    Jakub

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    • Oh no! I don’t want to scare you. You’re looking at a really good time, since the students are already in their apartments or maybe even leaving if they’ve just finished with school. So you won’t have as much competition. Plus, if you’re already looking now and can’t move in before August, that gives you a lot of time to swoop in and grab a place that’s been put up early on Boligportal (and they do get put up two months early) before those students even start looking. And that isn’t a bad budget to have, even for close to the center of Aarhus. It’s just about how big of a space you need. I think you guys will be fine! Just keep looking every day and keep sending out those emails. If you know anyone Danish, it helps to have them translate your standard email for you. Good luck!

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      • Thank you. I’ll keep on searching. We don’t need much of a space. Even 10m^2 would be enough. I’ve already sent like 60 e-mails and got only 1 positive answer. I wrote the landlord second e-mail to ask something but he didn’t answer yet (it’s been 4 days) :/.

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      • Yeah, that’s the most frustrating part about the entire process, sending out all these emails and not hearing anything back. Just keep at it! It really is the only way to get an apartment here. There are two Facebook groups where people can post that they’re looking for an apartment: Aarhus Internationals and “Lejligheder til salg og leje i Århus”. You can post in English on both. I have no idea if they ever have any success finding anything that way, but at least it’s something else to try.

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  9. So how long did it take you in total to find your apartment? From the article, sounds like one month, but I’m not sure. I am moving from Los Angeles to Aarhus with my husband in December and feeling very anxious about finding a place. I guess one advantage is my husband is Danish and used to live in Aarhus.

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    • It took us about one month to find an apartment, but in August I think that was unusually fast. Usually at that time it takes longer. In December you should have more luck because you won’t have so many students looking for places at the same time. You *definitely* have an advantage with your husband being Danish. Not only will he know the good neighborhoods and what prices are reasonable, but he can write all the landlords in Danish which is a really big help! Good luck with your search! I’m sure you guys will find something, no problem.

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  10. My husband is going to do his PhD in Aarhus and this is exactly where we’re at with trying to find a place for him, me and the kids. From the look of things, we won’t be able to take our pet cat with us and we’ll be lucky to find something furnished in our budget.

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    • Kate, I’m sorry for the delay in responding to you! I’ve been a bit out of the habit of blogging lately… If it’s not too late, I’d recommend looking a little outside the city center, perhaps a little north of the University in Skejby. I know many people who live there. You can find some nice, modern, and more affordable apartments up that way, and then your husband can still ride his bike to work and won’t have to deal with riding up the biggest hill in Aarhus 🙂

      I’m sorry to hear about your cat 😦 Can you not quarantine him/her for a period? Or is it just too hard to find a place that allows pets? I don’t have any experience with that side of renting, so unfortunately I don’t have any advice to offer. Good luck!

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  11. Hey Allison,

    I am very happy you found an appartment in the city center ! 🙂
    I hope the integration in Europe and in Denmark was not too difficult.
    I found your website as I was looking for real estate agency. My boyfriend and I are also in the same stressfull moment as we are looking to rent a flat by march He is going to work for a wind turbine company but it seems the company is not willing to help :s
    I joined several FB groups and got few answers in which some of them where “owners don’t rent to foreigners… ” :s As you said, this is very frustrating. We are French – Mexican.

    If you hear about something, feel free to write me 🙂
    Thank you very much and maybe see you soon in Arhus

    Best,
    Hélène and Christopher

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    • Hi Helene! Sorry for the delay in my response. I’ve been a little distracted from blogging recently… There are a few real estate agencies in Aarhus, but none of them deal in rental property. We checked when we first got here. My advice to you (if it’s not too late) is to either hire your own relocation coordinator who can help with the process or just look on boligportal.dk. It’s really your only resource for this process. Try writing the advertisement in Danish. That helps a lot. And if it’s any consolation, you’re coming at the right time of year. It’s much easier now than in the summer. Good luck!

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