Update: We moved! Yeah, I know…we just got here.
But our apartment in Montserrat had proven impractical and even dangerous. Let me back up and tell all…
Gonzalo arrived in Spain in October of 2019 and initially stayed with friends in Castellón de la Plana, a small city about 45 minutes to an hour north of Valencia. This was not an ideal location, but he was able to bum rides into Valencia or take the Metro to look for housing.
Gonzalo and Ana grew up together in Colombia, and Ana dated his brother Francisco when they were in high school. She later moved to Spain and married Pepe, a Spaniard. It has been fun for Gonzalo to reconnect with Ana, and we are so grateful for their help getting started here in Spain!
In Valencia, Gonzalo quickly found himself lost in a maze of bureaucracy. He would be unable to rent an apartment without a Spanish bank account. In order to get a Spanish bank account, he needed an NIE (ID number for foreigners), but he couldn’t apply for an NIE without an address.
Ana and Pepe to the rescue! They went with him to a government office and listed their address as his address so he could apply for the NIE.
Two or three weeks later, he had the NIE and went shopping for a bank. Opening an account proved difficult because banks are only open for limited hours during the day. Some banks only open new accounts on certain days and within specified hours. New account representatives were frequently out on meal breaks, and banks closed for siesta and didn’t re-open until morning.
In addition, he had to find a bank that would open an account for a foreigner. The US government requires additional documentation so the foreign bank can report our interest earnings. Many banks don’t want to be unpaid agents of the Internal Revenue Service as it creates additional work and expense for them. One bank even asked for past tax returns. Gonzalo found this intrusive, said “none of your business” and walked out.
In the end, he did provide his Social Security Number in order to meet FATCA regulations, but this was uncomfortable, to say the least! Who wants to share their SSN in a foreign country? We had no idea if this information was secure, how it would be used, or if his identity would be stolen. I would understand if the bank transfers and anticipated interest earnings were to be sizable, but we’re normal people. We just need to transfer a few thousand dollars a month to the Spanish bank to pay our bills.
After he completed the paperwork, he had to wait a few days before the account would be open and active. Meanwhile, I was back in the United States trying to figure out the best way to transfer money to him. Transferwise came highly recommended by some American retirees in Valencia, so I used their service. The Transferwise website is intuitive, the fees are transparent, and the transfer went smoothly. We have used them ever since.
Let’s review. Gonzalo’s primary goal was to find housing. But to find housing, a local bank account was required. To get a local bank account, he needed an NIE. To get the NIE, he needed an address.
With these 3 hurdles knocked out, he began the housing search in earnest. We initially hoped to live in the city and utilize public transportation, so he began his search there. As beautiful as downtown Valencia is, Gonzalo knew that the noise, crowds, heavy traffic, lack of green space (unless close to Turia Park), and expensive real estate were not a good fit for us. He wanted to look a little further outside the heavy traffic area, but he had run into a problem. No one wanted to rent to us.
Why? Because we are unemployed and are therefore considered high risk.
High risk? Us? We’re super responsible and conscientious in paying our bills! I am a financial planner by trade…I have a spreadsheet…we saved for almost 3 years…if we didn’t have the money to be here, we would be back in the States working!
None of my blubbering or Gonzalo’s attempts to explain or persuade meant anything. We didn’t have a paystub or a letter from our employer, so forget about it.
We normally keep our personal finances private, but after hearing “no” repeatedly, we offered to show bank statements. One realtor told Gonzalo that it doesn’t matter if we have a million dollars in the bank. Without a nomina (pay stub or proof of earnings) no one will rent to us.
So what do international students do? There are hundreds if not thousands of people studying here from all around the world.
One of Gonzalo’s classmates (from Peru) paid 9 months of rent in advance to score a small apartment for him and his wife. Another student from Ecuador paid 6 months in advance. She is now stuck in a building on a loud, bustling street with restaurants and bars. She didn’t realize what a night owl culture Spain has, and she is struggling to sleep because of the noise and racket that carries through the paper-thin walls. To move, she would have to fight to get her money back and will probably have to pay another 6-month advance somewhere else. I suppose there are laws about that, but she doesn’t want to risk financial loss or hire an attorney to fight City Hall.
We refused to shell out 6-9 months of rent upfront without knowing the city or the laws.
Thankfully, Gonzalo had another Manizales, Colombia connection. Laura is another family friend who once dated his nephew, Sebastian. She knew someone with a partially furnished 3-bedroom 2-bathroom apartment in Montserrat, a small town southwest of Valencia.
The Montserrat apartment was not listed through a real estate company so we would not have to pay an extra month of rent to cover the realtor’s commission. The owner asked for one month as a deposit and another 2 months upfront, and Gonzalo moved in a few days before we arrived. That gave him time to clean, organize and purchase some kitchen essentials.
“We knew someone who knew someone” seemed like the perfect solution. Also, a 30-35 minute drive from Gonzalo’s school didn’t seem so bad, although it did mean we would have to buy a used car on the cheap.
Montserrat is a small, peaceful town and I loved the mountain views from the terrace. Unfortunately, the drive to school turned out to be 45-50 minutes each way due to traffic and the nightmarish parking situation in Valencia. With Spanish classes running Monday through Friday and Gonzalo’s classes on Friday and Saturday, we would have to deal with the commute 6 days per week.
There was nothing to do in Montserrat, as it is basically a community of retirees and commuters who work in Valencia. That meant additional trips into the city for shopping and activities. And gasoline is expensive here! Even though the rent out in the country was cheap, the fuel expense and windshield time wore on us.
Then Storm Gloria hit. It was devastating and even 30 minutes inland from the beach, we endured days of monsoon-like rains and cold winds. That’s when the Montserrat apartment situation changed from bad to worse.
Our apartment building was old and ugly on the outside but seemed clean and reasonably well-maintained. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Common hallways were slick with rainwater and had to be mopped up. The roof leaked until it broke open a small hole in our bathroom ceiling. Rainwater was also dripping from our light fixtures and even filled one of the light bulbs with water. We were afraid to turn on the lights and spark a fire!
Daughter #2 was afraid to sleep because she heard mice scurrying in the walls at night and claims she saw their beady little eyes looking at her through a vent. In addition, the apartment had no heat, so we were cold. We had already been running 2 little space heaters constantly and layering our clothing to stay warm, but Storm Gloria’s winds brought in even more cold air and wind. The rent was cheap, but the electricity bill definitely wasn’t.
The saga continues. While I was cooking and running 2 space heaters, the breaker switch kept blowing. We constantly had to turn off lights or a heater or a stove burner – or something else to reduce electricity usage – and flip the breaker switch back on. We later learned that it was our responsibility to call the electricity company to request more capacity into the apartment for an additional monthly fee. This seemed ridiculous, as we already pay monthly based on usage, but ok. Good to know for the next apartment, but we’ve gotta get outta here!
Sylvanna was our Spanish real estate angel who saved the day. In spite of our lack of earned income, she believed in us and was willing to work for her commission. She patiently showed us 4 properties in various locations, then found us a wonderful, beautifully furnished suburban apartment on the 5th try. We now live in Torre en Conill, a very desirable suburb only 25 minutes from school.
Our new apartment is beautiful. It has 3 bedrooms and 2.5 bathrooms, 3 lovely terraces and nicely sized rooms with comfortable, quality furnishings. We have plenty of closet space, underground parking with a storage unit, and lovely little radiator-like heaters built into the walls. We are also enjoying the dishwasher and the pool view.
Yes, it costs us 200 euros more per month and we had to pay 4 months upfront (1 for the commission, 2 for the damage deposit and 1 for the first month of rent) but fine. We gained a huge lifestyle upgrade in terms of comfort and location.
Who knew that just finding a place to live would turn out to be such a fiasco? I guess it’s just part of the adventure and thankfully, resulted in a hard-won happy ending!