The Grote Markt in Haarlem, The Netherlands (photo from travel.nytimes.com)
One of my favorite guilty-pleasure TV shows of all time is HGTV’s House Hunters International. Each episode features a (usually American) couple or family as they search for a new home abroad. I cringe at some of the things people on the show demand because I think it reinforces the “spoiled and ignorant American” stereotype, but it definitely puts cultural differences and expectations in perspective. Case in point: there was one episode where an American woman moving to Norway with her Norwegian husband refused to choose a $500,000 house because it didn’t have a garbage disposal. Seriously. Parts of the show have been criticized for being staged, but the program nonetheless provides an intriguing peek into the different ways that people live around the world.
Earlier this week, I got my own first taste of international house hunting (or in this case, apartment hunting). Willem got a job offer in Amsterdam a week ago, which means we will finally be moving out of Tilburg! We have to move fast, because Willem’s job starts on April 1st. We have less than a month to find an apartment, move out of our current place, and settle into the new one. We started our search in earnest, but quickly discovered that the real estate market in the Netherlands is annoying, at best. I would call it a nightmare. Like everything else in the Netherlands, apartment hunting is a bureaucratic mess of paperwork: contracts, registration, proof of residence, proof of conduct, salary slips, etc, etc, etc. And all of this before you even find a place to stay!
The rental market is split into two equally-frustrating halves. The first half is the social housing market (woningwaarderingsstelsel). A large variety of buildings in each city are owned by the Dutch government, which then rents out subsidized and rent-controlled apartments to those who qualify based on a long list of criteria. It is essentially impossible to gain access to one of these decently-priced apartments unless you are Dutch (and even then, you are required to add yourself to a months-long waiting list for the housing in your city of choice). If you are not eligible for social housing, then your only other realistic option is to go through an agency. In short, expect to spend a lot of $$$$ (or should I say, €€€€). At a minimum you will be required to pay two month’s rent as a deposit, plus at least one additional month’s rent in commission to the leasing agent. Since the housing is not subsidized by the government, everything is more expensive. I was shocked at the cost of places in Amsterdam. Having lived in London (the 3rd most expensive rental city in the world, according to this 2012 ranking), I thought I was prepared for steep prices. Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands, so I knew it would be somewhat expensive, but I didn’t think it was possible for anything to be more expensive than in London! I was sorely mistaken. The major factor that drives up prices in Amsterdam is space. In London, you can find a decently-priced flat in Zone 3 or 4, yet still commute easily into the city on a daily basis via the tube. Amsterdam is squeezed in between a series of canals and the flooded, low-lying area on which the city was built means that an extensive underground network is not possible. If you want to live within walking/biking/commuting distance of central Amsterdam, you will pay dearly for the privilege.
After ruling out dozens of very expensive options in Amsterdam, we decided that it would be smart to look a little further outside the city center of Amsterdam. We settled on Haarlem, a city directly to the west of Amsterdam. An interesting fact most Americans may be unaware of is that Harlem, New York is named after Haarlem in the Netherlands. The Dutch were the first to colonize New York, calling it New Amsterdam. The British eventually took the city under their control, which is why the present-day city is called New York, but the name for the neighborhood of Harlem stuck. The more we looked into our options in Haarlem, the more we liked the area. It has 6-8 direct trains every hour to both Amsterdam (15 mins.) and The Hague (30 mins.) for our commutes to work, and the prices of apartments are €200-300 cheaper (at minimum) per month for the equivalent style of apartment we were searching for in Amsterdam.
We scheduled six apartment viewings for Wednesday, and made our way bright and early from Tilburg to Haarlem. I’ll save you the tedium of recounting each and every place we saw, but there were a few common trends that I noticed about Dutch housing:
- Space is a luxury, not a given. This is the most obvious feature of Dutch apartments (and European apartments in general). If you can comfortably stand in a room with two other people, it is a decently-sized room. What little space is left in a room is usually taken up by large wardrobes or furniture pieces, due to the lack of closets in European buildings.
- The kitchen is not the heart of the home. If there is a dealbreaker for most Americans in trying to find the perfect house, it is the kitchen. We want cabinet space, all the latest appliances, and preferably enough space to entertain guests. Don’t expect any of that in the Netherlands. It is difficult to find an apartment here with a kitchen designed to actually cook anything. Forget about trying to cook a Thanksgiving-scale meal. Out of the six apartments we viewed, only two of them even had an oven! It is also highly unusual to find an American-sized fridge in the Netherlands. My college dorm room had a bigger refrigerator than some families use here.
- That being said, don’t necessarily expect ANY appliances or fittings. We were lucky enough to not have to deal with this issue because most of the places we saw were partially furnished, but it is not unheard of to find an entirely empty apartment in the Netherlands. This means no cabinets, no fridge, no sink, and sometimes even no floors. When people move out, they tend to take everything. In a way, this practice is nice because it is possible for you to customize every aspect of your new place (and if you invest in beautiful hardwood floors, for instance, you don’t have to leave them when you move). In reality though, it is a massive pain for an expat because it requires a significant installation effort and cost.
- Slanted, low ceilings are the norm in Dutch houses. Many Dutch buildings maintain traditional architectural features, most notably the extensively sloped roofs that have characterized Dutch houses for centuries. This style is immediately apparent when driving through the countryside, but can be seen in cities as well. While aesthetically pleasing, this style (in my opinion) is not very practical. In a two floor house, the entire upper floor has walls sloped like the attic of an American house. Finding furniture to fit the low ceilings is one problem. For someone used to normal ceilings, like me, it results in perpetual bumps on the head. You would think a country with the tallest people in the world would design rooms where they can stand up!
- Dutch houses are uncomfortably public. The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. 16 million people cram themselves into a country that you can drive across in three hours. Chances are you will have plenty of neighbors no matter where you live in the Netherlands. Despite this (and maybe because of this), people don’t seem to jealously safeguard their privacy as much as Americans do. Window curtains are left open all the time, even on the ground floor of an apartment along a busy thoroughfare. The whole world can see into a Dutch apartment (and the rooms you can see from the street are always spotless—if American-style hoarders exist, they hide their affliction well). I am willing to sacrifice on some things in order to live abroad, but the idea that anyone could walk by my apartment and see everything I own on display makes me uncomfortable. This was one of the main reasons why, aside from the obvious safety issues, I didn’t want to have an apartment on the ground floor.
Luckily, my fears of curious Dutch neighbors looking into my apartment at all hours will not materialize. We found a perfect little apartment safely up on the second floor of a 220-year-old building right next to the Grote Markt in Haarlem! The next two weeks will be busy with packing and moving, but we can’t wait to move into our own little piece of Haarlem. I will update with photos as soon as we move in!
Now, I’ll leave you with a little pop-culture taste of what is soon to be my new town: the real Ha(a)rlem shake…