Tuesday, 6 December 2011

ITTP TEFL Prague: Helter Shelter - the Ins and Outs of renting in the Czech Republic.

This post will explain jargon associated with renting in the Czech Republic, specifics on renting in Prague, and tips for a stress-free and financially agreeable renting experience. I am focusing on the theme of long-term rentals - typically contracted for 1 year. For short-term accommodation for your month of ITTP TEFL Prague course study we definitely recommend taking advantage of ITTP school accommodation - mainly because of the convenience of sharing with other students on the same course as you, and having a comfortable base in which to search for longer-term accommodation for after course completion. I tend to use the word expat a lot. An expat (expatriate) is someone who temporarily lives in a place abroad.

Where to begin?
There are a lot of places where you can browse available rentals and as a general rule of thumb expat or tourist-related sources do tend to charge more. What you need to do is find a place where the locals search for rentals and we provide this service for our clients as part of the time on the course.
Our contact database of rentals allows you to search for an apartment or house anywhere in the country and with any specification. It also provides a database for buying property - if you have the finances and time then it is a perfect time now to grab a huge bargain on a house in the Czech countryside.

Where to rent in Prague?
The vast vast vast majority of our graduates end up buckling down in Prague 1,2,3 or 6. Prague 2 (Vinohrady) is the clear overall winner of the trophy in the popular place to live for expats category. Why? Well, for a start Vinohrady has a whole lot of other expats living there too and so while you are living in a Czech neighborhood it is at the same time heavily influenced by the expat community and this means that it is a great place to hang when classes are over in one of the many expat-friendly cafes/restaurants/bars, a place to visit the launderette to wash clothes/check emails/socialize, and it also boasts some of the cleanest air in the city too. Plus, it's only a 30 minute stroll DOWNHILL to the historical center and then a 4 or 5 minute metro ride back up again :-) Prices do tend to be a bit higher than average in this part of town but if you hook up with like-minded people and share then it won't break the bank and you might end up paying pretty much the same as if you were out in the panelaks.

Some people prefer the giddiness of renting in Prague 1 but I don't recommend it AT ALL. It's a wonderful place to visit but take it from me, I lived for a year a few steps from the Charles Bridge and it was no great shakes. Why? Streets congested with tourists, expensive shops, higher crime rate, LOUD at night. Oh, and did I mention LOUD at night, like frickin' trying to get some sleep at 3 in the morning to the anthem chants of early morning revelers returning from the clubs. It was great for a week or two and then I got tired of it really really fast. You might like the throngs of tourists, high prices, higher crime rate, and stag party processions in the early hours of the morning - if you do then you might just have found your nirvana.

Prague 3 (Zizkov) offers more affordable rentals and a lot more dog mess on the streets. Zizkov was traditionally the blue collar area of town and is for a lot of expats their island of existential kafkaesque comfort. Expats and locals tend to blend in and mingle together with the drab unpainted and crumbling architecture, content that this is at least one part of town where gentrification is just a concept. Zizkov is where you will probably play out your cheap drinking, mixed with unfathomable like Winter Olympic speed foosball games, and where your hazy Velvet Undergoundesque morning afters will become mopped up like the Goulash sauce, timelessly dripping onto those rustic dumpling grimy streets. This section of town is where time seems to stand still in exotic greyness and I swear there are some of the same expats still living there in the shadows since the time I first brushed shoulders with them when I took my first steps into that unassuming paradise in the mid 1990's. I visited Zizkov recently and it hasn't changed one bit.

The other great place to live in Prague is Prague 6 and this section of town really is the choice for pretty much the whole cross-section of expats, diplomats, or expats with children. Prague 6 is the green park space of Prague and probably has more children's playgrounds than there are Starbucks in Manhattan. There are some great mid-level restaurants here and even a few worthwhile upper end ones, as well as your usual blue collar quick eat joints. This section of town is the embassy district and a perfect area for strolls up to the castle and 5 minute rides to the golden spires of the historical center. Prague 6 is probably the safest place to live in the city and is definitely the most expat-friendly.

Vrsovice and Vysehrad - both are slightly off the typical expat route but are nonetheless definitely very much places also worth a mention.

It doesn't really matter though where you decide to bunk down in the city because the Prague public transport system is excellent and you are never further than 1 hour to the center, no matter which part of town you nestle down in. There are some iffy sections of town and I consider these as being Karlin, Lower Zizkov, and Smichov.

What to rent?
A house with a pool is possible and would be great fun, but the affordable ones are only found in the suburbs and unless you are traveling with your family are not recommended.
The majority of Czechs live in soviet-era built apartment blocks (panelaks), where every apartment is identical and where you hear every sound from your neighbors and neighbor's neighbor. Some people dig this style of living but if you want to retain any sense of identity then my advice is to stay away.
All other apartments are of brick construction and even outside of the center this type of building often sport intrinsic frescos/statues on the upper floors of their facade. Some of these are absolutely stunning.
Basement and first floor apartments should be avoided because of the higher risk of burglary.
Attic apartments are often cold in Winter and stifling hot in Summer, but nonetheless romantic in their own visual way. It is important to check if the building has an elevator and also whether it is South facing because brick buildings do tend to heat up in the Summer months.

Accommodation jargon
1+1 = 1 bedroom and 1 separate kitchen
1+KK = 1 bedroom and the kitchen is in the bedroom (no separate kitchen).
This means that a 4+1 will be 4 bedrooms with a separate whole kitchen and a 4+KK will be 3 separate bedrooms and a bedroom with a kitchen squeezed in the corner.
Bk = balcony - take that image of Romeo and Juliet out of your head immediately and instead replace it with the image of a piece of concrete jetting out from the building with pigeon droppings splattered all over, or a balcony with a glass 'wall' to prevent pigeons from doing their poop on your balcony and thus ruining your balcony view.
Terasa = terrace - will be perfect in Spring/Summer for barbecues and sun-tanning but not so hot in Winter and the space of the terasa will be included in the overall quoted space of the apartment.
Sklep = cellar. A lot of the apartment blocks in the Czech Republic have cellars where people can store their stuff and these tend to be the first places where burglars go to steal stuff. Unless you are renting a house and you desperately need a home for your wine collection, I wouldn't bother paying for cellar space.

Furnished, semi-furnished, or unfurnished?
You can bet your bottom dollar that if you are renting an old apartment that you will get heavy, wooden furniture along with it. New or newly-renovated apartments seem to be furnished via the IKEA catalogue. It is rare to find a completely unfurnished apartment and it makes no sense forking out for beds, tables, cooker, etc., if you only plan to be around for a year or two max. If you do have some furniture yourself then go semi-furnished. If you just have a bag with you with your belongings in then go for either semi-furnished or (fully) furnished.

Real estate agency?
Although not always the case, you will find that the majority of rentals are brokered though a real estate agency. The level of service differs quite a bit between companies but essentially the job of the real estate agent is to show you the property (often with charming marketing drool oozing out of their pores), draw up the contract and get you officially moved in, deal with any specific requests or issues during the rental period, and then close the contract on your vacating the property at the end of the contract period. For this service the company usually charges 1 month's rent as a commission. This might seem a little excessive but at the same time the owner of the property is also going to be paying a month's commission to the real estate agent for finding a tenant. Some agencies just charge the owner a commission. Some agencies claim they don't charge you a commission but in fact cream off a percentage of the monthly rent until the conclusion of the contract period.
The obvious negative aspect of going with a real estate agency is that more than likely you will be forfeiting a month's rent as a finder's fee - this can seem unfair when the real estate agent takes 30 minutes to show you a property and another 30 minutes to confirm the contract with you. However, there was a lot of work behind the scenes in finding the property, communicating with the property owner, showing the property to numerous other interested tenants and although at first it can seem quite a lucrative job, it rarely isn't.
If you are looking for a year-long rental then going with a real estate agency can save you a lot of time and hassle in searching for properties - real estate agencies can arrange viewings for properties which might not be listed yet and which fall into your general search category. Going with a real estate agency is also a much more secure option because dealing directly with a property owner alone can leave you subject to being taken advantage of and without a sufficient legal footing.

It's a sad fact that accommodation deposits are sometimes either not returned, returned late, or partially returned. Sometimes this is the fault of the tenant and is due to damage, etc. Sometimes it is down to the greed of the owner. Deposit issues tends to be a worldwide issue. Going with a real estate agency should prevent any unnecessary and unpleasant deposit wrangling. The best way to make sure there are no deposit issues is make sure that a note of all items in the apartment has been made, and take photos of each room so that you can then at the end of the tenancy prove that you have left the apartment in the same state as when you first moved in. It will always be your responsibility to clean the apartment before leaving and sometimes, depending on the contract specifics, it might be your responsibility to redecorate also.

Unless you are renting off an English-speaking expat then you will be expected to sign a contract in the Czech language. A contract is a legally binding document which protects both you and the owner - if there is no contract then walk away from the deal. Quite often you will receive a contract in English but the Czech version always prevails so it is essential that you receive the contract a few days before the signing day and this will give you the opportunity to go over it with a Czech-speaking friend to make sure that the Czech version is the same as the English one. If there is anything you don't agree with in the contract then bring it up with the owner or real estate agent and don't be afraid to request edits to the contract. One of the most important aspects of the contract will be the period of notice, the date when your deposit will be returned, and of course also the conditions under which your deposit will be returned. It is important to note that under Czech law if a contract has a fixed date of length of tenancy then that is the date which you are liable for - this means that if you sign a contract which doesn't state the length of contract then you could technically move out at any time without facing damages for rent for the full duration of the contract. However, most contracts state that tenants can provide 1 or 2 month's notice in order to legally leave the rental and if all conditions are met then return of deposit should be returned. It is important to have clearly stated in the contract how long after leaving the apartment or house your deposit will be returned.

All the little extras
- utilities. Utilities and bills are usually not included in the rent. Bills are usually for gas or electricity and when you sign the rental contract you will be taken to read the gas or electricity meter so you know that you are not paying for any gas or electricity used by the previous tenant. Utilities typically cover water, trash services, and building cleaning services. Utilities vary a lot depending on the condition of the building but will be clearly quoted in the contract.

- setting up internet, phone line,.etc. These days it takes just a week or so to be up and running with new internet services. If you have cable then see if you can get UPC internet, which tends to be more affordable and faster. If UPC isn't an option then ask the owner or estate agent for other options. 02 are one of the more prevalent internet providing companies in the Czech Republic and they are generally excellent up until if something goes wrong with the connection or billing procedure and you need to get in touch with one of their company reps (the experience of which can be a little like the experience of tooth extraction).

Things to watch out for
It is essential that once you have found a place where you want to live that you view the place if possible at different times of the day. If the real estate agent took you to see the property in the morning then request that you also see it in the afternoon or evening - you never know, there might be a reason you were shown it in the morning. Try to arrange a second meeting when the building is busy so you can judge whether the apartment will be noisy. Walls can be thin but so can ceilings - I once stayed in an apartment with super-thin ceilings and I could hear every thundering movement from the upstairs apartment. I definitely recommend meeting your neighbors before you sign any contract. You should also pay attention to the heating - if you sign the contract in summer then heating won't be the first issue apparent to you but come the Winter months you want to make sure that the property is well-heated and insulated.

Apartments and houses do get robbed. It's a sad fact of life no matter where you live. The crime rate in the Czech Republic is pretty low and to minimize your risk of an unwanted visitor you should definitely aim at finding an apartment on one of the upper floors. Make sure that the main door to the building has a secure lock and that other tenants lock the door. Equally important is to make sure that the door to your apartment has at least 2 different locks. A common burglary route is via the balcony so its always best to rent an apartment with double glazing windows if you do have a balcony.

What to do if you need to break a contract
If you do find that your plans change then the best thing is to be up front and follow the directions of the contract. If you need to leave pronto then try finding somebody else to fill your place in the apartment. Always try and be as upfront and honest as possible with the real estate agency or owner and you should receive the same treatment in return. Ultimately though it is the signed contract which dictates the outcome.

My tip!
Taking an intensive TEFL/TESOL course is an excellent opportunity to see who you could and who you couldn't live with, so use the time in the first couple of weeks to hook up with like-minded people on the course and base your apartment search criteria on the number of you who want to share together - assuming of course that you do want to share. Sharing has a lot of advantages but if you do just want a place on your own then don't worry about being left alone - teaching English in Prague is very sociable and a great way to meet both expats and locals.

Neville :-)

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