Sunday, July 22, 2012

Apartment Therapy, Part I

The last sunset from this balcony
It only took a day to get a new apartment. The story is much longer than that, of course, but in the end we saw the apartment and paid a deposit for it the same afternoon. Now, a week later, we've almost moved everything in and are ready to finally spend our first night here.

We spent ten months in the little school-arranged apartment at the end of the metro line. It was fine: tiny, cozy, and orange. There was a broken couch/bed that functioned as a bed but refused to be a couch, a dilapidated armchair, and two kitchen chairs. Having a guest over meant that someone had to stand, so guests usually didn't come :p Still, that sparkly orange wallpaper made up for a lot! Around month eight though, after a long series of plumbing incidents finally culminating in the leaky ceiling of our downstairs neighbor, the place started to lose its charm. We wanted a fresh start and a change of scenery.
Goodbye, old apartment!
D had been involved in Kharkov apartment searches before. He acted as interpreter several times for T, one of my colleagues. T and D met one afternoon with Dima the realty agent, a very young guy in an oversize parka who was far less than thrilled to find out that T was a foreigner. “Why didn't you tell me this on the phone?!” he blew up. “Now I've got to make a phone call” he shouted as he stalked off around a corner.
He returned in several minutes, somewhat calmer. “Well, as long as he's not black or asian... Where is he from? Oh, America. That's close enough to Europe I guess.” Then Dima went on to explain that he didn't know how the apartment owner (a pensioner) would react to a foreigner viewing the apartment. This turned out to not be a problem, as the old man who met them at the door had once studied economics in England and was excited to show off the English words he could still remember (and a pipe bomb of a clothes iron and the laundry facility waaay down the block and his old dusty furniture, but that's another story).

Three days later the trio met again to view another apartment. T decided almost immediately to take the apartment and Dima quickly whipped out the paperwork. … but the landlady, a gynecologist, was nervous about renting to foreigners. It took a lot of persuading from Dima and several phone calls from the school director before she agreed to rent to T. Reducing the rent (haha, I know) was attempted but her insulted response: “He's an American- what's an extra $50 to him? Peanuts!”

Thus it was with those precedents that we approached our own apartment hunt. A coworker mentioned plans to move and a couple of days later we went to check out his apartment. It was downtown, practically on top of a metro stop, roomy (comparatively) and cute. I liked the bright paint on the walls, the window in the shower room, the seating, and the curved door frame leading to the kitchen. Downside: no bathtub (where I spend approx 25% of my off-work hours) and no balcony. Then D called about an apartment he'd seen advertised online. The apartment wasn't available but realty agent was all sweetness and sugar on the phone and offered to show us another place she knew of downtown. We met with her on a rainy Wednesday evening and followed her down Pushkinska street. She was brusque and stiff in person; after recognizing D she just took off, not shaking hands, not introducing herself, not smiling, and- weirdest of all, I thought- not making any eye contact. I got a good look at her profile as we walked, but not at her face full on. She was in her 30s, blonde, made up, dressed casually and, of course, in high heels. As we walked down the street she was offered a cookie by a wandering Hare Krishna, which she accepted and nibbled on. I asked her if it was tasty and she very dismissively replied yes. When we arrived there was a lengthy scene where she made phone calls and tried to get in the building. Finally she dialed up a number on the intercom, said nothing more than a curt “let us in”, and finally we were inside.

The owner was very nice and a little nervous as she showed us around. After I started talking she realized that I wasn't from around here- D hadn't mentioned this during his phone call with the agent. I was expecting the worst but actually... it didn't seem to be such a big deal. Anyways, we liked the apartment quite a bit and planned to sleep on it before making a decision, but you know how these situations go- they pressure you to make a decision right away and before we knew it we were making a deposit and plans to meet again to pick up the key.

I can't believe how painless it's been so far. I assumed we'd be met with suspicion and doubt and have doors closed in our faces but here we are, unpacking our suitcases. And the internet guy is even coming today! In the whole closing negotiations for this apartment, there are only a few things to note; 1) The owner requested “If it's all the same to you, can you pay the rent in US dollars?” 2) We got held up a bit when I mentioned the new kitten. The owner went off to call her mother, who advised “No tenant is perfect: it's either a kitten, a dog, or a baby.” 3) After hastily scribbling out a tentative rental agreement, the agent actually said “Now pay me so I can leave.” And that was that, she disappeared from our lives as suddenly as she had appeared.

Would I recommend using an agent to find an apartment in Ukraine? I guess it does help expedite the search and smooth over the negotiations. When we expressed hesitation (“can we call tomorrow with our decision?”) she marched over to the owner and asked about lowering the rent by 100 grivna to help us change our minds. The realty agent / owner connection is a little thin, though: neither party seems to know each other before the apartment viewing so you end up with a bunch of strangers in one room. I thought they'd have more of a relationship. Nor are the agents particularly nice to you. And it is pricey- our agent initially wanted 1/2 of one month's rent as her fee but she settled for 1/3 (because I think she was doing this off-the-clock). That said, without her the initial meeting would have probably been even more awkward, like a first-time dance class without an instructor to lead and coordinate everyone's movements, so I don't regret it. If you're looking for an apartment here then hiring an agent may be a necessary evil... or at least, the lesser evil!

Keep reading to see our new apartment!


  1. I love your stories.
    But why are they nervous about renting to foreigners?

    1. That's a very good question! I don't really know.... Maybe landlords worry that a foreigner might trash an apartment and then pull a runner? Or because of the language barrier? Or they worry that they might get in trouble with the government?

      Do you know what the situation is like in Kiev?

  2. I haven't heard anything negative around here, really, that's why I'm surprised. But I don't get to talk to so many Ukrainians as I would like to, most of my info comes through expats!

  3. They are probably nervous because most of the long-term foreign renters in Kharkov are students from the Middle East, Asia or Africa. And the stereotype is that they are not the most classy tenants one could get. The "rental agreement" that you sign is really a bunch of malarkey unless it's with a major agency. But even still it would be almost impossible for the owners to claim and actually receive any kind of reimbursement if something bad happens. While in Kiev the story might be different because there's a lot of international companies, governments etc., so the tenants are considered more reliable. That's what I think...

    1. Good point, Sergiy, thanks for your thoughts! :) It's interesting that Kharkov is proud of having all these universities / international students and there are lots of foreigners who choose to study here, yet the locals and the foreign students don't seem to have very high opinions of each other.