Our amazingly cool friends, Sarah and Aaron Zipp, were featured on Househunters International this week. We got to watch their episode from their couch in the very apartment they chose during the show. Our kids even got a cameo at the end as part of a scene where they demonstrate a caber toss during Highland Games in the park.
It was even more fun to watch the Zipps in their show, since we are presently engaged in our own version of Amsterdam househunting. Less than a month ago, our landlady told us she would be moving back from Germany and would require the use of her apartment, necessitating that we move out. It was a bit of a shock, especially since she neglected to give us proper notice. Fortunately, in the Netherlands, as in many European countries, renters, employees, and other underdogs are generally quite well protected by law. We were informed by our realtor that we had every right to stay another year. However, we had no desire to live in the house of a hostile landlady, or make her life unduly difficult, so we negotiated moving out six weeks after our original contract expires (so by May 15), and started looking for another house.
The Amsterdam housing market is a bit of a war zone at the moment. Interest rates are extremely low, which means that housing prices have increased by 20% just in the last year, driving rental prices up as well. And with expats on corporate relocation packages willing and able to pay rents of EU3000-4000 (or more!) per month, and housing within striking distance of the city centre being a very finite commodity, well, you get the picture.
Sadly, we’re not on a corporate relocation package, so we foot the housing bill ourselves. And our children’s school, which we love, is dramatically but expensively located in the poshest part of Amsterdam, right around the corner from the Rijksmuseum. So we had a challenge before us. Which fortunately turned out to be a great opportunity.
Since we arrived, people have been pointing out that buying a house is far cheaper than renting, and that prices are only going up. Which is a bit depressing to hear when you’re not really in a position to buy. In fact, home ownership has always been a bit of a distant dream for us. We’ve spent most of our marriage scheming about or actually executing moving to and from Europe on a shoestring budget. Things haven’t always turned out the way we’ve hoped, but even I have to admire our persistence. In any case, our particular lifestyle choice has meant that we have watched from various rented apartments in various places as our friends from childhood and university have grown up and gotten stable jobs and bought houses.
Still, given the fact that we were facing an expensive and competitive rental market, we thought we might as well check out the possibility of buying, just in case. In the Netherlands, it’s quite normal to buy a house without a down payment; more important is a permanent employment contract (because, as I mentioned above, firing and evicting people here is not easy to do). We’ve both been employed now for about six months, and our employers were willing to sign the necessary paperwork for us to get a mortgage. Not a giant mortgage, but a mortgage nonetheless.
In our friends’ Househunters episode, their realtor came just short of laughing in their faces when they said they’d like an apartment with three bedrooms and two baths, a terrace, and within striking distance of school and work, that wouldn’t break the bank. Similarly, we quickly realised that if we wanted three bedrooms and a garden, we were going to have to move to the suburbs, buy a car, and forget about our Amsterdam cycling lifestyle.
All our Dutch friends think we’re crazy not to do exactly that. But none of our Dutch friends have crossed the Atlantic ocean to live in Amsterdam. We’re comfortable with our value system, and we already have a year under our belt living in a two-bedroom apartment, so we know we like it. However, even finding a two-bedroom that wasn’t impossibly tiny and was within the area we wanted, was going to be a challenge. Around 50 m2 (yep, that’s 500 square feet) was a pretty normal size for the price range we were working within. You could find some bigger houses, but there was always something weird about them, and usually that weird thing was kind of a deal-breaker (hello, giant studio with no walls anywhere, or house that is really two entirely separate small apartments, located three floors apart).
It was time to get creative. We hit IKEA, and spent hours poring over and analyzing the tiny model homes in their showroom. As you may remember, it’s a long-time Familia fantasy to live in an “IKEA house.” And it looks like we are getting ready to live the dream. Here are a few of the the things we needed to keep in mind when we searched for a house:
- The kids’ bedroom. This was my biggest qualm about choosing to stay close to the city centre. The kids are going to have to share a room for the foreseeable future. We discussed it with them, and they would prefer sharing a room to having a longer commute to school. Recognising that they both need their own private space, we also sweetened the deal by proposing these awesome loft beds. They’re pricey, but not as pricey as trying to find a 3-bedroom apartment in Amsterdam. However, that also meant we needed to find a bedroom that would accommodate not one but two such beds, and still leave room for walking, playing, and clothing storage (since wardrobes, rather than built-in closets are the norm here).
- The commute! The epicentre of our search was the children’s school, the red star on the map below. Our current location is the blue star (which is right next to the train station where I take the train to The Hague for work), and Tony’s work is the green star. For reference, it is ten minutes by bicycle from our house now to their school. Tony and I didn’t mind increasing our commute time to our various jobs, but we were quite set on keeping the school commute as short or shorter than it is now. The centre of Amsterdam is the canal-ringed horseshoe directly above the kids’ school. It is lovely, but full of tiny, expensive apartments. So our search was largely confined to the south, also expensive, but generally offering (a bit) more space for the money.
- Green space. Outdoor space actually attached to our house wasn’t overly important to us, since we’ve spent enough of the winter here to realise that those nice balconies and gardens don’t get used for a good portion of the year, and they’re often not big enough to really run around in anyway. But we did want to be close enough to a park that we could pop over for a picnic or send the Bobbles over to play. There were three parks that fell within striking distance of their school: Vondelpark to the top left, Sarphatipark to the right (small, and under the name of the school), and Beatrixpark, near the bottom, to the right of where we live now. Not on the map are a good number of smaller playgrounds, as well as some lovely canal banks, some of which have lots of grass and trees for climbing. We have a spot like that out near where we live now, and it is great to be able to send the kids outside there on warmer days.
- The grownup stuff. The first three points are mostly about the kids and what they need. But Tony and I had some things on the wishlist too. I wanted a place that really felt like Amsterdam, as opposed to our current neighborhood, which is nice, but more of a business park, and has Mondrian-style apartments–apartments that won an architectural award, but just aren’t the typical brick buildings that are iconically Amsterdam. And as long as I’m listing the ideal, I also thought a canal view would be terrific, preferably from a bay window with a window-seat. Tony wanted a nice big living room that could comfortably fit a sectional couch and an entertainment system. We also both wanted a neighborhood with shopping nearby, and at least one cozy cafe around the corner. And huge windows to let in the light during Amsterdam’s notoriously dark, grey winters.
- Layout, layout, layout. It’s amazing what a good layout can do. It’s also amazing what a bad layout can do, and some reasonably sized houses just didn’t work because a quarter of the house was devoted to a series of maze-like hallways, the bedrooms were so long and skinny they wouldn’t fit two kids’ beds, or the second “bedroom” was really a dining room with sliding glass doors from the living room. Due to the fact that most Amsterdam apartments that aren’t new construction are giant old houses that have been divided (often eccentrically) into several separate apartments, remodels are quite the norm here. In fact, back in the real estate heyday a few years ago, it was normal to be able to finance not only the entire price of a home, but also an extra chunk of money to be used on whatever type of renovations you felt like down the road. It’s also common to have to put in an entire kitchen and lay down flooring when you buy (or even rent) a new apartment. The regulations have tightened up a bit on rolling renovations into the mortgage, but it’s still common to finance putting in a kitchen or flooring. We became experts at putting in imaginary walls, and expanded our search to include larger one-bedrooms with a possibility to partition off some space to make another bedroom.
If at this point you think we’re crazy, and should rethink our resolution to avoid the suburbs, you can go ahead and watch this truly bizarre low-budget music video that expresses my feelings about suburbia, or just take my word for it that we can’t.
At any rate, the story has a happy ending, and on Wednesday we sign the preliminary agreement on our new apartment, which we love, and which ticks a good number of our boxes. I don’t want to jinx it, so I’ll say no more, but stay tuned next week to hear all about the Familia Family’s new digs in Amsterdam come April.