As I woke up this morning and got ready to go to work, I decided I would write today’s blog in a different style. Instead of the traditional description of my day traveling – working – exploring and discovering Milan, I’d share of little bit of advice on finding housing in major cities across the world. It’s an interesting transition for me.

It is often a major concern to find housing which is within your budget and sustainable to your senses. This type of housing can often be found from local sources much below what is considered market price (what could be found using agencies or brokers). The use of agencies or third party brokers may put you in a place you don’t like with people who may not share your interests. Additionally, they may limit you to what the agency believes is decent housing or worth renting – this would prevent a student from finding an apartment or shared housing situation with nationals.

It may also subject you to unforeseen costs. Most Italian agencies for instance charge 10-20% of a year’s rent as a finder/brokers fee – so if you’re only staying for three months, you’ve already paid a month and a half’s rent, plus you’ll have to pay the caution (deposit) and the actual rent. It adds up pretty darn quick.

I used Kijiji.it to find my current apartment – a two bedroom, kitchen/living room combo, one bath apartment shared by two Italian students and a Korean student studying Italian. Together there are four of us. Two gentlemen share each room. Kijiji.it is a forum much like Craigslist in the U.S. (there’s also an Italian craigslist board which has postings). Kijiji.it is international but is only in Italian – a great way to price shop rentals to locals or other Italians.

The key, I believe is the use of private networking sites in combination with barter type forums – like Kijiji, Craigslist, Hellomilano, Couchsurfing. These forums allow a user to negotiate directly with a seller or merchant. Although it is necessary to take precautions when dealing in such ways, the perils of this type of negotiation can be mediated with proper street sense and caution. I’ll talk about signs to look for a little later on.

The use of these systems is necessary for the procurement of cheaper than “market” price goods. Craigslist in the U.S. is a wonderful utility but any product you buy in this type of forum is sans guarantee or replacement.

The strongest advice would be to search for and use resources in the native country’s language. Generally when selling to foreigners and outsiders, prices are raised due to the belief that these people don’t understand what an item’s worth. Often it is easy to be swindled if you’re not fully fluent in a language and haven’t spent time in the housing market in a country (which as a backpacker or student studying for a semester or less would qualify). Especially when you’re struggling with the language it is necessary to have patience – search for prices and qualities you’re looking for in the native language and use translators or a translation service such as www.google. (country ending) translate. Google translator does a better job using the .it framework to translate Italian to English than the .com – I had thought it was the same software but perhaps the translation programming is slightly different. These translation services are free however, they only provide a rough translation and will require some thought to understand. Any word the translator does not understand you can look up using a free utility at www.wordreference.com

After you’ve found a listing, have translated it and understand the details, you’ll need to schedule an appointment to see it – this means that you should plan for your first week to be in a hostel or hotel while you search through these listings. After you’ve made 10+ appointments for listings you’re interested in (listings generally have contact information (either Skype or E-mail) its time to head to the country/city and start your search in person. Now my suggestion of 10+ appointments may seem excessive but I went through 46 listings before I found one that was suitable or hadn’t already been snatched up. Admittedly, I hadn’t searched properly, nor had I used Italian resources for the first 20-30 and as such prices were listed quite high above market price. Because of this mistake I think that 10+ appointments to start with are a good choice. It also gives you flexibility and forces you to compare your options.

As you enter your appointment, first and foremost, prepare yourself mentally to walk away if the seller isn’t willing to describe the full list of costs or if they seem unsure about anything (if the person supposedly living in the house does not know how much rent and utility costs average per month something is fishy). As you walk around the apartment make a mental check list: If the refrigerator is full of rotten food what else hasn’t been cleaned out or dealt with? Is the house clean? Who cleans it? Are the bathrooms clean? Check inside cupboards, closets etc. to see what the house is like behind the shined up interior. Remember if you were selling – renting an apartment – what would you try to hide? Check thoroughly.

If a seller is serious they will be willing to wait for you to make a decision. If you ever feel pressured by the seller to take an apartment immediately it’s probably not a good deal. A seller will also show you the apartment and answer your questions in person – DO NOT EVER PAY ANYTHING OR EVER FORWARD YOUR PASSPORT unless you have signed a contract and have moved into the apartment. Passport fraud is rampant and scams are everywhere.

Using these principles, I found a great apartment perfect for a student for 350Euro per month with an added 30 euro every 2 months for utilities. This was a great savings over what I was offered by agencies and brokers – shared apartments for 850-1200 euro per month. I live with three other gentlemen, two who are native (Italians in this case) and I practice my Italian and experience an entirely different city due to their presence.

Another active traveler and blogger that I rely on frequently, has posted quite a few additional tips regarding backpacking and surviving on a budget at www.VirtualWayfarer.com

Thanks! I hope you enjoyed my foray into this form of writing,

David.