Sunday, February 03, 2013

Apartment searching in Nairobi PART 1

Exchange Rate: $1 = Kshs.86 First things first, lower your expectations. Set a budget in mind before you get out there and try and stick to it as much as possible, but for a fact, what you settle on will not be within that frame. For one, your budget seriously underscores the perks that landlords expect to get paid for. The bathrooms are dark and moldy but oh look, no visible leaks and all the tiles are intact. The kitchen cupboards are leaning out of the hinges and yes, the cupboard under the sink is not for the faint of heart but wow the space makes up for it. Forget that the space allotted for an oven is sufficient only for the gas canister (forget electric ovens, you have to buy gas once you spot that 5 figure electric bill) and fridges in most of these apartments were never catered for. I have been on the typical apartment search in Nairobi, aka the apartment search from HELL and discovered a couple of uncomfortable truths that require a hefty compromise in return for a habitable space. I hope to impart, download and bitch mainly about that search in hopes that the lessons I learned along the way may help you, the unfortunate tenant, avoid the unpleasantries I encountered throughout this process. My personal disclaimer, this blog post is not for the average Kenyan, as bourgeois as that is sue me, but it is for the average, I have lived outside of Kenya and I know what I want Kenyan / Budget Expat who demands a certain standard of living. 1. AGENTS - They suck hairy goat’s balls and camels ass. But you cannot avoid them. As you have probably been to the Sarit Centre / Junction / Westgate / Karen boards there are load of apartments being listed. Look carefully for the ones saying "no agents" as the landlord has probably dealt with their shit and would rather tackle you, the tenant on their own without some whining commission freak. Unfortunately you will probably have to deal with an agent at some point. Insist they quote their "search" fee which is the initial fee they charge just for them to show you a minimum (set that) five apartments and if you are not satisfied the apartments the apartments they source out later. Be very firm and do not spend more than 2,000Kshs ($24) on that search and let them know that. In addition, when they are showing you a property, ask them whether they manage it or if there is another realtor managing the property. In any case, do they expect a commission once you choose a property – be wary of the ones who say “we can discuss that later”. You need to argue the shit out of that commission because you will most likely have to pay the people who actually manage it a commission and you do not want this freelance agent barking up a storm so tell the guy/girl that they say their fee now and you will also discuss it with the landlord. They will become more amenable as they rely on landlords and owners to put in a good word for them later down the road. If they do demand a commission up front once you've chosen a property they showed you, bargain it down as much as possible to at most double their initial search fee. If you have no bargaining bone, find a hard ass Kenyan to do it for you, preferably your local taxi driver...and then tip him/her extra. 2. LOCATION - Depending on your mobility and or comfort with public transport, find something near to where you want to be. Want to party like a rock star, find something within taxi ride Kshs. 500 ($6) to your best hotspot. Do not move to Karen if you love Electric Avenue Thursdays in Westlands, or do not live in Gigiri if you really love Choma Boma on Mombasa Road. Of course, for work, live near where you work. It must be on within one matatu trip from your house to the office and you may get away with buying a bike to make the smog filled exhaust choking commute to work, as I have seen a couple of die -hard bikers do, but key for you is reducing the amount of time you spend in traffic. I have come to love school off days as it means I get to the office in 5 minutes flat. Dare I make the mistake of starting my commute five minutes later past 6.45AM, I find myself behind numerous single occupancy vehicles plodding along that contain the one family driving two cars because Dad’s dropping the kids off in his Prado (asshole driver btw) and Mum’s picking them up after work (insert random Toyota) plus the school bus right in front of them because they decided to “save on the education budget this year” just for that bus to get to school before them and deposit their precious cargo on time and well before mum/driver and dad got home anyway....I digress, but location is key. Live near the office/clubs/gym and contain your search to that area. If you are going to compromise for any reason, research a shortcut to where you will spend most of your time. 3. THE APARTMENT / HOUSE – You found it. Well, you found the location and the bastard agent has made you huff and puff up 10 flights of stairs into this apartment with a view. Elevators in apartment buildings are a relatively new concept in Nairobi and believe you me that charge will be tacked onto your rent in service charge aka maintenance. And you will understand why the rent was so affordable once you’ve recovered your breath and looked at the “loft” space that they are advertising. Once you have begun your search, be clear about the number of bedrooms and bathrooms. 2 bed, 1 bath must be dismissed immediately. That bathroom will probably double as the laundry room and the second bedroom was probably converted from something else. Also 1 bed 1 bath in the leafy suburbs of Kileleshwa, Lavington, Westlands, Riverside Dr. were probably SQs (servants quarters – get over it, you will probably hire one) that an enterprising landlord decided to spruce up and rent out to you, the ignorant tenant. That’s fine, so long as the toilet is indoors and the fixtures are truly up to date. You can tell with the fixtures anyway and if you like the quaint colonial finishing as I do, you need to be very observant on the floor quality. As most come with wooden floors, be sure to ask if they have a leakage problem as ALL colonial and older than 5 year apartments do. Look for any sign of warping on the wooden floors and if the closets are freshly painted, enquire specifically if there have had any problems with leaks in the walls. I speak from experience as I continue to discard and try and rescue whatever precious clothes I had from my closet which had a bubbling wall that the landlord just sanded down, painted with primer and put on a waterproof coat. 4. LOCATION – Do you value peace and quiet if you are child free? Avoid places that have children crossing signs if you are opposed to the little bairns. Do you prefer a more adult housing unit? Count the number of Subarus in the compound as those tend to chauffer a yuppie crowd. Avoid apartment complexes that house more than 5 blocks (probably 6 story high each one). In addition to your concerns, there are a considerable amount of brothels operating within most new apartment blocks in the leafy suburbs. What happens are a couple of enterprising gals/guys rent out a single or double bedroom apartment, move in 7 or 8 of their colleagues and operate a thriving business. To their credit, they are discreet and their clientele are discerning so that you can never tell when looking through lace/chiffon drapes as the furniture is good quality there are activities being carried out. But woe to you when they are forced to source clients at wee hours of the morning that come revving through the sound carrying driveway to park haphazardly in your spot. Or if the guys/gals come back completely blitzed at 5AM and stagger through while bitching and whining about slim pickings right in front of your block. Am I turning you off apartment living? I hope not. The last thing you want to do is rent a house with a yard and start dealing with watchmen, live in maids, gardeners, the chickens from the relatives upcountry, the three nieces/nephews (that are just visiting) melee that a house with a patch of green invites. 5. BEDS AND SHIT – You found the place. Hurray. You most definitely compromised on something. Be it the extra 10K rent or the inconvenience to the local grocery store. I shall cover those particulars in Part 2 after I have finished this, my congratulatory bottle of wine. Whether you are fresh off a boat and have no furnishings or waiting for that U-Haul packed container from Mombasa, you have a challenge ahead of you. For the former, you have a shit load of stuff to buy. And no doubt you went passed Dagoretti Corner and all down Ngong Road and marveled at the Jua Kali carpenters with their wares lined up inviting you to buy and redecorate the perfect Safari Living house you have envisioned since you came to Kenya. For the latter, you are despairing that your beige IKEA fitted cupboards and luminous blue cutlery will not match the earth-tones and dust friendly colors that you are now required to utilize to fit your newly acquired style. You have to move all this shit. Container folk are sorted. New furnishing people? Add a significant amount. You will go to those carpenters who will shaft you as much as they can with their wrought iron four poster beds that comfortably drape your mozzie nets over you in such stylish Out of Africa manner…or those wicker baskets and baobab book shelves that you just must haaave! And compared to the cost of most legit furniture stores in Nairobi that import from Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore, they are a steal. Yes, I will name and shame you – Victoria Furnishings, Furniture Place, Nakumatt, Uchumi (shame!) and pretty much every furniture store on Mombasa Road, you are better off buying from these guys by the side of the road. The problem is ¾ of the diplomatic/NGO/FCO/Chinese were there before you so the prices have been jacked up beyond belief. My advice is to check out as many expat links as possible for leaving the country bargains or recommendations, but my newest addiction (I have not been offered any payment nor do I seek any) is to check out which is a Craiglist of sorts for goods and services in Africa. I used to use Dealfish Kenya but it seems they were bought out. I found my apartment from them and I found my extremely gorgeous couch from them. I will harp on about the couch here a little: when I went to Nakumatt, Tuskys, Victoria Furniture’s, they seemed to stock up on these hideous Nollywood leather couches massive puffs of seating or they had extremely ornate legs and arms that fit in with 1983. All Kenyans (and Africans in general) know what I’m talking about aka your Mama’s couch. I found my couch guy and he was not on Ngong Road but actually closer to UN territory in Gigiri/Village Market. Took a catalogue to him with what I wanted and he delivered. Tried to milk an extra 5K but I was really pleased with the work so bargained him down to half that. Get your stuff made! Don’t buy from the corporates. And of course the more you buy, the bigger the discount. So get them to do one piece and if the meet your expectations, shop around price wise with your item in mind and get them to deliver within that budget. Curtains – sorry Kenya, but the Chinese beat you hands down. Got my drapes done on Biashara Street by the Chinese and I love them. Biashara (aka Business) street is an iconic stature of Nairobi. It houses majority of the fabric stores in the city dating back to colonial era, run by seriously Old Indian families that literally live above the shops and deliver quality safari items and fabrics and the original Kikoy/ Kikoi style before it was cleverly copyrighted by some foreigner as Kenya was too dumb to figure out its substance then…and now possibly. Anyway, the Chinese have set up shop with tailors on hand…I got my apartment 2 bed 2 bath kitted out within 3 days. I tried to promote the Kenyan stores but they cannot match on quality and speed and I had no choice. Not happy about that but the cost and quality of my locally produced couch covered up for that. More later… I have to get ready to go to the job that finances all of this. And I hope the powers that be have a kind week as I continue to look at carpet colors.

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