Finding a decent place to live abroad isn’t easy, and I’ve had my fair share of housing dramas. I’ve lived in an isolated convent outside Rome, with no phone signal, no Wi-Fi and some intimidating nuns.
I’ve stayed in the backroom of a law firm in Paris, paying a reduced rent in return for teaching English to the head lawyer’s unruly children. Having signed a dodgy contract with the lawyer-mother waiving my tenant’s rights, I was terrified she could kick me out on a whim if she decided her little darlings hadn’t learned enough English.
But at least the law firm was an escape from my previous residence in Paris – a grotty student centre, where I shared a tiny bedroom in which the sink fell off the wall.
One lesson I’ve learned is to persevere until you find the right place, where you can focus on what you’re there for: improving your language skills. Here are some tips for navigating the process.
1) Be an early bird
Start looking for somewhere to live as soon as you have confirmation of where you’ll be working or studying, and don’t be scared to ask your new employer or host university for suggestions. Third Year Abroad, a platform set up by former year-abroad student Lizzie Fane, is a useful starting point – especially itscompilation of accommodation websites for various European countries.
2) Talk to year-abroad veterans
Seek out the fourth-year students who have just returned from their time abroad and get their recommendations – or start chatting to other year-abroad veterans on the Third Year Abroad forum and find out about newly-vacated flats. “Remember you’re not alone,” says Fane. “There are huge numbers of students going abroad at the same time as you, and huge numbers going back home. So you can use a platform like ours and ask, ‘Is anyone leaving their flat in Berlin?’”
3) Keep an ear to the ground
Sometimes the best way to find a place is through someone who knows someone else with a spare room going. Flat hunting through the official routes can be tough, and landlords are often suspicious of year-abroad students, but I eventually found my small Paris flat through a friend of a friend – an Australian student who had to leave suddenly because of a visa problem. He introduced me to his elderly landlady and sung my praises, which convinced her I would make a trustworthy tenant.
4) Be adventurous
Don’t assume that student housing is the best – or the only – option. Halls in Europe tend to be less sociable than in England and local students typically go home to their families at the weekend. “There’s a ghostly atmosphere here,” says Isabella Kirwan, a law student at the University of Manchester, who is currently living in a student residence in Nancy, France. “Most of the others are Erasmus students as well – it’s not helping me learn French.” Her advice to other students is to choose a flatshare with native speakers instead.
Ori O’Donnell, a university student in Dublin, agrees. “I lived with Spanish students in Hamburg and we got lazy and mainly spoke English instead of practising German,” she says. Now spending the rest of her year in Italy, she’s making much better progress in Italian as a result of living with locals. After starting out in Siena with an elderly landlady who didn’t speak any English, O’Donnell is now working on an organic family farm in Tuscany in return for board and lodging in the family home. It gives her the chance to brush up on her Italian around the dinner table with her hosts, and sampling the local cuisine is a bonus – “huge portions of pasta, rice and gnocchi”.
5) Beware of dodgy deals
So you’ve found your perfect flat online and the landlord wants a deposit? Try to visit it first before handing over any money – remember online photos can be misleading. Look at ads for similar places in the area to gauge a sense of prices and check you’re not being ripped off. If you’re staying somewhere for more than a month, make sure there is a proper contract involved and read all the small print.
6) Don’t panic
Still can’t find somewhere to live? It’s not the end of the world – staying in a cheap hostel or on a friend’s sofa for a few weeks can give you some time to find a decent place. The same goes for when your accommodation turns out to be a total disaster. “If you’re miserable, then move,” says Fane. “When you have job interviews later, and you have to describe a moment you triumphed over adversity, you can say ‘I had this experience where the ceiling kept leaking and I had to move flats, and I had to make all those negotiations in Spanish.’” At least you’ll have a good story to tell.