Monday, July 13, 2009

Apartment Hunting

One Saturday afternoon in early July, Farid and I strolled down the streets of Hay Hassan, my neighborhood of residence. Here and there, we’d spot a gardien walking up and down the streets, directing drivers as they maneuvered their cars in and out of parking spots along the curb. Recognizable by their deep blue lab coats, gardiens are, as their name suggests, guardians of a sort. Their most direct task is to oversee the parking in their street, and it is for this that they are paid. But by spending their days outside walking up and down the road, they often become ultimate experts on the goings-on in the neighborhood. They know the security guards, shopkeepers, and apartment building supers (likewise men who spend their days outside on the sidewalks). They know what businesses are doing well, and which are struggling. They know how late you came home last night and who your father is. They know who lives in their neighborhood, and where one might find a vacant apartment.

Whenever we spotted a gardien, Farid would approach the man. Every conversation was preceded by a shake of hands, a “salam aleikoum” and the usual “labas? Bikheir? Sahha labas? Barak llahoufik” (“how are you? How’s it going? How’s your health? Thanks so much”) that Moroccans exchange not only with friends, but any person they greet.

Preliminaries done, Farid would get to the point:

“So, I was wondering, do you know if there are any vacant apartments around here?”

As the gardiens ran through their mental files, Farid would point to me.

“It’s for this seyyida nasraniyya,* she’s looking for an unfurnished place for a year and a half.”

With this last sentence, Farid immediately placed our trump cards on the table.

“You’re in a good position,” Farid had assured me on our walk. “Landlords love renting to foreigners.”

“Why is that?” I wondered out loud.

“Because they always leave again at some point. He never has to worry about getting stuck with you in his apartment when he wants to raise the rent. A year and a half is perfect – not so short that he’s going to need to look for someone new in a few months, but not so long that he’s going to worry about you never leaving.”

In a very prosaic and politically incorrect sense, this seemed completely logical. A sad sign of Morocco’s ambiguous national pride – and more about that in a later blog post – but I could see how this made sense from a landlord’s perspective.

“But you’d better let me do the talking,” Farid cautioned. “They’d give you a really hard time, because they’re going to want to charge you a lot in rent.”

“Why?” I responded with confusion. “If they want to rent to a foreigner so badly, shouldn’t they charge us less, as a kind of incentive?”

Farid shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way,” he explained, with a smile. “Try convincing a landlord that a foreigner doesn’t have a lot of money. He wants a piece of your fortune.”

And so began my search for an apartment in Rabat. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had decided to exchange my tiny and furnished studio for slightly larger quarters that I’d furnish with my own purchases. I had taken action soon after writing that post by browsing the internet, with Google’s help, but without much luck. Apartment hunting in Morocco is not that straight forward – something I, a child of the Craig’s List era, found a bit frustrating. Like many other things, apartment hunting in Morocco can be very simple, but only if you know how it works, where to go, and what to say. In order to avoid paying high fees to a realtor or management company, the idea is to network a little with people in the ‘know’, such as gardiens, and to simply ask around.

A gardien is likely to refer you to a samsar. Another type of man who spends his days patrolling the sidewalks, samsars are, in Cynthia’s words, ‘realtors of the street’. They work independently, simply know of vacant units in the area, and have the numbers of landlords and supers programmed into their phones. Armed with these resources, they act as intermediaries between seekers of apartments, and seekers of tenants. In return, they’ll ask both you and the landlord for a small commission once you’ve been satisfactorily matched.

Apparently, samsars also simply know who’s looking for apartments. The day after viewing a unit with a samsar that Farid himself had called, another showed up at the NIMAR doorstep, asking for me. Too bad that apartment you looked at yesterday didn’t work out, he told me in Moroccan-accented French. But, he assured me, he had a few other apartments I might be interested in. One bedroom, right? Later that day, he promised, he’d show me two beautiful units.

Out with this new samsar later that evening, we ran into samsar number one. The two men greeted each other cordially, but I soon sensed a bit of tension. In a tone of slightly hurt pride the first samsar asked me, was this guy going to show me apartments? With the dawning sensation creeping up on me that I was somehow cheating on my first samsar, I tried to sugar coat the truth and said, “he might know of a few options, but I haven’t seen anything yet. Do you have any new places for me?” He nodded, leaned in toward me and whispered that he might know of something opening up very close to the NIMAR. He’d let me know more tomorrow.

With that, we said goodbye, and samsar number two and I continued on our way. We walked in a large circle, only to end up at an apartment building located right next to the spot where we’d run into samsar number one. Number two confessed: we’d taken a detour. “I don’t want the other guy to see my marchandise, you know.” Of course – no samsar has any claims to any of the vacant apartments. They simply know what’s empty, and the first one to match landlord with new tenant pockets the commission.

Farid, who was himself out of town and unavailable to accompany me on these viewings, had told me not to discuss prices. I was simply to look, to tell samsar and landlord I’d think about it, and leave the bargaining up to Farid: he’d have a much better chance of convincing landlords to lower their rent, he explained. Ok, I’d agreed, anything for a chance at a lower rent. But in practice, it was impossible not to talk money. At every single viewing, I hardly had a chance to get in the door before the samsar would initiate that conversation by naming a price. Looking around the apartments and realizing that either I’d have to lower my standards or increase my maximum price, I’d explain every time that I found that rent rather high for a place where I’d have to paint, to install a water heater, or to glue tiles back to the kitchen wall.

This seemed to be cue for samsar and landlord to delve into their collection of sales strategies.

“This is a beautiful apartment,” they’d say, “you won’t find better at this price. It’s quiet, it’s safe, and it’s big.”

Or they’d ask, “what do you need to time to think for? You don’t need a second opinion, it’s you who needs to decide.”

“Other people are interested,” they’d then warn, “so if you wait until tomorrow, the place may be gone. You could, of course, give us an avance (an advance) now, and then we’ll give you the keys immediately. Come on! This is a great apartment, you won’t find anything better!”

The thing is that these strategies tend to work on me. I’m always sold on artificial inflation of a commodity. Someone else is interested? I’d better say yes now, because what if I really don’t find any better?

I felt torn: the apartments I’d seen hadn’t been perfect. I’d needed to convince myself that I could live there – if I painted that wall, perhaps, and maybe the kitchen would look better once I cleaned a little and fixed that cabinet. Were they right, would I never find anything better for the price I’d indicated as my maximum? Maybe my expectations were the problem, rather than the state of these apartments. I’d never looked for a place in Morocco before; maybe my expectations were unrealistic. But in the end, I stuck with my doubts and resisted the pressure. Restlessly but surely, I stuck to my guns and made clear I’d need time to think. If the apartment was gone by the time I’d decided, too bad. I’d move on to the next vacant unit. There would always be another one, I reasoned, and I was in no hurry.

I saw about eight units in this way. All were dirty, and all needed some work. A paint job, a water heater, a new lock on the door. Some places were better than others, but none felt right. I began to notice, too, that Moroccan one-bedrooms are not what I had had in mind. One-bedroom apartments in this city are not meant for single individuals. They are meant for families who sleep in the living room, as my host family had done. Such an apartment may thus have only two rooms, a chambre and a salon, but that salon is always huge. Often, it is divided in two by a low wall: the idea is to create one formal, and one informal living room. For a family of four in no need of privacy, this works. My host sister in Salé and her family lived just fine in an apartment with this layout. But for a single tenant, it’s inefficient. What would I do with two living rooms? I’d drown in that sea of space.

Curiously enough, 2-bedroom apartments seem to come with a much more proportional living room. You get the same amount of space as in a 1-bedroom, but conveniently walled off. This works better for my single tenant status. First of all, portioning out the space in smaller pieces means the dearth of stuff that I will have, even after I buy furniture, won’t be as noticeable. And secondly, an additional chambre gives me the possibility of renting out that second room if I ever decide that I do want a roommate.

And so it is with a 2-bedroom apartment that I ended up. It was the last place I saw (shown to me by samsar number three), and that feeling I’d missed with all the other units came to me as soon as I stepped inside the door. It was in good condition. It was clean. Nothing needs fixing. And I felt comfortable there. It is light and airy. I have a balcony off the living room, a beautiful and functional bathroom, and lots of closet space. Best of all: the house comes with a satellite dish already installed, and the kitchen is already outfitted with a stove (this is not a given in Morocco – a stove and all other appliances are generally the tenant’s responsibility to purchase. I will, therefore, be buying a fridge…). I raised my maximum price in order to get this apartment and will thus be paying more in rent than I do now, but I’ve concluded that it’s worth it, to have an apartment where I truly feel comfortable. A home base within a world that still tends to get a little strange at times.

I’m already looking forward to having space to walk around and store my things, to long baths in that new tub, and quiet evenings with a book and glass of wine on my balcony.

* “seyyida nasraniyya,” literally, means ‘Christian lady’. But, much like we often think ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ world are the same thing, ‘nasraniyya’ means ‘Western’ as much as it does ‘Christian’.

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