Team Mago recently spent a month in Barcelona (see A Barcelona Brouhaha) and six weeks in Rome (see Agrodolce: Our Favorite Roman Trattorias Ten Years On) experiencing the vicissitudes of the apartment rental market. Travelers are victims of a bifurcated apartment rental market. Apartment renters abroad typically fall into one of two market segments, tourists or expatriates. Tourists are looking for short-term rentals of one to two weeks as an alternative to hotel stays. Expats generally have the legal status for long-term rentals of a year or more. Thus travelers seeking to rent an apartment for a medium-term stay of one to six months find themselves betwixt and between these dominant market segments and are penalized accordingly. This article is a review of the rental agencies we dealt with and a summary of our lessons learned.
Barcelona: Bilkers and Bunglers
Let me state the obvious at the outset: the best way to rent an apartment abroad is utilizing a friend who lives in the area, preferably a friend with significant local knowledge concerning the rental property market. MudGuide has used this approach for over five years in Barcelona, renting from close friends who have a very nice flat in Barceloneta. Unfortunately, Barceloneta is fast becoming second only to the Bari Gothic as a tourist destination and each year the hordes invade its inviting beaches and Xiringuitos earlier than ever. So we decided to rent a place in the Eixample neighborhood as an antidote to the binge drinking masses with their attendant noise, garbage, and petty crime.
MudGuide has four basic requirements for rentals in Europe: 1) a decent sized and equipped kitchen, 2) walking distance from a traditional food market, 3) a terrace large enough to eat and work on, and 4) Wi-Fi Internet. Of these criteria only number four is pretty much ubiquitous. Short-term renters do not care about the size of a kitchen or its appliances. They don’t cook at home, so why should they on vacation? Ditto proximity to a real market. Tourist go to European food markets to take pictures of the stalls visited by Food Network stars, not to buy authentic ingredients, take them back to their apartment, and cook them. Finally, the locals prize nice large terraces and tend to either live in the apartments that have them or place such apartments on the long-term rental market to be snapped up by expats.
The reason the long-term apartment rental market is essentially closed to travelers is that one must have what amounts to legal alien status to rent them in Western Europe. Non-citizens are limited to a three-month visa by the Schengen Treaty that governs travel regulations in 26 European countries. A three-month extension can usually be obtained for minimal hassle but that is it. Most long-term rental agreements require proof of a multi-year visa or equivalent document that is not obtainable without corporate or some other form of institutional support. Thus travelers are confined to the short-term tourist rental market, which has little or no incentive to accommodate their preferences or budgets.
So Team Mago formed a three-person two-continent search committee in cyberspace and spent the better part of two weeks finding an apartment. We ended up booking through Oh-Barcelona. The first thing a traveler encounters when renting abroad is that there are multiple middle entities between you and the property owner and each one is going to cost you money. Oh-Barcelona has a very straight forward business model: extract 20% of the total bill for passing you on to the next middle person and then use the contact information that you must supply in order to secure the reservation to bombard you with up-selling spam.
We were now booked into a two bedroom apartment located at c/Compte Borrell, 105. Pictures of the unit, for what they proved to be worth, indicated that our minimum requirements with respect to kitchen and terrace would be met. Furthermore the apartment location at the intersection of the Esquerra Eixample, El Raval, and Poble Sec neighborhoods and just a couple blocks from the venerable (if somewhat bedraggled) Mercat de Sant Antoni was very appealing.
In our reservation documents, Oh-Barcelona identified the next middle entity as . We wanted to make arrangements to arrive earlier than the check-in time listed in the Oh-Barcelona information and leave later than the checkout time. These details were important because we were arriving by train from Madrid and did not want to be in limbo for hours with all of our luggage and the balance of the rent that was due in cash at check-in. Ditto on the departure, since we were catching the night ferry to Civitavecchia and would have had to find somewhere to stash our luggage for twelve hours.
It took twenty days and many e-mails (the phone number Oh-Barcelona supplied was useless) to make contact with Berta, who worked for Marta Esteban. She graciously consented to an early check-in, but said that the only way we could secure a late checkout was to book an extra night. So we did. Berta also advised us that her e-mail address would be changing very soon.
Our schedule was a bit on the tight side. Our ship docked at Lisbon about 36 hours before check-in at the apartment in Barcelona. Based on my useless Oh-Barcelona instructions, I called the contact number for the person scheduled to let us into the property. He had never heard of our reservation. Then I got urgent e-mail from Berta instructing us to call her “personal” cell phone number because the “the other is not working anymore.”
Of course it was working as I had just verified. What was really going on is that Berta was in the process of gazumphing a third middle entity out of their chance to wet their beaks in the transaction. The lowest of the bottom-feeder chain in the apartment rental biz are the “greeters” who actually meet you and let you into the property. Evidently they get a percentage cut of the total rent and Berta was unwilling to share.
We had been trying to accumulate our balance of over 3,000 Euro from ATMs since Funchal and had been rather frustrated by thinly disguised currency controls imposed by the Portuguese government in a desperate effort to stave off a sovereign default, so I was a bit cranky about the way Oh-Barcelona, Marta Esteban, and God only knows who else were screwing with us. While we waited in Lisbon for the overnight train to Madrid , I explored the legal aspects of demanding so much cash upon arrival. Turns out it is illegal.
Spanish law forbids accepting more that 2,500 Euro in cash payment. Berta was obviously avoiding significant personal taxes by insisting on cash, but she was also making us complicit to this unlawful activity and thus vulnerable to significant fines. I realize that times are hard in Spain these days, but it seems a little much to force customers to accumulate large sums of cash in high crime areas (e.g., train stations) in two countries when one is charging $143 a day in rent (plus utilities). Berta was not only stiffing her business partners and exposing us to the risks of robbery as well as financial penalties but also depriving her country, region, and city of revenue desperately needed to support the tourist infrastructure from which she derives her income.
We managed to accumulate the necessary funds by hitting every ATM in two Madrid and one Barcelona train stations while sustaining only the embarrassment associated with locals rolling their eyes at our ostentatious naiveté. Berta met us on time at the apartment. Virtually the first words out of her mouth were an offer of a large discount if we ever wanted to rent from Marta Esteban again without going through Oh-Barcelona (no honor amongst, uh, middle people I guess). No English version of the contract was available, but Berta said that all was well. We signed the lengthy contract in Spanish and paid an additional 200 Euro security deposit.
We spent the bulk of the time with her making sure that the WI-FI system worked. The password was a 20 plus digit number printed on the bottom of the WI-FI transmitter that required significant contortions to read. Then Berta bolted to another appointment before we could effect a serious walk-through of the apartment. We soon found some things that needed addressing:
- There were multiple signs in Spanish taped to all the walls on each of the floors that Berta had breezed past when conducting us into our flat on the top floor of the building. Google translate revealed that the entire building was undergoing a major electrical upgrade and that interruptions to power and the elevator, as well as the need to let workers into one’s apartment on short notice, would be frequent throughout the length of our stay.
- The promised DVD player did not exist.
- The water heater needed servicing for low gas pressure. This made turning on hot water a pain (we know something about demand systems so we were able to force it to light) and was potentially dangerous.
- The retractable awning on the terrace was not properly oiled and the sliding doors to the terrace did not function correctly or lock easily.
- The major kitchen appliances were in good shape, but the kitchen was less than minimally furnished, in particular it lacked any pots and pans that could be used without risking everyone’s health.
- In general the apartment had clearly been rented on a short-term basis for multiple years without any attempt to keep up with the wear and tear. The walls were scratched, gouged, and badly replastered; the master bedroom lacked night tables; there was a bunch of electronic boards and other garbage stuffed into drawers (perhaps the remains of the DVD player?); the “dining room” chairs were so worn out that they had to be re-screwed every day, etc.
The third member of our team arrived while we were completing our inventory. Giovanni not only manages rental property in Sicily and Barcelona, but his Spanish is very good, so we appointed him as Speaker to Rental Agencies for the duration of our stay. He compiled a very polite e-mail to Berta that asked her to come over for a glass of wine so that we could discuss the items listed above. She ignored our request for a meeting for a week and then sent an e-mail, which referred to our complaints as “small problems” and blamed the apartment owner for being unresponsive. In particular she was adamant that the apartment had never had a DVD player as part of the rental package. We sent her to the link to the Oh-Barcelona website that explicitly listed the device, but she said that the owner would have to supply it, that she was not responsible, and that the owner was very difficult to contact.
While this exchange was taking place the elevator ceased to function for 48 hours. Berta’s reply to our queries concerning when service might be restored: “Regarding the elevator that I can’t tell you as it’s a community problem. I guess it’s on the way to be solved but I can’t give you an answer as it doesn’t relay on us.” On the larger issue of how long we would be subject to the noisy and intrusive electrical make-over for the entire building she was equally helpful: “Regarding electricity I can’t plan and have incidence on when electric problems may appear.”
I contemplated these e-missives as I hauled food and other supplies up five flights of stairs and decided to play bad cop to Giovanni’s good Carabinieri act. A polite but firm conversation with Berta yielded the unannounced arrival of a nice older woman the following day. This turned out to be Marta, who we later learned was Berta’s mother. She delivered three cheap pans, two plastic bowls, two end table lights, and did not speak a word of English. Because Berta had not coordinated her arrival, only Patti was in residence at the time, and unable to effectively point out some pertinent facts, such as the lack of any end tables for the lights.
At this point we basically quit trying to deal with Berta. Elevator service had (coincidently?) been restored the morning of Marta’s visit. I had indulged my inner consumer by purchasing the necessary kitchen implements to cook incredible meals.
There were actually many aspects of the apartment that we really enjoyed. The memory foam beds and large couches were super comfortable. The stove and dishwasher were in very good shape and the WI-FI Internet was fast, reliable, and included in the rent. Most importantly, the apartment’s location was exactly what we had been looking for. We were within easy walking distance of three distinctly different and very interesting neighborhoods. None of us felt like spending any more time dealing with Berta’s evasions and excuses.
After we checked out, securing our deposit without incident despite several broken wine glasses, Oh-Barcelona had the unbelievable cheek to ask me to complete a survey concerning our experience. I gave them and Berta the lowest ratings possible as well as making long and fulsome use of the comments box. I never heard back from Oh-Barcelona on this issue (although their spam continues to clog my inbox), but Berta fired back with vitriolic and incoherent flame mail. Her only cogent argument was that the apartment was essentially for short-term rentals and we should have tailored our expectations accordingly.
Mago Tip: Do not use Oh-Barcelona, which is a subsidiary of Go with Oh. These rip-off and spam artists will wet their beaks on rental apartments in 17 European cities and then clog your inbox with all sorts of discounted goodies on sale from “your trusted host in Europe.” Do not use Marta Esteban, now doing business as Checkin Checkout Renting (recall Berta’s admonition concerning a new e-mail address). This mother/daughter team is the most unprofessional rental agency we have ever encountered. This is not a judgment rendered lightly. Between the three of us we have over 40 years of experience in managing and renting properties in Europe. Checkin Checkout Renting does not possess even a rudimentary understanding of the condition of the properties they rent; does not respond quickly to renter complaints much less do anything about them; blames both owners and renters for problems of their own making; and forces their renters into risky and illegal behavior by demanding the balance of the rent in cash at check-in.
Rome: How Regent Suites It Is
The first problem we encountered seeking a medium-term rental in Rome was finding a property that satisfied our four criteria in a neighborhood outside the Centro Storico and the Trastevere. The bulk of rental apartments that we were able to peruse through Internet brokers, friends still living in Rome, and apartment owners recommended by friends and family who had recently rented in the city were either clustered in these areas or in the outer suburbs beyond walking distance from any of the traditional markets, restaurants, and food shops we were intent on reviewing for MudGuide.
For reasons that I do not completely understand, the short-term tourist apartment rental market in Rome is highly concentrated. Unlike Barcelona, rental apartments cluster around a very small area of the city: the Piazza Navona, the Campo Dei Fiori, and the northern half of the Trastevere. Perhaps the reason lies in a comparison of the public transport networks in each city. All of Barcelona is accessible on excellent public transportation options, whereas the most touristic parts of Rome are badly served by a very sparse metro and a dilapidated, overcrowded, and crime-ridden bus system. Thus, tourists prefer to rent apartments within easy walking distance of the major sites.
In any event, we ran the clock way down on booking a rental in Rome trying to use the same Internet-driven methodology that had sufficed (as least as far as location was concerned) in Barcelona. In semi-desperation, I turned to Regent Suites, a Los Angeles-based rental property broker that we had employed with good results for a two week family stay in Rome about five years ago. To my consternation, however, I found that their website (www.regentsuites.com) was undergoing a significant make over and that only London apartments were on offer.
I contacted Regent Suites via e-mail informing them of our requirements and the fact that we had rented from them before. They were very quick to respond, informing me that they still worked with over 75 one- and two-bedroom properties in Rome and would be happy to suggest ones that fit our requirements as well as offer a 20% discount for a long-term rental, which they defined as one month or more. Furthermore, I was assigned two specific points of contact (Rich and Sam) that I dealt with throughout our rental period to very good effect (see below).
I worked with Regent Suites for several weeks sifting alternatives. Rich and Sam were professional, responsive, and actually pleasant to deal with. They sent candidates along with pictures via e-mail and responded to detailed inquiries within 24 hours. On two occasions they proactively warned us off of properties that we were getting ready to put deposits on. In the first case, they learned from their Roman colleagues (intermediary number 2) that the owner was trying to sell his apartment and refused to guarantee that it would be available during the period we were interested in renting it, although he was more than happy to take our deposit money. In the second case, the owner agreed to the discount and then tried to back out claiming that he would make much more during the rental period from short-term renters and thus could not honor the discount. Rich and Sam took my unprintable response and unsolicited advice concerning their future relationship with this particular owner with good grace and continued the search. Once we finally locked down an apartment, Regent Suites offered us a free pick-up from the airport and delivery to the property in compensation for the above incidents. I told them we would be arriving by train and they gave us a $60 credit on our bill to cover the taxi fare from the Stazione Termini.
Another pleasant contrast between Regent Suites and their Barcelona competitors was payment. Deposit and balance were both paid prior to arrival. The balance could be paid by personal check in dollars or by credit card. Putting the deposit on a credit card was free, but putting the balance on a credit card incurred a 3% fee. The balance was calculated using a very reasonable exchange rate two weeks prior to arrival. When we showed up all we had to do was pay 40 Euro in city taxes.
Regent Suites, however, could not accommodate my desire for an apartment in the Testaccio, Esquilino, or San Lorenzo neighborhoods. The reason was two fold. First, the short-term rental market is driven by mass tourism preferences for the Centro Storico and Trastevere. Secondly, I was not able to give Rich and Sam enough time for such a search. Based on my experience with them, I believe that if I had given them six months advance notice that their contacts are extensive enough to have turned something up (e.g., they have a ten-plus year relationship with the flat manager of the apartment we rented).
We ended up in a one bedroom apartment at Via Dei Capellari 27 for $132 a night plus utilities. We were less than five minutes from the Campo Dei Fiori market and by walking along the Tiber banks I found that I could reach the Testaccio market in well short of half an hour. The walk-up apartment on the second floor was very nice with spacious rooms and high ceilings.
The galley-type kitchen was well designed with a very large refrigerator by Italian standards, a good dishwasher, and a goodly amount of useable pots, pans, and other cooking implements. Then I turned on the electric stove. I quickly determined I could only use two of the four stovetop elements at a time without tripping the circuit breaker unless the oven was also on, in which case I could only use one.
I called the 3rd intermediate entity, a Mr. Vinod who had checked us into the property. He basically confirmed that the kitchen was not wired for full use of the stove. He said he would talk to the owner, but that the best course of action was to turn off all the lights in the kitchen when I was cooking.
I sent Rich and Sam a polite but firm e-mail and took Patti out to dinner. Their reply was waiting when we got back. They contacted the flat manager, Sabrina Neri, who got in touch with the owner. An electrician was dispatched in less than 48 hours and he rewired the circuit on a Saturday (in Rome!!).
Before the electrician showed up, Sam called from LA to make sure we were OK with the arrangements. He was very apologetic and urged us not to contact Vinod for any other non-menial issues but to use Ms. Neri. Working with her and Sam I was able to secure a 4 PM checkout on the day of our departure for no additional charges.
Ms. Neri was also very helpful in dealing with our Wi-Fi Internet service. In order to discourage streaming video, the total amount of megabytes that could be downloaded each month was rather restrictive. We do not stream video but we do maintain several websites, blogs, and do non-trivial code development in the Cloud. When we explained our situation to Ms. Neri she was able to top up our account twice free of charge. In general, however, Wi-Fi in rentals sucks in Rome compared to Barcelona, although this is not a problem that can be fairly laid at Regent Suites feet.
Mago Tip: When renting an apartment in Rome start early and use Regent Suites. I would go so far as to specifically request Rich or Sam. Their website has been expanded recently to include Paris apartments on line. They have plans to put Rome properties back on their website as well as apartments in Venice, Florence, Barcelona, and Madrid (as well as many other cities in Western Europe as yet unnamed). It is slightly more difficult to compare properties given the current state of their website than it is with other Internet brokers, but it is well worth the hassle. MudGuide will be using them in the future for both Rome and Barcelona and we intend to urge them to think about configuring rentals for travelers interested in medium-term rentals as opposed to simply offering discounts on what are otherwise short-term rentals. Give them your business and they might well be encouraged to do so.