For both recent arrivals in Barcelona and long-term residents, renting a pis (flat) is no easy task. Of course, everyone eventually finds a place to call home, but it tends to take longer, and cost more money, than many expect.
Guillem Fernández works at Prohabitatge, a non-profit Catalan organisation helping people find housing and deal with related legal issues. “The theory and practice of renting a flat are very different,” Fernández told Metropolitan. So before entering the quagmire of reality, it’s worth getting familiar with some of the difficulties others have faced, to be prepared if and when they come along.
One person who knows all too well how hard the ‘difficulties’ can be, if they do come along, is Craig Lester, an Englishman, who asked that his real name not be used. In October 2005, he was looking for somewhere new to live. “When you’re a bit desperate you become more vulnerable,” he said. “I was very unhappy in my old flat, had been looking for a while and there was the ‘challenging’ situation of price.”
So when a stranger named Jorge, approached Lester while he was checking a locutori noticeboard with rental accommodation, and told him he knew about a flat in his building available for €550 a month, Lester was definitely interested. However, in a matter of days, he ended up paying out just over €3,000 for a flat that was not for rent.
It turned out that Jorge had lived in the building a year previously and kept the keys when he left. He showed Lester the flat when the real tenants were out, and pretended to talk to the ‘landlord’ by phone in front of him. Lester commented that, on reflection, Jorge’s character was a clue. “He was cocky. He gave the impression that he was very successful and that my money was chicken feed.”
Lester also warned prospective renters to be wary when things are moving along quickly and the contact keeps trying to get more money. In the end, despite Lester stopping a police van to ask for help when on his way to a meeting with Jorge (the police asked Jorge for ID and took him to a local police station when he could not produce any), and later making a formal denuncia, Jorge disappeared without returning any of the money.
Lester’s is an extreme case, and most people follow a smoother path to finding a flat. When a contract has been signed, keys received, and the move initiated, not much should go wrong. Well, how about three weeks trying to get the gas connected? David Robinson found himself without hot water or cooking facilities despite moving into a flat that had just been renovated. “The rental agency contacted Gas Natural to arrange the connection at the flat,” explained Robinson. “The company came out, took one look at the installation and said that it wasn’t legal.”
After much to-ing and fro-ing between the agency, the lampista (plumber) who did the original installation and Gas Natural, including five visits by the latter until they were satisfied with the lampista’s work, gas was finally switched on. Robinson found leaning on the rental agents worked. He demanded they have someone wait in the flat for the gas man instead of himself, even though they denied it was their problem. And he got some compensation.
“When I asked for money back, they took it as a joke, but I put my foot down and threatened to move out.” Understandably, Robinson advises potential renters to look for a place where everything is connected
Even once settled in a flat, sudden changes to a contract are possible. Legally, once a contract expires, the landlord can raise the rent much more than the standard inflation rate that most tenants experience each year. However, Jeff Peterson, from the US, who rents a flat in Gràcia with his partner, was given a rent increase without warning. “We had a verbal contract for five years, a sublet. But then the old, written contract expired and the administrator called out of the blue.”
They were told to get out immediately, or pay a new rent, double that which they had been paying. Through the Organització de Consumidors i Usuaris de Catalunya (OCUC), they discovered that legally the verbal contract still stood and they could carry on paying the same rent for two years. “We had a case and could have stood our ground” said Peterson, but in the end they decided it was better to get a five-year lease at a ‘medium’ rate. However, getting the new contract proved expensive.
“When the deal had been negotiated with the administrator, we had to pay a finder’s fee of one month, three month’s back rent owed by the previous tenant, commission of one month for doing the paperwork, one month deposit and €140 to draw up the contract including photocopying.”
The high fees charged by agencies are due to a “lack of specification in the law,” according to Guillem Fernández. The Law on Urban Renting (LAU) states that a one-month deposit and the first month of rent should be paid, he said, but added, “There is nothing in the law about charging more than this and so it isn’t illegal…It’s an abuse, but it’s not illegal.”
Such ‘abuses’ mean that people looking for a flat here need to be on their toes. For while the experiences of the three people interviewed here are not faced by everyone who is flat-seeking in Barcelona, they are unforunately by no means unique.
Tips for renting:
Despite all the trouble that it can involve, finding a flat isn’t an impossible task:
Make use of friends and friends of friends, both for finding a place and to give support when dealing with agents and landlords, especially if language is an issue. Be prepared to negotiate over rent rises and stand firm when something in the flat doesn’t work as it should.
Use organisations who provide legal advice, such as Prohabitatge and OCUC. The Agència Catalana de Consum can act as an intermediary to help solve problems, although Mercè Marzo of the Agència pointed out this is only when the complaint is brought against a company, not against an individual.
Going to the police is sometimes necessary. However, a spokeswoman for the Mossos d’Esquadra recommended first visiting a lawyer because these matters are generally dealt with under civil rather than criminal law. Clearly, if money has been stolen from you, it’s important to report it to the police as soon as possible and Guillem Fernández noted that the police should get involved if one of the parties is not willing to go through arbitration to resolve an issue.
Avoid flats that aren’t actually flats. That’s to say property built as shops or industrial premises that have not been correctly renovated and thus don’t have the cèdula d’habitatge (certificate authorising the property can be inhabited). Both Prohabitatge and the Agència Catalana de Consum stressed the importance of making sure a place being rented out has the cèdula. In July, inspections in Gràcia discovered paying tenants living in flats without it—they lacked ventilation, light and adequate sanitary arrangements, and had damp. Rent was an average of €300 a month for 30 square metres, although the minimum legal size is 36. The tenants had to leave.
Agència Catalana de Consum: www.consum.cat
Organització de Consumidors i Usuaris de Catalunya: www.ocuc.org. have to be a member to get services; costs €38 per year.