Being a homeowner in a country built on a swamp may not always be the wisest thing, writes DutchNews.nl editor Robin Pascoe.
As I stand, once again, in our semi-basement kitchen with pump in hand, trying to get rid of the centimetres of water that have found their way in after the recent rains, I find myself wondering who on earth would build a house, let alone a country, on a swamp.
The rising damp in some of the walls, the slugs that decide to make their home behind the fridge and the occasional flood are things we have learned to live with. Not that I can blame anyone but ourselves for the state of the place.
When we moved in nearly 21 years ago, we had the place assessed and were told our foundations should last 20 to 25 years – that’s the maximum guarantee we could get. The foundations might be going – there is a suspicious lean in the corner of the sitting room – but we know we need a new concrete tub under the kitchen floor which will hopefully see to it that the slugs leave home.
Slugs in the kitchen may not be a common Dutch household phenomenon, but Dutch houses do have a charm all their own: the downstairs loo with cold water only, the very steep stairs, the lack of carpets, the matching things on the window sills (often white pots with orchids or spiky plants) and, in rural areas at least, a lack of curtains.
Personally I’m always fascinated by the bikes clogging up the halls and wrecking the paintwork (like in our house), the open kitchens (who wants to look at the washing-up over dinner) and the bathrooms without baths and often without windows. But these are things you learn to live with and, slowly, become completely used to. Who really needs an enormous bedroom with en suite bathroom after all?
But as a new arrival, finding a place to call your own can be extremely difficult. Not only are you in a different country, but you have to find your way through that country’s housing market as well. For a start, should you buy or rent?
Scarcely a day goes by without one news story or another about how the Dutch housing market is poised to recover or is recovering or may recover in the next couple of months.
For expats, however, the shenanigans are pretty well irrelevant. If you are in the Netherlands for just a couple of years, you are usually better off renting than buying. And if you intend to stay for longer – it is a buyer’s market and the world is your oyster.
You’ve probably realised by now that the Dutch housing market has its own distinct peculiarities. For example, around half the country’s housing stock is owned by housing corporations – institutions with the official function of ensuring a supply of affordable housing for people on low incomes.
With so many houses earmarked for the low-paid, you might think it pretty easy to get one of those solid, double-glazed Dutch homes. Alas no. There are rules for deciding who is entitled to a cheaper home. For a start, you have to have lived here for some time. And second, you can’t earn very much at all. To qualify for a rent-controlled house you may not earn more than € 34,229 a year. And the upper ceiling for the rent of a property in the rent-controlled sector is € 681.02. Do not forget those crucial two cents.
This means that if you earn more than € 34,229 you are not allowed to live in a flat or house where the rent is less than € 681.02. Which means you are forced into the arms of the so-called ‘free sector’. A contradiction in terms if there ever was one.
And how is the rent, including those crucial two cents, calculated? Yes indeed… more rules. The maximum rent a landlord can charge for a rent-controlled property is worked out according to a complex system of points – you get points for the age of the house or flat, for the presence of central heating or double glazing, and bizarrely, for its proximity to local services.
This means a flat in a 200-year-old building in the heart of a city may gather fewer points than a modern flat out of town because it is not close to a bus stop. You may notice a weird number of sinks in your ‘free sector’ flat. This is because each sink generates extra points. As does an extra-long work surface in the kitchen. So landlords do all they can to get their property out of the rent-controlled sector.
If you live in Amsterdam in particular, this means your rent is likely to be closer to € 1,000 than € 681.02. A shortage of housing and pressure on inner city properties means there is large gap between the cheap and the expensive sectors.
If you are here as an expat for a couple of years, your company may well be helping you. If you have any sort of ‘package’, there may well be some sort of rent subsidy attached to the job. But if you have come here under your own steam, or are a Dutch primary school teacher, an office worker or low-level civil servant who earns just over the magic € 34,299, you will all be competing for those non-existent flats which cost € 700 a month.
That shortage makes new arrivals vulnerable to scams. Beware of the Craigslist and other online deals offering you a bargain flat because the owner has been posted to Manchester for a year. If it is seems too good to be true, it will be.
Find out your rights. Ask colleagues what they think about the cute little property which will cost you € 1,200 a month and a three-month deposit. Use a reputable housing agent with a council stamp of approval. Don’t hand over cash deposits to seedy-looking people down backstreets who promise you the flat is yours.
If this all makes you feel like it would be easier to buy, it may well be. It’s a buyer’s market and although the Dutch are having to deal with greater restrictions on the amount they can borrow and reduced tax deductions, the situation here remains much more generous than in most other countries.
But there is one thing to remember, if you really want to become a homeowner. As a tenant, you don’t have to accept slugs in the kitchen.