An accidental expat in Almere
An accidental expat in Almere
A recent survey by Ernst & Young revealed that Amsterdam is home to 90.000 "internationals." Newcomers to the Netherlands may find themselves unprepared for the reality of finding and securing affordable accommodation. As an "accidental expat," I encountered first-hand the difficulties involved in finding a place to call home.
Securing accommodation in the Netherlands
Towards the end of 2007, my partner was invited to join his Italian family in a restaurant venture in Almere. I had never heard of Almere. A Google search revealed that the new town was the Netherlands’ fastest growing city. Further research showed that Almere was derided by the Dutch as Holland’s ugliest city. Not a great recommendation but I wrongly assumed it would be easy to find a place to live in such a seemingly unpopular location.
The previous year, I had left London to make a BBC documentary about greyhound racing in a spectacularly grim part of Barnsley. During my time in South Yorkshire, I had shuffled between a rented canal boat and hotels before finding a great flat via a flat-sharing website.
When my partner suggested the move to the Netherlands, my documentary had been delivered. I had a big decision to make about my next move. Paid production work was in short supply in South Yorkshire. I rejected the idea of a return to London and embraced a Dutch adventure as both exciting and appealing.
I never considered that finding a place to live would be so hard. Before my move to the Netherlands I had lived in a Cretan village before moving for work to Manhattan. On both occasions, I had arrived in the country "homeless" and found accommodation within a week.
My partner set off at the end of January 2008. It simply did not occur to either of us that he would be unable to get us new digs in two months. As February and most of March flew past, we started to realise that our optimism was looking pretty foolhardy.
With three days left before I flew to Amsterdam, I discovered an online ad from a Dutch woman advertising a room for a female tenant in an Almere suburb. I called the number advertised and we exchanged stories. She was newly single and wanted extra income and some company.
She agreed to accept myself and my partner as tenants for an increased rent. For this privilege, we found ourselves with somewhere to sleep: a sparcely-furnished room, rented unseen, in the middle of nowhere in Holland’s ugliest suburb. To make matters worse, we were paying the same price we’d paid for a 2 bedroom house in a posh part of Sheffield.
Our landlady was pleasant and helpful at first. Her tendency to "accidentally open" our post was a little unsettling. When she started opening the parcels left for neighbours and wearing their contents, we became more uncomfortable. We were unable to register - this did not seem an issue at first but would prove to be so.
I could not fathom how it was possible for ordinary people to afford the staggering rents being demanded in Almere and Amsterdam. I continued seeking affordable alternatives but hedged my bets by looking for work in the UK.
We tried rental housing agencies but could not meet the requirement to provide the equivalent of three month’s rent in advance together with proof of income at five times the rent. My partner was working unpaid in the family business. I had some savings from my last freelance job for Discovery Channel but, without being able to speak Dutch, I was unable to even secure work as a cleaner.
The situation was starting to feel hopeless. I accepted short-term freelance production work in London and returned to the UK to try and raise some cash. Whilst looking for new properties, I saw our home being advertised on Easykamer.nl.
When I confronted the landlady, she admitted that she had decided to rent the whole house for a higher rent from a professional expat family. We decided it was time to move out.
By now, I could just about decipher written Dutch. Our next accommodation was advertised in the local newspaper by a pensioner who lived in a large, uncared-for house in an Almere suburb. We moved in with our chain-smoking landlady, her 55 year old toyboy and her 62 year old tenant. They partied - a lot. I felt like one of the Golden Girls.
Our attic room - a narrow, un-insulated space with a lethal trapdoor next to the mattress on the floor - came with a fridge and a free-standing shower unit. We kept our food in the fridge and had access to a communal kitchen and a toilet, albeit two storeys below the attic.
It was November when we moved in and we froze every evening until one memorable December day when the landlady’s third husband showed up. He had clearly come to confront his wife and her lover - the showdown was noisy and terrible. Remarkably, he introduced himself before his departure and showed us how to heat the attic room via a switch on the downstairs boiler. For the next three months, we played a game of cat and mouse with the landlady who would switch off the heating at every possible opportunity.
By this point, I had found paid employment at a marketing consultancy in Amsterdam. Steady income and a letter of intent from my boss enabled me to sign up for a private rental with the Van der Linden agency. There was a lot of paperwork to fill out and a lot of requirements to be met. I later discovered that this is because squatters enjoy a lot of rights in the Netherlands so landlords are wary about taking on tenants who cannot fulfil certain criteria.
Amazingly, we moved from an 18m2 attic space in suburbia into a 100m2 two-bedroom flat. The Amvest property was a 20 minute train ride to Amsterdam Centraal. The rent increase was 48 euros a month. The agency took a one-off fee and no deposit was required.
We were shown around the flat by the outgoing tenant who tried to sell the cheap laminate flooring to us for 400 euros. I declined. He later texted me an offer to leave the flooring for free. I accepted gratefully.
On April 1, 2009, we moved into the new flat that we had waited over a year for. The flooring was gone. For the next two months we walked on newspaper trails over dusty concrete whilst we saved for a carpet.
Despite this, having our own place without feeling like we were being totally ripped off, was amazing. The large bathroom had a powerful shower and a separate, full-length bath. As I settled into the bubble-filled tub on that first night, I understood the meaning of the Dutch word gezelligheid. I was so happy - I felt like I had finally come home.
Three weeks later, on Queen’s Day, I imagined our predecessor, sitting on the pavement, stubbornly trying to flog 3rd hand bits of cheap Ikea laminate. I was so relieved to be settled finally that I even hoped he got a great price for it.