Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Finding a place to live

One reason we bought our tickets to Prague back in September was that I knew there'd be many times along the way that I'd want to say, "Never mind. This is too hard." And I was right! But because we spent that money, I'm pretty motivated to overcome all the obstacles. Finding an affordable place for eight people to live in a big and popular city has been one of those obstacles.

First, an aside: I have no idea how anyone would do this without the internet! Huge phone bills, I guess?

Way back when we began scheming, I found some great-looking furnished places for rent in Prague that were very reasonable, well under the budget we'd decided on. It turns out that those places were for long-term rent, of course, and the possibilities for shorter term rental are much more expensive. Jon and I agree that it might be a good thing that we allowed ourselves to be misled in that area. There's a very fine line between going and not going (as I've mentioned before and will certainly mention again and again), and if we had seen the real prices back then, we would have been very discouraged.

There are a lot of great places you can rent in and around Prague. For example, there's a beautiful apartment right on the Old Town Square (where you find the Astronomical Clock, the Jan Hus statue, and Týn Church) that sleeps 12 people, but it's €3,000 a month (nearly $4000), even in the low season. There's also a great hostel near the square that has small apartments. Our family could get two of them (each sleeps four) for about $3000 a month. These places are a great deal compared to hotels, but for longer-term rental, not an option for us.

There are many real estate companies with an internet presence, but most of their offerings are for short-term (nightly rates) and long-term (monthly rates based on year-long leases). One company cheerfully called Happy House Rentals has a section on their website for mid-term rentals (one to six month rentals), which is just right for us, but still, the prices were mostly too high and they don't seem willing to consider putting eight people in a house that is intended to sleep, for example, six. I'd be just fine cycling the kids between bed/couch/floor, but I didn't find anyone willing to let us do that. Jon and I briefly entertained the idea of getting two apartments in the same building -- it'd be a clever way to get two bathrooms (most apartments seem to have one bathroom) and Jon would have a more secluded place to work during the day. But in my exchanges with the agent at Happy House Rentals, she ended up finding only one suitable place available for our time period. It was at the very top of our budget limit (due in large part to a hefty broker fee) and was otherwise not ideal: 80 square meters (about 860 square feet), no washing machine, one bathroom, and the kitchen was a two-burner stove, a microwave and a tiny fridge (no oven). It did have a largish terrace, ten beds and looked very nice, though. I think we could have made it work.

Around the same time, I got a response from another real estate agent, who offered a choice between a couple of different apartments just off Wenceslas Square (a busy, central part of Prague). The prices were reasonable and they looked like student apartments -- not fancy at all, which did not bother me -- but almost immediately I found some scary reviews of some apartments on that same street (broken things! landlords steal money from longer-term renters and come in at all hours unannounced!). I had no proof that the offered apartments were the same ones reviewed, but it made me nervous.

Then, within a couple of days of that, we had a run-in with, apparently, a Nigerian scammer. He claimed to be a Czech citizen named Ashleigh Jones (sounds Czech, right?) who'd had to move suddenly, with his wife and children, to the U.K. to be a missionary. All he wanted was a God-fearing person who would take care of their ideal-sounding, inexpensive apartment while they were gone! While I was exchanging emails with "Ashleigh," I started to get phone calls from a Nigerian cell phone number (I never answered the calls). And the internet proved extremely useful yet again. It told us first that the foreign number was indeed Nigerian (and later that it was a cell phone number) and eventually it led us to some blog posts about other apartment-hunting people who'd had eerily similar emails. Different names and places, but most of the wording in the emails was very similar. Some of these people showed up at the place to be rented and encountered owners who had no idea that their home was being offered for rent on the internet. So that was a fun learning experience! And Jon and I now speak fondly of our friend, the Nigerian Prince. (Fortunately, there was no loss of money, just some time. It was all very entertaining and a complement to the many emails from Nigerian princes and honored and esteemed ladies who need to transfer a large sum of money to you right away, etc., etc.)

Well, we put things on hold for a few weeks. We met, via email, the leader of the local LDS congregation (in LDS talk, a branch), who also happens to be a real estate agent, and he told us we still had some time and could probably find something better for less money. I allowed (sometimes forced) myself to stop thinking about it while we got through Christmas. (I could write several blog posts about the anxiety that I experience around Christmas time, but I will spare you.) It was a much needed mental rest.

On Christmas day, I found a place on HomeAway.com (the parent company of vrbo.com, where our house is now listed) that looked promising to me, for some reason. (Both of these websites are for owners who rent out their own properties.) I wrote email to the owner and asked him about a possible monthly rate that would be significantly lower than his listed daily rates. Over the next couple of weeks, we exchanged lots of emails. Eventually, as we got closer to reserving the apartments (there are two! -- more details later), Jon called him on the phone. He refrained from asking him if he was a Nigerian Prince (by this time, I was 98% sure that this was a legitimate offer -- there are several very positive reviews on the website and he'd answered every question I asked him with nary a sign of fiction -- but it's hard to forget your first real run-in with a Nigerian Prince!), but it was good for them to talk and get more details over the phone. Long story short (I know, it's too late for that), we have the place reserved for two months beginning in February, and I'm relieved and glad.

The owner, Michal, and his wife and two children (close to the ages of Mira and Seth!) live on the ground floor. Michal and his wife are both multilingual, between them speaking Czech, English, German, Spanish, Italian, French, Slovak, and Russian! We will have the second floor apartment (2 bedrooms, beds for six, full kitchen, one bathroom) and a smaller apartment on the third floor (1 bedroom, beds for three, one bathroom, kitchenette). Between the two apartments we'll have 125 square meters (about 1345 square feet), and Jon will be able to work from the smaller apartment while the kids do school work in the bigger one.

The view from the larger apartment is of the nearby Břevnov Monastery, a Benedictine monastery founded in 993 AD. The monastery has its own website, but it's in Czech, German, French, and Latin and not in English. This is where I discovered that St. Margaret's Basilica, the cathedral at the monastery, has a new pipe organ in it, completed in 2007. It's a mechanical action pipe organ built like a German Baroque organ from Silesia (which is now in Poland). I'm very excited to hear it!

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