Unreal Estate

You know, nobody ever believes me when I remark on just how much Romania has changed in the short period of time I’ve been here. And yet it’s true. Things have changed a lot. A case in point is apartment (UK: flat) hunting. I am currently in the process of finding a new place to live. Yesterday I went to go look at a few places and I was shocked at just how much things have really changed.

Back in 2004, when I first moved here, I suppose there were real estate agencies (Rom: agentii imobiliare) but most of the transactions were done either via people you knew (this is a story for another time but I once spoke Spanish to a Romanian whom I met in Budapest, Hungary for the purpose of renting an apartment in Cluj LOL) or from advertisements in the local paper. Secondly, finding anything even close to modern was quite hard work. I lived in a couple of very, very authentic Romanian apartments with the lacy doilies all over the furniture to the glass cabinets of knickknacks to the icons all over the wall to the goldfish on top of the television.

My requirements in those days were for the apartment to be cablat, which wasn’t so much about television as it was about having internet access – a fairly rare thing. I remember having to pass over some otherwise quite good places just because it wasn’t cabled for internet. I also remember going down to Astral (now UPC I believe) and swearing a blood oath I would return their precious modem that I was renting for the lovely price of 50 fucking bucks a month.

Later, I started going through agencies, which had good apartments to list but they “earn” a 50% commission from the first month’s rent so they act like CIA agents in terms of how secretive they are. They also (still) make you sign a huge legal contract that if you rent an apartment that they list, you are obligated to pay that commission. Meanwhile until you’re actually standing in the building, they won’t ever tell you exactly where it is, only that it’s in some “zone” or another. And their definition of what’s in which “zone” is extremely loose. Apparently downtown (Rom: centru) is about 20 square kilometers in size.

My main problem in the past few years, strangely enough, was racism. Not one Romanian ever believes me even though I went through the process and not them. A lot of property owners are extremely hesitant to rent to a foreigner even if he is “white” and American and has the cash up front. I literally got shown at least two properties that I liked, the price was good and we were all set to sign but then the owner balked at the last minute purely because I was foreign. The thinking is that if somehow I run up enormous utility bills or trash the place in a fit of drunken rage that I can run away to parts unknown and the owner has no way to force me to pay. Frankly I seriously considered making a fake Romanian ID just to escape all this bullshit.

The way I got around this was to go apartment hunting with a Romanian woman. They could speak perfect Romanian, kind of assure everyone involved that I was “on the level” and that everything would be okay. I once took a girl I barely knew (and who I’ve lost contact with long, long ago) and it worked like a charm as the property owners sat down and fed us tea and cookies and my friend translated the difficult bits. Because she was there, I didn’t even have to sign a contract with the owner!

And there was always a hassle over the services. Since the internet was rarely operational already, we’d have to go down to the provider and sign a ton of paperwork. Sometimes I’d have to sign separate rental contracts with the owner (as opposed to the listing agent). Sometimes I’d have to put the utilities in someone else’s name. And if you’ve read my book Balada Supravietuitorului you know there were other hassles, especially concerning disagreements on just how well (or not well) I was cleaning the apartment.

I’ve been rooked, crooked and outright conned out of rent money, maintenance fees, bizarre Communist-era paperwork crap, not to mention quarrels with neighbors, an endless assortment of “presidents” of the building and hostile stairwell maintenance cleaning people. The lady who cleans the building where I live now scowls at me on a daily basis and wouldn’t spit on me if I were on fire. And let’s not forget creepy unlit stairwells with lights on 5-second timers and shaky 19th-century elevators (UK: lifts) that scare off all but the laziest visitors.

On top of all of that, going and seeing the apartments was tiresome as well. A lot of times we’d have to walk all over the place or take buses while the agent did her best to harangue the owner to come meet us. Sometimes we’d take taxis to our destinations, which of course me I had to pay for. Heck, I remember one time an agent telling me how proud she was to be in the PRM and how I should join too (I know, I know, wtf?) and then I began countering with, “Yeah, kill all the Jews!” until she calmed down with that crap.

Frankly, it’s been a chore and I’ve put off moving to a new place partly because of that. I’ve also crafted this elaborate strategy of bringing Romanian women with me and me playing the role of the American “business” guy and preparing a long list of things I absolutely must have in advance so I don’t waste my time going to see some grandma apartment full of photographs of long-dead family members on the wall.

And then yesterday I realized things have truly changed. For one thing, assuming you’re not looking for a rock-bottom cheap student apartment, all of the places come with everything. I saw apartments with bathrooms that were better equipped and more beautiful than bathrooms in 5-star hotels. I saw air conditioners (I know!) and dishwashers and clothes dryers and alarms and all kinds of incredibly modern gizmos, gadgets and accouterments. And internet is not even a question anymore, of course it has it and of course it’s running right now, fool! And there’s your own water heater right under your control. No more antique building-wide boiler in the basement. What kind of rubes do you take us for?

Sheesh. So I walk in there with my plan all ready to go and the damn real estate agent recognizes* me from the ProTV segment so I can’t even pretend I’m this foreign business guy. And the real estate agent has her own car and we go look at million dollar (looking) apartments and aside from the fact that I’ve got a sizable chunk of cash in my bag, I’m essentially the clueless peasant in the equation. These apartments are far more modern than anything I’ve ever seen in the United States except for actual mansions and the city is apparently stuffed full of them because I saw some with my own eyes and a lot more on the agent’s (super modern of course) laptop. Heck, I saw a faucet in one apartment that had this glass plate and a kind of “waterfall” effect to it that was so complicated that I felt like an illiterate clodhopper just trying to figure how to even turn it on LOL

I’ve got a few other places to look at but hopefully I’ll sign on one of them soon, with pictures to follow, I’m sure. But I still have to shake my head woefully at anyone who says either A) Romania is some kind of backwards nation or B) that nothing in this country ever changes. Good gracious!

* – Apparently there’s some kind of third level of celebrity hell because the agent said she recognized me from the ProTV segment but when I asked her what she thought of it, she just said, “Oh I only saw a minute of it where you were talking in Piata Unirii”. She didn’t remember my name or remember anything else about it. So when I asked her how she recognized me from 1 minute of video from two weeks ago and I’m speaking Romanian in that and English in front of her (due to my “master plan”) she had no explanation. So now my anonymity is “blown” but nobody still knows who I am LOL

I tell you sometimes my life is so surreal even I can’t believe I’m living it.

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