House-hunting in Europe
Finding EUR New Home
By JEANA COLEMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 17, 2013
You finally made it. And, you’re exhausted. Instead of being excited about your first day in Europe, all you can think about is locating a hot shower, a little food and a bed for 15 hours of sleep. Adjusting to the move and time change is going to take you a few days. Adjusting to living in Europe and locating a home may take a little longer. Before you lie down for that nap of champions, take a quick look at these tips to help guide you in your search.
House-hunting in Europe can be overwhelming. Depending on the time of year you arrive, it may seem like either feast or famine. You might have too many homes to choose from and can take your pick. Or, you could find one wonderful home out of 20, and arrive to the showing to have another 10 families also there to see it, and all want it. Think I’m exaggerating? We had that happen to us twice. So, understanding how the process works and planning accordingly will help you find the best place to call home.
In the first two days of your arrival, you are required to attend briefings at the Services In-Processing Center, then the Housing Office. Ask your supervisor or sponsor when and where those briefings take place because you can’t miss them. At that time, you’ll set up Temporary Lodging Allowance (TLA), discuss your housing options and follow up with the Military Family Housing application you supplied at your previous duty station. If you have not completed the application and you want to live on base, you can still do so and be put on the waiting list. Yes, there is quite the waiting list for on-base housing throughout duty stations in Europe.
Be prepared to wait anywhere from a few months to two years or more, depending on where you are stationed. The Housing Office will advise you on what to do when on-base housing becomes available. Until then, if you qualify, you will need to find housing on the economy. Here are some tips to consider.
Tools to Get you Going
When conditions are right, your sponsor should be available to take you to your initial appointments, see prospective homes and other errands. The Housing Office can also help set up appointments with landlords who don’t speak English, and even provide transportation to homes if staff is available.
That’s the key, however – if staff is available. Depending on the time of year you arrive or the work flow of your unit, your sponsor or Housing may not be available to provide the transportation you need. So, be ready to rely on yourself.
- Driver’s License – Did you take the USAREUR (or USAFE 3AF or SETAF) driver’s exam before arriving, and already have your driver’s license? That’s great! Wait! If you didn’t, then you need to immediately call your base Education Center and schedule an appointment to take the driver’s exam. Sometimes it can take a week or more to get the appointment, and you need that license as soon as possible. Visit these sites for practice tests and the manual, www.usareurpracticetest.com or https://aepubs.army.mil/pdfpubs/AEP190-34.htm. All military and dependents must have both a valid USAREUR (or USAFE 3AF or SETAF) driver’s license and U.S. state driver’s license to drive in your host country. For more info on the test and driving tips, the Stripes Road Guide can help.
- Car Rental - Although some businesses off base would rent to you with just a valid U.S. stateside license and international driving permit (IDP), it’s actually illegal due to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and you’ll need to wait till you get the USAREUR (or USAFE 3AF or SETAF) driver’s license. There are several rental agencies both off and on base. See our Renting a Ride article in the Welcome to Europe Guide for more information.
- GPS – The Exchange offers several models offering European map updates and even tailored to U.S. military overseas. You can also check for used ones through online yard sale sites. Most GPS models are uncomplicated and can be lifesavers in both house-hunting and traveling in Europe.
- Internet – You need access ASAP. Your temporary on-base billeting probably provides it, or an on-base cafe or lounge may, too. If you stay at another TLA lodging, be sure to choose one with access. If you brought a laptop, iPad or other tablet device with Wi-Fi, you can access from your room.
Make a Quick List
What are you looking for in a home? Do you want a short commute or to be near public transportation, a nature park or recreation? Need a garage or yard, or a home that accepts pets? Make a list of you and your family’s needs and wants in a home before you start looking. You may not be able to find one to fit all of your wants, but a list helps you quickly evaluate if the house meets your needs or if you need to keep looking.
Resources at your Disposal
The Automated Housing Referral Network (AHRN), www.ahrn.com, sponsored by the Department of Defense, is a valuable tool for your house-hunting.
Once registered, U.S. military, NATO and DoD civilians stationed overseas can search for off-base rentals, temporary lodging and government controlled housing. Searches can be tailored by location, amenities, house size, pets acceptance, rental price, number of rooms and more. Listings may include multiple photos, maps, school zone and contact information. Homes listed through AHRN are inspected by the Housing Office, and landlords waive finder’s fees associated with realtors or home listing services.
You should also check out local newspapers for the military like Stars and Stripes, www.stripes.com, and online yard sale sites, such as www.bookoo.com. They all have listings for apartments or homes for rent. Posts can be by tenants, landlords or agents.
Housing Referral does not recommend the use of “immobilien” or real estate services since Housing Referral services and the AHRN site are provided for you free of charge. However, if you need a larger home with several bedrooms (which can be hard to find in Europe), or arrive outside the PCS season when fewer homes are available, you may want to leave your options open.
Personally, we used the services of a very helpful local real estate agent. After arriving after the PCS season, we first exhausted the short list of available homes through Housing Referral, then started answering ads in a local German/American military paper. We met a friendly German real estate agent who worked for a local MWR office during the day and showed homes to military families to supplement her income. Her 30-year career working with military families helped her be knowledgeable about our needs and the market. She provided legwork to and from the housing office, translation services to the landlord and helped set up our German utilities. Her fee was also considerably less than anyone we’d encountered and we loved the house she found.
We were lucky that we met her through an online ad. However, it’s a good idea to ask around to your sponsor, co-workers and online local military forums if they can recommend the services of a specific realtor or agency.
Be aware that agencies charge finder’s fees that amount to one or more month’s rent. Housing must inspect houses and contracts before OHA is approved; never sign foreign language rental contracts before you have them translated or approved.
When working with either Housing or a real estate agent, request only a list of inspected, approved, available properties that fall in a range equal to or below your overseas housing allowance (OHA). Community-based housing rental prices are established by the rental’s size, location, age and amenities. Your OHA is based on your rank and dependents, and the current housing market/euro value. You may be tempted to look for homes with a higher rent than what your OHA covers. Due to the fluctuation of the euro and the economy, it’s not advisable.
Living on the economy can be expensive, and you may wish you weren’t paying 10 percent to 15 percent above your OHA cap when an unexpected undercharge for gas, water or another bill happens. You may also need prior approval from your supervisor before you sign a lease for rent above your OHA.
Homes in Europe are Different than Back Home
Once you finally get out and start looking, you’ll understand quickly that houses and housing standards in Europe are very different than what you may be accustomed to in the States.
For example, many rental homes are semi-detached, duplex-styled or row houses. They may not have garages, or are detached and have room for only one small car. Most yards are small to nonexistent, and rooms, hallways and stairwells in European homes are also smaller. You’ll want to take a measuring tape to check that your furniture will fit. Also, some homes you encounter may not have bathroom or kitchen cabinets or closets, but those may be borrowed through the Furnishings Management Office (FMO) at your duty station. And, once you find a house and sign a lease, you’ll also receive a move-in housing allowance (MIHA) that will help offset expenses you incur as you get settled.
On the positive, many European homeowners, especially Germans, are continuing to update older homes and build new ones designed to suit the American family.
Pets can be a major issue when looking. Although Europeans love dogs, they don’t always want to rent to Americans who own them. Be sure you inquire about that beforehand, and be prepared to have your list of available homes decrease significantly.
Ask about local Internet and cell service. You might find where only a portion of homes in a village have access to Internet, or the speeds are slower. We discovered that our contracted cell provider did not cover a few villages where we looked at homes. That affected our search, and it may yours, too. Be sure to make note of the providers, the type of service and speed before you decide on a house. See the article Staying Connected for more information.
You should also inquire about the estimated cost of utilities, and the type of heating, whether it’s gas, oil or electric. Gas floor heating is nice but can be somewhat confusing to regulate. The cost of heating oil fluctuates more than the others, can cost a few thousand dollars to fill the tank, and depending on the time of year you buy it, or if it’s purchased with a group, you can save, or spend, the difference of several hundred dollars. You should understand the process beforehand.
Hopefully you’re not completely overwhelmed and stressed. House hunting can be an adventure. Also, understand that you have at least 30 days (and in some cases, 60 days) of TLA, renewed in 10-day increments through Housing. Although Housing Referral won’t extend based on homes that don’t accept pets or are in the wrong school zones, they won’t make you take something that won’t fit the size of your family.
If you just arrived in Germany, watch for and pick up our new PCS guide, Just Landed! it’s on Stripes newstands now. Good luck!
Want more great articles and advice for living in Europe?
Check out the digital version of the Stripes Welcome to Europe Guide online: http://www.stripes.com/special-pubs/welcome-to-europe
Need your own copy of the Stripes Welcome to Europe Guide?
Order yours at the Stripes Store: http://www.stripesstore.com/welcometoeuropeguide.aspx