We wanted an apartment by the beginning of September, so we started looking in June. That was far too early, because many apartments don't go on the market until they are ready to be occupied. In fact, some apartment-searching websites have a tickbox that asks whether you plan to take possession in less than 7 days or more than 7 days. We contacted a number of landlords nonetheless, with specifics about the location (it had to be within walking distance of the public school we had chosen for Maeve and Silas), size (we wanted enough space to host guests), and dates (4 months).
Quite a few of the landlords were uninterested in renting for less than one year, and quite a few never responded at all. But some did, and three rental agencies were very positive, pointing out their large stock of rentals that fit our needs, explicitly saying that a short-term rental is no problem, and telling us to contact them once we were on the ground in Madrid. One individual landlord did the same. (Renting sight unseen doesn't seem to happen.)
After we arrived in Madrid, we contacted the three rental agencies. Every agency told us that they couldn't help us because a rental contract of less than a year is impossible. We visited the apartment that was being rented by the individual who, upon hearing we were looking for a short-term rental, said that would be impossible -- even though our contact email had been quite explicit.
So we switched gears.
- We stopped in rental agencies that we walked past on the street, saying we wanted a 6-month rental. Although most said they could not help us, one of them did show us a large (1400+ square feet), pricey (as much as the rent for our furnished home in Seattle that is double that size and has a yard), unfurnished apartment in a perfect location, immediately across the street from the school. We started scheming about just how little IKEA furniture we could get away with purchasing.
- We were staying in a tiny apartment that we had rented for a week via AirBnB. The landlord offered to extend it through the end of the year, but it was too cramped and was also a bit further from the school than we preferred.
- We went further afield from the main websites that everyone uses and recommends; Cat spent many hours poring over listings on obscure websites. We found an apartment that sounded fantastic, but someone else contacted the landlord just before we did and rented it for the first month. We thought about piecing together two rentals, but we were not eager to move, which would stress us more and prevent us from feeling settled. We found three places that were a 30-40 minute metro ride from school, but we had heard negative things about that lifestyle (less opportunity to interact with other families from the school, less sleep) from other expats who had tried it.
- Many people had recommended AirBnB, but there was not much stock in the residential area where we wanted to live. More seriously, most of the listings were already rented for at least a few days or weeks during the rest of the year -- we couldn't find one that wouldn't force us to move. In retrospect, arranging an AirBnB rental well in advance would have been the best approach.
- By this time, we were feeling extraordinarily stressed and were scoping out bridges that looked promising to sleep under. But then things started to look up. The first place we had seen (from the individual landlord) said they would consider a 6-month rental. (We knew the landlord had shown it to some other people whom they preferred, but it must not have worked out.) It had a weird layout but would have been acceptable. The agency that showed us the empty apartment had pointed out that even if you sign a 1-year contract, a recent law guarantees that you get your deposit back if you give 1 month of notice and have been in the apartment for 6 months. So we were searching for a 6-month rental with the expectation of losing the last month of rent. We continued to be upfront about our plans rather than saying we wanted a 1-year rental, because that was the honest thing to do.
- Best of all, one of the original three rental agencies called us with a possibility. They showed us a furnished apartment of 1250 square feet that was located a 10-minute walk from the school, and we took it on the spot.
The bank wouldn't give me the money -- you have to give notification a day in advance if you want to withdraw more than $800. But the bank closes at 2:00 and we had made our decision at 2:30 the previous day. I said I needed it for an apartment and looked grim. The bank said they would call my branch to get permission to use part of my branch's daily cash allowance. This didn't really make sense to me since the bills were going to have to come out of their own safe. But I settled down to wait because I had been warned this would happen. My branch didn't answer their phone nor respond to a fax. I had opened my account at a building with a single a room about 12 feet square, and one employee, on the university campus; maybe that was all my branch consisted of? My branch wouldn't take money from me when I opened the account, either, which I guess makes sense since students don't have any money anyway. I had wired money from my US account as soon as the account was open.
After 45 minutes of waiting (and answering questions about why there were both German and Spanish residence visas in my passport), the bank relented and just gave me the money. I was a bit nervous carrying it all and walked to the rental agency's bank where I had to deposit it. I took a shortcut over the railroad tracks where there was a lot of graffiti and no one to be seen other than a pair of shady-looking immigrants who accosted me. But nothing came of it, I got the money deposited, and later in the day we spent almost an hour trying to decipher the Spanish legalese on our lease before taking possession of the apartment.
We had chosen a neighborhood with good transit connections to the university on whose campus I will work. Together with our desire for a furnished apartment, that meant that we were really in the market for a student apartment. I don't know whether this complicated our search or made it easier. I do know that our search would have been much easier if we had relaxed our location requirements, but the kids were already accepted into the school. In the end, we signed a lease within about a week (an extraordinarily stressful week, but a week nonetheless).
Our apartment had a few quirks when we moved in, such as shattered glass in the living room, a generous icing of grease on every surface in the kitchen (Really, on the bottom of the shelves of a lower-level cabinet with closed doors? How did the previous renters even manage that?), bedroom shutters that were stuck shut, very slow drainage in the bathroom, and so forth. The previous renters had also left most of the light sockets empty -- 15 light bulbs were missing. (Are light bulbs a popular item for theft?) But we resolved most of these issues with a week of elbow grease (we washed every surface in the apartment and every item in the kitchen), harassment of the management company, and purchases. I had expected us to say, "It may be a dump, but it's our dump," but it doesn't feel like a dump at all, we enjoy living there, and we are looking forward to visits from our families and friends.