10 Tips for the Spanish Housing Hunt

Finding Housing in Spain

Piso /ˈpi.so/ n. Language: Spanish. Meaning: Apartment or flat. This word has fully replaced its English counterpart in the expat community in Spain. Frequent Spanglish exchanges between my American friends and me: “Let’s meet at your piso for wine” and “I hate my piso so much but I can’t move out because my queen bed is too amazing.”

Finding housing in Spain is easily the most nerve-wracking part about making the jump overseas. The piso, or apartment, hunt turned me into an insomniac for two weeks in Granada. It made me hyper-obsessive during the summer before I left to teach in Bilbao. And it’s making me shake again this summer, as I plan to move to Barcelona. But dammit, the third time’s a charm. I’m determined to get my living situation right this go-around.

It can be a real tossup whether or not your search is extremely easy or frustrating. Some seem to have all the luck, and find an ideal apartment in a matter of days, with roommates who teach them to surf and bring home tupperwares of mom’s homemade croquetas every weekend. My ride has been a bit rockier, and while no one will say it’s difficult to find a place—you can literally look up a flat online, go to see it, hand over some cash and move in the next day, in many cases—finding one you’re comfortable in can be a painstaking process, even a lottery.

To ease the undertaking, and hopefully eliminate any mid-year moves, here are 10 LESSER-KNOWN tips for finding housing in Spain. I’ve tried to avoid the obvious, like “Choose great roommates!” or “Resident:Bathroom ration less than 6:1!” Everything I’ve mentioned here are things I didn’t give much thought to the first (or second, or third) time around, but man I wish I did. I’ve lived in 4 different pisos in Spain, and I’m continually learning from my experiences (and also learning how much I love stand-alone houses).

10 Tips when Finding Housing in Spain

1. Lower floor = less light.

In one place in Granada I lived on the first floor (which would be the second floor in the U.S.) on a narrow alleyway, and my room got ONE HOUR of direct sunlight a day. Is it possible to get seasonal depression in a city that gets more than 300 days of sunshine a year? Please don’t find this one out. Give more points to apartments on higher floors: they’ll receive more sunlight, since the buildings across won’t block them as much.

2. Narrow street = less light.

Following the same principles as above, the closer you are to the buildings across from you, the less light will enter your place, and the higher your electric bill will be. The cute little alleyways of Europe are where all the charm is—they’re also places of eternal darkness.

3. Kitchen space.

In Granada my first place was entirely renovated with a very chic kitchen, but had ZERO cabinet space, and there were four of us. I moved in last, and the girls weren’t considerate enough to divvy up things evenly. I kept my pasta and chorizo in a pull-out drawer meant for the silverware. Then I moved out six weeks later, because pull-out drawers, lightless rooms, and lifeless roommates aren’t what you want for your year abroad.

Granada Piso 1 Kitchen

4. Central heating.

Spain may have the coldest winters in Europe for the mere fact that not all houses are built with central heating. Of my four apartments, NONE have had it. Space heaters are huge energy hogs, and one month in Granada I had to fork over 100 euros just for electricity. Mark my words: my next place will have warm air spouting from every vent 24 hours a day, so help me God. And the landlord WILL pay for it. If I settle for a place in Barcelona without central heating, please someone come find me, wave a print-out of this post in my face, and tell me point blank that I’m too dumb to be a 3rd-year-expat. (Helpful hint: Central heating is called calefacción central in Spanish.)

5. Covered space to hang-dry clothing.

It is incredibly rare to have a dryer in Spain, which I’m fine with. Hang-drying clothes is eco-friendly! But I recommend that your place has enough space indoors to hang them, or has a COVERED area outside. In my second place in Granada we had so little room that we had to hang our garments on the open rooftop terrace, and the ensuing bird shit negated the usefulness of washing the clothes in the first place. Also, if your piso only allows for clotheslines that hang over the central patio, be prepared to lose a ton of underwear. I’ve never figured out how to access that patio. (Have any of you?)

6. Thick walls.

I really don’t have a suggestion for ways to check this before you move in. If you’re construction-savvy, maybe try tapping? Or perhaps listen intently while you’re first checking the place out, to see if you can hear the neighbors’ conversations word for word. This year my mental health was lingering at a 1.5/10, because my apartment’s wall were made of cardboard and my 90-year-old neighbor screamed out in pain every second of the day and night. Here’s some textbook insight: Older buildings have crappier walls. Period. Your place may look renovated on the inside, but if the outside walls are crumbling, even a good pair of earplugs won’t save you.

7. Elevator.

I lived in a fifth-story walk-up this year, and actually, my thighs and ass thanked me for it. But the noise produced from neighbors walking (or doing sprints, !?!?!) up and down the stairwell all day is absolutely intolerable, even more so because my room was right next to the stairs. If you fall head over heels for a place that lacks an elevator, at least make sure that the staircase is carpeted, or made of material other than cheap wood that amplifies every movement.

8. Windows.

This seems logical, but you never know what money-hungry landlords will come up with to make an extra buck. My second place in Granada had a living room without a window, because they converted one massive living room into a small living room and small bedroom, and the bedroom got the only windows. In addition to being pitch black at night, it also meant no ventilation: my roommate would smoke in the salón and the entire house would be hot-boxed with tobacco. (P.S. Many Spaniards smoke indoors, isn’t that nice?) And while we’re on the topic of windows, make sure they are NEW and INSULATING. My windows this year are so old that my curtains actually blow when they are fully “shut.” Ayyyy qué horror. 

My bedroom in Bilbao. The bed and terrace were superb; the hacking neighbor was not.

My bedroom in Bilbao. The bed and terrace were superb; the hacking neighbor and ancient windows were not.

9. Quiet street.

Well, there’s a revelation! I thought these were “Lesser Known” tips! But really, a big street with lots of cars can actually be QUIETER than a narrow pedestrian-only street. In Granada I lived right next to the Cathedral, so cars weren’t allowed. Instead, I heard a guitarist play the same Flamenco tune for 6 weeks straight to earn tips (beautiful and moving the first 3 times; mentally debilitating the last 3,000); vendors selling pottery to every passing tourist; and hours-long religious drumming processions at least once a week. I was craving honks and sputtering engines by the end.

10. Close to the necessities.

You probably won’t have a car, so think about logistics in terms of grocery shopping, bus lines, and going out. Living in the tourist heart of Granada was cool at first, until I realized that even taxis couldn’t reach the very center, and lugging my 50-pound-suitcase across several city blocks of cobblestones dampened my enthusiasm just a smidge. In Bilbao, I was a tiny bit removed from the very center, but I have everything I needed—buses, metro, tram, four grocery stores, hair dressers, dollar-stores, cafés, shoe repairs—in a three-minute walking radius.

Final Tips

And, of course, try to find all this in an apartment that is modern, recently renovated, has a big and comfy bed, well located in a lively neighborhood, reasonably priced, with friendly non-smoking roommates, complete with a live-in masseuse and dander-free kitten that never gets bigger. That’s my plan for next year, anyway!

In some cases you’ll be asked to sign a contract, and in most cases, put down a security deposit. (I lucked out this year and didn’t have to do either, ¡toma!) But here’s something to remember, that will hopefully put you at ease: It is MUCH easier to get out of a lease in Spain than in the U.S. Moving is practically painless. If you find someone to replace you, you may even get your security deposit back. Don’t be afraid to move out of a place you hate. (I did TWICE in Granada, hangs head in shame.) At the end of the day, your happiness during your year abroad takes precedence over upsetting your roommates, losing a security deposit, or devil glares from your landlord.

To get an idea of what’s out there, start looking online, although don’t commit to a place before you see it in person. (Even though I’m a hypocrite on that account.) Unless you’re looking to rent out an entire apartment, you should search for a piso compartido (shared flat) or habitación (room). Good sites for finding housing in Spain  include: Idealista.com (this site’s my favorite—great because it has lots of filters and photos); Loquo.com (Spanish version of Craigslist; good listings, but not good sorting ability); fotocasa.es; Alkila.net (for Basque Country); easypiso.com, and Pisocompartido.com.

¡Buena suerte! And let me know in the comments what else you’d look out for in the piso hunt!

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  • Rosie Tame

    Hi Jenny! Thank you for your article, it was extremely useful and was a light hearted yet realistic impression of what it will be like moving abroad. I’m moving to Bilbao on the 10th September and still searching online for somewhere to live. I don’t suppose you have any recommendations as to where to live in Bilbao? I’ve looked at the place via google maps but without knowing Bilbao I don’t really know where to start or where may be best. Would really appreciate any recommendations you may have! Otherwise thank you for the uplifting and helpful piece :)

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  • I really liked this post, very different from the typical how-to-find-a-piso post, because you talked about very VERY important things to keep in mind that could make or break your year.

    the lack of central heating continues to be the bane of my existence…I still can’t fathom how it is NOT standard in this country. I snuggled up under the covers basically the whole winter my first year, and then I broke down and bought a small space heater last year which helped a lot…but I sure paid for it with the power bill.

    And the hang-drying point is very pertinent to the apartment hunt especially if you live on the northern coast where everything is super humid all the time. My clothes would probably never have dried in Galicia had we not had a dehumidifier running 24/7 in the living room.

    • Thanks, Trevor, I hope I gave some insight into things that aren’t always at the forefront of the thought process when piso hunting. So true about the humidity—I’d have to plan a good three days in advance if I needed any clean clothes. (It’s weird being back in the States, where I can do my laundry just hours before a weekend trip).

  • Francesca

    Great tips but, uh, what do I do with my kids? ;-)

    I’m kidding, of course. Awesome job pointing out some of the little things that, when overlooked, can become huge problems. Just make sure your piso nuevo has some extra space for me, mmmmmkaythnx.

    • HA!! Ditch those kiddos and let’s go on a whirlwind tour of Europe!

      Just kidding, bring them along. I’ll make sure the piso I find in Barcelona has an extra playroom just for them.

  • Jessica

    Ha I currently have that window situation, where my curtains mysteriously move even though the window/door is allegedly shut. I don’t have heating either, so I basically just don’t get out of bed all winter.

    • I feel like it will be even harder to find places with central heating in Barcelona, since the piso builders just assume it’s perfect and sunny year-round….time to stock up on thick socks and gloves yet again.

  • Mike

    This is a great post, especially since I’ll be looking for an apartment in Logroño in 2 short months! It’s something that’s very exciting, but is very nerve-racking as well since it will be different than finding an apartment in the US on Craigslist, a skill I’ve nearly mastered – fortunately or unfortunately. I cannot wait to be in Spain! Thanks again, Jenny! You’re posts are always so helpful!

    • Thanks so much, Mike! I really think you’ll find it easier than Craigslist, even. (Though my Craigslist is skewed from being in San Francisco, where about 3,000 people respond to every housing post.)

  • Mindi @ 2foodtrippers

    I once lived in an apartment near a hospital. Flamenco guitar music seems preferable to ambulance sirens!

  • Even though I won’t be moving to Spain any time soon, I learned a new word that I thought meant floor all of this time! Yay for new words. I will now call my apartment my in NYC my ‘piso’. :D

    • Hahaha, yesss! It means both floor and apartment, depending on context. And hey, never rule out moving to Spain, now that you know all the tips ;)

  • Elizabeth

    Hi Jenny! I read through this and found it very helpful but I’m just wondering, any tips regarding the easiest way to find an apartment (like which website worked the best for you)? I’ll be moving to Vigo early September so I think I’ll have a good amount of time to look for something! Thanks!

    • Hey Elizabeth! Glad you found it helpful. In Granada I primarily used Loquo, which is good for smaller places that don’t have a huge amount of listings. I find Loquo overwhelming for huge places like Barcelona because it doesn’t have good sorting options. In Bilbao I exclusively used Alkila.net, but that’s just for Basque Country. For Vigo I would check out Loquo and Idealista first :)

    • Jessica

      My advice would be to start with Idealista because it’s so user-friendly. Then once you’ve got a good idea for prices and stuff, add in Loquo too. But starting with Loquo is a little overwhelming!

      • Completely agree! Idealista is a great launching point. Loquo may have the cheapest options around, though, because if a piso is a great deal, the owners think it will just sell itself, so why take the time to fill out all the info and fancy pictures that Idealista requires….

  • …Thanks for all the excellent tips–I’m definitely gonna need them come September (oy)!!…

    • No problem, Betty! I just hope people can learn some things from my past mistakes, haha. What city will you be in?

      • …That’s the thing: I don’t know yet!!…A lot of my fellow Aragón people are speculating that we’ll get our cartas next week, and I certainly hope that is the case–I REALLY want to be in Zaragoza!!…

  • Pedro1312

    i love that you write serious, but at the same time with an excellent humour :-)

    number 3 has made me smile for a while thinking of your chorizo in a pull-out drawer, such a thing is supposed to be the place for forks, etc

    number 5: usually you access to a patio through a neighbour who lives on the ground floor as it happens at my mother’s block of flats….it is very common that your neighbour calls you with a loud voice to tell you that something has fallen, say, a sock or even worse, your own knickers, jaja!

    number 6…well, to be honest walls in Spain are stronger and thicker than walls in the USA because ours are made of bricks, cement and a layer of plaster followed by paint, whereas in the USA they are made of wooden frames and prebabricated plaster followed by paint or decorative paper, HOWEVER, here there is much noise because we haven’t got insulation (unless you ask for it), whereas in the USA insulation is a must between the wooden frames…shame on us Spaniards!

    last but not least, flat is a piso, i would not call it an apartment, for there is a fine line between a piso and an apartamento even if two of them may be the same thing if you mean the way they are built.

    great blog post Jenny!

    • Thanks so much, Pedro! I wish I had your response before I lost so many pieces of clothing to my downstairs neighbors, haha. And very interesting about the walls—though I think you’re right, it’s all about the insulation, which my piso in Bilbao was DEFINITELY lacking.
      Oh, and I used apartment because that’s how we Americans say it—we tend not to use “flat,” and just use the word apartment to mean both apartamento and piso. (Even though they’re two different things in Spanish!)
      Thanks for commenting :)

      • Pedro1312

        you should have asked your neighbour to give your clothing back to you as soon as they fell down to the patio…i wonder myself why they would keep your socks or intimate clothing for example unless they were fetishist.

        a piso and an apartamento may be really the same thing….the fine line between them that i have mentioned above has to do mainly with the use of them, i mean, a piso is the word that people use to describe the flat they live in, whereas apartamento is mostly used to describe the flat where holiday makers may spend their holidays, above all along the coastline.

        that is why people usually say “vivo en un piso en el centro de Bilbao” (i live in a flat in the centre of Bilbao), and “tengo un apartamento en la playa en Benidorm” (i’ve got a flat/apartment along the beach in Benidorm).

        my mother’s block of flats is a good example: i say she lives in a piso because that is the place we have always lived in, HOWEVER, if i were a holiday maker from Madrid and i rented a same flat inside the same block, i would call it an apartamento.

  • Anne

    Having piso FOMO. So coming to visit you ASAP in BCN. I’ll be sure to reference these tips if I’m ever lucky enough to be looking for a place to live in Spain again :)

    • You’re invited on my warm, heated, soundproof, covered-terrace, king-bed equipped, huge apartment any time, once I score it ;)

  • Cassandra

    Central heating is a must, especially the further north you get! During my study abroad in Leon, my (newly revamped and awesome in every other way) apartment heated our house with bombonas de gas. NEVER AGAIN!! (For some reason we were never able to get the gas company to actually deliver the bombonas–instead, we had to roll a shopping cart through the town to a lone gas station and get them to fill it up there.)

    But even buildings sans bombonas have proved to be a bane for me, as I’ve also moved after cold weather set in. Mid-December last year I moved to an apartment with central heating which has been awesome. I even have to warn people before they come over so they can dress in layers. Ah, what a lovely, lovely change.

    • OMG you had to lug your own bombonas! Que horror!!! Seriously though, I always say “never again” and then somehow wind up in ANOTHER PISO sin calefaccion central.
      Some friends complain that their pisos get too hot with central heating. WHAT I WOULD GIVE. What saved me this year was buying a small electric blanket that I would sleep on….worked wonders, but still, a bit of a sad existence.

    • Rebecca

      Hi Cassandra! I am moving to Leon in October to begin as an auxiliar de conversación de lengua inglesa, and I know very little about the city, but am researching as much as I can. If you have any tips about where to live or any other advice about the city, I’d greatly appreciate hearing them! The schools I was placed in are both on AVENIDA DEL ROMERAL, but one looks like it is in SAN ANDRES DEL RABANEDO and the other in VILLABALTER. Do you have any tips about these areas? Thank you in advance!

      • Cassandra

        Hi Rebecca, thanks for getting in touch. I’m not sure where to point you as I lived on the other side of the Bernesga (and had my school there, as well). Since your schools are to the west of the river, keep in mind that most of the social life and historical heart (and some government offices!) will be to the east of the river. Living on the west side of the river also has some advantages; you’re closer to the train and bus stations, there are malls and more modern stores and apartments, etc.

        I lived in Barrio San Mames, which I loved because I had the historical center with the cathedral on one side (and the Barrio Humedo!), as well as the university on the other side. So, I think the decision would depend on which area of the city you like more. I’d recommend checking out apartments on both sides of the river when you arrive. That way, you can get a feel for the areas of the city as well as gauge how important it is for you to be close to your school versus close to the historical center.

        If you go here: https://geecassandra.com/?s=leon you can see all of my posts about Leon to learn a bit more about your new city. Suerte!