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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!