One of the most valuable pieces of advice I could give to a new teacher in Thailand is always find a job before you look for an apartment. The last thing you want is to get settled into new digs and then find your dream job leaves you with a two-hour daily commute through some of the heaviest traffic known to man. I'll cover this point and many others in the following guide.
1) What are you looking for in an apartment?
Obviously your choice of apartment will depend on the amount of money you have at your disposal, but in the long run, it pays to spend as much as you can afford on accommodation - especially in Bangkok. Not only will you get something better, but you're far less likely to wander the streets in search of entertainment if you have your own apartment where you can relax and enjoy a few creature comforts. For me, an apartment is my little haven - a place where I can be surrounded by books and music, perhaps watch a little TV or a video, or maybe spend time at the computer. An apartment should have a sizeable balcony where I can sit out and hopefully enjoy some kind of a view or rustle up bacon and eggs on Sunday mornings. Most importantly, I want to know that when I close that apartment door I have total privacy - away from the crowds and the noise and the hustle and bustle of Bangkok life. I've known many teachers who view an apartment as purely a crash-pad - a place to sleep, shower and get changed. Everyone has their own opinion of what a 'perfect' apartment is.
Before you continue - have a look at how teacher Steve Salyer set about turning his basic apartment into a real home.
2) Location, location and location
One of my good friends has a saying - "anything over an hour spent traveling to and from work is unacceptable". While cutting travel-time from home to work to less than an hour is not always possible, your life will be infinitely more pleasurable the less time you spend hanging from the sides of buses or trying to flag down taxis during the monsoon season. It makes great sense to find employment first and THEN find somewhere to live. Being close to either the sktrain or underground network can make the commute to work a lot easier, but as you would expect, rents are generally higher.
Many teachers have moved into the Bangkok surburbs to places such as Rangsit and Samut Prakarn. The downside is that you could be a long way from the bright lights and the entertainment hot spots - but on the plus side, there can be a stack of work in the suburbs for any teacher with an ounce of business acumen. Think of all those private students you could be teaching in your free time. And apartment-wise you get far more for your money. I know several teachers who ply their trade in the Rangsit area of Bangkok (about 20 kms from downtown) and they all earn decent coin from their freelance teaching.
3) What are the price ranges?
You can get apartments in Bangkok for as low as 2,000 - 3,000 baht a month. I certainly don't recommend you live in such a place but it's possible. Like everything else in life you get what you pay for. Cheap apartments (and by 'cheap' I mean less than 4,000 baht) are mostly in poorly constructed buildings complete with substandard plumbing and lights that go out every time there's the threat of a storm. Because apartments in this low-end category tend to attract working-class Thais - sometimes sharing three or four to a room - you can have all sorts of problems with noise. Take it from me - when you have a room full of rowdy Thais living next door to you, your problems are going to be never-ending.
Many apartments fall into the 5,000 baht to 8,000 baht price range - some are surprisingly good; others can be very poor value for money. Alas, for a teacher earning let's say 25,000 baht a month (and plenty still do) this is really all they can afford. If you're going to end up in an apartment in this price range, you'll need to do some serious shopping around. The quality varies enormously. Some will have swimming pools, rooftop gardens, good security, elevators, mini-marts while others will have few of those amenities.
If you can afford to move into the 10,000 -15,000 baht bracket, you'll be amazed at the difference. You might be lucky enough to find a place that has a living room area with a separate bedroom. All of the aforementioned apartments (those at 8,000 and below) are what real estate agents class as 'studio apartments' and what I call 'bedsits' - you sleep in your bed, you sit on your bed to watch TV, you even eat meals on your bed. That's really no way to live. Imagine the joy, the sheer pleasure, of saying to a guest, "why don't you flick through the TV channels while I go and get changed in the bedroom?" Now that's living!
4) Can I use the services of a real estate agent?
I've never used a real estate agent personally and I don't know many teachers that do. Generally speaking, the majority of estate agents are only interested in ex-pats on fat relocation salaries. They aren't interested in teachers looking for the world for less than 10,000 baht. There are one or two realtors who'll show sympathy towards a teacher in need of a roof over their head, but don't expect them to put too much effort into finding you a place. They might dutifully show you a couple of apartments, but as soon as they realize you fall into the category of 'cheap but demanding' they'll be off faster than a ferret on a firework.
If you're looking for an apartment then a good source is your fellow teachers and colleagues. These guys will have already lived in good and bad apartments and will be in a good position to make recommendations. I might take a bit of flak for this but I never trust Thais who want to show me 'great apartments'. I've found from painful experience that their definition of 'nice' and my definition of 'nice' are not always the same. They mean well but Thais (generally) don't attach as much importance to their home environment as a foreigner does.
Still one of the best methods however to finding an apartment is simply decide on the area you want to live in, strap on your sports shoes, and hot-foot it down all those little sois and sub-sois. It's amazing what you can unearth. You might want to take a Thai friend with you (if you haven't got one then hire one) to ask the numerous questions you'll need to ask (coming up later in this ajarn guide)
5) Utility bills
Unfortunately there's no way to avoid paying the dreaded electricity, water and telephone bills. If there's any bill that's going to get 'padded', or any way that you're going to get 'cheated' (apart from deposit money) then it's with the utility bill. A friend of mine lucked out and got an excellent job that came with a 60,000 baht luxury apartment. The company would pay the rent on the understanding that he was responsible for just the utility bills. After his first month's tenure, he presented himself at the office to settle up the utility account. The office staff asked him for 1000 baht to cover the water bill alone - a 'standing charge' they told him. Being something of an old Bangkok hand - he'd already lived in four different apartments and never paid more than 150 baht for water - he refused to pay it. He also told them that he was checking out immediately. Thankfully the apartment owner relented and from then on he got his water for free. I'm not promising that things will always end that favorably but stand your ground when it comes to utility bills. Make sure that you have access to the respective water and electricity meters and make a note of the totals each month - that's not being miserly; it's called being careful.
Water and electricity are charged by the unit (the number of units used and the price per unit should be clearly displayed on your apartment bill) and phone calls are charged per call. I'm a little out of touch with current prices, but I'm making a guess that water is around 15 baht per unit. The average person (two showers a day and some washing of clothes) would use about 7-10 units per month. Electricity is much more of a grey area. If you blast out air-conditioning all day long, you could be facing a bill of about 3-4,000 at the end of the month. Apart from the air-con, very little else uses much in the way of juice. If you have the air-con unit on for about 4 hours a day, you can expect a bill somewhere in the region of 1,000 to 1,500 baht a month. There's no avoiding the fact though; utility services are huge money-makers for apartment owners.
Five baht a call seems to be the going rate for telephone calls (and has been for some time). Some apartments disconnect the call after a period of time, say 15 minutes and you have to redial (a practice I hate), some apartments even charge you if you pick up the receiver and the receiver is busy (a practice I won't and don't accept) These matters all need to be taken up with the apartment staff before you check-in. Don't even entertain the idea of calling abroad from an apartment phone. There are so many cheaper alternatives these days.
Being a non-swimmer and hardly God's gift to keep-fit, the availability of swimming pools, gyms and saunas never really bothers me (they're often neglected anyway) but I do like to have an accessible mini-mart (that's open when I need it), a laundry shop (that doesn't take forever to iron two shirts and a pair of pants) and some kind of a restaurant/cafe area. Some apartments provide a small restaurant service for residents and non-residents alike but I've noticed over the years that only foreigners tend to sit down and eat in such places (possibly to escape the confines of the bed-sit) whereas Thais prefer to have food delivered to their rooms. I'm yet to see anyone make a real success of running an apartment-building restaurant and many close down after a year or two.
Apartment laundries are a law unto themselves. Anyone who's lived in a Thailand apartment building has their own laundry horror story, whether it's a white shirt that suddenly became pink or a pair of shorts that were handed in and never seen again. Apartment laundries have a captive market and don't they know it. They know you're hardly going to walk to some laundry in the next street and carry back ten shirts on ten coat-hangers. So they can take as much time as they want washing your clothes and hell, who's bothered if they lose an item or two along the way. I don't want to give the impression that all apartment laundries are crap but the negative experiences do seem to far outnumber the positive ones.
Security / Security Guards
Security is obviously a major concern for anyone living in an apartment building. Thailand is one of the safest countries to live in I'm sure - but petty theft has always been a problem. I had someone come in to my apartment at three in the morning - while I was asleep! - and steal my wallet from the dressing table. Totally my fault for leaving the door unlocked but it's not what you expect - someone lifting your valuables while you're snoozing literally six feet away.
What about the different security methods? A system deployed in many apartment buildings is the automatic keycard 'swiping' system. Every bona fide resident has a plastic entry card that they swipe through a card-reader every time they want access. I have my reservations about the keycard system. It works in establishments where you don't have too much foot traffic going in and out and there are security staff to keep a vigilant eye on things. But at busy apartment buildings, where there is no security guard, a non-resident can easily 'slip in' behind a legitimate resident. How many residents would stop and question you? Hell, I've slipped into apartment buildings many times without a keycard - and in some cases, I've even had the resident hold the door for me.
The traditional method of employing a full-time security guard/guards is also still quite common. I've heard several horrific stories of teachers having things stolen from their apartment and the security guard being the actual perpetrator. Who is in a better position to know about the times you keep? Don't be scared off though - for the most part, security guards do their job reasonably well. That said. here's a little tip for you - get the security guard on your side. Make friends with him. Share a joke and a smile. Engage in small-talk about football. Perhaps even slip him twenty cigarettes now and again. It'll make all the difference.
I've checked out of four different apartments in Bangkok and had a problem with getting back the deposit money every single time. I'm certainly not the only one, because I've overheard many foreigners complaining about the same. I'll put two instances down to simple misunderstandings, but on two occasions the apartment owner was clearly trying to cheat me. In none of these places was I ever a problem tenant. I paid my bills on time, rarely/never complained unless I had to, and came and went with a minimum of fuss (I tend not to mix with fellow residents). With deposits usually being two, or sometimes three months rent in advance, you're looking at a substantial amount of money. There's no way I would give up 30-40,000 baht without a fight, but clearly some residents do.
One apartment owner refused to return my key money because I'd lost the tenant's agreement. I was left with no option but to go to the police. The police, it must be said, were helpful to the extreme. They wrote out a piece of paper (heaven knows what it said) and told me to present it to the apartment owner. The key money was given back to me right away.
Checking out of another apartment, the owner claimed (and this is a little embarrassing) that I'd stained the bed-sheets that were provided by the apartment. The stains were just general everyday 'grubbiness' - nothing else, but she deducted a thousand baht for a sheet I could have picked up in a local market for a fraction of that. Quite a slanging match developed in the reception area, and I'm not proud to say that I can shout louder than most. Fortunately, with crowds gathering to witness the brouhaha, it all became too much for the apartment owner and she gave me the one thousand baht (actually she threw it at me, but you get the gist) The saddest part was that I'd always enjoyed an excellent relationship with this particular apartment owner, and it all got soured for a thousand measly baht. Here's some more advice - let the reception staff know well in advance that you are checking out. Don't leave it to the final day and run the risk of last-minute misunderstandings.
8) The initial inspection and what to look for
Khoo duu hong noy khrap? (May I see a room?) When you present yourself in the reception as a potential tenant, what typically happens is that a bored-looking member of staff appears jangling an obscenely large bunch of keys. Yes, it's room inspection time. Ask to see several rooms on different floors - not just one. Ask if there are any corner rooms (they are often larger for the same price).
From the moment in reception, when the girl with the keys appears, my antennae are twitching. I'm taking everything in and missing nothing. The elevator itself can tell you a million things. Is it looked after and kept clean? Or are there buttons missing from the control panel and graffiti on the walls? If they can't be bothered to take care of the elevator, then the rooms are going to be just as neglected. As you walk down the corridor take it all in. Look in any open doors and get a feel for the kind of residents that live there. If I see three Thais all asleep on a bed or piles of shoes and cooking utensils outside a door, then it's thanks but no thanks.
Is anyone playing the radio loudly? Can I hear screaming children? What are the corridors themselves like? Do they look clean? Is there the unmistakable whiff of disinfectant? Is there any sign of a garbage chute or do residents just put a black garbage bag outside the door and hope for the best? Even before you have inspected the vacant room, you should have formed an opinion on the quality of the building.
First impressions are everything. When the door to the apartment swings open, if your first reaction is anything less than "Wow! I can see myself living here" - walk out there and then. Step out onto the balcony. Are you going to enjoy sitting out there? (presuming you want to) Turn on the water in the shower - how's the water pressure? Do the lights work? One of the first things I do is check for electrical sockets. How many are there? If I've got a computer, a fan, a fridge, a Hi-fi and other electrical oddments, I need a few sockets around the place. If you're going to inspect a room, do the job properly.
9) Go there twice!
You've been to look at the apartment in daylight - now go back again at night. Places have a habit of undergoing change when darkness falls. Perhaps the group of friendly-looking motorbike taxi drivers, who were snoozing and playing checkers when you first came in the middle of a hot afternoon have now turned into booze-fuelled sex animals, wolf-whistling at everything that passes in a skirt? And funny how you didn't notice the snooker hall/karoake lounge/hostess joint next door when its neon facade was not apparent. Try to catch one or two of the foreign residents as they leave and enter the building - farangs love to talk and share information. "I'm thinking of moving in. How do you enjoy living here?"
10) If you're a 'long-termer' - accumulate!
If you're thinking of staying in Thailand for longer than a couple of years, start investing in things like fridges, TVs and nice basic furniture. You can always take it with you when you move. Apartments will usually rent you fridges and TVs, etc but you don't have to be a genius to work out that it's a completely false economy. Stuff like TVs and fridges are not expensive in Thailand.
11) Stand your ground - get mad. Or maddish.
Numerous annoying little things can go wrong when living in an apartment - the neighbor who constantly plays his radio at two in the morning, the kids who use the corridor as a playground, the weak water pressure that you reported six days ago and still comes out in a dribble, and the operator who is constantly failing to record your important messages while you're at work.
I refer to them as 'little things' but they can definitely get you down depending on your personality and level of tolerance. However, I think it's essential that you stay on good terms with the Thai apartment staff even if sometimes you want to boil them alive. Address the staff by name and take the time to treat them as people. Earning a reputation as a 'nice tenant' will go a long way. When a lightbulb goes out - as they often do - a nice tenant usually gets the bulb changed faster than a tenant who specializes in rubbing staff up the wrong way at every opportunity.
12) Cable TV
Imagine an apartment without cable TV. Why it's unthinkable!. Although you might not be an avid TV watcher, its nice to crack open a can of beer and settle in for the big football game. If the TV is important to you - get EXACT details of what package the apartment building has installed. For me the premier league football (ESPN channel) is a must, and possibly BBC news. If your apartment has subscribed to the cheapest possible cable TV package then you'll have a choice of the Discovery channel, HBO, and an obscure sports channel featuring cliff-diving from Acapulco and shove ha'penny from the hill-tribes of Northern Laos. That and fifty channels of Bollywood superstars.
You'll like this story. I lived for three years at an apartment on Petchburi Road. When I moved in everything was fine and dandy in the TV department. I could flick from one channel to another as happy as a lark. Then the Thailand cable provider announced a substantial increase in annual fees and the service in the apartment went rapidly downhill. In one of my very rare elevator conversations with a fellow farang, he told me that the apartment was now using an illegal satellite dish (rumours that it was a dustbin lid were never confirmed) and it was only possible to pipe one channel into one particular room at any given time. I laugh it at now but you had this ridiculous situation where I'd watch the English football on Saturday night, and literally the moment the final whistle blew, one of the staff downstairs would have to twiddle with the main unit because the bloke in room 237 wanted to watch a movie on HBO. I checked out very shortly after so it never became a major issue. As I say, be absolutely sure what UBC package the building has. And if they lie about it, at least you'll become fluent in Hindi from watching all of those Bollywood channels.
13) The Neighborhood
My time in that particular apartment really brought it home to me the importance of neighborhood. Although the apartment itself was fine (apart from the cable TV conundrum) the surrounding area was the pits. I hated setting foot outside the door. I would have loved to have strolled out to some nice restaurants or walked around a park or hopped on a bus to a nearby shopping mall - but there was none of that for what felt like miles around. Sometimes there were overwhelming feelings of isolation. It's nice to have that peace and quiet in your apartment but sometimes you do get the urge to go out and connect with other people and do something other than vegetate in your digs. Weigh up what the neighborhood has to offer and more importantly, what it lacks.
Happy apartment hunting!
This picture above is typical of an apartment you'd find in the 5,000 baht a month region (although don't expect it to come with a TV and fridge) You can see the cheap, poor-quality wardrobe and dressing table and also the large queen-sized bed. However, there's enough room to walk around and the apartment lets plenty of light in. A lot of teachers live in these kind of digs and are very happy. If you've got imagination and a bit of money to spend, it's amazing what a few pictures and nic-nacs can do to brighten up a place. The lime-green curtain would certainly have to go though and uuuuurgh - don't talk to me about that awful vase of plastic flowers on top of the fridge. We can't see the bathroom in this picture but I'm betting it's something clean and modern albeit a tad small.
This picture above is your typical apartment building corridor (in the 5,000 baht a month range). Although I quite like the unusual touch of adding the wall-plaques to show the room numbers, the corridor has that cold, characterless, almost 'borstal school' feel to it. It's a bit like I'd imagine an inner city hostel for battered wives to look like. And of course this photo has been taken when the corridor is mercifully free of accumulated shoes, dirty plates, garbage bags and general detritus. You'll only find apartment building corridors in this condition if the cleaning staff are truly on top of their game.
This is what 12,000 a month would get you. Although there's still the same crappy chipboard furniture, you've got the feeling of space. It feels more like a home. There's a nice well-polished parquet floor going on, a tasteful roller blind, and the furnishings are generally of a much higher standard. The receptionists will be more attractive and more professional, the security guards will be awake more often than they're asleep, the cleaning staff will wear uniforms, and the restaurant on the ground floor will look like a restaurant and serve food that's almost edible.