Who rents a house?
Renting a house is primarily for the farang who's looking to stay in Thailand long-term (at least 3-5 years). Houses are for long-term stayers who have grown tired of apartment living and require a little more privacy - away from the prying eyes of nosey apartment neighbors. You get a feeling of 'status' when you have the keys to your own house and it's strangely satisfying to avoid the ‘stigma' of telling people you live in a 5,000 baht a month studio. Another major reason is it gives freelance English teachers the chance to work from home and set up their own language business sideline
What kind of house is available and where are they?
The most commonly-rented type of house is what the Thai real estate market refers to as ‘the townhouse'. It typically has at least three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen area, a living room, sometimes a maid's room, and also a front and back garden. It's worth mentioning at this point that houses in Thailand are generally built for large families. It's extremely difficult to find a house suitable for a couple or a single person.
Before you rush headlong into the world of house-renting, stop and think. Do you really need two bathrooms or three bedrooms? Whereas an apartment can be relatively easy to clean, a house can be a pain in the ass. There are floors to mop, windows to wash, mosquito screens to be hosed down, and gardens to tend. Houses are often ‘open to the elements' compared with apartments and I know from experience that if you go away on vacation for a week or two, you can almost write your name in the dust when you return. If you're the sort who takes no pride in your living environment then this won't matter, but if you're a house-renter, be prepared to spend a lot more time doing mundane household chores.
Many town-houses for rent are located on ‘moobarns'. In Thai, the word moobarn translates as ‘village' but the term ‘housing estate' would be far more accurate. These moobarns or housing estates are situated all over Bangkok and most likely the best places for your house-hunting. There are different types of moobarn, from the decaying urban sprawl to the neat, well-designed property development complete with security posts and landscaped gardens. Needless to say, houses in the latter kind of moobarn will generally be far more expensive to rent.
How much can you rent a house for?
Obviously this is an article aimed at the teaching fraternity, so we'll ignore the huge 60,000 - 100,000 baht a month places touted by the realtors. I rented a house in the Rama 9 area of Bangkok between 2000 and 2005. That terrific place had three bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, a maid's room (now a storage area), and one bathroom, for which I paid 9,000 baht a month. The further you go away from the center of Bangkok, the more you'll get for your money. Take Rangsit or Samut Prakarn for example - there are many folks out there renting decent houses for 6-10,000 baht a month.
It was an ex-teaching colleague of mine who originally put me onto the idea of renting a house rather than an apartment. He had lived in the same gorgeous house in the Ramkhamhaeng area for 18 years. When he first moved in, he was paying 6,000 baht a month, which was a substantial sum of money in those days. Eighteen years later, how much do you think he paid? (and let me say that it really was a beautiful home) 12,000? 15,000? No, he still paid an unbelievable 6,500 baht a month. His rent had increased 500 baht in 18 years.
One point we shouldn't overlook is that if you have a good relationship with your landlord and pay your rent on time, it's highly unlikely that you'll ever face unacceptable rent increases. Oh, one other point. Most house-owners will expect you to sign a one-year contract.
Finding your dream house to rent is undoubtedly the most difficult step, unless you personally know someone looking to rent out a property and the deal drops in your lap. For me, it was four months of searching. Every single Sunday was spent trawling around moobarn after moobarn. Whereas searching for an apartment is a simple case of walking up and down sois and looking for tall buildings, moobarns can't ideally be covered on foot - so you'll be one step ahead if you have a Thai friend who can assist you in the search. Preferably a friend with four wheels!
To give you a little more help, there is a terrific property magazine called ‘Baan La Tee Din' - it's easily the most popular property mag in Thailand and it's choc-full of apartments and houses for rent and for sale. Unfortunately the magazine is in Thai so once more it's your Thai friend to the rescue. Circle a few possibilities, telephone and make appointments to view, and then hit the streets.
As you drive around the moobarns, you'll often see adverts for houses tacked onto telegraph poles. Take a pen and paper with you and jot a few phone numbers down. Call the owners on a mobile phone and make an appointment to view while you're in the area.
Be prepared for disappointments! House-owners are often fickle and indecisive. I found a superb house down a private soi off Phattanakarn Road for which the owner wanted 5,000 baht a month. It needed a fair amount of work doing on it (re-tiled floors, air-con installation) but I could see the potential and for a modest outlay I could turn it into a palace.
After the owner and I shook hands on the deal, I went out to buy furniture, fans and a refrigerator. Three days before I was to move in, the owner called to tell me she'd decided to rent the house to her sister. I was both devastated and more than a little angry.
At this stage, I'd virtually given up hope of ever finding the kind of place I was looking for. My prime objective was to rent the kind of house where I could attract middle-class private students and build up my own 'teaching from home' business. It was not proving to be an easy task.
I decided to have one more drive around Moobarn Seri on Rama 9 Road - a moobarn I'd driven around several times before. Noticing a very fine house with a ‘for rent' sign on the front gate, I rang the bell and was greeted by the owner. She gave me the quick dime tour, and while the house was very nice and I could certainly see myself relaxing on the porch with a large gin and tonic, the asking price of 15,000 baht a month was way out of my budget.
Seeing my disappointment, the Thai lady told me about another house she owned located just a few sois away (she actually owned six houses in the area I later found out) We piled into her car and she took me down to the house in question - and as soon as I saw it, I knew it was home. It was everything I was looking for.
I ended up living there for five years. It started out at 9,000 baht a month and the rent never increased in all the time I was there. I taught English to most of the landlord's family and went out for many a meal with them. They became great friends. Never be ashamed to suck up to the landlord and landlady. It'll make your life much easier.
Slightly off topic, but house-hunting gives you an incredible opportunity to peek inside the lives of middle-class Thais and their ‘surface-wealth' existence. You'll roll up at places with a couple of brand spanking new Mercedes Benzes on the drive-way and then once invited into the home, you'll see furnishings that wouldn't look out of place on a council rubbish tip. Being something of a 'nosey parker' I quite enjoyed that aspect of house-hunting.
It's crucial to remain as impartial as possible during a house inspection. House-owners (often Thai families still living there) always make you very welcome. There's always a couple of kids to admire and perhaps even a golden retriever to fuss over. It's easy to be sucked in by elaborate stories of wonderful neighborhoods and statements like ‘we've been very happy here' (then pray tell why are you moving?)
I find it very easy to visualize how I could make an apartment look when it's nothing but an empty shell, but in a family home with endless rooms of wall-to-wall junk, it's a lot more difficult. You need to visualize how nice you could make the place look.
The most important questions you need to ask are 1) How many rooms have air-conditioning? - don't listen to the owner who tells you that there's always a beautiful breeze wafting through the lounge if you open the French windows.
2) Does the house have a water-pump? - If your main bathroom is on the second floor, you could find yourself showering under a veritable trickle if that water-pump downstairs ain't got the balls to deliver.
3) How many amps is the electricity meter? - I found out from painful experience that my house didn't have enough power to run more than two ‘thirsty' items (an air-con and an electric iron for example) and I was constantly being plunged into darkness until I got the electricity board to upgrade the meter (another 15,000 baht I hadn't bargained for)
4) Does the soi flood in the rainy season? - don't just take the landlord's word; go out and ask local shopkeepers or anyone you see walking around who might like a friendly chat with a farang.
5) How is the security? - is it a relatively crime-free area or can you see all sorts of undesirables roaming around?
Location is everything
A house in the middle of nowhere, stuck down some deep leafy soi, might sound idyllic, but the novelty will soon wear off if it means you are stranded. I lived in a very isolated section of the housing estate - so isolated in fact that Pizza Hut refused to deliver to me because the delivery boy could never ever find the house. If you're thinking of teaching English from home, is it going to be the same problem for potential students?
How easy or difficult is it going to be to get to civilization (the shopping malls and the movie theatres)? In my case, I had a brilliant songthaew service on my doorstep. I could take a three-baht open-jeep (songthaew) that plied the smaller sois and sub-sois every five minutes. Metered taxis were virtually non-existent though. Always think about what your public transport options are going to be if you don't have a car?
If you are not the kind of person to make use of your kitchen and cook at home, then where are you going to eat? Are there restaurants or food-stalls within easy walking distance? I thoroughly recommend that you invest in a cooker or microwave of some description and put your culinary skills to the test, but there are times when you just can't be bothered and need the easy option.
What about a convenience store when you suddenly run out of the essentials? Is there a ruddy-faced woman nearby who stays open late when you desperately need twenty cigarettes and a small box of washing powder?
And then there are clothes to be washed. Is there a laundry within easy reach, or at least a kindly neighbor willing to do your smalls for a bit of extra pocket money? I guess I had it quite easy - my laundry woman was at the end of the soi, the convenience store was virtually next door and I had several restaurants all within easy walking distance.
Initial set-up costs
Most houses for rent come completely unfurnished. The owner might throw in an old plastic sofa and a coffee table (which you will hate but accept begrudgingly) but by and large you'll be solely responsible for turning a house into a home. Don't cut corners! Buy the best of what you can afford and it'll last a life-time. Wonky chipboard furniture will collapse in a sad heap after barely twelve months and it looks crap anyway.
When I moved in to my rented house, I decided to turn one bedroom into a study/classroom, and keep one bedroom as the main bedroom. I needed to spend money on furniture and equipment for the lounge and kitchen areas, but the bathroom was already set up and in pretty good nick.
The major expenses were TV (7,000), Fridge (7,000) Wardrobe (8,000), Bed and mattress (12,000) sofas and easy chairs (20,000) Tables and bookcases/display units (12,000) and things like plants and stand-up fans, whilst not costing the earth individually, soon add up.
I think you're looking at probably 80-100,000 baht as a basic set-up cost for an unfurnished home. It sounds a lot of money I know, but if it bothers you or you simply don't have it - then rent a furnished apartment and make life easier.
Know your landlord!
Things do go wrong with a house. A tap comes off the wall. A mosquito screen develops a hole. Rainwater leaks in from the roof. An ant's nest develops in one of the skirting boards - all numerous, niggly problems that can really stress you out if you let them. Make sure you know exactly who is responsible for putting these things right and more importantly, if it is your landlord, then is he/she accessible? Picture the scene - you're late for work on a Monday morning and suddenly realize that there's no water. Then it dawns on you that the landlord lives in Ayutthaya and it's going to take him at least three hours to get his shit together and get to you.
My landlord was a tenant's dream. He was a retired but very fit handyman who could turn his hand to anything. Whenever I picked up the phone to report a problem (as I did on numerous occasions), he was round within ten minutes. I never worked out whether it was because he genuinely loved to help or whether it was to escape his nagging wife. I suspected both, but I was very grateful to him over time and always showed my appreciation with a carton of his favorite ciggies two or three times a year. I would hate to have a landlord whose only interest was in collecting the rent once a month but I'm sure they're out there.
Security - will the men in ski-masks pay me a visit?
You hear all kinds of stories from house-renters as regards the number of times they've been burgled, but touch wood I never had a problem in five years, and my house was something of a burglar's dream with an expanse of common land directly opposite and numerous and obvious getaway routes. Although neighbors on a moobarn rarely talk to each other, it's worth making a good friend of at least one neighbor - a person who can ‘keep an eye' on the place when you go away, not to mention water the garden and keep your prize begonias in the pink.
One of the downsides of living on a moobarn is the amount of junk mail and leaflets you get wedged in between the gaps of your garden gate and stuffed in your letterbox. I'm talking about flyers distributed by Pizza Hut, MK Suki, Big C and any number of other local businesses. Let these leaflets accumulate and it's like putting up a big sign saying please break in and steal my DVD player and wide-screen TV.
Privacy - can I sunbathe nude in the garden?
Privacy was always one of my major concerns. I had this image in my mind that once the locals knew there was a 'farang' living in the house, I'd attract every ‘con merchant and charity collecter' for miles around and I wouldn't get a minute's peace. I'm happy to report that it wasn't the case. I was very rarely disturbed - and every time a stranger did ring the doorbell and launch into some sales pitch, a polite "no, thank you" would send them on their way.
If there's one great advantage of living in a house. It's the fact that you are billed for water, electricity and phone directly from the utility companies. This alone can save you a fortune when compared to renting an apartment and paying their grossly inflated figures. You can pay your bills directly at the bank or at the nearest 7-11. I'm sure there are other options as well.
The three types of neighbor
Thai neighbors are nothing like the ones that we're used to in the west. Whereas in England or America they can often feel like part of the family, Thai neighbors keep themselves very much to themselves.
You can argue that it's a fear of the foreigner and the inability to communicate but I've noticed that Thai neighbors often don't even talk to each other. We've already mentioned the ‘good neighbor' who waters the garden in your absence, but as for the rest, they'll fall into three distinct categories.
1) The invisible neighbor - usually an elderly woman who lives alone, totally inconspicuous save for the occasional twitch of a net curtain
2) Mr and Mrs Sawatdee Khap - the husband and wife couple who are pleasant enough but your relationship with them never advances past the basic hello and cheery wave.
3) The Party Animals - the group of students who drink, shout, play music loudly and can at times be a real nuisance. If you are renting a house near a university, then be aware that some houses around you might be shared by half a dozen students. And students love to party and make noise!
I had no problems at all getting a phone put in but be prepared to wait a little longer if you are only available at the weekend. Everyone wants phones installed at the weekend. When I rented a house, it was the age of dial-up internet connections and mobile phones were still very much in their infancy. Now of course, everyone has a mobile phone and access to wi-fi.
Mobile Traders - let the world come to you!
If there's one thing I hope never disappears in the name of progress, it's the itinerants - the mobile salespeople who drive around the moobarns offering their services. Let's see - there was the ice-cream boy peddling his gaily-colored ‘ice-cream bicycle', the barbecued chicken lady, the guy who sharpened all your kitchen knifes and his distinctive klaxon, the two lads who sold ceramic pots and gardening equipment from the back of a pick-up, and there were the household equipment peddlers with their array of brooms and mops all arranged fastidiously on a rickety old bicycle. The list of different sellers was endless - and I loved them all. They were a connection with a by-gone era and long may they flourish.
Soi Dogs - get off me you little sod!
Talk to anyone who lives on a moobarn and they are sure to have their favorite soi-dog story - the night they were chased from the corner shop to the garden gate by a pack of savage dogs nipping at their heels and dripping saliva. It's not quite that bad in truth, but soi dogs can be a major problem if you don't have a car and you're the type of person who walks everywhere
You're going to laugh at this but I had three different routes that I would use to get to the laundry - even though it was only at the end of the soi. Whether I took the quickest and shortest route depended totally on whether the black Labrador at the house half-way between my house and the laundry was wandering around outside.
The second route was more reliable but it meant passing a house with two Great Danes that flung themselves against a flimsy wire mesh in their attempts to get at me. When I got to the laundry my heart would be pounding fit to burst.
The third route was generally the safest but often drew quizzical glances from neighbors who wondered why I had to walk down six adjoining streets to get from A to B. I tell this story purely to hi-light the problems you might face. By the way, I am a dog-lover.
The Creepy Crawlies
Cockroaches, ants, mosquitoes, spiders the size of your fist, lizards, and then snakes if you're really unlucky - your house is the insect and reptile equivalent of Club Med. Just accept it. You can wave cans of chemical spray around until your arms are about to drop off, but they'll be back tomorrow. There are plenty of precautions you can take (poisonous chalk, mouse-traps, etc) but you won't eradicate them totally.
Think of it as a challenge. I came home one evening, opened the front door and came face to face with what I thought was a snowstorm, but was literally millions of flying ants that had got in through a small hole in the window-pane. "You can get through this" I thought and had the foresight to call up one of my colleagues who had a doctorate in entomology. He advised me to turn on all the lights in the house for ten seconds and then turn them off again. Don't ask me why but it certainly had the desired effect. Sure enough, ten minutes later, millions of flying ants were scattered all over the floor twitching their last. It took me three months to clean the bloody place up.
Opportunities for a freelance teacher
As has already been mentioned, renting your own house presents a wonderful opportunity to teach private students at home. They can park their car right outside and enjoy an hour or two of private tuition. It's worth thinking about a house purely on this basis. Put a whiteboard on the wall and a nice rug on the floor with a table and a few swivel chairs. Finish the room off with a few nice wall pictures and a pot plant - and you're in business. If you are interested in teaching English from home and need some pointers, then I wrote an article on freelance teaching that's well worth a look.
So what's it to be - a house or apartment?
In my opinion, renting a house wins hands down over renting an apartment. You'll have numerous communication problems if your Thai is not up to scratch or you can't find a Thai friend to speak on your behalf, but come on, where's your sense of adventure? Seriously though, it's the privacy factor that swings it for me. It's that feeling you get when you close your garden gate and know that you are safe in your own little world. Home sweet home.