The 10 Commandments of Apartment Hunting in Spain

Gorgeous illustration of Madrid's barrios by Helena Ecija. See more of her work here.

Gorgeous illustration of Madrid’s barrios by Helena Ecija. Original photo and more of her work here.

I once spent a summer combing through apartment listing websites. Those were a simpler times, when a grainy photo of a terraza or the phrase “gastos incluidos” was enough to get my heart racing. My research quickly turned into an obsession. My friends nearly staged an intervention.

I’d been sending out general interest emails since June, which was completely fruitless. Rooms move so quickly here that I typically received responses to the effect of “Sorry, the room has been taken,” or “Move-in in October? We’re looking for someone for next week.” In fact, 80% of my emails went unanswered.

Compared with a few of my friends, who spent about two weeks in hotels and Airbnbs before they found rooms, my apartment hunt in Madrid was relatively painless. I owe about 70% of that to my trusty planning skills and 30% of that to luck. I arrived in Madrid on a Friday and had three apartment visits scheduled for that afternoon/evening. We had two more the next day, and one on Sunday.

I visited my current apartment on my first day in Spain. We returned the next day to meet the two housemates, and, after an hour-long chat with the girls, I called the landlady to rent the rooms. By Sunday I was settled in my new piso. I’ve spent 10 happy months in my apartment. We’ve had relatively few roommate issues (see number 6) and my neighborhood is perfect for me (see number 5). We have a huge terraza, a large living room, central heat, and two bathrooms. See, you can have it all!

This process can be really stressful, so I’ve put together some tips on finding an apartment. Without further ado, I give you the 10 Commandments of Apartment-Hunting in Spain.

Travels Untranslated Habitación en Madrid

My first bedroom in Madrid. My new room is bigger and has a couch and French doors onto the terrace.

1. Know Thyself

You come first. This is obvious, since you’ll be living in the apartment. But really take some time to think about what kind of roommate you are and what kind of roommates you’re looking for. Questions you should ask yourself include:

  • Do you want male roommates, female roommates, or a mix?
  • Can you live with smokers? Smoking is huge in Spain, so you definitely need to consider this before deciding on a place. If your answer is “no,” make sure you find an apartment where the rules clearly say “no smoking.”
  • Do you want to live with Spanish-speakers or other expats?
  • What do you need to have in an apartment? Natural light? Sane roommates?
  • Do you want to have an outdoor space, like a terrace or a patio?
  • Do you want to live with students or real-life employed adults?
  • Are you messy? Could you confine that mess to your own room?
  • Alternatively, are you neat? Can you handle messy roommates?

If you take some time to answer these questions, you’ll have a much easier time sifting through the thousands of apartment listings that are out there.

One thing to note is that apartments in Spain tend to be a little “outdated.” A lot of these apartment buildings were built in the post-Franco population boom, so wood paneling and old, bulky furniture are fairly common. Some places are newly renovated with sparkling Ikea furniture, but that doesn’t seem to be the norm. Don’t be too picky.

Once you have an idea of what you’re looking for, start hunting! Here are the main apartment-listing sites in Spain:

  • Idealista: I love Idealista for all its search options. It really helps you narrow your search — you can filter for neighborhood, number of roommates, smoking/non-smoking, etc. You can save apartments as favorites and even set up price alerts. Most of my apartment hunt started here.
  • EasyPiso: EasyPiso is great if you’re looking for a shared place. You can make a profile and note your preferences for housemates. Note that many of the listings were created by landlords, though, not the housemates themselves. You’ll have to ask for the housemates’ information if you want to contact them.
  • PisoCompartido: PisoCompartido is very similar to EasyPiso, but it seems to be used more by actual housemates searching for a new housemate (you!)

There are a lot of laughably bad listings out there, which is part of what makes apartment hunting so much fun.

Carving pumpkins with my housemate Irene. This was her first-ever pumpkin.

Carving pumpkins with my housemate Irene. This was her first-ever pumpkin.

2. Know Your Budget

A central room in a shared apartment in Madrid should cost between 350 and 450 euros per month. You can find cheaper rooms for less, but they tend to be very small. My room costs 430 euros per month, all expenses included, and I still live comfortably. I wrote more about my budget here.

On a visit, make sure you ask about gastos, or expenses. They usually include water, electric, and wifi, and they shouldn’t cost more than 40-50 euros per month total.

I recommend finding a place with calefacción central, or central heat. These apartments have radiators, which means heat is free and you won’t have to use electricity-burning space heaters. But don’t worry if you can’t find it — it’s not a deal breaker since Madrid’s winters are relatively mild. (Depending on where you’re from, of course. My Texan friends froze all winter.)

3. Purchase a Phone

I landed in Madrid around 8 a.m. on a Friday morning. By 12 p.m. I had a phone. I already knew the carrier I wanted to use and the phone I wanted to buy, so it was easy to pop into the nearest Orange and purchase what has become my Spain phone.

A phone is an essential tool in any good apartment hunt. In my experience, people weren’t too attentive to their inboxes, so calling or sending Whatsapp messages was the best way to go. A phone also gives you the power to call the owner if he/she is late or forgets your appointment, both of which happened to me.

I recommend researching phones and plans about a week before you arrive. Phones here are cheap, and data plans are even cheaper. People mainly communicate via Whatsapp, so you don’t need to worry too much about getting a plan that includes talk time. I don’t have included minutes at all, but pay 1 cent/minute each time I make a call. Which is rare, so it’s okay.

I wrote about phones in this post, but feel free to comment if you have any other questions.

Note: You need your passport to purchase a phone in Spain. Bring it.

DSCN1048

Our terrace.

4. Be Enthusiastic, but not too Enthusiastic

I do recommend setting up appointments before you go, but save yourself some trouble and don’t start contacting people until a month before you leave, como máximo. I wasted so much time sending too many emails too soon. I could have been binge-watching Downton Abbey or making artisan sangria or something.

5. Write Things Down

I bought a planner and used that to note the times and dates of my apartment visits, including the address and the owner’s contact information. I recommend you do the same. Type it up, make a Google doc, write it on an old Chipotle receipt, I don’t care. Just make sure you know where you’re supposed to go and when you’re supposed to be there. A little organization will save you a lot of stress and confusion.

Note: You’re in a new city, remember? Make sure you write down the nearest Metro station and directions from that station to the apartment in question. Or else you’ll get lost in barrio Salamanca, wandering aimlessly past Fendi and Michael Kors, becoming more and more certain you don’t belong there with each step.

6. Choose Your Zona Wisely

Madrid is a city of barrios. Each neighborhood has a different feel and different things to offer. I recommend you live in the city, no matter where your school is. Madrid is wonderful and you’ll miss out on a lot if you live in the ‘burbs. It can be a hassle to get in and out of the city, especially at night, and property isn’t that much more expensive in the center. If your school is far away, try to live near the train or bus station with the most direct connection. I can’t imagine not living in the city — even my friends who commute an hour to school say it’s worth it.

Are you a nightclub aficionado? Try Sol or Chueca. Are you an athlete? Live in Retiro or Moncloa, where you have access to the parks. Do you like cafés, vintage shops, and quirky bars? Head to Malasaña, Letras, or La Latina. Is your school far away? Find a place near Atocha, the main train station.

My neighborhood, which is sort of an Atocha-Retiro hybrid, has been perfect for me. We live near Metro Line 1, which connects us directly to:

  • Atocha, the city’s main train station
  • Las Letras, Madrid’s historic center
  • Sol, the Times Square of Madrid
  • Malasaña, the resident “hipster” barrio that’s home to cool bars and good food

We’re also a 5-minute walk from Retiro park, and our street is home to tons of buses nearby that traverse the whole city. The neighborhood isn’t particularly trendy, but it’s safe and residential. Few tourists make their way over here, which makes it a little more peaceful. We also have plenty of supermarkets nearby, including the mecca of Spanish grocery stores, my beloved Mercadona.

Here are a couple of links that offer good descriptions of each neighborhood.

  • The Best Neighborhoods in Madrid: This blog post gives a good overview of each barrio, although I disagree with the author about Lavapies. Lavapies isn’t unsafe for women, as he says. It’s just a little sketchier than the rest, i.e. you’re more likely to be catcalled than in, say, Salamanca. But the Indian food is amazing, and the apartments in the area tend to be cheap yet central.
  • Barrios de Madrid: A guide (in Spanish) to what each neighborhood has to offer.
Our salón.

Our spacious living room. Many a party has happened here.

7. Cast a Small Net

Once you’ve taken all my above suggestions and really reflected upon the apartment you want (as I’m certain you will do, dutiful readers), narrow your search. Don’t visit apartments that are out of your price range. Don’t bother with places that are too far from your school/your required train or bus station. You’ll burn out if you try to visit apartments all over the city, and you’ll have an even harder time deciding on a place if you see too many.

Start with scheduling four or five visits, then go from there. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t find a place right away! There are plenty of properties available in Madrid.

8. (Try to) Find a Trustworthy Landlord

Uncomfortably, most rental transactions in Spain take place in cash and without a contract. These cash transactions are technically illegal because the owner doesn’t pay rental taxes or have the proper permits in place, but this is just how things are done here. I pay each month’s rent in cash and receive sketchy handwritten receipts in return. The vast majority of my friends do the same.

Note: If you can avoid it, do not get into a situation where you’re responsible for finding the next housemate when you leave. I have a few friends going through that process and it’s incredibly stressful. Cara, for example, paid her deposit to the housemate she was replacing. Now she has to find a new housemate who will, in turn, pay their deposit to her. By all accounts this concept doesn’t make sense, since the deposit is there to keep you from breaking things in the apartment, but it seems to be common practice here. #spain

I’ve heard too many landlord horror stories, most of which involve people not getting their deposits back. Since all transactions are in cash, there’s no official proof that the money changed hands, making it difficult for the residents to stand up for themselves. If this happens to you and things get dire, remember they’re renting to you illegally. You can threaten to call the police or file a denuncia.

Because of all this, it’s extremely important to feel like you trust your landlord/landlady. Assess how they treat you on the first meeting and go with your gut. Our landlady, for example, has been an annoyance at times. She has been known to randomly come in to “drop off” an equally random item, which we think is an excuse to snoop. On two separate occasions she saw the dirty dishes in the sink and decided to remind us to wash them by writing a message on the cabinet in blue marker. Which we washed off, but that’s beside the point.

That said, she’s an honest person who, on the whole, respects our privacy. She’s just obsessed with this apartment. (Remind me that I said this if I don’t get my deposit back in a couple weeks. There’s still a part of me that’s nervous about that.)

Sampling some Belgian beer with Lorenza.

Sampling some Belgian beer with my housemate Lorenza.

9. Meet the Housemates

Rooms turn over quickly in Madrid, which means you’ll likely be living with people you’ve never met before. On our first visit to our apartment, we saw the place and liked it, but the roommates weren’t home. We asked the landlady for their contact information and sent the girls a Whatsapp message to see if we could meet them the next day. We went by the apartment the next evening and spent about an hour chatting with them. After deciding they were relatively normal and responsible, we decided to take the rooms. I live with a Spaniard, an Italian, and another American. We all get along really well, and we’ve had a lot of fun these past few months. I really enjoy living with them.

That’s not to say we haven’t had our roommate ups-and-downs in this apartment. Before Lorenza, our Italian roommate, moved in, we had Celine. Celine was an Erasmus student and constantly had Erasmus friends over. Having friends over is not a problem for me. Having 20 friends over every time you “have friends over,” however, is a problem. And not cleaning up after said friends is even worse.

Celine seemed really friendly and respectful at the beginning, but it seemed like she got less and less considerate as she got caught up in her Erasmus/party lifestyle. I was a study abroad student once, so I understood to a certain extent. But the more the trashed the apartment, the less considerate I became. She started leaving dishes in the sink and making more messes when she cooked. We became less and less friendly with her, and Katie and I both were grateful she planned to leave in January.

Me, Katie, and Irene at a party in our apartment.

Me, Katie, and Irene at a party in our apartment.

The low point with dear, sweet Celine was when she left to spend Christmas in Portugal. The day before her departure, she made an enormous mess in the kitchen. Actually, she trashed the kitchen. I know I’m neat, but this was appalling, even by Celine standards. So, that evening, I sent a message to everyone asking them to clean up the kitchen because I wanted to make Christmas cookies with friends the next day. No one replied, but Irene and Katie both did their dishes.

The next morning, the kitchen was still a disaster. I noticed Celine was packing up to leave.

“So, when do you leave?” I asked.
“In 30 minutes! Aaah!” she replied, as if I cared that she was running late.
“Oh, so will you have time to do your dishes before you go?”
“I don’t know,” she said as she shrugged and gave me a sheepish grin.
“Well, can you at least put the dishes in your room or something? It’s not fair for us to have to deal with them while you’re gone.”
“I mean, I’ll just move them to the side or something.”

I was furious. The kitchen was disgusting, and Katie and I were still going to be there for 10 days before we went home for Christmas. We barely talked to Celine after that. And then I moved into her room when she left in January.

Our new roommate is Lorenza, and all is well once more in the piso. Lorenza is really sweet and respectful, and the four of us all get along really well. The kitchen tends to err on the side of messy, but I can live with it since I like my housemates.

10. Fly, You Fools

This is the simplest commandment. If you find your perfect apartment, tell the owner right away or you’ll lose it.

Any other apartment hunting tips and/or horror stories? What was your experience like?

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11 thoughts on “The 10 Commandments of Apartment Hunting in Spain

  1. Hi Olivia! I have really enjoyed reading your blog the past few months. I’m moving to Alcala de Henares with my husband to do the auxiliares program in September (via CIEE). This post was super helpful! (I’m obsessively searching Idealista, even though I know I can’t do one thing about it yet!) One question: Did you encounter any problems with not having a bank account set up yet? Or did you set that up in the first few days of being there? Just curious if that will be something we absolutely have to do right when we land in order to rent easily.

    • Hi! Congrats on your placement — Alcalá is a pretty town. I didn’t have any problems with not having a bank account set up. I paid my deposit in cash, and all my rent payments have been made in cash since then. I remember seeing some listings that requested to see bank information, but those were rare compared to the cash-transaction ones.

      You should be able to get by with setting up bank accounts once you get settled in. Once you get the letter with your NIE (foreign ID number) written on it, you can take that and your passport to BBVA and set up an account with them. Once you get your actual foreign ID card, they want you to return with that card, but you’ll be able to bank normally until then.

      Good luck! Let me know if there’s anything I can help with!

  2. Thank, Olivia! Finding an apartment is the thing I’m most worried about when I get there in September. I’m going to look at your phone post, but I still may have a few questions for you!

      • I have started looking on idealista, but Logroño doesn’t have too many listing to really look through. 🙂 So, basically I’ve seen them all multiple times, but it is interesting to see what all the pisos look likes.

  3. Pingback: 6 tips for finding an apartment in Spain | sunshine and olive adventures

  4. The big difference between here and back home is that in the two times I’ve been looking for shared piso, when I’ve been to the interview, not all the housemates were there. sometimes only one out of three or none out of four (and the landlord is showing people in). It makes it hard to make a decision! Last year I met one out of 4 housemates but took the gamble and accepted and luckily they all turned out to be good eggs 🙂

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