House Hunting Part Two
In my original blog post, I mentioned that finding housing in Abidjan is not for the weak. Eight months in and I have to say that statement still stands. Of my eight-person cohort, half of us have either had to break leases, move, or drastically change the terms of our lease, often under and in less ideal circumstances. I don’t think there is much value in sharing our specific stories. It feels like gossip at best and is honestly only reflective of our landlords, and not necessarily every one you may encounter in Côte d’Ivoire. But I think it’s important to share some lessons we learned. So here they are:
First, it is 100% worth it to extend your time in the hotel to go house hunting. Quite frankly, I strongly recommend it. After our orientation was up and we were left for ourselves, my roommate and I tried to minimize the days we spent in a hotel. The short-term high costs of each night’s stay and our eagerness to be settled made house hunting feel rushed. In hindsight, we had a bit too much faith in the housing analysis given to us during orientation and I wish we had done two things to counter that:
Looked at more than two options
Found potential housing options outside of those presented by the program
The second one is a bit difficult considering we had no friends in Abidjan and didn’t speak great French at the time, but looking back, I wish we had used our network (past ETAs, teachers we have good relationships with, ex-pat social groups) to get a better idea of the nuances of housing in Abidjan and our realistic options. Once we started making friends, every single person, from local Ivorians to ex-pat told us we were severely overpaying for our apartment. While this didn’t break the bank, knowing that people had entire 3 house complexes and a pool for what we were paying was frustrating, especially as our expensive rent meant other experiences in Abidjan had to be budgeted out.
My second piece of advice is to really try to build a network outside of the official Fulbright program before you get here. This is definitely easier said than done, but people on the ground can give you the most realistic idea of housing and life. They can tell you if an area is super residential or if it has a ton of nightclubs nearby. The Google Maps layout of neighborhoods doesn’t make sense for someone who hasn’t spent a ton of time in Abidjan and can be really misleading. And like I said, sometimes landlords will spruce up an apartment in the middle of nowhere (use AirBnb with caution). To build this network, I recommend searching for Facebook groups to join, (I’m in the ex-pat Abidjan Facebook group), but also reaching out to the previous year’s ETAs for connections.
There are endless WhatsApp groups, Facebook pages, and small circles of people who will likely become your community in Abidjan and are, in my opinion, the best people to ask about the reality of life.
Next, WRITE A CONTRACT. I have found that business here in Côte d’Ivoire can be very casual, and rely on good relationships and good faith. However, I felt that as a young woman, many people did not take me seriously. Thankfully the (incomplete) contract I wrote up saved my roommate and I some landlord trouble, but I wish I had made it less goodwill-based. I’ve been lucky enough to have absolutely delightful landlords in the past, and at the beginning, my landlord seemed like he would fit this pattern. I have a personal ethos of not treating business relationships based on goodwill favors unless the other party has done something to deserve that trust, but I let that principle slide a bit when I first wrote up and signed my lease. I regret that. Here is what I recommend you include:
The exact dates of tenant occupation and an agreement on how to navigate proposed changes to the original dates
Your rent amount in CFA and USD, how it is to be paid, and when
Have your payment be due on the 30th of each month and a clause on prorated days (how to calculate them, when they are payable, is a day a full 24 hours or a night?)
What the rent covers and includes (hot water, electric, wifi, etc…) and more importantly any charges you’re responsible for (i.e. if an AC breaks, who is responsible for fixing it?)
Any incomplete or undesired conditions of the apartment should be listed and dated
Be sure you and your landlord come to an agreement on who is responsible for fixing these things and when
Also include things about the apartment you want and what your landlord offers. My lease had curtains and mirrors promised to me
A clause on rent adjustment due to apartment specific problems
This was the biggest tension point between me and my landlord. Over our eight-month occupancy, there were several issues that I (and my partner and bosses) believed warranted a rent reduction. My landlord disagreed. I recommend putting in writing how to settle massive apartment specific issues (ie unsafe appliances, prolonged power outages, flooding, wifi, etc)
The exact amount of the security deposit (I recommend breaking it up and adding it to your first five months of rent) and what it will cover. In the US it is common to use it as the last month’s rent, but some landlords here don’t honor that
A clause on landlord access to the apartment, particularly if they have an additional key and if they are allowed to visit unannounced
Conditions for breaking the lease
Even though it may be easier, I do not recommend paying your rent in advance. I do recommend paying it in cash and obtaining a receipt each time. If you are under the circumstances of reducing your rent, communicate that ahead of time via text. If your landlord is hostile about this change, I recommend meeting to pay your rent outside of the apartment and record the exchange in some way, shape, or form. I used audio recording.
Lastly, and I CAN NOT stress this enough, please put any changes to your housing agreement in writing. If your landlord agrees to replace your gas whenever it runs out, text them “thank you for agreeing to replace our gas every three months!” and favorite/star the message. If you decide to leave earlier than you anticipated, text them that. Again, this is specific to me being a young woman, but on several occasions, my landlord went back on verbal (and sometimes even texted) agreements claiming he never agreed to them in the first place.
These steps may seem tedious, but many of them could have saved my cohort members and I money, headaches, and premature departures. I do love my apartment and its location, but I wish I had done more to make my entire stay here a peaceful one. At best, you do all of these things early in your grant and never think about them again. At worst, these steps guarantee your time, money, and safety. Once I’m moved out, I’ll share more apartment-specific and location-specific advice for future Abidjan ETAs.
Happy house hunting!