Saturday, February 8, 2014

House Hunters International: The Mons, Belgium Edition

This past week my life has truly felt like a version of House Hunters International. Upon receiving orders to Belgium we knew we would be responsible for finding our own housing. This was a complete turn around from our arrival in Albania where we were presented with a fully furnished house equipped to American standards. Honestly, the prospect of choosing our own home was exciting and we spent many evenings talking about what we wanted in a house. When we first arrived in Belgium we weren't overly concerned with finding a house since we tentatively had one lined up. Sure, it wouldn't be ready for us to move into for three months but it sounded good on the internet and after all, it was just going to be temporarily ours. But as is par the course, things rarely end up going the way they are planned. We had been in our temporary home (a.k.a. a hotel room) for less than 12 hours when we received our first inquiry as to whether or not we had started our house hunt. We were dismissive at first but since everyone else around us seemed concerned about the status of our house hunt we began to wonder whether we should be too. Caving to peer pressure, we spent our first weekend in Belgium driving around looking at the houses that others had told us about. We quickly learned that Belgian's preferred building medium is brick and the variety of housing out there--from apartments, duplexes and row houses to single family villas, mansions, and country cottages--were overwhelming. Perhaps we had reason to be concerned?

When we finally stopped into the housing office early the next week for our official "housing briefing", we discovered what all of the fuss was about. There are rules; lots of rules for where we could search for houses, how we could go about choosing which house we preferred and the time frame in which we had to complete it all. We were required to physically visit at least two houses during our first ten days then five during the following ten and so forth. Immediately we realized that our back up house that would be ready for occupancy in May wasn't looking like a very promising option. Then we were presented with the infamous board of available housing. These were all homes that had been inspected and approved by the housing office. While we were free to search elsewhere, selecting a house that hadn't been inspected would still require an inspection and could drag out the search process. At first glance, the pickings on the board were slim (and ugly). And the photographs that accompanied the descriptions? Unlike American homes that are staged and carefully photographed by realtors, the pictures of these homes all looked like they were taken with a child's camera without a flash. I honestly didn't want to look at any of the available houses. But all of the alternatives we found on the internet were quickly rejected by the housing counselor for a variety of reasons so it looked like our new home would come from the board.

After much deliberation and a Google maps search, we narrowed down which houses we wanted to look at and our name was placed on a list. At this point a housing counselor would schedule viewing appointments for us. Once on the list we had seven days to view and make a decision on a house. But just because we wanted to rent a house didn't immediately mean it was ours. This list ranked us against other people who were also searching for houses. We were free to look at our preferred houses but could not actually sign a lease unless we were ranked as number one. Sometimes you might luck out and be at the top of the list while other times you were at the bottom, only moving up as others turned  the house down. We were allowed to reject houses based on health and safety issues but a bad location, too small rooms, or simply not liking the place were not acceptable reasons. The whole process felt like a lottery where our fate was in everyone else's hands.

A few days ago we set out on our house hunting marathon and visited four houses in a single day. We quickly realized that not only was each house in a different town, each was completely different from the others. We viewed a suburban house with a gopher filled yard and horses as backyard neighborhors. Another house was smack in the center of Mons and would give us a truly urban living experience. A third house was in a remote village but filled with character and had a large yard filled with fruit and nut trees. A fourth house was modern and open but it felt incredibly sterile. The one thing that all of the houses had in common was that they were definitely not American in style. Small bedrooms, some too small to fit a full sized bed, half sized refrigerators without freezers, no closets, and one and a half bathrooms were the norm. Much to our surprise we found that we actually liked all of the houses we visited. (We were actually hoping that we wouldn't like at least one or two so making a decision would be easier). Were any of them our dream homes? Absolutely not but for three years, we decided we could make any of them work.

Decisions, is what we narrowed down our options to:

The suburban house at the end of the cul de sac. It is in a
family oriented neighborhood and close to work and school
with a large backyard but small bedrooms.
The modern but slightly dated house with a crazy
amount of storage, a big back yard and a real master suite
with a large bedroom but the other bedrooms are tiny.
The big and rambling village house with tons of traditional
character, five bedrooms, and a large living space located
within walking distance to shops, restaurants, and a train
station but a bit of a distance from work and school.

The backyard view of a restored row house right
in the center of Mons. It has an updated kitchen,
plenty of storage in the cellar and attic and
huge, I mean huge, rooms. Reserved parking is
a block away but just about everything is within
walking distance.

So which house did we finally choose? Stay tuned to find out.

1 comment:

  1. Difficult decision for sure. Looking forward to reading how you decide where home is for the next season :)