Though renting an apartment or house in Portugal has some similarities to the process in the U.S., there are significant differences as well. In America, the landlord typically specifies the rental amount and which deposits (security, rent pre-payment) they require. Usually there is not much room for negotiation. That's not necessarily the case here.
In Portugal the rental price is often negotiable, more like buying a home in the States. Since there is no such thing as a multi-listing service here, the price may vary depending on which online rental site its listed. Also, rental terms for the same location might vary from site to site, as well as the name of the contact person.
As you begin this process, do not be surprised your email a potential landlord does not generate a reply. That is just the norm here. If you have some Portuguese under your belt, give them a call if possible. If you find you’re making zero progress, you might consider using whatever contacts you have in Portugal, or engage a realtor to help you find your new place.
First piece of advice: Leave your American expectations behind. If you’ve never visited Europe the first thing you will realize is that space is at a premium, be that on the road, in a parking garage, or in your choice of living quarters. Apartments are often far smaller than we’re used to. Though there is a trend, at least here in Porto, to build bigger apartments and houses (some as large as 3,000 sq. feet) small and compact are more common because they're easier to maintain and utility costs are far less. Besides, why be inside when you can park yourself at an outdoor café for hours?
Portuguese accommodations are measured in square meters (1 square meter equals 10.76 sq. ft.) so taking that number times ten or eleven will get you in the ballpark for U.S. comparison. Often there are two numbers on the rental ad—the total space in sq. meters and the usable amount. The first number may include any number of things, including terraces, verandas, storage units and parking spaces. The second number is supposed to be actual living space but there appears to be a lot of variance as to how landlords list the apartment sizes.
Older buildings usually do not have elevators. If you’re young, nimble and don’t mind hauling your food (and pretty much everything else) up or down a few flights of stairs, bless you. For us that’s an issue and for those who might have surgery in your future (especially if it involves your hips or legs) having an elevator or living on the ground floor is an important consideration. The elevators range from tiny to medium-sized here. Take this into account if you plan on moving in your own furniture as your brand-new mattress or sofa may not fit and you’ll be facing a multi-floor stair climb. Never fun.
Apartment vs. Home?
That is really a matter of taste. The two apartment complexes we’ve lived in were clean and well maintained. The first was more noisy than the second—there’s no way to avoid that if you’re living close to your fellow humans. It didn’t help that we overlooked the courtyard of a shopping mall, which was kinda cool, but could get pretty loud at times. After having our own home for two decades it took me a while to adjust to Other People Noises, but eventually I did. Still, there will be crying babies, amorous couples and the occasional barking dog. If that is likely to bother you, you might consider renting a house. (Though, to be honest, in some neighborhoods there are far more barking dogs.)
ProTip: I’m a terribly light sleeper so I discovered a smartphone app (White Noise) that delivers just that, or you can select ocean waves or a rainstorm to help block out the Other People Noises. Also, I use a air purifier and it also delivers white noise.
Depending on the complex, apartments often have stronger security measures in place than homes because Portugal, like any country, has issues with burglary. Though a home might not be as secure, it can also provide more privacy. It all depends on where you’re living, and if your home encompasses the entire building or just one floor (andar moradia) of that building.
Often apartments and homes have an energy rating listed in the ad (rA to F). Some have no energy rating at all or the landlord states the rating is in process. From what we can tell the rating process involves an evaluation of any existing insulation (not common), type of windows, floors, ceiling, and ventilation, plus other factors. No surprise A is good, F is bad. Also it’s not unusual to have apartments in the same building, with the same kind of windows, to have different ratings. Use this as a ballpark figure.
Heating & Air Conditioning
Portuguese apartments and homes are often unheated and this is one of the first things I check for in a rental ad. You may see the word aquiecemento or caldera, which is hot water heat supplied via a radiator. (See pix). Since Portuguese dwellings don’t usually include insulation (most of the buildings are poured concrete) the lack of some form of heat can be a problem. Depending on what part of the country you live in, it can be very chilly, and so damp your walls will grow mold.
We also learned the hard way that we needed to report our electric, gas and water usage by reading the meters once per month, then entering that data on the suppliers’ websites to avoid them estimating our usage. The 293€ bill for the electric and gas we received for one month during our first winter here was a shocker (gas and electric combined). After a slightly panicked call to our landlord he explained how to do the readings.
One way to reduce utility costs is if the apartment/house has vidros duplos (double pane windows), though they seem to leak air more than their U.S. counterparts. Some only open like a door or also open partway from the top, which is quite handy.
Another unique item you’ll find are persianas. These are collapsible vinyl or metal sun shades that are stored in an enclosure above the window and are rolled up and down either electrically, using a wand, or a strap located along the side of the window. Persianas help cut some of the sun and the wind/cold, but the ‘box’ above the window where they are stored can be the source of a draft. They also rattle when the wind is blowing, even when fully closed.
As mentioned in an earlier post, one curiosity of renting here is that you can’t count on having light fixtures in place when you move in. If not, you will need to trot down to your local hardware or lighting store, pick out the ones that work for you and install them. When we moved into our first apartment there were very few lights, and the second flat had all the lights with a few extra places to add some of our own. We did bring our fixtures and stored the extras in case we need them down the line. Fortunately, they’re not that expensive.
How We Evaluate An Apartment
When we evaluate a potential apartment, we begin with the heating system, then move onto whether the kitchen is equipped since we don’t want to own the appliances. The next thing is whether there is a washing machine. We check out the bathrooms, storage and living space(s) to see if they’d work for us, how the kitchen is configured (we cook more now than we ever did in the States) and what the apartment complex is like. Does it well maintained? Do you smell cigarette smoke (important if you are allergic to it)? Does it seem to be relatively quiet? What is it like in the evening after everyone comes home from work? What is the neighborhood like? Since we don’t have kids, the location in relation to schools wasn’t an issue, but it might be for others.
We also checked the apartment’s location in relation to grocery stores, frutarias (fruit and vegetable markets) and talhos (butcher shops). We did this because we don’t own a car and don’t want to use two buses to go shopping. Our first apartment had a small chain grocery store one street over. Our new place has a bigger chain store (still small by U.S. standards) just down the street. We are now six minutes walk to the Metro and a bus stops right outside our front door. Still, our first place had better transportation options since it was near a major hospital, though that did increase the amount of noise.
Trade-offs are going to happen. It’s up to you to decide what is most important to you and what you’re willing to live without. I made a master list, in order of importance and worked off that.
Now that we've covered many of the basics, the next blog discusses common Portuguese terms you’ll encounter in rental ads and the final post will discuss how to go to contract.