Your Home Abroad: School Housing or Your Own Digs?
Whether you imagine yourself sleeping in a hut or a palace, the logistics of moving abroad to teach English as a Foreign Language always involves finding a place to stay.
New teachers usually have two options when they move abroad: school-provided housing or finding their own accommodation. Not all schools offer apartments for their teachers, however, so you may find yourself with only one option. This can be good, or it can be bad.
When It’s Provided by Your School…
If school housing is listed as a part of your overall employment package, be sure to find out details about it before you move abroad. It’s hard to look a gift horse in the mouth and many teachers feel strangely indebted to their school for giving them accommodation, but what seems like a great perk at the beginning of your contract might be a millstone around your neck a few months later.
When I first started out teaching, I lived in about nine places over a span of eight months. One of them—school-provided—was a stairwell closet in the building where my language school was located. Yep, I’m the original Harry Potter.
Questions to Ask About School-Provided Housing
Here are some questions to ask your employer about the housing he or she provides:
• How far away from the school is it? To save costs, some schools put teachers out in the suburbs, forcing them to commute a long distance to work.
• How far away from the city center or other attractions is it? You won’t always be working. It’s important that you are able to get out and explore your new environs.
• Do you have to share it? Some schools abroad expect their teachers to share accommodation. This might be fine—or it might not. See if you can get an introduction to your new roommates before you accept.
• Do you have a kitchen or cooking area? If your accommodation doesn’t allow you to cook for yourself, it might mean that you’ll spend a lot in restaurant bills. Or, if you’re the kind who doesn’t like to cook anyway, this could be the excuse you’re looking for to make the acquaintance of your local fast food delivery crews.
• Does it have a curfew or other restrictions? If you’re teaching at a middle school in China, for example, you might be housed on a floor in the students’ dorm, and the whole building might lock down at a set hour each night. Or, you may not be allowed to bring guests back to your room. Depending on your lifestyle, these restrictions might be fine or they might make you feel, well, restricted.
• Who maintains it? On the other end of the spectrum from the Chinese dorm, you may find yourself in a condo with weekly maid service and a crew of workers doing gardening and window-washing for you. These amenities might make up for a more remote location.
• What is the neighborhood like? Is there a nearby supermarket or convenience store? How close are you to public transportation? Will you feel comfortable walking at night there?
When It’s Not Provided by Your School…
If your school doesn’t provide housing, you still may be able to get their assistance when looking for a place to stay. Ask if a liaison officer or other coworker can help you navigate your new city and negotiate with landlords. Chances are, you’ll be facing a new language as well as a new city, and having someone on your side will help a lot.
Finding accommodation abroad will follow much the same process as it does in your home country. If you’re willing to share an apartment or house, you can look on local Internet pages—yes, Craigslist is overseas too—to see if there is anyone letting a room. If you want your own digs, be prepared to spend several days looking at potential sites before signing anything. As in your home country, be prepared to pony up first and last month’s rent as well as a “key deposit.” Not everywhere is exactly the same though, and some places may ask foreigners for even more cash up front. Your school may be able to help you cover this if the amount is too much for you to absorb in your first months in a new country.
Ask Your Landlord
Other questions to ask about renting your own accommodation in a foreign country:
• Is it furnished? While you might be able to afford buying furniture for your first apartment in a new country, what will you do with it when you leave? If you’re planning on settling down for several years, it might be worth it, but generally speaking it’s best to find a furnished apartment.
• What utility bills can you expect? Utility bills abroad might be more expensive than you’re used to paying in your home country. It’s best to know this before you leave your air conditioner on all day, every day for that first month. Also, some landlords fold the cost of basic utilities into the rent.
• As a foreigner, what paperwork does your landlord need from you? They may want to see a copy of your work contract or a copy of a bank statement that shows you have enough money to pay the rent. While they may be in the right to ask for a photocopy of your passport, never, under any circumstances, give your passport to anyone to keep for you as a security.
• What are the emergency evacuation procedures? If there is a fire or other disaster, is your apartment equipped with an extinguisher and evacuation plan? It might seem paranoid to think about this, but if you’re going to a developing nation you may need to.
TED’s Tips™ #1: Know before you go. Learn as much as you can about your school-provided housing before you decide to stay in it. Ask for photos. If you don’t want to live in school-provided housing, they may give you a stipend to help you pay for housing elsewhere. Or, they may not.
TED’s Tips™ #2: If you are finding an apartment on your own, give yourself a week or two before starting your new job so that you are well settled before your first classes. You don’t want the double stress of your first day on a new job followed by moving in.