Inquiring minds want to know – what is it like to rent a house in Kathmandu, Nepal?!? The privilege of home ownership is granted solely to Nepali citizens so renting is really the only choice for expat residents. There are basically three main methods to finding a home for rent: a rental agent, the KTM expat Google group, and word of mouth:
* There are several agents in KTM who help transient families find housing. They know dozens of landlords and also know the “story” of almost each and every rental house (who lives there, which country they are from, who is their employer, how long they’ve lived there). After telling the agent our basic requirements (like which part of town we’d like to live in, number of bedrooms and budget), they accordingly show us available homes. There is (usually) no website with consolidated information about the house size, photos, prices – it’s a black box! So many unknowns, fairly illogical and the pricing is anything but straightforward! Their commission comes solely from the landlord. Throughout our search, we worked with three agents: Sangeeta, Arun and Pratap.
* The Kathmandu Expat Google Groups is the closest thing we have to Craigs List – an amazing local resource. In terms of housing, dozens of emails are posted each day with folks listing and folks looking for available apartments, rooms, houses, sublets, and guest houses. We responded to one posting from this resource.
* Given the nature of expats’ job assignments, turnover is very high and folks are always coming and going. Some really good houses often are transferred without any advertising. We saw two houses from referrals.
These two lists summarize our primary and secondary priorities in a home:
* Proximity to The British School (TBS) – We may or may not get a car, but our aim is to live car-free on weekdays. Walking distance to the school is a must.
* Well-lit with large southern exposure – As Kathmandu has a mountainous climate over 4300 feet above sea level, it gets quite cold in winter time. Sunlight pouring into the house is critical as it is the main source of warmth. Central-indoor heating is practically unheard of throughout Nepal.
* Well maintained – Standards in developing countries are far different than what we are used to in the States. We’re not seeking a U.S. standard of living while here, but a well-maintained home would be nice.
* Home size (1500 – 2500 sf) – We’d like to be able to live comfortably and also host guests
* Cost (600 – 1200 usd) – Prakash’s housing stipend from ICIMOD is quite generous, covering the lesser of $600 USD per month or 75% of the cost of our home . We’d like to minimize cost on our home so we can maximize our travel budget!
* Furnished – In terms of furniture, we sold most all that we owned in NC and have come to Nepal with one bed and one beloved rocking chair (due to exorbitant cost of shipping to this land-locked nation). It would be great to not have to purchase so much at the beginning.
* Low-traffic street – This is obvious… For peace and quiet and for the safety of the kids.
* Nice garden – Organic, veggie patches are very common and sought after here. It would be a great addition to the house, enjoyable to care for with the kids and more enjoyable to eat!
* Nice outdoor space – Folks in KTM basically live on their terraces in winter time, as we’ve been told. Once the sun rises, people head out and soak in the warmth. At dusk, all hustle inside and pile on layers of coats, scarves and shawls. So a nice terrace, or balcony would be great.
We saw SO many houses! Here is the house-by-house summary (for those short on time or interest, skip down to CONCLUSIONS):
Within the first week of arriving into Nepal, I saw an ad on KTM Google Groups for an available house in Sanepa, the neighborhood adjacent to TBS. The house was indeed VERY close to school. However, it was poorly maintained, and far from move-in ready. When we arrived, the neighbors were burning trash and plant debris in their yard – very unappealing. Several walls had original artwork from a previous child tenant… the whole house badly needed a coat of paint but the owner said he would only paint a few rooms. There were 3 bathrooms, but all were a bit small. A large washing machine occupied the entire upstairs bathroom! The kitchen was quite small, with only a 3-seater breakfast table. The house had few advantages – in addition to location, there was plenty of space for all of us plus a few guests, there were numerous balconies, a lovely terrace, and a small garden. With A LOT of labor, this house could work for us. But on week #1, we just couldn’t imagine putting in that much effort and / or hiring laborers. Another advantage: very cheap – only $600 USD!
Sangeeta and Pratap are a team, and their efforts are the most straightforward in the business. They have a website (!) with a search engine. The website lists available properties, basic details, and tells the price for rent (!). The properties they showed us and those on the website didn’t match up 100%, but it is much more straightforward than the other agents. Also, just a week into our stay in Nepal, we met Sangeeta. She showed us four apartments; all were walking distance from TBS, had 3 bedrooms and were furnished. The first was SO close to the school, but not a good fit. It had a VERY small kitchen (think, NYC kitchen) and tiny bathrooms (i.e., you are showering right next to the toilet). It was on the ground floor, so probably wouldn’t get much direct sunlight. It had a nice garden and compound, but just wouldn’t work.
The next apartment was at the end of a quiet side street called Shangrila Lane! It was on the 3rd floor of a small building. The apartment was very nice, clean and well maintained, but was quite small at 1180 sf. Other setbacks were the one shared washing machine for all tenants plus the landlord (5-6 families ; doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but if you take into account that electricity is only available about 12 hours per day, sharing one machine could get tricky!), and yet another very small kitchen. Nice, but would be tight for all 5 of us, let alone with overnight guests.
The last 2 were in a “high-rise” building (approximately 12 floors). They were both brand new, never lived in (rare find here) and were located on the 5th and 8th floor. Both were identical in layout and direction. The 5th floor had a peculiar “contemporary” style to its furnishings, not very tasteful in my opinion, but could work. A bit pricy at $1000. The 8th floor had a much nicer style (similar to Pottery Barn), and had a SOUPED-UP invertor system! He had eight invertors (having one is more typical for an apartment) which powered the entire apartment (refrigerator included!!) 24-hours a day. He also had an AC unit that could provide central heat – RARE find! This was really appealing – I am a desert creature – raised in San Diego and used to “sunny and 70 all year around”! In addition to being very pricy, $1500 per month, it went against our overall goal of living happily with less… One huge disadvantage was that the building was mostly vacant – there were probably 80 apartments in the building and only 7 families lived there so far! Many units were purchased by investors not planning on occupying their units just yet; others were still available for sale. Another huge drawback was the elevator system. Because the building is so vacant, they couldn’t justify running the generator whenever the power is out. Thus, when you are ready to come down, you would phone the watchman downstairs, he would switch the generator on and you’d be elevated down – seems a bit dicey…
We concluded that we should start looking at bungalows – congruent with the advice received from Prakash’s colleagues and most other expats we’ve met… So, here goes!
After seeing the apartments with the 3 kiddies in tow, it was a treat to go house-hunting while they were in school and before Prakash started work! Arun met us at our apartment and suggested we hire a taxi to get around efficiently. Our outing lasted 2.5 hours and covered over half a dozen homes. First we saw a house with a nice garden, good overall size and reasonable kitchen. But it was very old, poorly maintained, had horrible furniture, had signs of a leak in the bathroom, and the biggest issue – it was located ON the edge of the Ring Road (i.e. lots of traffic, noise and air pollution).
Next we saw a house that even up until now, has been my favorite :-). It is a bit far from TBS (would be a 10-15 minute pleasant bike ride, but really isn’t walkable). It is a beautiful house, well maintained, nice landlord, several blooming fruit trees (peach and apple), well maintained, spacious enough for our family plus the ability to host guests, quiet paved road leading to house, move-in ready, nice furnishings, and well maintained (did I mention that it was well maintained?!? this is huge for me!! so many houses are so run down and I am utterly spoiled after living in brand new / next to brand new houses in North Carolina for the past 10 years.). Downside was the location. A 10-15 minute bike ride seems okay, but I’m a bit concerned about the ride during the rainy season. We can get a car and drive to school, but I’d rather avoid this… Other downsides were a not-so-attractive kitchen, but tolerable; and no space to have a vegetable garden. House was probably $1500 USD (Arun rarely told us the prices of houses he showed us. After questioning him for the monthly rate, he would usually respond with an approximation).
We saw several more that were all generally undesirable. Mostly because they were old, not well maintained or not well lit.
Towards the end of our outing, we saw another potential option. It is brand new and still under construction, will likely be done within a month or so. It was BIG! It had a weird basement kitchen and large basement multi-purpose room. The ground level had 2 rooms and an open area that could be a combined foyer, living and dining. Given that the house was still under construction, we concluded that the kitchen could be relocated to one of the rooms on the ground level. The next level up had 3 nice bedrooms and very nice bathrooms. It had very fancy fixtures (bathroom and lighting). At the very top level, there was a nice terrace and a partially enclosed area to keep a washing machine. Another neat element was the size of the compound – it was HUGE! It was in bad shape though because of the construction but had significant potential to create a beautiful garden with several separate outdoor spaces. The basement level also had numerous rooms, each of which were accessible only from the exterior of the house. These rooms could be used as servant quarters or extra storage; there were just SO many of them, 5-7 separate rooms! Another less than desirable aspect to the house was that the house was far from the main entry gate having a very long driveway or entry into the compound. This just seemed unappealing to me, mostly from a safety perspective. Although this house is HUGE, it felt like it could work for our family – almost recreating our last home in Morrisville, NC, where we hosted a kid’s chess club, bhajan sessions, band practices, and numerous guests! But not only would the house be very expensive (probably $2200 per month), we weren’t sure we wanted to recreate the life we had just lived…
End of a long morning out… treated ourselves to a peaceful lunch out 🙂
Arun was determined to find something for us and two days later, showed us a few more houses (I wondered why he didn’t show us these on Monday, but decided not to ask :-)). This time the three of us walked from house to house, so they were definitely close enough to TBS. Unfortunately, most did not make the short list. Two were really old and not well maintained. Another was old yet getting renovated, but looked like months would pass before the work finished. One house did make the short list – it was also under construction with an estimated completion date of June 1 (fyi, the house is still not ready). The most appealing aspect of this house (besides being brand new) was that it is SO close to TBS. From the terrace, you can see the school’s football field. The kids could walk to school, door-to-door, in 2 minutes – literally! Other nice aspects of the house include: perfect size, nice layout and a lovely terrace. Downsides to this house include: high-rise apartment building in the adjacent plot (aesthetically unappealing, but we can deal with this), adjacent to the main road so very visible (passersby would notice when we are / are not home so big safety concern), very limited space for a garden, small compound so not too much outdoor play space, and completely unfurnished so significant upfront costs to outfit the home (appliances too). House will likely be $1500 per month.
Have to write about this next very unique house… It was MEGA-HUGE!!! It is also still under construction and has 7 spacious bedrooms! In addition, there is a huge multi-purpose space on the top level. This house had the biggest kitchen we’ve seen in Nepal (very cool kitchen!) complete with 6 burner-stove and an island. It was on a nice plot of land and close to the school, but will be expensive, likely $2200 USD per month. Another neat aspect to this house was a HUGE skylight from the foyer to the top which made the house exceptionally well-lit. It was definitely not a possibility, but entertaining to visit.
This was yet another large, expensive house that Arun showed us. A few nagging questions were running through our minds at this point: why is Arun showing us homes well outside our stated budget ($1000) and why are Nepali landowners building such enormous houses? We spoke with Arun about the range of homes he showed us, but decided to leave the other inquiry alone at the time. In hind-sight, our guess is that land owners are trying to tap into the highest echelon of expat (top UN and Embassy officials) families. Their housing allowances are generous and could be lucrative for landlords…
Sangeeta’s colleague, Prataap, showed us a few places that afternoon before we picked the kids up from school. Boy were we zonked by the end of this appointment – walking around KTM in the hot sun can get draining… We saw a nice and very affordable ($600 USD) apartment that was a 1 km walk from school. It was on the 3rd floor of a small building and occupied two levels. It was old yet reasonably maintained. Small rooms and kitchen, but a very nice bedroom and terrace. For the price, it was a good option. However, only older couples live in the compound of about 5-7 families. Maybe our kids would make too much noise, in their opinions?!? Also the size of the toilets reminded me of those you see in the pediatrician’s office! Kind of entertaining 🙂
Next, we saw a very big house on a VERY big plot of land. It is reasonably close to school (about 1.5 km away). The plot of land had a large grassy area, giant veggie patch, car park area, swing set and servant quarter area – it was HUGE. Inside, however, the house was just not well maintained. Prataap said the rent would be $1300 USD, which seemed like a great deal for the amount of house and land.
Saw another house, TOO dark, but spacious. Also a bit farther, so not a good option. I think I am very very picky!!! But, we will live in this house for 3 years, so we should like it, A LOT, right?!?
On Thursday morning, Prataap showed me (today was Prakash’s first day at the office) an apartment on the 6th floor of a different high-rise building. It had 3 bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, dining area, 3 bathrooms and a small study. It was definitely enough for the 5 of us, but again, would be hard to host guests. It is VERY affordable at $700 USD per month and also brand new. This building is similar to the other high-rise as it is not fully occupied, but not nearly as vacant. A total of 18 families are living there right now and 5 of them have children. There is 24-hour security and also a gym and community room with a ping pong table! The apartment has very small balconies, so very little connection with the outdoor – this is by far, the biggest disadvantage with life in a high-rise building.
The following Monday, I got a tour of Alem’s house by referral from Vijaya, another mom at TBS. It is a very lovely house with so many positives: very affordable at $660 per month; great outdoor space (nice vegetable garden, tree house, yes, a tree house!!, swing set, grassy area and flower beds) ; quiet road leading to the house ; double gate to the house, the first of which has a watchman ; close to school (12 min walk or 3-4 min bike ride) ; big wood stove in the dining area, appealing during the cold winters ; old house but well maintained, recently painted, and very clean. Some of the neutral or unknown points about the house include: the garden is very mature with several towering trees on the perimeter so limited sunlight comes in the house (on the other hand, the garden is simply lovely with sunny spots where we could spend winter afternoons) ; the house is fairly petite and would be perfect for the 5 of us plus a few flexible guests (4 small bedrooms). The negatives of the house include the bathrooms, disconnected hot water and the lack of furniture. There are only 2 bathrooms – both are old and small but very clean. There are solar panels on the terrace to heat water, but there is a problem with the connection into the bathrooms. Alem’s family either asks the helper to fetch a bucket of hot water from the terrace or uses an immersion electric heating rod to heat a bucket of water. This is likely a problem that could be fixed. Although the house comes unfurnished, Alem will be selling several things (oven, refrigerator, washing machine, sofa, small bed, and other small pieces) so we can purchase those from her seamlessly.
On Tuesday afternoon, Arun spontaneously called me to see a very affordable house in Sanepa. It will be ready in two weeks and is currently occupied by a Scottish couple. For a rent of $750 per month, it is a steal! It is in a great location on a quiet street; has a beautifully maintained garden (flowers, veggie patch and grassy area) ; is reasonably spacious inside with a living room, dining room, small kitchen, 4 bedrooms and 3 full bathrooms; and has two lovely terraces at the top. Best feature is the sunlight that pours into the house. A few issues include horrible blue carpet in 3 of the 4 bedrooms, a very small kitchen (only a small 2 burner stove with no oven, inadequate space for a refrigerator, and very limited counter and cabinet space), and the entire inside needs a fresh coat of paint.
* as in all cities, the range of available options is tremendous
* several atypical criteria (for the USA) are extremely important here:
— water availability (well on site, volume of water tanks at the house)
— south-facing exposure (maximize direct sunlight during chilly winters)
— terrace (nice outdoor space to soak in winter sun and enjoy mountain views)
* negotiate well – the price is rarely fixed
* hired help is very affordable (about $100 – $200 per month for a full-time staff), so employing a maid, cook, gardener, watchman, babysitter, etc is all possible and often encouraged by the agents
* in the end, however, so many more elements are involved to make a house into a home… love, a positive outlook, an open door welcoming guests, and of course good food!
In the end, we chose Alem’s house :-). Affordable, simple, manageable size, lovely garden, and just felt like home. Our meeting with the landlord gave us a very warm feeling also. We move in about 1 month… Our door is always open – hope you visit soon!
On a separate note, many of you know that we considered operating a Bed & Breakfast while in Nepal. This seemed like a great way to meet people, encourage our family and friends to visit, and provide a unique service to the myriad of tourists. Upon our arrival, however, we quickly realized that this sort of service is already plentiful. The internet search for “Bed & Breakfast” that I did while still in NC resulted in few hits, and later I realized terminology is just a bit different here. Similar services offering rooms for rent and basic meals are often referred to as Guest Houses and over a dozen are available within 1 kilometer of our apartment! Also, my concern or desire for meeting people was quickly satiated upon arrival – people in Nepal are exceptionally friendly and activities abound for ways to meet new folks. Needless to say, we still encourage ya’ll to come and visit us!!
ps – sorry we don’t have photos yet of our house! will write a blog post of our moving experience and post photos then 🙂