Finding a rental property in Malta

Yesterday we signed a lease on our new home in Malta, and I found the whole process fascinating (and a little frustrating). Having participated in property markets in Australia, Fiji, Canada and South Africa (not always successfully, let the record show), I’ve always been intrigued by the different dynamics. I won’t get into some of the commercial differences here (like stamp duty, agents fees, capital gains tax, etc.), I’ll restrict my comments to the market mechanics that we observed while securing a rental property.

I’ll start with the physical property environment, to give you a sense of the place: Malta is very densely populated, which influences the size and type of property in the market. One finds a lot of apartments and multi-level terraced houses, villas and penthouses.

“Malta is the most densely populated country in the EU and one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with about 1,265 inhabitants per square kilometre. This compares with about 32 per square kilometre for the United States.”

Wikipedia

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Very few properties come with a garage, most don’t even have off-street parking. Also, almost all rental property comes fully furnished. It’s as rare as hen’s teeth to find an unfurnished property.

In Malta, rental properties are advertised on websites, as one would expect, but (this is important) they are displayed whether or not they are available at the time. And very few properties are listed exclusively with one agent. So, almost all rental properties in the market are essentially advertised on all websites. Some sites communicate the “available date”, most do not.  In our true-life example, after some careful searching, we found 3 properties online that we wanted to explore further, and we contacted the agent via a web form. She wrote back to us the next day:

“Good morning Mr Smart, re your recent internet enquiry, I have contacted the owners. Prop ref 1618XX is available for rent in March 2019, prop ref 1823XX is available in June 2019 and prop ref 1986XX is available December 2020.”

What?

Not only did the website not advertise the available dates, but the agent also had to contact the owners to find out what those dates were! When I remarked on the waste of many people’s time, she explained that letting happens very fast, thus if they only listed the available properties they would have nothing to put on their website. Hmmm, I detect some flawed logic there, but I’ll leave that alone for now. (Imagine if you’re an owner of one of these properties, regularly getting calls from many agents to find out when your property is next available.)

In reality, this means that the websites serve as little more than a hook and a broad reference of what kind of property we are interested in. After our initial expression of interest, a conversation with the agent ensues to expand on what we’re looking for, and then they check their databases or little black books or make phone calls or whatever, before coming back with properties to show us. In our case, we were shown only one property in which we had actually expressed interest.

Another interesting dynamic was that in most cases, the letting agent would pick us up in their car and take us to a selection of properties, and the landlord of each property would meet us, open up, and walk around with us (in some cases the agent did have a set of keys, and no landlord was present). This increased the need for Jennifer and me to use mime and silent cues while being shown around.

Finally, when we did get down to the business end of our rental agreement, we met the landlord at the property, together with the agent. The letting agreement was drafted between the landlord and us, with the agent not a party to it. She received a commission of one month’s rental, paid 50% by the landlord and 50% by us, and that will be the end of her involvement. Interesting! Some pro’s and cons here, I think …

So, our particular challenge was this: After downsizing and purging in South Africa, we had packed a 40-foot container full of our household belongings (and a few bikes and a surfski and a kiln and art supplies), and put it on a ship pointed towards Malta. Our container arrived here last week, and the shipping company was very anxious to unpack it. Otherwise, we would incur exorbitant demurrage charges (and no, they didn’t have a warehouse where we might store our stuff for a while).

We needed to quickly find a place that was unfurnished or a landlord who was willing to remove his furniture so that we could use ours, or a cost-effective way to store our stuff. And we needed a property with a garage for overflow furniture and our campervan and my toys. (Yes, I can see who is causing the problem here, no need to clear your throat so loudly).

So, what happened, and what kind of a place did we get? You can read here to find out.

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