Renting a house anywhere involves certain considerations, more so in a foreign country. Here in Panama’s Azuero Peninsula, even if you are renting a house in one of the gringo ghettos, especially if it is an older house, you may be in for some cultural shocks.
The itchy foot passed to me (no doubt genetically) by my adoptive father has prompted me to move more frequently than most people would ever want to, so, in the not quite two years I’ve been in Panama, I confess to four different abodes. That, and the hunt accompanying them, makes me a bit of an ‘expert’ on local rentals.
My method of approach is not for everyone. I tend to a rosy-peach color in the glasses I wear. Plus, I’m a writer. So (*coff*) it’s part of my job description to tread where my more angelic gringa friends would gasp with horror.
This is the first post in a series of six about Adventures in Renting here in Panama.
#1 Renting My 1st Housing
Before I moved to the Azuero, I actually found a real estate agent who handled rentals. Most unusual, I have since learned. Most rentals are found via word-of-mouth. Usually, only gringos advertise, and they want US prices.
Anyway, my agent found me a nice little house in Las Tablas in a nice little subdivision called Bulebar. However, at the last minute the owners of my intended domicile invoked the ‘gringo tax’ and raised the rent from $300 per month to $350 per month. Considering that a red flag planted square in future dealings, I said no, gracias and began to look elsewhere.
My agent happened to know of a $200/month cabina at the beach (one room, with a bathroom and a closet the owner had turned into a kitchen). It was right on the ocean, so every morning I swept out the layer of sand blown under the door during the night by the stiff dry-season breeze off the Pacific, as well as the crabs and other wildlife which had taken shelter with me. Getting the crabs to let go of the broom was often a problem, but more amusing than anything else. More serious was the fact that my cabina shared a paper thin wall with another one and was below a restaurant/cantina. I’m not much of a beach bunny and, as a writer, I like quiet. Since the beach was deserted during the week and the cantina closed, that was great. But it didn’t take long for the party-down weekends to get to me, especially because the radio next door was directly opposite my sleeping ear.
DUH point for rental check list: Are there any really obvious clues the location will be intolerably noisy? Nearby bar or cantina? Day care next door? School or stadium near by? Fire or rescue station near by?
The Deal Breaker
What truly drove me out of the cabina was not the noise, but the fact that I was essentially centered among short-term (one to three days) rentals where my temporary neighbors assumed that my yard was their yard, passing through it carrying their supplies or simply passing through it, in front of my windows, at will. They, too, had a private entrance, but mine was easier access. As the population changed constantly, there was no help for it. It drove me bonkers.
Renting My 2nd Housing
So I moved to a little casa up the road at the same price, with the same landlord. (See photo at top.) There, I had two rooms, a bathroom and another postage stamp kitchen. The stove was so rusted that I feared the burners might fall through while I was using it. The refrigerator had a small mold farm inside it. I insisted on a replacement, which the landlord provided. He simply switched the mold farm with the fridge from the ocean front cabina. However, the TV disappeared (and reappeared at the cabina).
DUH point for rental check list: What furnishings and appliances are included in your rent? Just because there is a washing machine or TV in your digs-to-be when you view the place does NOT mean it will be there when you move in. Ditto the rest of the furnishings, including beds. Be clear about all furnishings you expect to find when you move in. ASK for specifics.
There were some issues in my new casita – it was a short waft to the nearest pig farm and to the dump, for one thing. Some days the miasma of ammonia mixed with the stench of whatever was smouldering onward at the dump was so sinus-burning and stomach-turning the only solution was to shut the place up tight and turn on the AC.
DUH point for check list: is there anything really stinky nearby? Giant pig farm? Chicken factory? Subasta (auction house)? Slaughter house?
The water supply was another delight. We often ran out. For days. But you can expect that to happen no matter how snooty your area. “Oh, by the way”, my landlord had said after hustling me up the road and into the casita as fast as he could (the cabina could be rented nightly), “there is a small problem here with the water.”
Oh, yah, there was. The hole in the pipe somewhere uphill of my casita made the plumbing thump when a faucet was opened or the toilet flushed. Wow, I mean Guau! The toilet also ran constantly, which did not seem to concern anyone but me. When the tank was empty, the plumbing pounded like a drummer for a rock band. As this was a most unpleasant way to be awakened from a lovely dream in the middle of the noche, my solution was to turn the water to the toilet off except long enough to fill the tank and flush, on an as-needed basis. Needless to say, it took only a day or two and the realization that it was probably permanent for the bam-clank-bam-bam-BAM to become seriously annoying. Have a listen:
DUH point for rental check list: Check the plumbing. Really. Duh. Try out ALL the points of exit for the plumbing. Any leaks, noise, etc.? Leaks mean probably standing water. Unless you have access to an indefinite supply of Mosquito Dunks consider such to be a dengue breeding farm. Ask around about how often the water supply goes out. Check neighboring houses for large, elevated, blue water-storage tanks, your local “tell” for frequent water problems.
The Deal Breaker
After a bit the long trip to town for groceries also got to me. There was nothing – nada, zilch, zero – that you could buy at the beach beyond a meal and a beer at one of the local restaurants, when they deigned to be open which pretty much Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The rest of the time there was no place to buy the roll of toilet paper you forgot on your last shopping trip, or a soda to quench your noon thirst after a long walk on the beach, a banana, a stick of gum, a chocolate bar. Nada. There was a bus which came and went six or seven times a day for $1.25 each way. And after I had been living there a while I found out the driver would haul things, such as five gallon bottles of drinking water, from town for the price of a one-way ride. That was very helpful. But, remember, average temperatures hover in the 80’s, Fahrenheit. Unless I wanted to squash my already overheated self and 10 bags of stuff into a tiny minivan/bus with no AC already packed butt-to-butt with similarly hot-bodied fellow travelers and their goods once a week or so, I was still left with a $7 cab ride back from town with my load of groceries and other supplies.
DUH point for rental check list: If you have no car or moto (scooter or cycle) what is the transportation situation? How far to the nearest bus stop? How often does the bus run? How much to the nearest grocery? How much for a taxi? How long to get one? How long can you put up with this?
So finally I just moved again.
I moved from the beach inland, to Las Tablas Abajo, a really pretty little pueblo on the way to Playa Comadres. There, I had lots of fun with wildlife of all sorts (bats, zorras, cows, termites, scorpions, etc.), an orchard, and too much room. I’ll tell you all about it and more shocks to watch for in the next Adventures in Renting post. Watch for it next Monday.
By the way, the cabina I paid $200/month for two years ago is now $400/month. A nice enough, but certainly not spectacular, house uphill and across the road from it, which was at the time priced at what many considered an eye-popping $600/month is now $1500/month. Why are landlords charging so much more? Because they can. Because visitors come here with no clue about the local price of things and offer US prices. The rise in housing costs has reached a point that Panamanians are complaining bitterly that they can no longer afford to live in their own country.