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Things could get dark in my sun-starved one-bedroom piso interior in Madrid, a type of apartment with windows facing a roofless, enclosed tile patio. My girlfriend and I were teachers in the Spanish city when she got news that a visa to teach her native French would bring her to work in Manhattan for the next year.
Moving to New York for the first time, I knew we could count on seeing more of the sun than we did in my 375 square feet in the shade, but there were a number of great things about my living situation that I had come to take for granted after two years in the Iberian capital.
Thanks to tenant-friendly housing laws and what is perhaps the more easy going and liberal culture of Spain, Madrid is something of a renter's paradise, where landlords can be counted on for regular and responsible maintenance and much more. That's a world apart from NYC, where daily calls to landlords to fix the toilet seem like mandatory conditions of the rental contract. New York City's building owners could learn a lot from their matches across the ocean. Here are a few examples:
Would you like furniture with that?
As a renter in Spain your landlords, or caseros, are responsible for almost every detail of the apartment. The average Madrid rental comes completely furnished, from couches, chairs, beds and tables all the way down to kitchen utensils and spare winter blankets. In my very first Spanish apartment, a four-bedroom piso exterior (meaning: it faces the street) with a wraparound terrace, my roommates even urged me to ask our casero for a new clothes iron when ours got something stuck to the bottom of it.
You break it, you ... have it replaced and be more careful next time
The first roommates I had in Spain were a bit immature, and took to using the glass coffee table to support themselves when they lifted weights. When that shattered into pieces, they explained what happened to the landlord and a new piece of glass appeared within a couple of days at no cost to us. Another time, the majority of the contents of a bottle of Rioja ended up permanently displayed on the kitchen ceiling of a acquaintance’s apartment, to which the landlord simply replied “Well, I'll paint over it then.” This is by no means a call to smash and destroy everything in your Spanish apartment, but should you do something stupid your landlord might be more forgiving than you think.
Needless to say, this is not standard practice in New York.
Should I stay or should I go now
In Madrid it's fairly easy to find a landlord who will negotiate the length of a lease without inflating the rent for the privilege. That makes it easier for newcomers to the city, or for workers on seasonal contracts, including teachers like me. If you do have a 12-month deal, often the only penalty for backing out early is losing the security deposit. Spanish housing law states that tenants with 12-month or longer leases are only required to pay up to the minimum stay period of sixth months, after which they can choose to leave by paying a penalty equivalent to one month of rent.
In New York, by contrast, you're on the hook for the rent until your lease expires—unless you can find an acceptable replacement tenant—and you could face a lawsuit if you don't pay it.
What was the broker's fee?
These fees do exist in Madrid, but they're easy to avoid unless you're overly particular with your accommodation requirements (two bidets!) or don't know how to use the Internet (too Luddite). In other words, you can find most apartments online and rent them directly through the landlord. Additional fees, often equal to one month's rent, are really only common on the high end of the market.
Washing machines, washing machines everywhere
I did not at anytime during my two years in Spain see an apartment that did not have a washing machine, almost always in the kitchen, installed similarly to a dishwasher. The washing machine is as standard there as the absence of one is here in New York. However, I never at anytime saw a dryer. Madrileños (meaning “people from Madrid”) take advantage of the dry climate and hang all of their laundry outside.
Doors closing, going up...
Most apartment buildings in Madrid have an elevator, including many with fewer than four floors—a somewhat rare sight outside of premium residential buildings in New York. Although they come standard, your landlord might charge you what's referred to as a community fee to help with the maintenance. With Madrid's aging population, the elevators have become more of a necessity than a luxury, but one that people of all ages can take advantage of. Save your energy for running to the store before it closes unreasonably early.
So what's the catch? Renting in Madrid has its drawbacks as well. Although rare, some landlords will request a security deposit worth two or three months' rent up front. Others may inappropriately let themselves in at odd hours to fuss at you about your cleaning technique or give you some gazpacho they just made. Emergency maintenance services can get delayed on weekends due to landlords and repair men being inactive on those days, and you might find yourself without a usable shower Friday night through Monday morning. It's a good idea to already be friends with the neighbors before you go ringing the doorbell to “borrow a bath.”