15 July 2014

How to find a new home in your new location.

We have just moved in to our new home in Miri, Sarawak.  It is amazing how being in our own place, even minus our shipment, can make me feel so much more relaxed about our new location.

As a child our new home was not really something I gave much thought to.  My father’s company set us up in interim accommodation until his predecessor finished the handover and left, we then moved into the predecessor’s house.  Often we were on company camps and there was no option but to live in the given property and even when we lived out in the community options were often limited.

Tied accommodation is the norm for resident teachers in UK boarding schools and from the start of our marriage we have lived in some choice properties (we could choose red carpet with blue flecks or blue with red, rickety furniture as standard) and we have become pretty adept at using throws, cushions, pictures etc to personalise a place. 
Some personalisation needed!

When we moved to Kazakhstan there was no provision for hotel accommodation so we were told that we would have to choose our apartment before we arrived and move straight in to it. In many ways this was fantastic as we were straight in to our new home.  HR could not, however, understand why I insisted on seeing photographs of every room in the proposed apartments, wanted a floor plan and a list of furniture that came with the property.  The estate agents seemed to be obsessed with photographs of bathrooms to the exclusion of any other room in the property.  I was told that it was normal, in Astana, for people to arrive and then move again a few weeks or months later if the property did not suit.  They could not understand that we wanted to keep the disruption for the children to an absolute minimum – to let them move into a home that they could feel was permanent.  It is one thing to stay in a hotel for a few weeks and then move quite another to hop between homes.

A tasteful interior - as an expat you too could live in a place like this!
Some of the decoration in the proposed flats was… interesting.  Having lived in tied accommodation in the UK and elsewhere (our house in Warri, Nigeria had banana yellow walls, cream and brown swirled carpet and grey (later orange and blue) sofas) I could see beyond this but there were certain non negotiables we were unwilling to compromise on.  We needed large space for the children and dog so they would not feel cooped up in the winter.  We needed a spare bedroom/office space so that I could work from home and we could have family to visit without making someone sleep on the sofa, underground parking, proximity to supermarkets and a lift.  We finally found the apartment we could be happy in only for one man in HR to tell us he wanted us to sign on a different, smaller apartment that met none of our criteria because he ‘liked the landlord’…hmmm.  He was a little miffed when I put my foot down but it was worth it, we lived in the apartment from the day we arrived to the day we left Kazakhstan.  Some other colleagues found, on arriving in Astana that they were moved into apartments that had nothing in common with the ones they thought they had rented and had to move.  I have never apologised for being fussy on my non negotiables!

Don't be shy about being honest if something does not work for you.
This delightful kitchen was one step too far for me!
Our recent move to Miri was a little easier in that we had two weeks in a hotel to house hunt.  Employers put us in touch with a local estate agent who showed us round.  Initially she had not been given a list of our criteria so the first few properties were unsuitable but she came up trumps pretty quickly.  Our main concern was to find a furnished place as we do not have any furniture coming in our shipment and do not have a furniture allowance.  Most properties in Miri are let un or only part furnished.  We looked at some amazing 7/8 bedroom houses with all the space in the world but they came with beds and a sofa nothing else.  Furniture may be relatively cheap in Miri but with a new baby on the way we do not want to be spending money we don’t need to.  Minimalist living may appeal to some but there is such a thing as too minimalist!  

We found a lovely property complete with furniture and some kitchen ware to tide us over and promptly decided to start negotiations to move in.  It has not quite been a week and we are still waiting for toys, books, personal items etc to arrive but this house already feels like a home so we know that we have made the right decision.

Top tips for finding a home in your new location:
  • Will you have a choice of property or have to take what you are given?  If the latter you just have to be flexible and fit in or negotiate for a more suitable property once you are in place.
  • If you are able to choose your own property find out your budget, do you have an allowance?  Are you willing to top it up yourself?  Let your agent know the budget range you are prepared to deal in.
  • Decide what you need from your new house and be honest about it this should help prevent your agent showing you unsuitable properties.
  • Do you have limited time in the hotel before moving, if so you may need to compromise a little more to get a property in time.
  • Ask other expats about local idiosyncrasies/points to check ie in Miri I asked for the landlord to run pest control before we moved in.  In Astana I checked that the heating etc was working.  In the UK check how much council tax you pay on your property.
  • Get to know your landlord - be nice to them and they will (hopefully) help you out beyond the minimum.
  • Learn to love (or at least ignore) someone else’s taste.  The lighting/furniture/crockery etc may be hideous but you will have to live with it.  Get creative with sofa throws, pictures, etc etc.   
  • Some times you will be living somewhere full of tasteless tat, sometimes in a home you could only imagine in your wildest dreams.  Our reward for the years in the Warri house (of banana wall fame) came on our move to Lagos.  We moved into a stunning old colonial mansion with the most amazing parquet floors and a huge garden with beautiful established tropical plants and (a luxurious necessity) our own generator rather than a communal one for power cuts.  Even the furnishings were (mostly) tasteful.  Learn to accept the rough and revel in the smooth. 
Sometimes you catch a break with a beautiful home.  
Click on the picture for more information on the challenges of expat life.

Ersatz Expat


  1. Great post - I have to imagine there are some interesting housing choices available in Kazakhstan as well as Miri. Have you found many differences in the interiors?

    1. Hi Celia, houses not apartments are the norm in Miri. They are very plain and empty compared to Astana. We thought we were spoiled with our impossibly large Astana flat but the new house is 2x larger, has a separate granny annexe and a garden. How we will ever fit back in a UK house I do not know.

  2. Love your photos and captions Mrs. EE.
    I will remember your wise words when my time comes again soon.