House hunting in India is an exhausting mix of sightseeing, assessment, and ultimately, decision-making. Some organizations provide guidance in the form of a handler to ensure the would-be expat doesn’t cause an international incident, while other people will arrive with nothing more than an outdated map and best wishes. Both use-cases provide an opportunity to share some hopefully beneficial information.
I recently received some excellent advice from a brilliant and beloved editor about the book I wrote while in India, “I’d say you’d want to trim this to about half the current length…Brevity is the soul of wit.”
I have about as much interest in publishing two books on this subject as I do in self-immolation. Since the bulk of a second book leans more toward guidance than personal musings, and since I never allow my muted intellect to get in the way of helpful advice, I’ve decided to publish portions of the book to the blog in the hopes it will prove both useful and mildly entertaining for anyone considering joining the expat community in India.
House Hunting Hyderabad is the first in this series.
During our house hunting trip we looked at everything from new high-rise flats to dilapidated villas beaten down by time and neighboring noisy, exhaust-filled, over-developed real-estate. We started with a narrow set of requirements and were prepared to make a decision during the trip—but our planning started long before we arrived. We knew if we wanted to beat the house-hunting process into submission, we needed the right weapons.
The Tools of the Trade
The average human can recall about 7 things from a list. How does one evaluate almost two dozen homes while still suffering the effects of a 27 hour flight? The answer is a decent camera.
A camera is essential for capturing everything that makes a house a home, and some of the things that make it a disaster. Some might consider using their mobile phone—an admirable idea if not a bit short sighted. Our mobile phones ran out of memory within a few hours on the first day. Luckily, we had a DSLR with an extra SD card. Taking the first photo of the villa number helped remind us where we’d been. Bonus: You are going to see some crazy stuff in India—a camera is the best way to capture the insanity.
Paper and Pens
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but none of them communicates as well as the note from your spouse in the margin, “NO WAY IN HELL!” Notes record things the camera might miss, like the cockroach that ran across your feet and into the closet. Things like the smell of carrion wafting into the dining room, a view of a field full of poopers, and the sound of construction at the high-rise going up a hundred feet away are difficult to remember details during a post-hunt review of 762 photos.
Your Good Name
You’ll be asked for your good name several times throughout the day. I wasn’t even sure I had a good name before visiting India—a couple of average names, sure, but I wouldn’t call any of them particularly good. Your good name is most likely your first name, but could be another name of your choosing. For example, when we order coffee and they ask us our good name, we give the names of two of our best friends—I am Jason, my wife is Brandi. Using your real name avoids confusion, but isn’t nearly as much fun. Helpful hint: Once asked, it is polite to return the favor. Asking the other person’s good name before he asks yours makes you sound like a total local.
Along with sharing your good name, you’ll be shaking a lot of hands. Here’s the thing—there is no way to sugar coat it—many, many Indians urinate in public, and I’ve yet to see anyone wash or sanitize their hands post bladder relief. It’s not a judgement—there lots of reasons this occurs so frequently in India. In addition, the bathroom facilities at some restaurants are lacking compared to Western standards—unless you’re from France. It is an absolute crap shoot whether there will be soap, or something besides toilet paper with which to dry your hands, and the water used to wash is definitely not potable for tourists. Shake enough hands and odds are good you’ll catch something that will leave you on the bathroom floor begging for god’s mercy.
Our Indian handlers supplied us each with a bottle of water—a kind gesture. But we were thirsty, perpetually dehydrated Americans. We brought our own water bottles to India, filled each morning with bottled water from the hotel. We used insulated water bottles because the Indian heat will turn a nice cool drink into hot, flavorless soup in the time it takes to unscrew the cap. It was not uncommon to drink three liters of water a day.
You and your spouse are an efficient, well-oiled, tactical house-hunting team, and every team needs a plan. You should know going into a house who takes photos, who takes notes, and who will provide their good name to the owner.
Our checklist of things to ask and review was indispensable. Indian houses, villas, apartments and the like come either furnished, partially furnished, or unfurnished. They may include things like air conditioners, light bulbs, refrigerators, dishwashers, Reverse Osmosis (RO) systems, fixtures, drapes, ceiling fans, washers, and televisions. Or they may not. A checklist for each house—we originally didn’t make enough copies—provided a framework for review and inspection so we wouldn’t forget to look for certain items—like toilets.
House hunting is going to take a lot of time. In the US it might be possible to start at 9:00 AM, look at ten houses across a 10 mile radius, and be done by 3:00 PM. In India, it is going to take twice as long. Traffic is a killer.
While it may be said that the traffic in Delhi is worse than Mumbai, which is worse than Bangalore, which is worse than Hyderabad, one must consider the scale. When people talk about traffic in Delhi, they mean it might take three hours to drive two kilometers during rainy season. On the other hand, it probably only takes one hour to move two kilometers during Hyderabad’s rainy season. Traffic—the amount, the honking, the pollution—has a major impact on your life, time, and sanity. Come prepared to relax and enjoy the craziness.
The goal of house hunting is to find a home that satisfies as many needs and wants as possible. We wanted a place to separate from the insanity, somewhere the commute to the office wouldn’t make us want to fall sobbing into bed every night, and an area to bike and run—someplace I could run, not my wife…few women exercise outdoors in India. We wanted a gym or a place with space to create a home gym. Needs and wants vary from person to person.
Some people look for other things to make life bearable. Parents may want to live where there are other children in the neighborhood, someplace with a safe area and a pool. People who eat out tend to live in restaurant dense areas. Couples without children may prefer an apartment versus a villa or house. Someone staying home during the day—affectionately known as the trailing or supporting spouse, although I prefer Chief of Staff—may prefer to live close to shopping malls, yoga studios, and coffee shops. No matter what they are, satisfying the important needs and wants and taking care of yourself will result in a more enjoyable expat experience.
Beer and a Soft-sided Cooler
Beer makes everything just a tiny bit better. As the day drones on and the house reviews pile up, you’ll be glad you brought a couple beers for the ride. Don’t worry, drinking and riding is legal in India. Bonus: The cooler won’t go to waste—you’ll be using it to hold contraband bacon, cheese, and various chilled sundries imported during frequent trips to Hong Kong, Thailand, and home.
Some Final Thoughts
Don’t be surprised to find most housing options looking like crap. Owners leave houses with water damage, construction materials, leaking faucets, and three inches of dust until they are sure they have a renter and a deposit check in-hand. Indian’s expect people to see past these minor cosmetic and operational deficiencies, all of which are promised to be corrected as soon as the lease is signed.
Key’s are literally the key to happiness. There is one thing Indian home builders enjoy more than anything—keyed doors and drawers. Not counting the servant’s quarters and bathroom, we have 24 doors, drawers, and closets with locks—over 48 keys sitting in a drawer in the dining room. There are just too many keys unlocking too many places in India.
Side note: The only thing more prolific than keys are switches. Every room has in excess of 7 switches operating everything from lights to air conditioning. None of them are labeled, which makes entering a room a guessing game. Our house had over 60 switches.
India is in perpetual motion. Walk around the flat and community and pay attention to what you see, hear, and smell—the three senses which more than any other will define your existence. You will quickly asses the factors around your potential abode no matter the time of day you visit. Listen to the sound in each room. Can you hear road noise? If so, you will be sleeping with that sound. Is there a Hindu temple or a masjid nearby? Their music and call to prayers will be your morning alarm. Is there a concrete block factory next door? That means early morning and overnight equipment running, more dust, and a possible future construction site nearby. Is there a makeshift tenement in the field across the street? If so, expect your house to smell like a campfire in the winter when residents are trying to keep warm. Change is a constant in India. There is no guarantee the empty field next door currently serving as the local community toilet won’t be home to the next high-rise construction project—but you have to start somewhere.
Everything is negotiable. Curtains, televisions, refrigerators, washers, light fixtures, toilets, Reverse Osmosis systems, dishwashers, air conditioners— things considered normal in the West but missing in the potential Indian home can be negotiated into the lease. Especially important—ensure drapes are included. Horror stories abound in Hyderabad about expats searching for months to find curtains for their new home. The drape is the most elusive and expensive animal in India.
A south facing house is considered quite inauspicious. A neighbor whose house faced south dealt with roaches, a tree falling on her house, and a monkey on her roof. Coincidence? Perhaps. But it’s better to ask and know up front than to find out a few months into the expat assignment that you’re living in the Indian version of Amityville Horror.
Go for newer construction. The reality of house hunting in India can be summed up with those four words. “New construction,” which usually means at least some units will still be under construction, includes dust, noise, trouble getting cable, a lack of neighbors, and an insufficient track record to evaluate long term viability as a potential abode. We’ve heard stories of recurring elevator outages, doors falling off the hinges, pools constantly under maintenance, and one frightening tale of a sewer line not tapped into the main—it emptied into the street—all from “new construction.” But “newer construction,” something 2-5 years old with a history, completed villas or flats, and references, is an already trained animal. Everyplace will have it’s issues, but remembering those four words will help ensure finding a home you won’t regret.
Our House Hunting Trip
We toured 18 different homes—everything from beautiful, unfinished 3,500 square foot stadiums with private, in-flat elevators to scary, furnished options with cracking paint, stained ceilings, and partially filled, wall-sized fish tanks. After two days we decided on a fabulous apartment in a gated community within which we could easily take our morning walks. Across the street was a large, open space for mountain biking—although I was warned against it. It was near shopping and a short commute to work. The streets were as walkable as any in India—which means we would be taking our lives in our hands. It was a bit more expensive than we wanted, but we were willing to absorb the cost above our housing allowance. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite finished—devoid of light fixtures, appliances, and a cabinet. The estimate for completion was four to six months.
Tired, jet-lagged, hot, smelly and sore from riding in a car for two days, we quickly modified our expectations—a consistent theme in India—and went with our second choice: a “ready now” villa on the outskirts of town with easy access to mountain biking, running, and my wife’s office. It included light fixtures, A/C units, and a microwave oven. We negotiated for the landlord to provide a refrigerator, reverse osmosis system, washing machine, curtains, and a dishwasher—which, having a maid, we never used. It also had a lot of garbage, water leaks, and missing keys when we arrived. The community had a pool just big enough to swim laps—about 16 meters. It ended up being an awesome choice with fantastic Indian and expat neighbors, a stellar landlord, and the perfect location. We went with “newer construction”—the newest construction was our first choice.
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Unless otherwise noted, I drew or took the photographs in the article—as lame as they may look. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is probably planned. Copyright can be found here for my original work.