Life among the pagodas
We started looking for a new place to rent in May. A variety of circumstances, not the least of which was the nearing advent of Baby #2, caused us to realize that our current home is just not the right place for us anymore.
From a foreigner’s perspective, renting a house in Yangon is an arduous undertaking. If you are new to Myanmar and cannot yet read or speak, it involves doing everything through a translator, as even the rental signs are nearly always written in Burmese.
Renting is also a complicated social transaction, involving not only landlord and prospective renter, but an infamous third party: the bwey-sah. To call a bwey-sah a realtor would probably be an insult to realtors everywhere. While there are some folks whose only job is that of bwey-sah, a lot of people simply step into the role if they get wind of the news that you are looking to rent. The bwey-sah is essentially an intermediary; imagine a little bit of Craigslist, a little bit of aggressive door-to-door salesperson, and a gold-digger, and there you have a bwey-sah. You do not have to search for a bwey-sah; they usually materialize like genies whenever you say you wish to rent a house, and cling to you like a burr until the money has changed hands. He or she becomes part of the rental transation, and depending on his or her character, can make renting very pleasant, or, as is usually the case, a small nightmare. If you already speak the language, a bwey-sah can be especially frustrating to have around, as they want to be paid for work that you can do for yourself.
When a rental transaction takes place between a foreigner and a local landlord, the rent is paid up front for the entirety of the rental period—it is totally normal to need a lot of cash in hand in order to rent in Yangon. The reason bwey-sahs are so keen on their work is that when the rental agreement is signed, it is standard to give them the sum of a full month’s rent; usually the landlord and the renter negotiate to determine who will pay this fee. Considering that all a bwey-sah typically does is point out houses for rent (they cannot even show you the inside because they usually do not know the landlord, and no one gives out spare keys around here. Their main qualifications are simply that they can also read the “for rent” sign out front.) and show up at the rental agreement meeting, this is pretty good money. A few years ago, some friends of ours rented a flat, and when the rental signing took place, no less than seven people showed up claiming to be bwey-sahs. They were all rather upset to have so much competition for the first month’s rent payout. The monthly rent was so low for this particular flat that when our friends divided out the cash, it was hardly enough for them to buy much of anything.
When we started looking for our first place, the bwey-sah did next to nothing for us; we paid her the routine first-month fee, and she kept it all to herself and gave none to the neighbor who helped us find the place initially, which offended him. If I could re-do something it would be to give the neighbor money, if for no other reason than to prevent him from feeling slighted. The second place we rented was shown to us by another friend, who said he didn’t want to be a bwey-sah and had no intention of taking a fee. However, this friend’s wife complained to a few neighbors about how they weren’t getting a fee, the landlord caught wind of it and was so upset by what he perceived to be duplicity that he spent the first half of our rental meeting berating the poor man. (I knew so little Burmese at this point that I was sure the man was angry at us and about to terminate the deal.)
It isn’t without some trepidation, then, that we began to embark on the hunt for House #3. We found a place that was great in pretty much every way, but the landlord wanted to live in the bottom floor of the house while we lived in the top, so we passed on that arrangement. An acquaintance of Jim’s mentioned a house he had seen a few streets over from our current place, so we called the landlord and a family member showed us the house a few hours later. We liked it and told the person that we would be glad to rent it. The following day, Jim phoned the landlord to follow up, and even from a few feet away I could hear a shrill female voice berating him. Apparently we had somehow bypassed a bwey-sah by looking at the house, the bwey-sah got upset and called the landlord, who in turn decided to admonish us (we had not even met her yet, mind you) and told us that she was increasing the rent by 20%. Jim got off the phone—we consulted for about 10 seconds, decided that these were not great folks to be doing business with, and called back to say we weren’t interested. I was quite relieved the landlord showed her true colors before we entered into any sort of formal agreement. A few hours later the same landlord called back and tried to get us interested in renting again, but too late.
At this point we were days away from needing to renew our lease for our house before leaving for Thailand to have the baby, so we gave up and decided we would just extend the lease, stay in our current place for another six months, and look for something when we returned with the new baby. We had pedaled down every street on our bikes looking for signs and empty or new houses, and asking around, but to no avail. However, Jim has a trustworthy friend in the neighborhood we were eying, and about four days before we were set to renew our lease, he called and said that there was an empty house in his street, and would we like to come and see it?
We didn’t get our hopes up and went to see it with low expectations, as is wise when looking for real estate in this part of the world. As it turns out, this house and its surroundings was everything we hoped to find, and for half of what we are currently paying. It is almost new, and is in really great condition; only one family has lived in it. It is about the same square footage as our current dwelling, but it is a house with a little front yard and direct access to the street (i.e. easier with two kids, and more accessible as far as getting to know the neighbors and inviting people into our home). It is only a short bike ride from where we are currently living, and closer to more of our friends. The best part of the arrangement is that, even though we are paying him, our friend is not a greedy bwey-sah, and has been very gracious in helping us sort out the rental details; being a contractor, he is also helping us with some construction/remodel on the house as well.
So, we signed a two-year lease on Saturday and we will move in sometime next week, after adding a few finishing touches to the place. We are so excited about the new neighborhood, and really thankful for our new home. For those who are curious (that is, anyone bothering to read this blog!), here are some photos of it as it is right now–once we have it finished working on it, I’ll post updated photos of the place.
(Walking down the street to sign the rental agreement at the quartermaster’s house. Standard procedure for renting, and as foreigners, every time we enter Myanmar we have to visit the quartermaster and check in. The same goes for local people with local guests staying: everyone is supposed to be checked in with the quartermaster–including copies of their passport and ID card.)
(Meeting the quartermaster at his house to sign the agreement.)
(Lena enjoyed Paw Patrol on the tele during the rental proceedings. Note the larger-than-life size baby photos on the wall? That is really common decor around here.)
(Stacks of cash for paying the two-year lease. With the current exchange rate, our new place will cost about $191 USD per month in rent, which kinda feels like highway robbery when compared to rent prices in Washington right now.)
(Entry/living room. When we first looked at renting this house, there was no tile floor, only rough concrete, so we asked if they could install tile, and they agreed! The interior walls were also painted dark blue and green colors and were already showing mold, so we had it all repainted.)
(Lena is a huge fan of the stairs. I am too, as she has a lot of energy to burn, and she seems to find the stairs quite diverting.)
(This is the bigger of two downstairs bedrooms. We are really excited because they have solid walls, which means it will be easier to put the kids to bed while we have guests. The bedrooms don’t have doors yet, but we will install some soon.)
(One of the upstairs bedrooms. When you hire people to work on your house, they also sleep there. Standard practice. 😉 )
(Upstairs living area and bedrooms, with fresh paint and newly stained floor. When we agreed to rent the place, we also asked if the landlords would be willing to put in a ceiling, as there was nothing but bare metal roof, which can leak and gets very hot in the sun. The shelf on the left is the house’s built in shrine, where people keep their idols and make daily offerings. Thankfully the shelf can be used for other things, and the landlord was willing to remove the idol at our request. Sometimes landlords are not willing to clear a house of idols because they are afraid it is inauspicious.)
(Kitchen and a view of the back yard. The back yard needs some domesticating, as it is currently a swampy pile of broken tile and garbage from all the surrounding houses. It also looks like a snake’s hangout; hopefully we don’t find any snakes in our kitchen, like we did in one of our previous homes.)
(There is a bird’s nest in one corner of the kitchen, so we are going to have to seal off the space between the top of the wall and the ceiling so that the birds and rats don’t find their way in. This is a cooking counter with an exhaust fan above. As far as homes in this neighborhood go, this is a pretty fancy kitchen.)
(The bathroom is a shower and toilet all in one tiled room. There is also a squatty potty outside, which is great because sometimes we have guests who aren’t comfortable using a western toilet.)
(We even have a fun little balcony!)
(And we have a little yard! I am so happy that we can give Lena a little play space where she isn’t in danger of getting hit by a motorcycle or car. The street is also quite small, which means there is no fast-moving traffic, which is great.)
(Looking down our new street.)
(The street directly outside of our house. There are lots of friendly neighbors here. Our first house was near to this neighborhood, and I have really missed the friendly community in this part of the district. We are super glad to be living back in this neighborhood.)
And finally, a view of the front of our new digs! Excited to move in and make this space our home. I’ll share some more photos in a few weeks when we’re finished with moving in and working on the place.