Monday, July 09, 2018

South Korea is the Anti-Italy, Part 2; Housing

For those don't remember our epic house hunting saga from last year in Italy, let me just say that it was legen...

wait for it...


I will not recount the entire sordid episode here but suffice to say that in typical Italian fashion, things did not go smoothly. When DoD Civilians relocate overseas we receive what is called TQSA. Basically it pays for a hotel and meals for a fixed amount of time until we find a place to live. In Germany and Italy I was allowed 90 days of TQSA which really should be plenty of time to find a place to live. In Germany it was but in Italy last year, it was not and I ended up having to request an exception to policy and in order to receive an extension because it took so long. In the end we found an amazing place right in the historic center of downtown Vicenza but it was anything but easy. We had originally found, and agreed to rent, a huge villa not far from the base but the landlord jerked us around and after weeks of claiming he was cleaning and fixing everything, it was discovered that he had in fact not done anything and so we told him to "vai a cagare" and kept looking. 

So let me back up and explain how things work, for the uninitiated. DoD Civilians overseas receive something called LQA (Living Quarters Allowance). It basically pays for our rent and utilities. The amount you receive is based on where you are stationed, your civilian rank and how many dependents you have. For me, I'm in the upper third of the government civilian rank and I have 4 dependents which means my LQA rate is, well, pretty high. With this in mind, it SHOULD be easy to find a place to live anywhere, even Italy. However, as you have no doubt learned by now, Italy is not like most places. Let's start with the housing office - they have several properties in the greater Vicenza area on the "for rent" list but almost all of them are well outside the historic downtown. And many of them are, to be honest, subpar. On top of that, the housing office in Vicenza is like many other places in Italy - corrupt. I know for a fact that they have a "secret list" of really nice places that are not shown to the general public because they are being reserved for the highest ranking people. Virginia doesn't drive, she takes the bus everywhere so she wanted to live in the downtown area where she could walk everywhere but of course the housing office had nothing big enough there so we were forced to hire an immobiliare, which is basically an Italian realtor. Immobiliares are great at finding you what you're looking for in a house or apartment but they are expensive. Very expensive. The reason they are expensive is because in Italy (and Germany) the landlord does not pay the realtor fee, the tenant does. It is generally one month's rent + 22% VAT (value added tax), so it's not always financially feasible for some people. We dealt with a few immobiliares who were horrible but were extremely lucky to end up with an absolutely wonderful immobiliare named Francesca who took GREAT care of us. I obviously was not thrilled at having to pay such an exorbitant amount of money but in the end at least she found us just what we were looking for and she worked her ass off to find it. {If anyone would like her contact info, feel free to message me!}
In Italy we lived in a big, beautiful apartment on this very historic street in downtown Vicenza; we paid handsomely for it but it was worth it. 

Once you find a place in Italy (or Germany), you contact the civilian personnel office and arrange to have your LQA started. The rent is a fixed amount but the here's where it gets difficult. You have to put the utilities (gas, electric, water, etc.) in your name which means you have to go to the various utility companies and arrange to have everything put in your name and turned on which always includes high activation costs and such. Then, for LQA purposes, you have to "estimate" how much you think your utility bills will be each month. Whatever you estimate is what the government will pay you for the first year (in addition to your rent). After 12-15 months, you then have to do an LQA reconciliation where you must submit your utility bills for your first year. They then total up the bills and compare it to what you estimated; if it's more then they refund you the difference, if it's less then you pay the government the difference. As you can imagine, this process is a tremendous PAIN IN THE ASS. Fortunately you only have to do a reconciliation one time, after your first year. They then adjust your LQA payment amount to reflect whatever your utilities cost your first year. Sound confusing? Trust me, you can't even imagine. But, that's Italy.

Once again, South Korea is the anti-Italy. My buddy Jack told me how great the housing process here is when I got this job and it sounded great but as the saying goes, "I'm from Missouri; you gotta show me". 

And show me, they certainly have! 

Believe it or not, one of the things that almost prevented me from taking this job was that we were still in debt from all of the fees we had to pay in Italy a year ago to move into our place - first months rent, security deposit and immobiliare fee altogether came to almost $10k. When Jack and I first discussed the job, I told him I probably couldn't afford it because of this and he informed me that here in Korea, the landlord pays the realtor fee. Well that certainly changed things. He also told me that most places include all utilities in the rent which means no activation fees, no "estimating" monthly bills and most reconciliations! Even better, he said that most places come with cable and internet already installed, so the only thing I would pay out of pocket was our cell phone plans. I really had a hard time believing all this, I thought there must be some kind of catch. Anyway, Jack hooked me up with his realtor and I contacted her before we arrived and introduced myself, let her know what we were hoping to find when we arrived. I pretty much realized during my in-processing brief on the first day that things would not be as difficult as they were in Italy (or Germany) when the personnel guy told us that we are only authorized 60 days of TQSA here instead 90 as in Italy and that he would be shocked if it took any of us more than 30 days to find a house. He also told us that they have an "80-20" situation here; for every 20 people that arrive here they have 80 houses available and that he found exactly what he was looking for - a 3700 sq/ft place on the river - in 2 days.   

Holy crap.

Anyway, I went up to the housing office afterwards to go through the housing brief crap and was told "No man, you don't have to do anything...whenever your realtor finds you a place, just let us know and we'll have you come sign the lease." Once again, I was floored. Anyway, on our third day here we finally hooked up with Ashley, our realtor to start looking at places. She asked what rank I was, I told her I was a GS12 with 4 dependents so I was pretty sure I got a high amount but I wasn't sure exactly how much and she replied "It's ok, I already know!". And they do. The realtors know exactly how much everyone gets depending on the rank and dependents. It turns out I'm sort of in the VIP category, which means realtors LOVE me because they can put me in an expensive place and get higher commission. So we finished our errands and met her and her boss outside the front gate at 4pm last Friday, they literally whisked us off and showed us place after place after place. They were all nice but the second place she showed us made quite an impression. Virginia and the boys wanted it badly. Me, I was in no hurry. Why should I be? Knowing that I was finally at the top of the housing food chain, why should I settle for something I saw on the first day? Shouldn't I be patient and wait for an absolute palace? Well, maybe. Or maybe, that was just my past experiences in Germany and Italy affecting my judgement, who knows. All I know is that we looked at probably 10 places that first afternoon and the second place was much, much better than all the rest. As well, all three boys were literally begging me to take it - they were terrified that we would lose it if we waited. I told Ashley we loved the second one and might end up taking it in the end but that I'd like to look at some more places on Monday and keep my options open. She said sure and that she was also happy to meet us on Saturday if we wanted. The second place kept nagging at me but I just could not get past the idea that I'd be crazy to settle for the second place we looked at. Back in the hotel room Friday night I was trying to discuss it with Virginia but she kept giving me her usual "Whatever you want to do is fine..." routine. I told her to take me completely out of the picture and tell me what she would do if it was 100% her decision; she came clean and admitted that she would take it in a second. It was big, beautiful, new, modern, close to the base and the markets, shopping, etc. and most of all, had an area for the garden that she so desires. And so I called Ashley and told her that we'd like to look at the place the next morning and then make a decision. 

Of course we ended up taking it. We had the inspection this morning which of course went well as the place is brand new and we are the very first family to ever live in it. When you think about it, it was the second place we looked at which means we found our perfect house in literally 20 minutes. Twenty minutes! And everything Jack told me was spot on - all the utilities are included, I have two parking spaces, free WiFi and cable, AND a free water purifier/dispenser (cold and hot) small thing, that! In Italy we paid $75 for a culligan water cooler, then had to pay $8.75 for each 5 liter bottle of water, which we would go through in about 2 days which meant every few days I was going to the shoppette and spending 20-25 bucks on 2-3 huge bottles of water, which I had to lug upstairs one bottle at a more of that shit! I asked Ashley about the filters and she said "No worry, they will come every two months to change for you!". 

*wiping away tears*

I never dreamed places like this existed...

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