The Inferno: A Flat Finding Journey Through the Depths of Moscow
Text by Philip Baillie
Dumping my bags on the lightly dusted wooden tiles of a fourth-floor hostel room, I sat on the bed and exhaled all the nervous tension built up during the taxi rush from Domodedovo Airport. Getting to Moscow had been tough enough – involving months of planning. However, I now had a week before work started to achieve what seemed to be impossible to the average student; to find a flat in an infernal ring of towering flats, real estate crooks and bureaucratic chaos.
Stuffing a selection of complimentary maps from the hostel into my padded jacket I set off into the cold February morning, the sun dormant behind a blue-grey masked sky, towards an unknown internet café. Stumbling into the first place with a Wi-Fi sign displayed in the window on my road to nowhere I set up a temporary base camp and made a quick checklist, despite the gritty business lunch. Laptop – check. Internet – check. Patience – so far, check. Luck… would be useful. While gulping down some watery soup I began flicking through various expatriate websites suggested by the hostel staff, including the more trustworthy expat.ru, redtape.ru and flatmates.ru. Since I was restricted by a student budget, I couldn’t afford to go through an agency, so a flat-share was the only real option. At least the credit crunch would gradually gnash down the prices. Instead of agency fees, the main administration costs were spent on sickly sweet apple juice to excuse my presence at headquarters. Following hours of waving away the waiter, my endeavors resulted in a shortlist of flats plotted around the city at various metro stations; each a capital of regional kiosk subculture.
There are two main methods to find a flat. The first and most obvious method, as I initially tested, would be to find a reputable agency to do it for you through a newspaper or friend. However, due to financial restraints, I decided to abandon the high road, instead choosing to freely slide down the property ladder to ground level. The second option was more exciting, more Russian and therefore more unpredictable. Taking a risk, I got a chance to test my classroom language skills over the phone to set up some visits, having exhausted the normal flat finding channels. On the Russian side, LiveJournal forums and slando.ru were the best two websites amongst a network of scams and pitfalls for unsuspecting foreigners in English. One chain of e-mails in response to a thread from craiglist.com led to a comically unthinkable story of a family who were spread over the world from the UK to India, and wanted to rent out their Arbat apartment for a knockdown price. Discussing the issue with Russians had taught me that such realtor agents even let apartments only to disappear after a few weeks. Not great when the real owners of the flat arrive to their horror as they find a little redfaced (taken for a ride) expat sleeping in their bed.
Headquarters got busy around dinner time, signaling the end of the business day. While floods of tired workers spilled out of the carriages and onto the marbled platforms, I slipped through the crowds, continually checking the metro plan on the reverse side of my weathered city map. Most evenings would involve two visits to exhausted yet eager young professionals who were keen to let out their extra room to subsidize crisis squeeze. One in Yugo-Zapadnaya to Pechatniki, another in VDNK to Slavyanski Bulvar or from Kitai Gorod to Tverskaya. Aside from the fact that each flat had its own problems, they met basic survival standards… apart from the flat that had no furniture.
Judging by the websites, the same principle applies for flats as for visiting a museum or going to the theater in that there are two price levels: one for foreigners and one for Russians. Keenly approached by expats and Russians alike, who were keen to find an English- speaking flat mate, I had to make a tough decision. Nonetheless, the crisis provided a chance to negotiate the price, and saw my chosen flat’s rent fall by over 30%. Potential renters are in a privileged position as jobs begin to disappear and rents become arrears. If you are adventurous, sharing with a Russian can be cheaper and a developing experience, exchanging language and culture over a Friday evening pizza and beer. However, a severe warning should be heeded. One scarring experience led me to take a trial run at a central flat, shared with two Russians that became a surreal hubbub of debauched nighttime activity…
Following a swift getaway, I looked over at my former flat-mate who was drifting off to sleep beside my suitcase in the metro carriage. Passing the illuminated Luzhniki Stadium visible through the glass fronted bridge, a few reflective thoughts rested on my mind, helping me to understand what is really important when looking for a flat-share in Moscow. The first is obvious but essential; to know what you want – area, size, and price. The second is to visit as many places as possible to have a good basis for comparison, to know what prices are reasonable; corresponding to the flat’s interior quality and proximity to the metro. The third and most troublesome point is to find someone you can trust, or at least establish a sturdy contract with to avoid a future run through the Moscow flat-finding Malebolge.