If you plan to rent a house or apartment in Bolivia, take a moment to read through the following pointers, all based on our own experience in Santa Cruz, where we are based. If you’re considering moving to Bolivia from somewhere like the US or Canada, you’ll find that looking for a house to rent or buy is an experience you’ll never forget. The purpose of this article is to give you an idea of what renting
a home or apartment might be like in Bolivia. We'll touch on buying
a house or apartment separately.
Finding a house in Santa Cruz used to be very easy. But this city is currently the fastest growing city in South America and Bolivia has been the fastest growing country in South America since 2015. Consider the following carefully when you start looking for a place to rent.
• Renting an apartment often costs more than renting a house - can you believe it? There is actually no such thing as an apartment building in Bolivia. Every “apartment” building is actually a condominium. Each apartment is owned by an individual or family. They can set whatever price they want. Which brings us to the next point:
• The housing market is very competitive. The more demanding you are of a home owner (in terms of fixing things, add-ons, etc.) the less likely you are to be chosen as a renter. Unless the homeowner is very “wowed” by the idea of a foreigner renting their home (in which case you’ve probably answered one of the “foreigners only” ads) they probably won’t be willing to invest a lot to get a home ready for you. Stay away from newspaper ads that say “Solo para extranjeros” (only for foreigners) or contain similar phrases. Those apartment and homes are almost always way overpriced.
• On the other hand, these homes are sometimes equipped with amenities that are not usually offered in homes here: amenities the homeowner knows only foreigners expect. But in general, Bolivians believe foreigners are all wealthy because our incomes are above Bolivian incomes. The stereotype is that all gringos are rich and homes offered to gringos come with gringo price tags.
• Don't assume that houses and apartments in Bolivia will be fully equipped with all of the amenities that are "normally included" in other countries, such as the U.S. If you rent "unfurnished" this typically means completely empty: no refrigerator, stove or oven, washer or dryer (dryers are very rare in Bolivia), no dishwasher (very few exist in Bolivia) and no microwave oven or water heater, and no phone. Even if you rent "fully furnished" this does not mean that all appliances will be included. Furnished might include some or all appliances, but might not. Be sure to stipulate in your rental contract what is included and what is not.
• Likewise, be sure that your contract clearly stipulates which utilities are included in your rental cost and which are not.
• Typically the only houses and apartments that do include all appliances are "corporate housing" type apartments because they are short-term rentals (by the week or month) for businesspeople, short-term volunteers, and sometimes tourists. Airbnb rentals should of course clearly list what is included or not on the website itself so in that case, you'll already know in advance of agreeing to rent.
• Apartments are usually much safer than houses. Most houses have very high walls or gates surrounding the entire property, but homes in the nicer neighborhoods are more frequently targeted by thieves, so take that into account. If you choose to live in a house, you should 100% ask about its security features, or negotiate who would pay to add in any security features you would like the house to have. Most homes are rented “as is” so you may have to pay for additional features if you really really want the house.
• If you’re looking for a rental among the newspaper classified ads, don’t skip over the listings under the for sale sections. Some homeowners may be open to renting a home they listed for sale because it isn't selling easily, and some ads say “For sale or rent” but are listed only under one of the sections, etc. By reading all the ads, you have a greater variety of homes to look at.
• If you are renting an apartment, not a house, be aware that the price listed in a classified ad is usually NOT the final price. Because all apartments are actually condominiums, you must ask “cuanto son las expensas?” (“How much are the building maintenance fees?”) In most apartment buildings you pay monthly maintenance fees in addition to your rent. These include gardening, doorman or security salaries, pool cleaning, housekeeping of public areas, and lighting in public areas, etc. These payments are not paid to your homeowner but separately to the building manager (which is why they do not list this cost in their ads) and every apartment renter must pay them. Read more about utilities here.
• When you hire an inmobiliaria to find you a home to rent, it is customary for them to charge you anywhere from 50% to 100% of one month’s rent as their fee. For example, if they tell you they'll charge 80% of a month, this means that if you find a house that costs $1500 to rent per month, your agent will charge you a one-time finder's fee of $1200 for having found you the house. If you find an apartment for $400 a month, and your agent's fee is 50% of a month, you'll pay a $200 finder's fee.
• It's a large amount of money so you have every right to require them to show you several houses or apartments. It would be ridiculous to pay several hundred dollars after seeing just one place.
• If you use a real estate agent to help you find a rental, your bargaining abilities will be limited. If you don’t bargain directly with the owner, you can be sure you’ll have a hard time getting the price down because the agent's pay is a percentage of the monthly rental price you will pay. Your agent will help you find a house or apartment to rent, but won't work too hard to do any bargaining on prices (and won't encourage you to do so).
• Because of this, real estate agents may seem a bit secretive when they agree to show you an apartment or house. For example, they will either pick you up, or ask you to pick them up, or (if you don't have a car) they will ask you to pay a taxi to drive you both around. Or they may ask you to meet them somewhere nearby to the potential rental, but they will never give you the actual full address and tell you to meet them there. This is because they are afraid that you will get there first, meet the owner, and either cut them out completely, or bargain the price down with the owner before they arrive.
• Despite this, if you don’t know the city well, you would do well to consider using an inmobiliaria (real estate agent) to do your house hunting. You tell them what type of house you want, which location (or at least what kind of area) you would like to live in, what amenities you are looking for, and how much you are willing to pay. If they know of a house that matches your request, they'll show it. However, be aware that if they don't already know of a house or apartment that matches what you want, they won't bother doing any extra searching for one unless you plan to rent for $1000 per month or more. Several have told us they won’t go out of their way to search for you outside of their own existing listings unless they consider it worth their while.
• When you find a house to rent, you and the owner will agree on a lawyer to draw up a rental contract. Normally the owner will prefer a lawyer of their choice, not yours. The rental agent does not do this for you and is not involved in the actual rental or sales contract at all, although they will accompany you. Generally speaking, a lawyer will charge about Bs. 150 (about $21) to draw up a rental contract.
• After you and the owner have signed the rental contract, you will go together to a notary public where you have to sign a “reconocimiento de firmas” which is an extra document that is signed to verify your signature is really your signature. It will cost Bs. 50 or so. Usually you do both on the same day. Usually, the homeowner will ask the renter to pay for these documents.
• The owner will request a deposit and the first month's rent prior to move-in. Customarily the deposit will be equivalent to 2 month's rent, but you can attempt to negotiate it down. Some home or apartment owners will even charge the equivalent of 3 months rent in advance as a deposit. There are several reasons for this:
• Some owners are very wary of renting to foreigners because they are afraid that if you get behind on your rent payments, or if you move out without their knowledge, they will have no legal recourse to recover their losses, especially if you leave the country. Utilities are problematic as well. The monthly rental price normally doesn't include utilities. Normally an electric bill, gas bill or phone bill will arrive 30 days after use, so if you've already moved on to another country the owner will need to pay that bill. If you're no longer in the country, they have no way to make you pay or recover their losses. They can't even take you to court if you're absent from the country. If you look at it from their perspective, a higher-than-normal upfront deposit for foreigners doesn't seem so unreasonable.
• Normally you must give 30 days written notice before you plan to move out.
• Always take pictures of every room, wall, floor, ceiling, appliance and piece of furniture in a house or apartment you rent before you move in and just after you move your belongings out and finish cleaning and preparing to return the home.
• Always do a walk-through with the owner after you've moved your belongings out and before you turn in the keys. Always ask them to give you something signed stating that they did a walk-through with you and that they found the home to have been returned in satisfactory condition. Do this, or be prepared to lose all or most of your deposit.
• At move-out time, you can sometimes negotiate with the owner to return your deposit before you leave (especially if you are moving out of the country) by offering to leave them a reasonable amount of money to pay for any outstanding utilities bills (reasonable being an amount calculated based on an average of previous utilities bills) and asking them to return the remaining amount of the deposit to you immediately. You may even make this a negotiating point at the beginning before you sign the rental contract, asking that this point be included in the contract.