Finding a House in Johannesburg: Part 1

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you will know that I’ve already posted several times about living in the Dainfern area, which it is probably safe to say is one of the prime expat locations in Johannesburg.

But writing a more comprehensive guide to living in Joburg that compares the different suburbs in a less biased way had been on my agenda for quite some time. Except I mostly procrastinated writing it, because I felt I didn’t know enough about Joburg. Writing your own blog is great, but meeting deadlines is not one thing you’ll get good at, because, well, there aren’t any deadlines.

I got the much-needed kick in the pants to finally deliver my “guide to accommodations in Joburg” from the folks at another website, Expat Arrivals, for whom I’d written several articles before, and what you’ll now read here is an adapted version of what was published on their website a few weeks back. To read the original article, please visit Expat Arrivals.

In this first post of this two-part series, let’s focus on the questions you should be asking yourself as you prepare to find a place to live in Johannesburg (or anywhere in South Africa, for that matter). Tomorrow I’ll elaborate on the actual suburbs of Johannesburg.

Size

housing in JoburgWhat size house will you be looking for? Are you expecting plenty of visitors? (trust me, they will come!) Will you employ domestic help? (yep, you will.) Will he/she live in with you? (in which case you will need to have enough room in your domestic quarters); (but in which case you also won’t mind a house one or two sizes too big for you, because it won’t be you scrubbing the seventeen toilets). Given all of the above, most likely your house in South Africa will be bigger than what you left behind.

Oh, and also  make sure you take the climate into consideration. With which I mean two things: a) you will need a nice big covered patio. Most of your life will take place on it, around the braai, around the pool, eating outside, etc. The only expats I’ve ever met who were disappointed with their houses were the ones where there was no patio, or only a tiny one. And b) make sure your house is North-facing, meaning you will get a whole day of sunshine in most rooms. This may not be so intuitive or even welcome in summer, but trust me, those two months of winter with your flimsy yet expensive underfloor heating will be extremely uncomfortable without the power of the sun. Can you tell I’m writing this blog post in the dead of winter on what is probably the coldest day of the year?

Cost

What will your budget be? And will you buy or rent? Most expats rent, and the ones who buy typically do that after having rented for two years and having gained a good understanding of the market. Your typical expat areas such as Dainfern, Kyalami, and Fourways Gardens will be the most expensive, just because the landlords there get spoiled, in my opinion, by a fairly constant and not so price-sensitive stream of company-sponsored expats from all over the world. Expect to pay anywhere from R5,000 to R60,000 per month. Though, to be honest, I have yet to meet anybody paying R5,000. Maybe that’s for a studio apartment out in the boondocks somewhere. Most likely you’ll find yourself in the R35,000 to R45,000 range if you want to live in a security estate. There will also be an additional levy of up to R2,000 per month to pay for all that security.

I don’t know anything about buying a house but I wish I did because then I might have been able to star in House Hunters International when they contacted me sometime last year. Seriously, I did have some fun going onto one of the real estate websites and checking out home prices around where we live. There is quite a range, from around R1.5 million all the way to over R10 million. There are some really nice houses at the upper end!

Oh, and back to renting: There is also quite a selection of nicely furnished homes. Something to consider if you don’t want to lug all your stuff here in a container that may or may not take “only” 8 weeks to get here (and that may or may not fall into the water upon unloading, as has happened to one of my acquaintances; actually, they don’t know for sure, but how else would everything in there have gotten completely wet?).

Security

Dainfern valleyDing ding ding! That’s the million dollar question here in South Africa, right? Well, that’s why we have these so-called security estates so many expats choose to live in. Though to be completely honest, I think the biggest draw towards these estates is not just the security they are surrounded with (think walls topped with razor wire topped with high-voltage-that-can-kill-you wires, interspersed with 24-hour cameras, some of them night vision, armed guards, booms and spikes in the entry lanes, fingerprints, face recognition…). The biggest draw is the lifestyle they offer – manicured lawns and common areas, recreation facilities, socializing within your neighborhood, proximity to schools, and convenient shopping.

Free-standing homes (where you are responsible for your own security) are apparently what you should stay away from here in Joburg, so we were told. However, there are some lovely free-standing homes out there, particularly in some of the older tree-lined neighborhoods of Joburg, and we know people who live in free-standing homes who seem to be just fine. Whereas even security estates are not immune to break-ins (and the occasional shooting or mafia hit, apparently). My point is, you can’t ever be entirely safe but why not live in a security estate, if you can afford it, when it offers so many other conveniences.

Location

Where will it be? I’ll be spending  much more time on that in tomorrow’s post, but you do need to carefully consider the location of your home. Traffic in Joburg is terrible, and it’s especially bad going from any of the Northern suburbs towards the city. Just looking at a map and finding the shortest distance between home and office won’t give you an accurate picture until you’ve actually driven the route at 7:00 in the morning. And anytime after 3:00 in the afternoon. You won’t avoid traffic altogether, that’s impossible, but finding a home at least close to school OR work, if you can’t do both, is a must. Unless you’re considering getting a driver and doing work in the car or don’t mind leaving the house before 6:00 am and returning after 7:00 pm.

Schools

housing in joburgFor those expats with children, this is the number one consideration, no matter where you move to. And the location of the American International School of Johannesburg is the prime reason the Dainfern and Kyalami estates are so popular among expats. It’s the closest you can get living in one of the larger security estates, and they all have school bus service (which you pay a fee for).

As you know, I never miss an opportunity to make a plug for going local where schools are concerned. Most expats don’t even consider any school beyond AISJ, or perhaps the German School for those who are German speaking. However, there is a wealth of excellent private schools scattered all over Johannesburg, some of them so old and prestigious you might think you’ve time-traveled back to 1920s England when walking over their campuses. Except the weather is so much better here. Expats often assume South African schools are behind, but that, whether true or not, is just one factor. The advantage of broadening your school search beyond AISJ is not only just a substantial cost savings as well as an opportunity for so much cultural learning for your kids, but also the fact that you can now be more flexible in your home search as well. (Be aware, however, that school space, both in the private and international schools in Johannesburg, has become increasingly limited over the last decade or so, and that most schools maintain long wait lists, especially for the lower (K-3) grades. Before you do anything else to prepare for your move, you have to find a school that can accommodate your children!)

Play

cricket in South AfricaIt might be asking too much to factor in the location of recreational activities on top of finding a home conveniently located close to work and school. But just know that South Africa is a country of an outdoor lifestyle, one that you will want to participate in. Which again is why estate living is so convenient, as you’ll have facilities right within your neighborhood – golf, tennis, squash, soccer, in some cases even horse riding. The more your children (and you!) can participate in sports within your estate or at the school (another advantage of South African schools which typically have state of the art sports facilities), the happier you will be, what with not having to cart anyone around town during afternoon rush hour.

Getting Started

The best way to find a place to live is of course to come look at what’s on offer. You can do some of that online (Property24.com is a good first start), and if you get to do a look-see trip, that’s great, otherwise living in temporary housing while searching for a permanent place is an option. In either case, hire a relocation or estate agent to show you around (Seeff, Remax, Gaye Cawood, and Pam Golding are some of the well-known estate agencies in the area).

One thing I’d like to warn you of, as it happened to us and many of our friends: Just because you’ve picked a house and signed the papers doesn’t mean that the seller/landlord is actually committed. South Africans, for some reason, seem to like to hedge their options to the last second, changing their minds from wanting to rent to wanting to sell, or vice versa, and you, the buyer/renter are often the one left holding the bag. So you might have picked your dream home on your get-to-know trip and gone back to your home country, happy with the thought that everything is settled, until weeks later you hear that the home indeed is no longer available because the husband never actually told the wife he put it on the market and the wife, upon finding out, doesn’t want to move. Honestly!

And if you happen to be house hunting anytime from December to mid-January, tough luck. Joburgers flee to the beach in droves for their summer vacations and literally stay there the entire six weeks, so getting any house papers signed during that time is not going to be a good plan. If you want to make a bid and it’s the end of November, you better make sure you get that signature quickly.

So just a word of caution here to make sure you have several homes on your short list and to insist on a quick turnaround from the landlord’s or seller’s side, so that you can be sure you actually have a home to move into when you relocate rather than having to start the whole procedure from scratch.

Next post: Finding a House in Johannesburg: Part 2 – Johannesburg Suburbs

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