Unsuitable Home

Moving to Johannesburg anytime soon? If you are, you are probably looking for a house. This can be more difficult than you think.

When Noisette and I, the accompanying spouse – who later became the Glamorous ExpatWife –  had gone all the way to South Africa on a house-hunting boondoggle one September some years ago, and looked at a bazillion homes, one more beautiful and bigger than the other, we settled on our first choice after much hand ringing and hemming and hawing. A letter of intent was signed, earnest money changed hands, and plans were made. However, and this is a note of caution to you prospective expats out there: South African sellers and landlords are prone to change their minds. In our case, it transpired that the house so beautifully suited to our needs, or so we thought, was no longer going to be leased, because the wife, who had somehow not actually been informed by her own husband of the pending plans to rent out her house, was up in arms about it and then decided she’d rather sell it. Maybe we should have known not to go with the house with the two yapping poodles at the front gate. Over the three years that we lived in that same neighborhood, the house was never sold nor leased, as evidenced by the poodles remaining firmly in place. But it was shown to potential buyers as well as renters all the same, as we learned from friends of ours who were looking to buy a house.

So, back to square one before our relocation, a second house was looked at, this time by Noisette solo because no one was flying the spouse over there a second time, glamorous or otherwise, and another letter of intent was signed, after much emailing back and forth so that I could at least see a ton of pictures to help make a decision. It was another lovely house. Alas, its owners also didn’t feel compelled to stick too literally to the “intent” part of the letter, and so this home slipped through our hands as well.

We ended up with the third house. Which, frankly, I never actually looked at, because by that time I had resigned myself to probably living in a tent somewhere upon arrival. That prospect seemed preferably to wasting any more time on houses that wouldn’t work out anyway. Noisette quietly looked at it, signed a lease, and the first time I set eyes on Number Three was when I stepped over its threshold a few months later, exhausted kids in tow (who immediately proceeded to fight over who would get which room).

And perhaps it was a good thing. It was the perfect house for us. Not one to fall in love with at first sight, but the only one within walking distance of the school, which turned out to be a huge bonus, and also the only North-facing one, which, in the Southern hemisphere with no heat and bad insulation is a must during winter. So you see, this all helped us make a more rational decision rather than me picking the prettiest kitchen.

To find out what else might be important in choosing the right home in Johannesburg, read the following guest post by Barbara Bruhwiler.

An Unsuitable Home

by Barbara Bruhwiler

Some people are car people. They spend most of their money on cars. Some people are clothes people. Do you remember the Sex and the City episode where Carry Bradshaw muses about where the money from her bestselling books disappeared to? And her friend points out that it ended up in her shoe closet – and in Manolo Blahnik’s account. Carry is clearly a clothes type.

Then there are house people who like to spend their money on houses. But even if you are not a house type of person – if you pick an unsuitable home in Johannesburg, your whole expat experience can turn sour.

house in Dainfern, South Africa
“The Balinese”. Photo by Barbara Bruhwiler

When you’re abroad, your house or apartment is even more important for you and your family than in your home country. It may feel like the only refuge you have in this strange and foreign place that is Johannesburg. And a gain in a beautiful home you feel comfortable in can make up for the losses you may have to suffer, like leaving family and friends behind.

How do you make sure you don’t choose an unsuitable house, but a home you will like?

Location, location, location

First of all, listen to what estate agents say, and one of their mantras is ‘location, location, location’. That’s true for people who want to buy a house and stay there for the rest of their lives, but it’s just as much true for us expats. In one study, over 80% of the expats who stated they would not choose their house again, mentioned they didn’t like its location.

In Johannesburg, look out for a neighbourhood that is convenient for your daily commuting to work or school, because traffic can be a nightmare in this city, and also make sure that it is in an area you feel comfortable in.

Look out for shopping, leisure activities and nightlife. If the things you like to do are too far away, you may end up making too many compromises.

What to look for

Cape Dutch? French? Balinese? Tuscan? In a city like Johannesburg where we are spoilt for choice when it comes to different house styles, the following little exercise is particularly effective: Think about the home you most loved living in. What did it feel like? What did you love about it?

house in Dainfern, South Africa
“The Faux Tuscan”. Photo by Barbara Bruhwiler
house in Dainfern, South Africa
“The Silver Baron”. Photo by Barbara Bruhwiler

Studies show that expats who loved their home and would choose the same house again reported that their current home was similar to their favourite one. And not only were these expatriates happier in their new home, but they were also more satisfied with their expat experience overall and felt more settled; they were in better mental health, were more loyal to their employer, and so on.

But what are you supposed to do if you and your partner have different views about what to look out for? What if you want modern clean lines and your partner raves about old fashioned French country kitchens with painted tiles (which are surprisingly easy to find in Joburg)?

Well, in this case, you have to ask one more question: Who in the family is spending the most hours at home?

In an expat family, in most cases there will be an accompanying spouse. And she (yes, in most cases it is a she) will be the one who decorates your place and makes it a home. Let her have the ultimate say on which house you should rent.

house in Dainfern, South Africa
“Bush Safari”. Photo by Barbara Bruhwiler

Is big beautiful?

In Johannesburg, most expats find themselves in the wonderful position of being able to afford a bigger home than they had before. And some foreigners receive such a generous allowance that they can go totally over board. There are houses on the rental market that not only fit the description of a mansion, but even have palatial dimensions. And as it makes sense to employ domestic workers in this country with its high unemployment rate you can make sure, at an affordable price, that you are not the one who has to scrub these long flight of stairs.

So if you always dreamt of living like Scarlett O’Hara, here is your chance to make your dreams come true.

house in Dainfern, South Africa
“Gone With The Wind.” Photo by Barbara Bruhwiler

Just consider one thing: an international study found that those expat families who were happiest lived in a house that let them often and easily communicate with each other. A bigger home may have the negative side-effect of family members spending more time alone in separate rooms, far away from each other. 

Now that you know that your home is such an important factor in your overall well-being as an expat in Johannesburg, make sure you choose wisely. But do not be discouraged – there is such a great choice of different homes available in Joburg that you will find the perfect one for you and your family.

Good luck!


Barbara Bruhwiler lives in Johannesburg with her husband and two children. She is an internationally successful author of five books. One of them is the Expat-Living.info Guide to Johannesburg, a handy reference guide full of practical, useful information and advice for expats moving to or living in Johannesburg.

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