When I first arrived to teach at Žilina University in the fall of 1995, I was delighted to be lodged in a three-room flat in Žilina. My spacious apartment was owned by the Schools Ministry, and I was to be charged only 2,000 crowns a month (then about $60) rent - a real bargain, I was told. But my dreams of comfortable and above all solitary accommodation were shattered when I received my first monthly pay check for 4,200 crowns.
I packed my bags bitterly and moved into a run-down student dormitory, which demanded only 25% of my salary in exchange for noisome quarters inhabited by pimpled youths whose theme song could have been Nessun dorma ('and none shall sleep'). As I lay there nights and listened to the dueling stereos that ringed my room, apart from brimming self-pity I felt a kind of awe that people in Slovakia could either a) learn to accept the limits that cheap housing sets on personal space, or b) bear the financial burden of slightly less cramped living.
It wasn't until 1998 that I moved out of student dormitories into a rented flat in Bratislava. Like most other foreigners making Slovak wages, I found the flat through a colleague who was leaving Slovakia, and ended up paying 6,000 crowns a month for a two bedroom apartment from a monthly salary of about 10,000 crowns. My landlady for some reason had a soft spot for foreigners, considering them more cultured than Slovaks, although since making my acquaintance I understand she has reconsidered her views. It also helped that I still was officially listed as living in a dormitory, meaning I didn't need proof of residence from her for the Border and Aliens Police, and in turn that she didn't have to pay taxes on my rent.
However, such helter-skelter living arrangements are rarely viable in the long term. If, as a foreigner, you are making a wage that permits you to pay 10,000 to 15,000 crowns ($200 to $300) a month in rent (meaning you need to be taking home at least 30,000 crowns monthly), you should be able to afford almost any one to three bedroom flat on the market in Slovakia (see chart for comparison of average rental prices).
Foreigners have a few specific needs regarding their accommodation which don't apply to Slovaks. For one, if you have a long-term stay permit for Slovakia (a 'green card'), you have to furnish the police with a) a lease contract, and b) proof that the lessor owns the premises, which means getting an extract from the local cadastral office. This makes it virtually impossible for Slovaks leasing to foreigners to dodge their taxes, meaning that the tax burden will be factored into the rent you pay, whereas Slovak tenants may get a cheaper rate from landlords skirting their tax duties.
The other factor making foreigner rents higher than average Slovak rents is that many Slovaks, expecting the number of foreigners in this country to rise steadily, have refurbished the flats they own to a level of quality they believe that foreigners demand. Wanting to recoup their investments, these people then list their premises in Deutschmarks or dollars at prices far higher than a similar-sized flat would fetch from a Slovak renter. It's not that there are two prices (a Slovak and a foreigner price) for the same flats, but that cultural stereotypes have led to the creation of two levels of accommodation in this country. The lower level, for example flats in communist-era blocks of flats called paneláky, are considered beneath the living standards of foreigners, while more expensive flats are beyond the needs of Slovaks. Of course, many foreigners exist quite comfortably in paneláky, while Slovaks are coming to expect as much from their housing as any westerner, but try telling that to a landlord who is asking $1,500 a month for an exclusive residence and refusing to lower the price despite the current excess supply of luxury accommodation.
If you have just arrived in Slovakia and haven't yet made enough contacts to find a cheap flat through friends, you may have to go through a real estate agency. You'll pay more in the end, but you'll also have the security of a professional lease. Agencies typically ask one to three months' rent in return for finding you a place.
As far as buying real estate goes, foreigners can't - unless they set up a company in Slovakia and have the firm buy it for them, or marry a Slovak and have themselves included on the ownership deed as a secondary owner. In buying real estate, above all else, you should go through a real estate agency - there are just too many sharks and charlatans out there, and even more people clinging desperately to some inflated notion of the worth of their property.
This column was reprinted from Vol. 7, No. 14, April 9-15.