12 May 2014

how to rent a home in tanzania.

For those following along, Ashley and I recently signed a one-year rental agreement for a home in Mwanza, Tanzania…finally! We have been homeless and living out of a suitcase since we moved out of our apartment in Dallas, Texas back in September 2013.

Let me tell you: 7.5 months without your own home as a married couple is no fun. It is so nice to have our own space again and do crazy things like cook our own meals and wake-up when we want to in the morning.

So what's it been like to rent a home in East Africa? Bonkers. Allow me to give you the highlights.

I will breakdown our experience of renting a home in Tanzania into ten brain-punching steps (Advil for pain relief not included). Sorry.

1. Set realistic expectations.

Ashley and I are from the United States. Tanzania is not the United States. As such, we had to completely recalibrate our expectations for what our future home would be like and how we would obtain it. Thankfully we had some friends in the area to help coach us through this process.

What are some realistic expectations for house hunting in Tanzania?
  • The process will be slow and confusing: there are no house listings (see #2 below), homes you visit will not always fit the description provided, what is included in the rent is nebulous, etc.
  • Homes will not look or feel like homes back in the United States: expect to find squatty potty toilets, concrete floors, outdoor kitchens or lack thereof, leaky plumbing, dirt for a yard, and for most everything to be broken, dirty and bug-infested. Yep.
  • The landlord/landlady will say or promise things that will not come to pass: "I will fix the water pressure." "No, your electricity is not shared by the neighbors." "Housekeeping will place chocolate mints on your pillow every night as part of our turndown service." Lies, lies, lies.

2. Put the word out.

As noted in step #1, there are no house listings in Mwanza. There is no website to visit. No realtor office to walk into. No central location in town with advertisements. Almost no one puts a "For Rent" sign in their yard. And there is definitely no app for that.

Finding a home in Mwanza is all about who you know…and we don't know anyone. Well, almost no one. Thankfully, our fellow Maryknoll Lay Missioners were able to put the word out to their network that new folks (us!) were moving to Mwanza and in need of a home.

The tricky part is, it does not matter how specific you are with regards to your search criteria - price, location, size, amenities - none of that passes through to locals doing the looking. All they hear is "white people" or "Americans" want a home. This, unfortunately, translates into homes that are in exclusive neighborhoods and well above our price range.

We work for a nonprofit people, and are deliberately trying to place ourselves among Tanzanians - not in high and mighty neighborhoods that look down upon them.

3. Be patient.

Sit tight and be patient while the word gets out. Nothing moves fast in Tanzania. But, Tanzanians are very good at spreading news by word of mouth, so in time, houses turn up. If you try to rush this part or badger people over and over about potential homes, it will not work. Life moves at a different pace here. Just accept it and roll with it.

4. Visit homes.

The first round of "putting the word out" yielded ten homes of varying caliber. Since none of those were quite right, we put the word out a second time. Another three homes turned up.

Like anywhere else, know what questions you need to ask before you visit each home. Though undoubtedly the process of visiting homes will spawn additional questions.

Unique considerations when touring homes in Tanzania:
  • Do other people live on this same lot? Who are they and what are their accommodations like?
  • Does this house share the water and electricity bill with any of the neighbors?
  • Can you install a hot water tank for showering, or a sit-down toilet?
  • Is there even a kitchen? 
  • How noisy is the area, particularly at night?
  • Is the home secure? Does it have a wall, fence and a gate? Iron bars on the windows and doors?
  • How close is the nearest lab where you can get tested for malaria, typhoid, amoeba, worms, etc.?
  • Can you easily obtain chips mayai (french fry omelette) within walking distance? For realz.

5. Readjust your expectations.

After the first round of home visits, you likely need to recalibrate your expectations . Now you have a real visual (and aromatic) sense for what a Tanzanian home is like. Basically, it is almost impossible to find a home that fits all of your needs and wants. You will have to compromise on a few things - just know what you are willing to compromise on and what you are not.

For example, we wanted a moderately spacious home in decent condition for hosting guests, with a big yard for gardening, raising chickens, a dog and a place for neighborhood children to play, a fully-enclosed lot with a wall and a gate and potentially another Tanzanian family sharing the same compound. In the end, after visiting thirteen homes, none included all of our needs and wants. But, by deciding ahead of time what was most important to us, we were able to make a sound decision. We hope.

6. Pick a house and negotiate.

We picked this house (photos and house tour coming soon). Once we visited all thirteen homes, we evaluated the pros and cons of the few that rose to the top based upon our criteria. In the end, we knew that if we continued to wait, our "dream home" would never turn up as it was just that - a figment of our imagination.

Once we knew which house we wanted, we contacted the landlady and met at the house to do a careful walkthrough and discuss the finer details.

Things to check for during the walkthrough:
  • Turn on every light switch and faucet.
  • Flush all toilets.
  • Open and close every door and test every lock.
  • Inspect all wood surfaces for termites, and check the roof for bees.
  • Itemize all repairs that you believe are needed.
  • Try to get a sense of the neighbors and broader community. Walk around.

Questions to ask during the walkthrough:
  • How do we pay the water bill and electricity? Can you provide a copy of the most recent bill to show that it has been paid in full?
  • Who were the prior tenants and why did they move?
  • Will you pay for a professional electrician and plumber to confirm all is in working order?
  • Can we keep dogs and chickens on the property?
  • How much is the rent, when should it be paid, for what term, and how?
  • Will you as the landlord/landlady pay for the necessary repairs?
  • If things break in the future, which party is financially liable for repairs?
  • Does the rent include any services (i.e. water, electricity, laundry, cleaning, guard, etc.)?
  • Do I like this landlord/landlady? Do they appear fair, honest and trustworthy?

7. Be patient again.

After you agree on the necessary repairs, who will take care of them, and how long it will take, sit back and be patient again. Things will take longer than you are told. Definitely. Stay on top of the landlord/landlady so they know you are serious, but if you stay on their back for too long, they will get sick of you before you even sign the contract. You don't want your future landlord/landlady to hate you, and you don't want to hate them.

Again, during this phase, expect progress to be really slow, really unclear, and really frustrating.

8. Sign the contract and move-in.

Once you have verbally and visually confirmed that the landlord/landlady has fulfilled their end of the bargain in terms of repairs and you have fulfilled yours, review the contract with a trustworthy witness, sign it, pay according to the terms, and move in. Hooray!

Oh, in Tanzania, it is customary to pay the entire year's rent upfront in cash. This means you have to visit the local ATM machine several times over several days to withdraw and uncomfortable amount of cash. Suggestion: notify your bank back in the United States that you are doing this to prevent your debit card from being flagged, blocked or canceled.

I have never seen a moving truck in Tanzania, so hopefully you have friends with a pick-up truck to help move your stuff. Thankfully, we did.

9. Deal with newly discovered issues.

Shoot. As soon as you move in, you will quickly discover a whole new set of issues. Every faucet leaks water onto the floor. The toilet overflows. Water pressure is terrible. Insects are infiltrating every corner of the home. Doors are impossible to open/close/lock. You unknowingly share an electricity bill with your neighbors. Etc.

Each new issue is compounded, and it feels especially worse if all this happens while you have malaria. Trust me. 

When you do the house walkthrough, you are paying attention to the details but only to a certain extent. Living in a home, or even just spending an hour inside quietly, you become aware of all new problems. It is impossible to detect everything during the walkthrough - especially given it is very unlikely a professional electrician or plumber provided any kind of inspection - so don't beat yourself up too much. Set a plan with the landlord/landlady for how you will deal with these new issues and repeat step #7 again, followed by punching yourself in the brain. Sorry.

10. Move on.

You can only do so much. After you freak out and cry about paying a year's rent for a broken home in a foreign and strange place (we did), just move on. The sooner the better. If you obsess over every detail and ponder the imperfections of the home, you will become mad, lonely and/or depressed. Don't let that happen. Thankfully, we had each other to lean on, stay strong, and make the home our home.

11. **Bonus step!**

So you moved into your Tanzanian home, but how do you furnish it? Well, if you want to do it on the cheap like us, this is what you do.
  • Have your furniture custom-made: I realize this probably makes no sense. Custom-made furniture in the United States is likely crazy expensive. But here, any pre-built furniture is inevitably way more expensive. For nearly every piece of furniture that we have, I drew up a design on a scratch piece of paper with measurements for every inch, price-shopped several carpenters, and commissioned the work. Couch cushions and curtains? Took measurements, picked-out fabric, bought foam from a factory, and found someone to sew it all together. Much like finding a home, this process was slow and painful.
  • Buy used whenever possible: How do you feel about used towels and bedsheets? Or used dishes, pots and pans? How about a used plunger? Seriously. Going this route saved us a bunch of money. Just scrub everything with soap and boiled water, and don't think about it too much.

Okay, that's it for now folks. Check back soon for a post all about our new home including a complete photo tour.


  1. You guy/gal are amazing! Though, I just realized, Michael never has to wear clothes in the stick drawings and Ashley always does... That seems a bit sexist :)

  2. I am wearing clothes. My body is just very thin. Thanks for making me publicly self-conscious about it.


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