Joburg Expat: Finding a House in Johannesburg: Part 1

June 12, 2012

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

What 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

Affordable housing in SA?
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

Ding 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

Perhaps a bit remote?
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

For 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

It 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

15 comments :

2Summers said...

There are expats living in Joburg paying R5000 a month! It's the going rate for a cottage in Melville, which is a great option for a single person or couple.

I can also vouch for the safety of homes not located within security estates. Of course something can always happen no matter where you live. But -- knock on wood -- I have had no problems and I've lived in Melville for nearly two years.

Great article.

Jozie Days said...

Hi Sine,

Very informative article. We bought a house and I have a few tips. Always use a reputable estate agents (remember this is a mining town and there can be unscrupulous people out there haha!)
Our first LSD trip (Look, See, Decide) was to look at schools and residential areas close to the office. It is very important to make sure that these are as close as possible. Traffic can be a nightmare and the last thing you want is for your husband to be spending hours in the car commuting. Public transport is not an option.
1) Buy the Saturday Star. ( the houses for sale section is about 200 pages)
2) Look where the office is - and the schools you like are
3) Choose the area that is as close to these two as possible.

We are centrally located in a cluster development in the Lonehill area but not in a secure estate (we have had a small burglary about 4 years ago, but we are very happy not having to pay huge levies in a golf estate as we don't play golf!)

Sunday afternoons in Joburg are Show Days (or Open Home). Choose 5 or 6 property's to view. Leave your contact number with the agent and give them as much detail about what and where you are looking for. The estate agents generally do a good job with a follow up call and other properties that are in their books but are not having Show Days.

The next thing is to make sure you have a place at your chosen school. If you are an expat and want a good school for your children then private schooling is probably what you are looking for. We have been very happy with our choice of St Stithians. There is quite a waiting list so get in early. It is a Methodist school and takes children from 6 to 18. It is a member of the Round Square schools worldwide. There are many good schools to choose from in Johannesburg. I was a bit apprehensive about the South African school system but I must say I have been very pleasantly surprised. There is a British International School that I have not been too impressed about. They don't do much sport and not great discipline.

One of the many quality's I like with the private schools is that they teach good manners and respect. Kids get a good all round education that includes self discipline and values. If you want your children to understand the culture of the country that they are now going to be living in then I would choose a South African school.

Happy house hunting!

Sine said...

Heather, thanks for chiming in! I actually had you very much in mind when saying I know people who don't live in security estates and are fine. My purpose in writing this really was to open people's eyes to the fact that there are more options out there than you think, and that security is just one of several factors to take into account. I'm glad that that number I guesstimated was actually correct:-)

Sine said...

wow, thanks Debbie, as always your advice is very sound. Thanks for all your tips. And especially on choosing a private school, very well put. Manners and respect and values and self discipline. That's the core of it in a few short words.

Oh, and really? LSD trip? I totally love that term, will take it up into my expat repertoire asap!

Dave said...

As usual, I wish I had read your post even more carefully, especially the last part about insisting on quick signature. We thought we had everything settled and before signature the owner came back with a requirement for an amount well over the asking rental price. Totally flabbergasted and back to square 1.

That said, your advice on schools and traffic have helped us so much. Our fall back has been a very nice apartment a stone's throw from the kids schools while we search.

Your blog is so helpful. Thank you!

Sine said...

So sorry to hear that Dave. Unfortunately I hear again and again that this is how South Africans operate when renting/selling their houses. I don't understand it, as in all other ways they are great people. Maybe it stems from having been cheated themselves in the past?

In any case, good luck with your further search. Which school did you settle on?

A said...
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A said...
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A said...

Hi Sine, Thank you for all the information in this article and related to where to live in Joburg. Out of curiosity, do you know if there are apartments in these secure estates and if expats live in them. We are a small family of my wife and I with a small baby. I was trying to figure out if there apartments that were managed, say be property management companies like we have here in the US, so that we don't have to go through the hassle as you mentioned of owners changing their minds last minute. I know here in Houston, we have apartments that have security guards at night, alarms in the apartments etc. So I would hope the nicer apartments that are not necessarily in an estate could afford certain level of security. Do you have any recommendations on what would be the best to go around looking for them online? Please advise.

Sine said...

Hi A - I'm so sorry I just saw this. Yes, what you describe is definitely available. Perhaps not within the same exact estates like Dainfern - those are pretty much all houses - but there are plenty secure apartment complexes where you have a security gate with round the clock guards etc. A friend of mine used to live in the Grande in Sandton (Hyde Park) and that was just such an apartment as you describe. Very nice and very safe, and conveniently close to everything. Maybe you can look up the Grande and see what I mean and go from there. An estate agent should be able to help you target complexes like that. My guess is you'll find more of those in Sandton/Rosebank etc, not so much perhaps in the Northern suburbs where there are larger houses for larger families. I hope this is still timely for you, let me know if you have any other questions!

ron sherer said...

Security in JHB is must !
unfortunately i had a very experience regarding the crime situation over there.
i can recommend three very good security company: Magen Security, Malamba and G4s

Sine said...

Thanks for the recommendations, Ron! Unfortunately what you say is true and there are way too many bad experiences such as yours, especially if you live in a free-standing home. While I feel some of the bad press Joburg gets regarding crime is undeserved, the home security situation is indeed a big issue still...

Scribble Orca said...

Hi Sine
thanks for the blog post.

We are a family of 3 and medium sized dog likely to go to the German School and work in Fairlands. Would you kindly recommend an estate (apartment or house) in between those two locations please.

Thanks in advance.

Cowboy Dressage SA said...

Hi all! I am an expat from the UK living in SA for 7 years (I married a South African what can I say! I am here for good - it's fab!) I have a beautiful, new, spacious gorgeous and uber safe 3 bed, 2 bath, wraparound garden, kid and pet friendly stand alone house in a security complex and within a security estate. Kids play out in the close - lovely atmosphere and close to Northriding Schools, 2 mins from Northgate, 10 mins from Fourways house to rent. R25k pm Email forsterbee@gmail.com for more info.

Sine said...

Hi Scribble Orca,

so sorry for late reply. I don't really have an answer, but have since then made a really nice map for my schools page, which I think might be useful for you. If indeed you still need an answer which you probably don't, given the time lapse. Anyway, here is the link: http://www.joburgexpat.com/2011/05/private-schools-in-johannesburg.html