Saturday, February 17, 2007

Everything that I know about Real Estate I learned from the New York Times

I have lived in New York City for 22 years, and by definition that makes me real estate-savvy. It happens by osmosis. We live, eat, read, talk and drink real estate there. Even if you don’t give a rat’s ass about real estate, you know a thing or two about it. You must, since everybody else does, and you don’t want to appear like a social misfit.

So plunging into the real estate market here in Bamako was not scary or intimidating. Until I realized that I was in completely unfamiliar territory. (I blame the New York Times: they had never, ever featured the Malian real estate market, and, after all, that is where I got all my info on real estate!)

It started when I realized that – like everything else here- we will rely on personal connections. Yes, apparently real estate agents exits, but I guess only complete losers go to them. We started by visiting one of Malé’s acquaintances, Alfa, also from Timbuktu. Alfa was wearing a suit and was having one of those mid-morning meat snacks (at 10am or so), that the Timbuktians like to have. When he finished, we met up with another Timbuktian, just so that the car would fill up nicely. Then we stopped at a shack and were joined by another man. This one stood out, because he was not from Timbuktu. I gathered that he was the one that would actually show us the apartments. Until we stopped again and gathered up another man at a street corner. This one was the guardian, who had the key to the first apartment. Or so we thought: when we finally got to the apartment, he ran down the street to retrieve the key from somebody else!

Eventually we all entered the first place: Malé, myself, Alfa, the other friend from Timbuktu, the shack man, the guardian, and the man who had the key. The place was actually like a small free-standing house, surrounded by a wall. It was build around a court yard. The main building was a living room and three bedrooms and a bathroom, and then there were another three rooms off the courtyard. Those, I was told, are used to board maids, relatives, friends, or just to store stuff. The kitchen was just an empty room without water, window, or outlets. (This is how the kitchens are here, I learned. Just a big storage space. Which is fine, if you don’t plan on having a fridge, a stove, running water, etc.) Now, because I am an astute observer (and real estate-savvy, as I said) I noticed something right away: the place was a dump, as we in the real estate business say in New York. Plain and simple. Especially if you consider that we were looking at above-average price points, so to speak. So, not to offend anybody or anything, I very casually asked if the owner was going to do any work here on this place. Oh, yes: once he gets the three months security deposit, he will do this, that, and the other. Interesting.

We went to the next place, which had a similar layout as the first. Here I noticed two things: there was a well in the court yard, and also, the house had not been completely constructed yet! (Which I could tell by the missing windows and doors, and all the building material that was lying around.) This house, too, had three storage/staff rooms, but here there clearly were people living in them. There was a bed under a mosquito net, and a full clothes line, and a woman cooking food, and some children playing. I know that I was asking a lot of dumb questions that day, but I just had to know: who are the people that are living here? The construction workers and their families, I was told. Once the owner gets the three months security deposit (industry standard here, you see), he can complete the construction work and the happy tenant can move in, in a month or two or three. Depending, you understand.

Well, I was so baffled that I forgot to inquire about the well. But luckily, the next house also had one, and I got a chance to inquire. Malé, infinitely patient with all my questions, explained to me that most houses here have a well in the court yard. Yes, dear Reader, you just have to ask yourself why the Manhattan real estate market has not come up with that! You see, the well water can be used for cleaning and washing, and it is free! The water that comes out of the tap has been treated and therefore costs money. It is used for drinking and cooking. It is a brilliant concept, except for the small detail of having to actually haul up the water via a bucket or a goat skin or something. Well, can you picture me already at the well, hauling up buckets of water? Exactly…!

The five or so men looked at me expectantly. They had shown me some of the finest properties, and were sure that I was pleased. I patiently explained to them, without wanting to offend anybody, that the houses were so big, and that it really was just Malé and I who would be living there. We really did not need 3 or so extra outside rooms for staff and in-laws, and the well…. Well, I could do without one. Can they show me something smaller? They nodded, but not very sincerely. Even though I believe they understood my French, they didn’t really understand ME. But, off we went. We dropped of the key guy, the guardian, and the guy from the shack guy, and we went to a different neighborhood.

In the vicinity of the next property we picked up a new shack guy. I understood now that this was a “steerer” of sorts: not to drugs, but to real estate. He steered us to a three story building just south of the river: a high rise of sorts. There we looked for a different guardian, and he went to get the key guy. Then all 7 of us walked up three fights of stairs. All of the men were commenting on this impossibly strenuous exercise, and that was probably the reason that the apartment was still available. The apartment was much smaller: just two bedrooms, but it had a real kitchen (with running water and a sink, an electric outlet, and –gasp!- the first built-in cabinets that I had seen in two months!). It also had three balconies and three exposures. You could clearly see the river, and the thriving sheep market that was just down the street. But the best feature: it had a super market on street level! I could actually just go downstairs, go into ONE store, and buy everything that my little heart desired!!!! But the apartment also was much more expensive than we wanted ($250), and it, too, was a little run-down, to say it politely. Again: I was assured that once the owner got his money, he would clean and paint and repair. I was very much in love with the fact that the bedrooms had shelves (also a first), but I was holding out. The five men looked at each other and looked at Malé, sympathizing with him on his difficult wife, and we all climbed down the stairs together, the men wondering about why anybody in their right mind would want to do that everyday.

That time we dropped off everybody, and Malé and I continued together. We now went to meet his other friend, Bokum, from Timbuktu. He had just finished eating a little meat. The next couple of steps were familiar to me already: go to the shack at the corner, pick up the steerer; go to the neighborhood, meet the guardian and the key guy. This time we were north of the city, in a newly developed neighborhood, where palatial villas stand side by side with shacks. The apartment was one of two apartments surrounding a court yard. It was newly build, so it was not (really) dirty, and the things were all in working order (more or less): the windows and doors opened and closed, the light switches were still there, and the electrical outlets were inside the wall, not dangling to the ground. The other apartment was occupied by the owner, a woman. There was a guardian who was there 24/7, and there was room for the car. No, there is no super market, and it is a little in the ‘burbs, so to speak. But it is clean(ish) and quiet. She was asking for $140, and once we would give her the three months security deposit, she would plant some bushes, and finish painting, and finish the roof. And, you guessed it: there is a well! How could I resist…. We sealed the deal with a hand shake, and moved our belongings in yesterday.

I will post a picture of me hauling up water from the well shortly….

No comments: