It’s incredible how disruptive the apartment hunting process is here in Malta.
The entire game is dominated by agents, who earn a commission equal to one month’s rent each time they successfully match owner with tenant.
Unlike in Canada, a lease doesn’t just continue month to month once the initial term has expired. A year is a year, and the contract is deemed to be over unless you sign on again.
Rental agents mark down when a lease will end, and they start calling the owner, pushing them to take someone else, using scarcity and the lure of higher rent, and basically calling them nonstop like a collection agency. They really don’t care if the landlord or tenant is happy. They only earn a commission if someone new rents a property, and so it’s in their interest to get the current people out and new folks in.
When that same annoying process began at my last apartment this Spring, I decided to take the opportunity to get out of what was a mediocre — and rather overpriced — penthouse, and find something that cost less so I could travel more.
Because the market is so cutthroat and decent places are so hard to find, agents undercut each other like crazy. You’ll often find 10 competing to rent the same property. A good house or apartment will often rent on the same day it’s listed, to the first person who shows up with the deposit money in cash.
I have no idea why all these people are moving at the last minute, or how people with normal jobs make it work. But if you don’t want to miss a decent possibility, you have to drop everything and rush out to some remote village to see it right away.
And even then, it’s very hit or miss…
The first time I moved in Malta — from my beloved Palazzo Marija to The 360 Degree Penthouse — the entire experience was as painless as it could be. But this time was different.
We attempted to view a total of 6 places over a frantic two week period of internet searches and time wasting phone calls. And I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t begun to despair of the entire human race, and of the Maltese in particular.
The first was a no show. We drove all the way across the island to Qrendi one cold windy evening. And after 45 minutes spent shivering in the dark by the village church, I finally gave up and drove back home.
It was only when I emailed the agent from my phone that I suddenly received a flurry of messages offering excuses.
“The owner suddenly raised the price… I emailed you earlier today but you didn’t answer… I’m soooo sorry about that.”
“Your message was timestamped 30 min after the time of our meeting,” I said. “This is the first I’ve heard from you.”
And I never heard from her again.
The next property owner told us she had several viewings booked that day, but she insisted over and over that she wouldn’t make a decision until we came to see it. And so I blew off work for the afternoon and drove to Valletta with my wife, where I sat in the car for an hour with a book while she had a meeting. And then we drove to Zabbar in the far south and sat in the car by the village church again because we were early.
Again, no one showed up. When we finally called the lady to see if she was late, she said, “Well, you can come and see it if you want, but it’s rented. Someone took it earlier today.”
Broken promises are so common here that this didn’t surprise me at all. It isn’t that Maltese people are cynical liars. That sounds too manipulative and dark. It’s more that they don’t mean anything they say.
People here will say anything to get you to agree to something — but they never have any intention of sticking to it. In fact, I think they forget the moment they make a promise. And they’ll go behind your back at the first opportunity and make a deal with someone else.
Even signed contracts are worthless in Malta, because no one enforces anything. The impression you get from a landlord is worth more than any piece of paper. If someone feels even a little bit dodgy, it’s best to walk away.
Maltese friends have also warned me never to pay too much up front. The landlord will have no incentive to do anything else for you, or to fix anything broken, and you’ll likely never see them again — until they want to collect the next rent.
Being a foreigner can also be a disadvantage, depending on where you’re trying to rent. There’s a perception in Malta that foreigners have money, and many people will try to soak you for more than what a Maltese person would pay.
Now, I have no issue with paying a little more. Locals always get a slightly better deal in most countries. But the amount has to be within reason.
One apartment we looked at in Birzebbuga wasn’t even finished yet. They were still plastering the walls and installing fixtures when we stopped by to view it. Of course no one had mentioned that on the phone. But despite the lack of furniture, electricity and fixtures, the owner insisted it’d be done in a week. And rather than try to pitch us on the benefits of her property, she immediately started demanding €2,000 as a deposit when she saw we were foreigners.
That was four times the value of the rent, rather than the standard one month’s deposit. And I had a feeling she needed the money in order to finish the place…
But this wasn’t even the worst property we saw.
In the “I Can’t Believe They Bought That Stuff” category was a run down 2 bedroom apartment on the coast near Smart City. I regretted not having taken photos of their choice of decor the moment we left. I even considered calling them back and paying to do a photo shoot.
The entire apartment was stuffed like a pawnshop with the sort of tasteless knick-knacks I thought could only be found in small Appalachian steel towns or the deepest recesses of Ontario.
The tiny living room was dominated by a massive display cabinet that housed an entire collection of very cheap geisha and samurai dolls. And a giant plaster tiger sat proudly in the middle of the room, partially blocking the passage way — next to a built in bar that took up the rest of the space.
“They’re currently renovating the bathroom,” the agent said, “but it will be ready in a few days.”
I was expecting perhaps a missing sink, but the shattered toilet in the hallway was my first hint that there might be more to the issue.
The entire bathroom was in fact completely gutted. There wasn’t a single intact tile on the wall. Just concrete wreckage and piles of broken stone.
“You know we’re looking to move in within a week…” I said.
“Yes, yes, yes, it’ll be ready the day after tomorrow,” the owner said. “Some guys are coming to work on it.”
“But it’s Easter weekend,” I pointed out.
“Yes, yes, yes. Don’t worry,” he said. “No problem.”
As you can imagine, it wasn’t the first time I’d heard such words in Malta. When I inquired about the rent, he said, “€550.” That was fifty euros more than what we’d been told over the phone.
The agent said, “Hold on, you told me €500!”
The man just shrugged.
“That’s very bad for business,” the agent said, scolding him. “You can’t say one price and then jack it up it when a client comes over.”
The man shrugged again and walked away. And so did we.
But the best was yet to come…
The 5th apartment wasn’t ideal, but we could probably make it work in a pinch. But I just kept getting an uneasy feeling about the owner…
When I asked if it was possible to remove the beds from the two spare rooms for use as offices, the agent pointed to him and said, “He’s lazy, he doesn’t want to do anything. But look, it’s very easy!”
He and his wife — both agents — then started talking over each other simultaneously, telling me how I could easily take apart the extra beds — “I’ll even come over and help you!” — and shove them behind the laundry machine or behind random doors, where they would no doubt fall over every time I walked past.
“See! Very easy!”
The wishfulness of his reasoning increased in direct proportion to his desperation to get the commission. And throughout it all, the owner just sat in a chair watching horse races on TV. When a question was directed his way, he said something in Maltese, wiped his hands twice (the gesture for “not my problem”), and then shrugged.
Unfortunately, at that point in our search, his place was the best contender. We walked back and forth between the rooms, trying to envision living there. And in the end we said, “We’ll think it over and call you tonight.”
We had just walked out the door and started getting into the car when the property owner turned to me and said, “Wanna come to my house and see my monkey?”
I stopped and turned back.
“Absolutely,” I said. “I would be delighted to see your monkey.”
We followed him to the other side of the village and parked in front of a very large house. And sure enough, he had a small monkey in a tiny courtyard at the centre of his place. It was tied to a wooden ladder with a string. And it started screeching and jiggling as soon as we walked in.
“Go ahead, you can approach it if you want.”
I walked over and put out my had to touch it. The monkey leaped off the ladder, wrapped its arms and legs around my forearm, and started biting my wrist with great enthusiasm.
Each time I tried to put it back on its ladder, the filthy thing leaped on me and bit me again. It certainly showed more interest in our tenancy than the owner had done. But perhaps it wasn’t a horse racing fan.
I finally got my index finger and thumb around it’s throat and choked it until it let me go. When it was safely back on the ladder, I stepped beyond the distance of the rope and looked at this poor little creature, sitting alone in its own stink.
“Where did you get it?” I asked, rubbing my wrist.
“Libya,” he said with a big smile. “I have a friend with a boat. We went across one night, and I bought the monkey from a Libyan man for €1,500 euros.”
I thanked him politely for this interesting wildlife experience, turned down his offer of drinks and cigarettes, and politely took leave. We didn’t end up renting that place either.
But we finally did have some luck with the 6th place we viewed.
It’s near the famous Blue Grotto, on a little dead end road at the outskirts of the village of Zurrieq. The front window looks out on terraced fields with dry stone walls, and the view goes all the way to Mdina and Dingli radar station. The owner lives in the flat above, and she doesn’t mind checking on the place when we travel. I have a nice office too, and all my books are now unpacked. It’s a great place, and it cost half what I was paying for the penthouse.
The whole ordeal turned out better than I ever expected, and I’m grateful for that.
But I hope very sincerely that this will be the last apartment I ever need to look for in Malta.
I’ve had my fill of monkey men, porcelain tigers, and paper promises that vanish in a light breeze.