It’s always at the forefront of our minds, isn’t it….where are we going to live? Many overseas duty stations do have on post housing, but many times you are faced with finding housing on the economy, or off post. This experience can be as stressful as you can imagine it, but with keeping these tips in mind, you can make the search less daunting.
Please keep in mind that my tips are relevant to the Chievres Air Base/SHAPE area, but some of these tips can be applied to many overseas locations. You will find housing offices on post that will assist you in your search and also help in negotiating your lease. I am also expressing my opinions and how I approached our own housing search. Keep in mind there is some on post housing (SHAPE Village) and also government leased housing off post. You are authorized a number of bedrooms by the number of dependents you have and the wait time can be one to six months. All government leased housing off-post is enlisted only but SHAPE Village does allow officers (edited, not sure what 2015 rules are).
Edited Jan 2015: Note, I believe there are no longer American and International housing offices at SHAPE. Perhaps someone can add the latest info below on how the office is run.
- Take a look at your household goods and do an honest assessment of want you want to take overseas. If you are pushing the top limit of your weight allowance, you will most likely not have room for all your stuff, so plan to put some things in storage. Top suspects for storage include excessive outdoor furniture and equipment such as riding mowers and 110 volt appliances, especially your washer and dryer. Since you can also use basic loaner furniture overseas, keep that in mind. They have things such as nightstands, beds (twins and doubles), wardrobes (because European houses do not have closets), dining room tables and chairs, couches, easy chairs and coffee tables. SHAPE does not have a wide range of things to pick from, just the basics above. Recently, due to budget cuts, you are only allowed to keep these loaner items (except for the wall lockers) until your own household goods come in. You may be able to write a letter to apply for an exception to the policy. I just want to make you aware of it, as many folks have been contacted to return their items!
- Know what your overseas housing allowance is for your rank. This is the most the military will give you for housing. You can rent a home more expensive, but the overage will come from your own pay. If you find a place cheaper, you will get that amount only, regardless if your max is higher. You can also find out what your amount will be for paying your utilities. This in contrast is exactly what you get per month, regardless of what your utility bill will be (higher or lower). You will also get a moving in allowance (MIHA) that will help offset some moving in expenses.
- Start looking online on Immoweb (Hainaut province) and Vlan. Get personalized searches sent to your email address. The rent amounts here are typically a bit lower than the homes advertised through the onpost housing offices. Remember that these rents don’t include monies to maintain your heating systems, insurance, water softeners, etc. The housing office rents do. Use Google Maps to see driving times to SHAPE. Make sure you know if you will work on SHAPE or Chievres Air Base, as there are a few offices that have people working on both posts. Since the commissary and PX are on Chievres, you also don’t want to be too far way in the wrong direction!
- After arrival, your first stop should be Building 210 on SHAPE for inprocessing (after checking in with your unit). Nothing happens around here without a SHAPE ID card. You can’t even enter the post with just your military ID, so park at the entrance visitor parking lot (follow the signs) to get your temporary pass for yourselves and your vehicle. Once you have your SHAPE ID, you can visit both housing offices. The International Housing Office is in the same building and posts their listings on the wall, as well as online. Their entire system is computerized, to include putting in your option for a house you like and managing those options.
- The American Housing Office in the building next door, also has their listings on the wall, by number of bedrooms, but everything here is done manually. They have a housing briefing every weekday morning at 0830. Only when you complete this can you see, visit and bid for homes.
- See one of the American Housing Office staff immediately if you see a house you like. They will make the appointment for you and then put your option down. You have a week to see the house and let them know if you are interested. If you are #1 on that house’s list, you get first right of refusal for that week’s timeframe. If you are #2, you have to wait for #1′s option to expire or for them to remove themselves from the option list for that particular house or if they like the house and take it right from under you! Listen carefully to how the housing office explains this to you, and be aware when your option expires (which will be at 0900 that morning if no one else is ahead of you expiring on the same day).
- The International Housing Office uses their automated computer system to rank order options for each of their homes. Log into one of their computers after you register there (you’ll need a letter from the American Housing Office allowing you to do this – only a formality). Put your option down for a house. You can only put options down for a limited number of homes at one time at either office. When you print off a home you put an option on, you will see where you are rank ordered and who is ahead of you, as well as when your option expires (and when everyone else’s options expires). Our option on a home expired the same day as two others, so starting from 0900, each of use could exercise our option in 15 minute increments (#1 drops off if he doesn’t exercise his option and #2 moves to #1 and so on, every 15 minutes).
- You can get the American Housing Office to make the viewing appointments for you on listings from either office or if you find something on your own.
- Be prepared to make concessions. You will not find a perfect house. You may settle for a three bedroom when you wanted four. Many homes only have one bathroom. Many do have an extra little toilet room. Some have no yards but cobblestoned or bricked courtyards. Some are on very busy roads. Many of the newer homes have tiny bedrooms (and remember, the military gives you wardrobes, which take up a lot of room). Older homes can be full of character and awesome old home features, but many of them have not been renovated lately, so you’ll have to decide if you can live with an older kitchen or bathroom or both!
- The big difference between the American and International Housing offices is the standards of the homes. It used to be one big housing office until the American office was stood up. They offer more customer service and homes listed through them have to meet higher standards. That is not to say that the International Housing does not have standards. They do as well and landlords renting through either have to be willing to do a special SHAPE lease and be willing to upgrade their homes to our standards. Some examples are double pane windows, installed security systems and bathroom ventilation.
- I advise you to visit BOTH housing offices multiple times a day and especially when they first open. Someone can PCS here AFTER you and happen to be in either housing office when a home is posted. They can then get an option on it before you even knew the home existed. I’ve seen homes posted at different times of the day and sometimes days can go by with no new postings. You have to be persistent and keep coming back to check. It will be frustrating and emotionally draining, but if you prepare yourself for this, you will get through it.
- You are also required to see a certain number of homes per week, so no rest for the weary! If you don’t or if you refuse a home using one of their reasons the housing offices say are not legitimate, you will forfeit your Temporary Lodging Allowance (TLA) payments which are used to pay for your lodging and food! Some of the reasons you cannot use to refuse a house are rooms being too small or the landlord doesn’t allow pets.
- Speaking of pets, before you make an appointment to see a home, check the listing to see if the landlord allows pets. Many do not. Some are negotiable. Make sure the staff member helping you make a viewing appointment asks the landlord if pets are allowed. Get them to write it on the home’s spec sheet. Many of the listings say pets are negotiable.
- Do not rely ONLY on both housing office listings! Check with local realtors (See Century 21 offices nearby). Real estate agents will only show you their listings, so check around. I know someone who found a carriage house of a local chateau this way (in fact, I know three people living in beautiful carriage houses that look like castles, with full access to chateau grounds). This area of Belgium is full of chateaus and estates, just beautiful! Also call and email the Immoweb listing contact information and when viewing the home, ask if they will accept the SHAPE lease. Information in French can be found on the International Housing website that explains all the benefits and the process of renting through them. A landlord can typically charge higher rents (more than renting to a Belgian or local), plus the military will pay for certain improvements, such as security systems.
- If you look at a home with no security system or outdoor lighting, certain types of locks, etc, don’t fret, especially if you found the house on your own. Get with the security desk at the American Housing Office, as you can pay for a security system or upgrades up to a certain cost and be reimbursed by the military.
- If you find a home on your own, and you want to rent it, the housing office will need to send an inspector out to make sure it passes muster, and the landlord must be willing to do a SHAPE lease.
- NETWORK, NETWORK and more NETWORK with your servicemember’s new office where he will be working. Many homes change hands from an outgoing person to an incoming person and his family. The nicer homes tend to go that route. I know the Canadians have a certain reputation for “keeping their homes in the family”. Hey, you’re looking out for your peeps….that’s a good thing, no?
- NETWORK also at breakfast at the lodge and all around. I personally found three possible homes that way from people who were PCSing out. Talk to everyone you meet! Sometimes the landlords have not gotten the home back into the system, allowing you to rent the home without the stress of the roulette game!
- The American Housing will tell you their standard is to get each family housed…I can’t remember if it was within 30 or 60 days. I’ve talked to plenty of people who took much longer, especially in the non-summer months. Be prepared for that, and if you have pets, be prepared for large bills to either the kennel or the lodge for the pet fee.
- Stay positive and don’t give up, and keep at it until you find a home for you and your family! It is easy to become negative and to be guarded around the new people you meet….I struggled myself with how much good advice or information to share with another new person, not having found a house yet. Stay focused and keep your eye on the prize!
- You will see some gorgeous brick homes, well kept yards and flowers, carriage houses, barns and farmhouses with courtyards….fancy fountains and gardens, beautiful chandeliers and modern (but smaller) homes, all fairly sturdily built, mostly out of attractive red brick…..two hundred year old homes that have been mishmashput together but many renovated….also apartments of various sizes, mostly up to three bedrooms…some nice villas, I know of a few within steps to the cathedral in Mons that Americans are renting….and you will see inglorious dumps, especially in the lower rent ranges.
- If you are lower enlisted, you won’t have the luxury of paying higher rents, so you will have less to choose from. My advice here is to insist on living on post or in government leased quarters. I know someone who was in temporary quarters for about six months, and the housing office found them an acceptable place off post after they raised their voices to be heard. I don’t know if this is the norm or not, but speak up and insist you get more personalized help and don’t hesitate to go “the official route” to get help outside your organization (such as IG) if you feel you are not getting the service you deserve. SHAPE is top-heavy with higher ranking officers and sometimes you can get lost in the shuffle!
Once we did find a house and our option was exercised (after two weeks of looking at about 10 houses), what a relief and weight lifted off my shoulders! I see the same thing in every spouse’s eyes at breakfast AFTER they find a home. That is the start of the downward stress level. Even though I had to concede some things, such as a big yard and large kitchen, I got things in return, such as a cool and large old home that was once a cafe before and during the war, which is completely renovated inside, next to a canal with many trails and close to a trainstop where I can reach all of Europe without ever having to get in my car! To me, that was worth it. You may find too that you will also have to give up something on your list, so just be prepared. You can be happy with your decision once you make it. It’s all a great adventure, isn’t it?
Update: The American Housing Office now has their home offerings online at IMCOM Housing site. (Edited Jan 2015)
Update #2: Don’t forget to read these eye-openers about heating your European home. These are things you probably aren’t even thinking about, especially if you are house hunting in the summer!
If you have any housing tips to share, please post below!