How to rent an apartment in Colombia

Even though the cost of living in Colombia is lower than in most of Europe or the US, you need to be careful with your expenses. I always keep reminding prospective teachers that you can’t expect to earn a lot of money here unless you have advanced qualifications and several years of experience. Your rent is going to represent your highest monthly expense, so it makes sense to check out various places before committing to a contract.

First of all, you need to understand the concept of estratos. Every Colombian neighbourhood is assigned a number that represents how ‘good’ the place is. The scale goes from number 1, a low-income area where you probably don’t want to live, to number 6, which is a prime location. The funny thing is that if you live in one of the higher estratos, you have to pay more money for the same service (internet, water, etc.) than those from worse neighbourhoods. It leads to some strange situations, but that’s the way it is.

How to rent an apartment Colombia

You should definitely explore the area in which you plan to live to get an idea what the neighbourhood looks like. You can walk around the place, or simply use Google Street View in order to save time. Remember to look at the surrounding areas because Colombia is a land of contrasts. A luxurious neighbourhood can be just a few blocks away from a dodgy area, so it’s important to use common sense and be aware of your surroundings. For the past year or so, I’ve been living in estrato 3 without any issues. The building has a 24-hour reception service and my apartment is in a better state than the one in estrato 5 where I had lived before.

If you are like me and feel that you are too old for flat sharing, you will probably consider renting a furnished apartment. The former option is definitely more economical, but I didn’t even consider it after arriving to Colombia. Teaching involves talking to people all day, so I just prefer to have some peace and quiet when I come home. That said, if you don’t mind living with strangers, you can check out CompartoApto.

If you are moving to a new city, it’s a good idea to book a hotel or Airbnb room for a week or two and give yourself time to find something more permanent. You can start by asking your employer or other teachers for recommendations because they might know of an available place. You can also search for apartments online; there are numerous real estate agencies and Facebook groups dedicated renting flats in every city.

Going through a real estate agency is always going to be more expensive than renting a place directly from its owner. Another point to consider is that you will most likely be asked to sign the contract together with a fiador – someone who has to pay the rent in case you disappear. Obviously, if you travel alone to a new country, you will find it difficult to find someone who would be willing to do that for you. The fiador requirement can be overcome by paying a few months of rent in advance, but it’s still a pain in the backside. Try to avoid real estate agencies if you can.

You should aim to get in touch directly with owners. If you speak Spanish, the easiest thing is to walk around the area you’d like to live in. There are always signs advertising rooms or apartments for rent. You can also talk to porteros and ask them if they know of any available apartments. It takes quite a lot of effort, but you can find a pretty good deal that way by cutting out the middleman and avoiding unnecessary paperwork. There are also websites like OLX, which are quite popular in Colombia, but it’s not always clear if the ad was posted directly by the owner or a real estate agency.

I also think it’s worth checking out apartments on Airbnb. Obviously, booking the place directly through the platform isn’t always the best option because the prices are usually exorbitant. What I suggest is taking advantage of the fact that Airbnb has become extremely popular in the country. As a consequence, some apartments lie empty for long periods of time. If you get customers only at weekends, it’s not ideal in terms of cleaning and security, and some owners may get tired of that.

Fortunately, Airbnb allows you to contact the owner directly before you make a booking, so you can tell them that you would be interested in a long-term rental agreement. It’s quite possible to negotiate a pretty good discount. I’d just recommend that you not use English to communicate with the owners because they may ask for more money. If your Spanish is basic, use a translation app or ask someone to help you out. You also have to make sure you understand how much you are expected to pay in total because there are more fees involved than just the monthly rent. You also need to pay utility bills and in some cases even the building administration fee. Take your time and read the contract carefully.

Renting a furnished apartment on your own is always the most expensive choice. However, if you want to avoid dealing with a lot of hassle, you simply need to bite the bullet and pay extra money for a place that you can move into immediately. Unfurnished apartments are cheaper, but they may not represent the best option when you don’t know how long you are going to stay in the city.

Helpful advice from my CELTA tutors

I have already highlighted some benefits of getting a CELTA in this post about teaching qualifications. You can also read my tips for passing the course with a good grade. I did my CELTA at CELT Athens and it was an amazing experience. The feedback I received was really valuable because I’d had no teaching experience prior to the course. Several years have passed since then, but I still remember my tutors’ advice. Let me share a few important principles that I follow to this day.

Helpful advice from my CELTA tutors

You have to grade your language
I felt really satisfied with the first English lesson of my life; everything went well and I was proud of my performance. Then my tutor told me that showing off is not a good strategy in the classroom. I was talking too fast and using words way above my learners’ level. I remember that I said, ‘Technically, that’s right’ at one point of the lesson. When I came home, I checked the word ‘technically’ in a dictionary and found out that it’s supposed to be used at C2 level. I taught pre-intermediate students that day.

Speaking fast and using fancy words is fine when presenting at a conference, but talking to your students requires you to adapt your language to their current level of English. They need to be exposed to comprehensible input, so slowing down your speech and adjusting your language is certainly a step in the right direction.

You are talking to human beings
At first I thought that this comment was rather amusing, but then I realised the tutor was referring to building rapport with students. They are more than just an item on the attendance list. I know that talking to complete strangers can be a daunting experience, and that’s why a bit of small talk before or after a lesson is extremely helpful. My lessons are more engaging when I know my students’ professions, hobbies, academic background, etc. That knowledge allows me to personalise the lessons and focus on what the learners find relevant.

Another important word here is humility. I believe that my students have amazing talents and abilities that can range from mathematics to sports, music, etc. They can’t express themselves perfectly in a foreign language, but that doesn’t detract anything from what they can do in other areas. I always ask my students to talk about what they are professionally or academically involved in, and I have actually learnt a lot of new things in the process. I love what Hugh Dellar said in this video:

“First and foremost, good teachers care about the people that they’re in the room with. They care about them on a human level. They care about their feelings, their emotions, their lives, their well-being. Because of that, they care about how well they’re progressing academically. They care about what might be stopping them from progressing well academically. They care about their presence. They care about their involvement in the class. They care about their interactions with other students and with themselves.”

You are not talking to grammarians
Grammar knowledge definitely plays an important role in language learning. That said, I don’t think it’s necessary to expect the learners to memorise all kinds of technical terms. Knowing metalanguage can be useful, but I’ve met students who could identify past participles, complements and adverbials without having the ability to string a few sentences together in their spoken production. I think it makes more sense to focus on performance and successful communication with other people.

I spent a few months tutoring a teenager who was struggling with English at school. Her vocabulary was limited and she didn’t know how to produce complex sentences. When she asked me for help with her homework, I was shocked to see that she was expected to pass a test full of complicated verb forms, including the future perfect progressive! Who in their right mind would think that kind of crap is appropriate for a pre-intermediate learner? How exactly was she supposed to benefit from that? No wonder many students end up hating English when they have to memorise unnecessary rules instead of doing something useful.

Just let them talk
Working with people who are naturally talkative in their native language is good fun. If you live in Colombia and speak Spanish, you will inevitably participate in long conversations on all kinds of topics. Of course, it’s not always easy to take advantage of that trait and make the students speak as much as possible in English. The problem is when the teacher is the most talkative person in the room because you may then witness something like this: 

Teacher: Good morning, how are you? Good? That’s great. How was your weekend? What did you do? Nothing? Really?
Student 1: Sleeping.
Teacher: Sleeping? Yes, me too. I also went to the cinema to see The Avengers. I thought it was amazing. Did you like it?
Student 2: Yes.
Teacher: Yes, that’s great. I loved the part when…

You get the picture. The learners can barely get a word in because the lesson is dominated by a teacher with superior language skills. If I were a student in that classroom, I would decide to save my money and watch videos on YouTube instead. I might actually learn English faster that way.

My point is that students should be the ones who talk a lot in the classroom. Sometimes it’s appropriate to simply shut up and let the learners do most of the talking. I’m sure they’re going to enjoy it more than listening to rambling monologues. You don’t need to go full Dogme and make all your classes based on conversation, but I definitely recommend asking a lot information questions to get people to speak. Just don’t forget to give them enough time to answer!