After a lot of discussion and soul searching, we decided to sell my house in Vermont. My wife is a Chinese Indonesian from Surabaya.
Part I House Hunting.
We met about fourteen years ago when I was hired to teach at a school here. So, selling the house for me was cutting the cord to my homeland (Patria in Latin). All the psychological aspects surrounding this process deserve their own essay but this one is about the practical details of finding and buying a house here.
Foreigners cannot buy property in Indonesia. And they can’t inherit property either. So, despite my wife being an Indonesian citizen, she cannot legally will the house to me in the event that she predeceases me. What is required is a prenuptial agreement stating that the property would go to her daughter in the event of her death. Happily, one can get this paperwork done even if it wasn’t done before the marriage. No regulation stays the same for long. I don’t appear on any of the paperwork. Basically, I sell my house in Vermont and my wife takes that money to buy a house under her name in Surabaya. Think about that.
So the process begins. We cleared about US$275,000 from the house in Vermont. One would think that would be fine as generally, the cost of living in Indonesia is about 400 percent less than in America. Think again. About the only thing that is not relatively inexpensive is real estate. Of course, some of that depends on location. We live on the East side of Surabaya, the old side. There’s very little vacant land here and no place to expand as we are on the edge of the ocean. It’s a different picture on the West side of Surabaya where things are developing quickly and there is plenty of room for expansion. However, the prices there are not lower.
We had two big problems: finding the right house for us and finding one we could afford. The housing requirement was a one-floor building, in a good location for the things we do here, and with space for a painting studio (usually the garage). We spent a year looking with the help of an independent realtor who became our friend. She worked very hard for us despite our continuing failure to come up with the right house. I don’t think one-story houses are being built here now. The land is too expensive so two-story buildings are the norm on small lots.
The reason for the one-story building is that one gets tired of climbing stairs many times every day and we’re not getting younger. I progressively was willing to compromise on that as no options showed up and I began to think it was impossible for us to find and afford what we really wanted. Luckily, I trust my wife on all the important things and she wasn’t willing to give up.
We looked for a year and saw hundreds of houses at least from the outside. We would get in the car and spend most of the day driving around neighbourhoods looking at signs, making calls, and doing that over and over again. I went on about half of those trips, as much as I could stand. My wife, Jovita, and our driver Pak Rom did the lion’s share. When we did find a likely candidate, the price would be US$350,000 or US$400,000. There was nothing in our price range, nothing.
One day we found a nice-looking house with a sign on it and my wife called. The price was within our budget! And the builder was in the neighbourhood. It was a new house, two stories, but a modern design with a view and very attractive. I was thrilled and also desperate by now. I pushed very hard. The builder wanted a hefty down payment. I pushed to give it to him. I think I was hysterical, to be honest. My wife, thankfully, is a cool head. She insisted on seeing the house certificate. The certificate had a different name on it! Without going into all the details, the builder was attempting to get a deposit on a house he didn’t own! I was shocked and dismayed but happy I trusted my wife. After that, I just followed her lead.
We had seen a house that fit our requirements and it was in a good neighbourhood and in a perfect location. As usual, the price was too high. We made an offer. It was rejected. Some months later we made another offer and they made a counteroffer. The people were wealthy and wanted to sell the house, pay off their bank, and get their money out of it. We were able to buy it for about US$225,000 and have money left over for renovations. Truthfully, the house was fine. We could just move in but you only get your dream house once so we wanted it renovated in the best way possible.
Part II The Renovation
Our son-in-law lives in Malang – a businessman. He recommended a crew of workers to do the renovation. It was planned in two stages and that turned out to be very important as their work wasn’t good in many cases and had to be redone. My wife’s cousin recommended her son take over as the contractor for the project. He’s a young guy, who recently graduated from university with top grades and with some experience. Actually, he seems to have had a lot of experience, is very talented and smart, and is a very nice person.
The workers he uses are all competent specialists in different aspects of construction and he makes sure they do the work properly. This is a three-month process – maybe four months – including the complete replacement of all the floor tiles, redoing of two bathrooms and the kitchen, and a lot of other smaller things. There are a lot of details to it all which require attention and skill. So far we are very happy and hope to move in sometime in December if not sooner.
Part III Awas, awas! Watch out!
There is a lot of trickery in the business culture here. Be careful to know all the details. Ask for the house certificate if you are interested in buying. Make sure you see that and have a notary check. Sometimes the certificate is in the bank, meaning they owe money that has to be paid before they sell. Find a good notary with a good reputation. Sometimes the person selling the house is not on the certificate as in the case mentioned. In another case, a woman’s husband had passed away but only his name was on the certificate. In these instances, you’re defeated before you begin. Just walk away.
Regarding real estate agents, normally they’re too busy and only interested in expensive properties. Shop around until you find someone you like who will take an interest in your search for a house. Go around and look through neighbourhoods, take photos of signs, and make calls. Many people want to sell without having to pay real estate fees. Don’t give up.
Regarding renovations, the money required is much more reasonable than buying a house, so things get easier. However, many of the workers don’t know how to do the work properly unless someone is over them telling them how to do it. Their standard is often “village standard” and not up to par in the city. That is why a contractor can be very important. However, there are also big differences. We talked to two contractors who basically said they couldn’t do the work we wanted. Probably they could build a house from scratch using an architect’s plans but to think their way through a complicated renovation was too much for them.
Good luck with your house hunting!