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The trials and tribulations of developing a human interest story in Cambodia.

Phnom Penh Perspective:

Adventures in house rentals...

by Bronwyn Sloan

July 2004

After two years in one house, landlady insanity forced a move recently.

Phnom Penh has accommodation available in every price range imaginable—from $30 shacks on Boeung Kak lake to sprawling Toul Kork villas for thousands of dollars a month. In my experience, finding a home is not a problem. Finding a sane landlord is.

Real estate agents are a good place to start. Six years ago, when Phnom Penh's real estate market was just emerging, I made my first journey to an estate agent.
We climbed up stairs and through buildings, bumped our heads on ridiculously low ceilings and on my insistence that I had said I did not want to look at four figure a month places because not all foreigners were rich - an utterance which was met with disbelief - we returned to his office unsuccessful.

"I don't have any more houses at the moment… Do you want to rent my office?" he suggested in a last plaintive attempt to part me with cash.

And that is how I came to live in a real estate agency for a year.

There is now a range of real estate agents. Most are merely negotiators acting as middlemen. They approach owners with 'for rent' signs up, bump the price up a little, bring foreigners to the home and take a small commission. Owners who could never negotiate in English get the opportunity to rent to the bigger paying foreigner market, foreigners save time by going to houses that have already been identified by an agent. No one believes that Angkor Wat really is for rent, as one estate agency's brochure cover would seem to indicate. Everybody is happy—when the system works, that is.

For instance, one agency is run by a couple of guys who are earnest and incredibly helpful. PT Realty has earned rave reviews from several foreigners, although what they can offer depends on what they have on their books, and if nothing suitable is available, that's all there is to it.

But another is run by former bodyguards, who do things such as ring at 6am and demand to know if you are being unfaithful with another agency. It is sometimes difficult to end a relationship with a real estate agent in Cambodia.

"Who is your new landlady? I am coming around to see her," boomed a stern voice on the end of the phone after my unsuccessful interlude with the real estate heavies a couple of years ago.
"But why? Everything is sorted out. We have finished negotiating. I am now living in a new house," I stammered in reply.
"So you don't want me to come and see her?"
"Er, no. Why would I want you to come and force the rent up by speaking to her when I have already signed a lease and you didn't even find me this house because you were too busy showing me $600 places above sewage outlets in areas I don't want to live in?"
"And you don't want me to look for houses for you any more?"
"No, because I have just found one by myself."
"Oh. Ok. So, um—will you date me and buy me dinner then?"

Market economy is something many landlords here still struggle to come to terms with, and foreigners, with their strange habits and their obsession with privacy may as well be Martians to many. Hence real life scenarios such as:
Foreigner: "There appear to be a lot of clothes in this wardrobe. Are you going to empty it before we move in?"
Potential landlord: "No. They belong to grandmother. She comes from the province every second weekend, and on those weekends we suggest you sleep in the lounge as she likes to take the bed."
Or the reverse wear-down:
Foreigner, returning to an overpriced house he/she looked at six months before which has been empty ever since: "How much is it per month now?"
Potential landlord: "$100 a month more than the last time you looked at it."
Foreigner: "But it was too expensive last time and you haven't even looked like renting it."
Potential landlord: "Yes, and I have lost six months rent on it so I need to increase the price to make up for all the money I am not making while it is empty."

A good landlord will immediately take your money and go to the province to relax in a hammock, leaving you to live your life. A bad one will make your life hell, move the entire family onto your balcony, preferably just outside your bedroom window at 5am, and observe your actions in minute detail so they can be adequately reported to any random moto taxi driver who cares to listen and the vegetable seller in Psar Thmei. Privacy issues are often a concern, and the inability to separate your business from their own is one I have encountered several times while renting homes in Phnom Penh.

Imagine my surprise when my landlady arrived at my place of work last month waving a $100 bill she claimed I had given her four days earlier and had just noticed was a fake. She had found my office by taking my regular moto taxi driver to it.
Storming into the accountant's office, she demanded he give her an additional $100 for no particular reason, and when this idea was met with laughter, proceeded to demand my sacking, alleging that I sometimes came home late and demanding a reward for information regarding my movements.

My boss and I subsequently parted company, partly because he actually considered taking her up on the offer. The landlady was then mortified to realize both that I would be moving out of her house and that I had lost income that may previously have gone to her.

But this is a landlady who can come up with a conversation such as this:
Landlady: "You are a thief."
Tenant: "What the…?"
Landlady: "I have decided that I could have rented this place for $100 more a month than you pay. You have been here for two years. I demand you give me $2,400 now or I am calling the police."

One night I was met by an ashen faced delivery man from Nikes Pizza. I had been on a bit of a fast food bender and had ordered delivery from there three times that week.

His frequent presence, albeit for only a few minutes at a time, had attracted the attention of my landlady and her cronies and it turned out that he had just been holed up against a wall by three angry middle aged women and interrogated about his role in my life.
"They kept saying I was always here and asking what I was to you," he said. "I kept saying there was nothing going on! Nothing!"

This would have been great if it heightened security, but it did not seem to be applied to anyone more scary than the local pizza delivery man. When a local gang on yaba moved from the adjacent park to run up and down the alley creating havoc recently, they were not met by a single busybody. Instead, the landlady materialized on my doorstep the next day.
"You are blonde," she accused.
"Blondes attract crime," she intoned.
"But I wasn't even out…"
"We didn't have that problem before you and your friend next door moved in. She is blonde too."
"We didn't have that problem for more than a year after we moved in, and you didn't have our money before we moved in."

Silence. Logic can sometimes get through to the staunchest of illogical landladies.
Moto taxi drivers can sometimes find houses as well as any real estate agent. But so often finding a home is a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and the most perfect home is not worth a landlord who cannot see reason.

There was the house where the family lived out the back behind a curtain and huge glass windows. The glass windows formed a main wall of the master bedroom, creating a potential scenario my friend described as "Barang-o-rama".

One of my favorite drivers found me a house above a Khmer restaurant near Norodom Boulevard. It was in a stunning location, as the brochures would say. But it would have needed a lot of work. The toilets had been smashed, and an inspection of one of the bedrooms flushed out a bunch of Buddhist monks who seemed unaware of what the sign on the front of their house said. What were they doing in there? They didn't seem to be in a hurry to leave.

And the landlord didn't seem to have thought about what the 'for rent' sign entailed, either. Questions regarding how much the rent might be were met with a decided lack of forethought and forced a hurried discussion with the omnipresent monks and some random women who just arrived from nowhere and resulted in a nice round figure of $500 being agreed on.
"The chair is worth $300," the landlord explained, pointing out a huge massage chair straight out of the 1970's which took up most of the lounge area. The house appeared to have been built around it, and it was not going anywhere, so a $200 house was worth $500 and there was nothing he could do about it.

No repairs. No discount. The monks retreated back to the bedroom and we beat a retreat down the stairs. Someone switched on the karaoke machine. That was a year ago, and the house is still for rent. How many others have been treated to this surreal real estate experience?

But my friend did find me a house last week. The landlord appears to be very sane. The lease is fair and watertight for both of us. He doesn't care if I am blonde and don't come home at 5pm on a Saturday night. He is happy for me to have pizza delivered and says he will only raise questions if he hears gunfire coming from inside the house—a scenario that would take me by horrible surprise, too, I am sure.
This time there was no real estate agent. I was just in the right place at the right time, but everyone is happy. For now.

Specific comments regarding this column should be directed to Bronwyn Sloan.

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