Everybody needs to live somewhere. If you got to that part, you probably have some place to stay and sleep temporarily, but you need to get your own place as fast as possible, both to save money and to ensure you have a permanent address.
If you have just moved to Finland, your only option is probably renting an apartment, rather than buying an apartment or a house. Finland offers ridiculously low mortgage rates, but you need to have at least 10-20% of the price as a downpayment on hand, which is going to be a pretty significant sum (two room apartments in Vaasa cost 50,000-250,000€ depending on location, area, and building age and condition; you probably want to look at something not cheaper than average). And I doubt a bank will give a mortgage to someone who has literally yesterday arrived to Finland. Well, I don’t know, maybe they will, but I haven’t tried.
Renting, on the other hand, is something you can do right away, with much lesser initial spendings. There are some countries where renting an apartment is quite difficult in general (I’ve heard Sweden has some rather weird regulations in that area, for example), but Finland isn’t really particularly bad. Of course if you’re looking for the absolute cheapest price, or want to live in a highly desirable area, or possibly coming here in a bad time of year (particularly when the university students are looking for apartments) it would be more difficult, but still hardly impossible.
There are two basic options for renting an apartment: from a private person, or from a housing company. You can find better prices and more interesting offers from private people. And in buildings belonging to housing companies there is often rather high tenant turnover rate, and the tenants themselves will likely be poorer people. This is by no means certain, however, and furthermore renting from a housing company is easier, and they will usually demand a smaller security deposit.
Personally, I went with the housing company option. I’ve been living in an apartment rented in this way for over two months now, and I’m quite happy with it. My apartment block has decidedly an immigrant background; less than half of tenant names are Finnish. But this is not a ghetto or anything — the house is exactly as nice as every other Finnish house is. And I’m an immigrant myself and in general I find it quite distasteful when the people who are immigrants themselves shun other immigrants because of their background or skin color or anything. The location is also nice, 3 km away from the city center, and I’m not planning to move away anytime soon.
Housing kinds and locations
But let’s go back to some theory, as usual. I should note here that I’m speaking about mid-sized cities like Vaasa (which by standards of many countries would be considered very small); Helsinki, its suburbs, or maybe Tampere might be somewhat different.
Finland is well known for its low density of population, and that includes cities as well. The Finns themselves traditionally prefer living in detached houses, and apartment blocks aren’t that numerous. Helsinki is virtually the only city that actually has contiguous built-up areas of them. A typical Finnish city has the core area, always called Keskusta (center), generally small enough to walk across. This is where virtually all the services, offices, things like restaurants and bars, and high-rise apartment blocks are. Around Keskusta there are usually some areas of low-rise apartment blocks (3-6 floors high), usually pretty nice but finding anything other than a grocery store is difficult already. And for quite a few kilometers around then there are just detached and semi-detached houses, the Finnish suburbia, nice but fairly featureless. The monotony can be broken by natural features like lakes or rocky hills, industrial areas, or big supermarkets (these tend to clump together).
So you basically need to decide, do you want live in the center, or close to center, or far from center. The pros and cons are:
- Walkable! You won’t need a car or probably not even public transport
- Lively! If you’re the kind of person who actually likes having people around, you’d die of depression anywhere outside the center
- Various stores and offices are also easy to access
- There can be nice architecture around. By no means certain but if you like old buildings this is usually the only place where these, in best case, might be
- More expensive — depends on the actual building and location, and not massively more expensive anyway, but expensive nonetheless
- If you do have a car parking might be more difficult
- More noise
- Less nature around you. There will usually still be parks and green backyards and whatnot, but no actual forests
Close to center:
- Still walkable if you like walking. Might be not very convenient but at least you won’t be stranded in the center when you want to go home, or vice versa, and the hour is late and you have no money for taxi
- Biking can actually be the best compromise
- The commute by car or by bus will be really short (some 10-20 minutes from apartment to office door)
- Generally a lot quieter
- Zero problems with parking
- There may be forest patches and other nice nature close by although that depends on location
- Generally cheaper but that depends
In Vaasa the “close to center” areas are Palosaari, Hietalahti, Suvilahti, Vöyrinkaupunki, Klemettilä.
Far from center:
- Cheapest option
- Really green, nature will be right around the corner
- If you don’t mind driving everything is still within rather easy reach. In a city like Vaasa there are pretty much no traffic jams and you can drive from quite far away in just 30 minutes (my commute from a farmhouse in those first weeks I told about in earlier posts was about 35 min, a walk from the free parking lot to the office included — and that was 40 km away!)
- If you don’t like driving, tough. There may be buses but the timetables will usually be not very friendly, and in late evenings for example your only option would be a (super expensive) taxi
- Certainly will feel lonely and depressing for many people
- There are usually only detached or semi-detached houses in this area (which are rarely rented out), and the few apartment blocks that do exist might be what is considered “bad neighboorhoods”. Of course the “bad neighborhoods” in Finland are usually actually pretty okay.
In Vaasa the big “far from center” area is Ristinummi. Some other have a few multi-floor buildings but mostly it’s just suburbia.
The kinds of housing that exist in Finland are:
kerrostalo, a regular multi-floor (possibly only 2- or 3-floor) apartment building
- luhtitalo, a small kerrostalo which has stairs on the outside and galleries to access apartments on the second floor (there’s not generally more than two floors). Kind of an intermediate form between kerroslato and rivitalo
- rivitalo, a rowhouse, with several apartments in a, well, row
- paritalo, a semi-detached house with two aparments
omakotitalo (“own home house”), a fully detached house where you’re the only inhabitant
- puutalo, a typically fairly old omakotitalo which is made of wood
By far the most common kind of housing to be rented out are kerrostalos. The other kinds are possible to rent too but generally those are owner-occupied. Kerrostalo is also the cheapest kind of housing. I live in a kerrostalo and from now on we’ll be talking about kerrostalos only.
There are a few websites where you can go and look for apartments for rent right away. Oikotie is perhaps the biggest. It does not have an English interface but you’re still unlikely to have major problems. Vuokraovi is also quite big (with a lot of overlap with Oikotie of course) and does have English interface. Other websites are unlikely to offer something that Oikotie and Vuokraovi do not have. On any website you should be looking for the sections called vuokrattavat or something else to do with vuokra — this means rent.
Rental apartment listings are usually fairly comprehensive, with exact and detailed information on an apartment, including address, its configuration (possibly with an actual floor plan), pictures (sometimes only of the bulding but not apartment itself, since there is often just not much to look at in an empty apartment), rent and utilities, building information (e. g. when it was built and last renovated), and so on. You might find this dictionary useful, especially with regard to abbreviations like “2h+kk+p+s” (two rooms, kitchenette, balcony, sauna(*), if you wonder).
(*) One thing where Finland is rather unusual in regard to housing is saunas. You probably know that the Finns like saunas, but it might be a surprise that not only summer houses or public swimming pools and the like have these, but the vast majority of housing has saunas too. In kerrostalos those might be private (so just a special room adjacent to bathroom) or shared (so some room on the ground foor or in the basement or in the attic, with some way of reserving times for yourself). The latter option is cheaper of course.
The actual prices, of course, depend on a great variety of factors, starting with the city itself. So I can hardly give even a rough guide here. Well, as of February 2018, in Vaasa they seem to be around:
- One room: 350-550€/month
- Two rooms: 500-800€/month
- Three rooms: 600-950€/month
There are occasionally more expensive offers, usually for apartments in very modern buildings in city centers. Going cheaper than that is unlikely though. As might be expected, smaller and cheaper apartments are in higher demand. Renting just a room in somebody’s else apartments is possible but not especially common, and search engines like Oikotie and Vuokraovi do not have an option for that.
Very often there will be a company name overlaid on the advertisement’s picture. This company might be a housing company, owning the apartment in question, or just a rental agency. Unlike in some countries you shouldn’t normally have to pay for the services of the agency in the latter case, so don’t worry about that.
One thing you might particularly want to look at is whether the apartment is actually currently vacant, or will be available only from some date. In the latter case the date is usually the 1st day of month. If that date is not close and you are somewhat in a hurry (as you likely are upon just arriving to Finland), that’s probably not a good option. The advertisement might also state days of public viewings, if those are scheduled; in that case many ponential renters can come at once, and fill in applications afterwards if they’re interested.
Renting an apartment virtually always involves paying a security deposit beforehand, which will be refunded to you, minus possible apartment damages, when you move out. In Finland that deposit may go up to 200% of monthly rent (that’s the limit prescribed by law), but often is actually smaller, and 100% seems more common. A good reason to choose a housing company is that they often charge smaller deposits.
Utilities in Finland aren’t the cheapest in the world, but, considering high average salaries, are pretty unlikely to bankrupt anyone. As a renter most likely you will be paying for electricity and possibly for water, according to the actual use. The bill shouldn’t exceed 20-40€/month in most cases (the actual billing period is usually larger than a month). Using broadband Internet, laundry room, shared sauna, or a designated parking spot might invoive additional surcharges, but these are usually negligible (e. g. 5-15€/month for a parking place).
My own experience
I procrastinated quite a lot of time on this entry because I really do not know very well how the process works in all cases, particularly when renting from a private person. So in the end I’ll just tell what my experience was like. You can google quite a few tips and success stories — that’s by no means an obscure subject.
So, I decided I would try my luck with a housing company. The biggest housing company in Vaasa is Pikipruukki. Another big one is VOAS, but that’s specifically for student housing. They have somewhat cheaper prices, and offer things like picking roommates for you to share an apartment with, which is not what other companies would normally do; but they only rent to students. There isn’t really anything else; so, Pikipruukki it was. The name, if you wonder, means “pitch factory”; I don’t know why exactly they chose that name but there indeed used to be some pitch works in Vaasa in the older days.
Well, the Pikipruukki website, as you can see, is fairly straightforward (and fully translated into English). There is a general list of their properties. As you can see (by searching “All regions”) there are quite a few, and indeed apartment buildings with a small “Pikipruukki” sign on their side are a very common sight in Vaasa. Pikipruukki is in fact the official Vaasa housing company, and is owned by the city. You can even see its advertisements on some of the city buses and taxis.
Other major Finnish cities have similar companies; for example Jyväskylä which is twice bigger than Vaasa has JVA, and Helsinki has Helsingin kaupungin asunnot Oy. These are the official city-affiliated companies. Biggest cities may have other companies like Sato, but as I said Vaasa basically only has Pikipruukki.
The actual list of the currently vacant apartments can be searched from the front page. Pikipruukki’s listings are short and to the point, and include floor plans. They could do with a better photographer for the pictures though 🙂
Regardless of whether you have a specific apartment in mind or want them to pick something for you, the standard way to apply is to fill in an application form, which can be handed in in person, sent in by email or by snail mail. I visited Pikipruukki’s office on my first weekday, after going to the bank, but mostly to ask whether it was possibly to apply for an apartment without having a bank account yet. They said that it was, and offered to fill in the application form in their office, but I thanked them and said I’ll do it online.
The form — and I’m pretty sure there’s nothing about it particularly unique to Pikipruukki — is rather long, and you’ll notice it asks quite a few things, including your identity number (social security number, as they call it), your income and its source, the list of everyone who’ll be living with you, your reason for applying for an apartment, and information on any real estate property you already own (if any). Yes, that’s rather long, and no, I have no idea why they care about your property. But wanting to make sure you have a stable income is at least understandable. For employed people the application suggests attaching a payslip, but since I didn’t have one yet the employment contract was fine too (that’s another thing I inquired about at the office). So I filled this in, attaching the scanned employment contract, specifying my requirements as a two room apartment, rent up to 800€, and desired areas as Palosaari or Suvilahti. Both Palosaari and Suvilahti are in the “close to center” category, as I told above.
In two or three days I got a response on my email, saying they had an apartment to offer me. The apartment was actually not in Palosaari or Suvilahti, but in Vetokannas (Finn. Tow Isthmus, as in “towing boats”; also Dragnäsbäck in Swedish) — but that’s close to Palosaari, and that particular building was right across the road from Palosaari. The apartment in question cost about 625€/month (yes, that’s nowhere near 800€ that I specified, and in fact was about what I actually expected), everything but electricity costs included. They gave me the phone to call in case I’m interested in this apartment and want to have a look.
So I did. The guy on the other side spoke rather poor English but enough to understand what I wanted, and he set date (after weekend) and time when I can come. Before that, I googled everything I could about the area, asked my coworkers about the location, and actually drove there myself to have a preliminary look. The building, Verkkokatu 5, had three floors, with red brick facades. Verkkokatu 1, 3 and 5 were actually all the same long building, at the intersection of Palosaarentie and Alskatintie roads. Between the building and the roads was a strip of forest, thin but rather nice-looking. In the backyard there were two rivitalo buildings, also parts of the same apartment complex; a somewhat bigger patch of forest, storage sheds, playgrounds and, a little further, spacious parking lots, with exits onto narrow residential Verkkokatu street (Finn. Fishnet Street). The dumpsters were also near the parking lots.
The location seemed nice enough. Vetokannas is mostly a row house/detached house area, with very few kerrostalo buildings; Verkkokatu 1-3-5 was one of them but it was completely surrounded by rivitalos and omakotitalos. It had a bus stop right nearby, and by foot it was 3 km to work, which is quite walkable in good weather, and the walk past the nice Onkilahti sea bay and through the quiet Vöyrinkaupunki area should have been also pleasant. There were two grocery stores (Sale and the bigger K-Market), an R-Kioski store which was also a post office, and a Koti Pizza fast food restaurant within five minutes of walking. And within ten minutes of walking there were three water areas: Onkilahti and Isolahti bays, and Pukinjärvi lake. So it was in all regards the place I wanted.
The residents definitely had an immigrant background — that much was obvious by reading tenants lists (which are normally posted in building stairways) — and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking whether I should try to look for something else because of that. As I said, I don’t understand immigrants shunning other immigrants for their skin color or religion, but I guess there’s a bit of xenophobia in all of us. In the end I decided that that’s just silly and that I should be standing by my principles here. (That ended up the correct decision.)
My coworker also said that the nearby Palosaarentie-Alskatintie intersection was planned to be rebuilt into a small traffic interchange; by Finnish standards it is considered overloaded (which means that at 8 AM if you’re unlucky you might have to wait not for one but god forbid for two red lights). That was actually a bigger cause for concern. I googled around and eventually found the actual plans; apparently the reconstruction is planned for spring of 2018. Living next to a construction site is of course not that fun, but my part of the building is pretty much the farthest from the actual intersection, and the forest strip will remain almost untouched (although there’ll be a sidewalk through it, which is actually a good thing; the road will become wider but not that much winder, and there’ll be noise screens), so I decided that should be also okay.
So when it was time to have a look — on my second work week, in the middle of the day so I had to skip an hour or so of work — I drove to the place, parked at Verkkokatu street, and waited at the stairway at the doors of the apartment, still having previous tenant’s name on it. I was just hoping other residents won’t find me hanging there suspicious 🙂 Luckily in a few minutes a car drove up outside and an older guy, the building superintendent I assume, walked up, unlocked the door and showed me the apartment. He really didn’t speak much English at all (something very rare in Finland), so our exchanges mostly boiled down to “Is good?” — “Is good!”.
There wasn’t really much to look at in the apartment, of course. Finnish apartments are rented empty, apart from inbuilt furniture (kitchen cabinets and wardrobe basically), bathroom fittings and kitchen appliances; even most of the lights are normally missing. It did have a rather huge pile of junk mail left from the previous tenant though. But otherwise it was pretty much perfectly clean, nice white walls and greyish floor. Existing furniture showed some minor wear but the fridge was actually brand new, with not even packing tape removed.
I didn’t really have anything to complain about. I already saw the floor plan on Pikipruukki’s website and knew what to expect. The apartment was quite spacious at 57 sq. m; with two rooms and kitchen being basically a part of living room, it felt really big. The ceilings some thirty or so centimeters higher than what is common in Russia also helped the feeling, although I guess that part is rather usual for Finland. I loved the space; ever since 2008 or so, I only ever lived in a one-room apartment or sharing a two-room apartment with a roommate, except briefly in 2016. I’m not really a hoarder but it did feel rather cramped at times. And since this time I wanted to have a place where I would really feel home, I specifically wanted a two-room apartment even though I would be living there alone, for the foreseeable future at least.
The apartment included a balcony, also rather big, and a clothes room. The latter part seemed funny to me because having a clothes room wasn’t something I ever thought about, but this actually proved very useful as a place to stuff unsightly stuff like the big trekking backpack. What it didn’t have was a sauna — that was a bit of a disappointment of course. The building had a shared sauna, free to use even, but you need to walk to it, and reserve time, and then just sitting there alone would feel kind of silly, so I ended up never using that. Good thing I’m not a real Finn, otherwise I’d go mad without a sauna. As it is, I appreciate it but can live with it just fine.
After the actual apartment the superintendent showed me the sauna and the house laundry room; the latter one I actually intended to use. Both of them are on the building’s fourth floor, which is a “technical” one; these more often are in the basement but obviously not in this building. Then we went outside and he showed me the storage room and the bike room; both of these were in a separate building in the backyard. The storage room had small caged-off areas for every apartment. It’s a standard thing for Finland and it’s perfect for storing winter tires but other than that I don’t know what to put there (especially since I got a clothes room in the apartment), so I don’t use that. The bike room had just a bunch of bikes there (also strollers, skis and other stuff), although people also park theirs right near the outer door too. Also a pretty standard thing for Finland.
With that, we said bye to each other, and I returned to work. After some brief deliberations, I emailed Pikipruukki saying I accept this apartment. They said I can get keys and move in pretty much right away (since the apartment was obviously vacant), as soon as I pay the security deposit, equal to a month’s rent. They sent me an invoice for that.
Since I didn’t have a bank account yet at that point, paying that invoice turned out to be an unexpectedly difficult task! I assumed I could do it in with cash in any bank (the same way it would be in Russia) and went to the same OP bank office where my bank account application was being processed (or actually, as it turned out, was lost, but I already told about that part before). They politely refused, saying that they don’t accept cash from random people, and that the only place I could do that is a R-Kioski store. This is apparently a result of some relatively new regulations; I’m pretty sure they used to accept it just a few years ago.
It feels weird that R-Kioski is allowed to do something banks aren’t, but who am I to question that. This common store chain is a little special anyway; apart from selling sausages and snacks and lottery tickets and whatnot, they do a whole lot of other stuff, like acting as a small post office in some locations. With R-Kioski there was, however, another gotcha: they only accept invoices with bar codes, and my invoice didn’t have one. I suppose the bar code is required so that the store clerk can just quickly scan it, instead of slowly and awkwardly typing all the fields in. The bar code requirement I at least could google myself, which saved me an unnecessary R-Kioski visit.
My coworker offered me taking my cash and paying the invoice for me from their account, which of course would be a foolproof option, but still I wanted to solve this myself if possible. I asked Pikipruukki to mail me an invoice with a bar code; my coworkers were of the opinion they wouldn’t bother to, but I ended up actually getting such an invoice! Now that’s customer service! With that one I went to one of the R-Kioski stores and finally paid it, with just a small commission fee.
On the next day I came to Pikipruukki office with a paid invoice at the arranged time. I expected to move into the apartment on that day already, so I already packed up all my stuff from the farmhouse back in the car. The process at Pikipruukki office went very quickly and smoothly, taking barely more than ten minutes. They directed me to the room of the lady I had been emailing, she checked that I brought the paid invoice, gave me a contract to sign (rather short and straightforward), gave me a folder with some papers and the keys (quite a few of them in fact). I was free to move in!
An attentive reader will notice that I paid only the security deposit, but not the actual first month rent. This one I had to pay only after moving in; I got an invoice for that, and it was actually only for the remaining part of the month, as the regular due date is 2nd of every month. But, well, I think that post got long enough already, so I’ll finish the apartment story (paying rent in general, electricity and Internet contracts, notification of move, using laundry room, getting furniture and so on) the next time. The important thing was, I finally had my own place — a week and a half after coming to Finland, which is actually pretty damn fast.