New arrivals looking for accommodation in Houston will have plenty of options. Despite being one of the USA's largest cities, Houston's housing market doesn’t mirror the astronomical prices found in places such as New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago.
Availability isn't an issue either. Demand for rentals has increased over the past few years, but there is enough housing in Houston to ensure new arrivals should be able to find an apartment or house that suits them.
Expats have the option to buy or rent property in Houston, but most prefer to rent while they get acquainted with the Bayou City's many neighbourhoods.
Each area of Houston has its own distinct feel and its own pros and cons. Proximity to the workplace and schools in Houston should also be considered when choosing a place to put down roots. Rush-hour traffic can be treacherous and students attend public schools based on where they live, so parents often look in the areas around good schools.
Types of accommodation in Houston
Accommodation in Houston varies widely. With a huge range of options available, newcomers to the city will certainly be able to find something that suits their budget and lifestyle. There seem to be constant new builds sprouting up across the greater Houston area, and there’s also a wealth of choice of more established properties for those looking for something a little older.
Free-standing single-family homes are quite popular and often come with gardens and sometimes even a pool. These are mostly found in the suburbs outside of the city centre, while some are situated in gated communities. Townhouses, semi-detached homes, condos, duplexes and bungalows are also common. High-rise and mid-rise buildings are found all over the city, both in the centre and in the suburbs, and are packed with budget to luxury apartments.
Finding accommodation in Houston
After picking an area to live in, finding a rental property in Houston is a matter of looking through listings, attending viewings and applying for tenancy. Real estate agencies can help in the search for a home and the larger agencies have websites that include district and neighborhood information, school information, rental prices, photos and even virtual tours. There are no fees to rent for a home through a realtor, the fee is always paid by the owner of the apartment.
Some new arrivals choose to look for a place on their own and property portals and community forums are good starting points. Newcomers shouldn’t count out driving through an area either, since 'for sale' and 'to rent' signs constantly materialise on front lawns and in front of apartment buildings. This is often the best way to find a property that hasn’t yet made it onto formal listings.
Renting accommodation in Houston
With countless apartments, gated communities and near-town bungalows, newcomers really are spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing a house that suits their budget and priorities. They can also save money by looking for sub-letting options and negotiating leases for larger family homes.
Furnished vs unfurnished
Both furnished and unfurnished accommodation is available in Houston, with furnished being more expensive. In both cases, basic fittings such as light fixtures, blinds and some white-label appliances (such as a stove, refrigerator or washing machine) are included, while fully furnished accommodation has all the furnishings one would need to live there without having to purchase extras. This is ideal for those only living in Houston for a short period, such as a year or a few months, as it nullifies the need to invest in new furnishings or ship already-owned furniture from elsewhere, both of which are expensive endeavours.
The rental process
Most estate agents will require potential tenants to sign a rental application providing certain information, such as a copy of their ID, proof of income and contact details, among other things. This application form will be used to determine a person’s eligibility. Credit history, employment history, rental history and criminal history may all be checked during the application period, depending on the landlord or letting agent. Once prospective tenants have been approved, they will proceed with negotiating and signing the rental lease.
As with elsewhere in the US, leases in Houston are typically for 12 months. Tenants should be careful if they decide to break their lease. Renters should always ensure the rules set out by the rental contract are followed and that they give proper notice when moving out early.
According to Texas regulations, tenants are liable for any expenses that the landlord incurs when a lease is broken, which can result in losing the deposit and even being liable for extra costs on top of this.
Deposits are generally required but vary in amount. Newcomers arriving with a pet should note that landlords can charge a pet deposit on top of the security deposit to cover potential damages caused by the pet. When moving in (and out), it's wise to photograph each part of the property as proof of its condition.
Landlords in Houston have 30 days from the day the tenant moves out to refund the security deposit. If the landlord retains the security deposit, they need to send the tenant an itemised list and explanations for all deductions and costs.
New arrivals in Houston may be surprised at how many different ways there are to handle utilities. It's important to ask the landlord or estate agent for details upfront. There are four common ways in which utilities are paid for in Houston:
- All utilities included – This simply means that the landlord pays for all utilities. This may make a tenant’s life easier, but it usually also means higher rent and the inability to shop around between service providers.
- Master-metered utilities – This usually applies to apartment complexes. Here, the complex receives one bill then divides the cost among the apartments. This can apply to all utilities or only some (like electricity or water).
- Sub-metered utilities – This is similar to the previous option but a sub-meter is installed to regulate each apartment’s exact usage. So tenants still won’t be able to choose their own service providers, but they can keep their bills low by conserving energy and water.
- Tenant is responsible for utilities – This is usually the case for services such as internet, phone and cable television. Tenants will have to choose their own provider. The city of Houston provides water service, and natural gas is serviced by Centerpoint Energy. There are, however, multiple providers to choose from when it comes to electricity, internet, television and telephone services.
Internet and cable TV
Internet and cable TV are rarely included in the rental price and are usually the tenant's responsibility. Setting up these utilities may involve organising practical aspects, like having the necessary wiring installed, but in many cases the infrastructure may already be in place, making it a simple matter of sorting out a connection with the relevant service providers.
Bundle deals that include access to both the internet and cable TV are a common offering from major providers. These deals are not only good value for money, but they give tenants the advantage of only having to deal with one company for both services.
While home insurance isn't required by law, some landlords may insist that tenants take out a policy. This is generally a good idea as it can save future headaches in case of theft or accidental damage. Estate agents or landlords themselves may be able to recommend a good insurance company.
Tenants should check with their realtor, landlord or property manager regarding refuse removal services. Many neighbourhoods in Houston have contracts with private garbage pick-up services to service homes under specific jurisdictions. That said, many cities and towns within the Houston Metro area work with their local city or town’s garbage pick-up. If one’s garbage pick-up is serviced by the city of Houston, the service can be set up when setting up a water and sewer account.
Buying property in Houston
New arrivals and foreign investors face no restrictions when buying property in Houston, but there are a few things they will need before proceeding.
The first thing they will require before thinking of a purchase is an American social security number or an ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number). American citizens and expats working in the country all have social security numbers, but foreign investors not yet residing in the US would need an ITIN. This can be applied for at the Inland Revenue Service (IRS) – the country's national tax authority. It allows foreigners to open a US bank account to pay for their property and other costs, such as taxes and utilities.
Expats in the US can apply for a loan to buy property in Houston. Permanent residents, or those with a Green Card, will find the process straightforward. Non-permanent residents with a social security number will also be able to get a loan if they have a work visa or an employer-sponsored visa. They will also have to prove they will be living and working in the country for at least three years.
Expats should also keep in mind that they will likely need to furnish a bigger down payment on the property than locals, which is generally 30 percent of the property value. That said, this will ultimately play in their favour if they are able to put down a larger sum, as they would benefit from advantages such as tax breaks down the line.