The price of accommodation in Colombia is rising as its economy develops, but most expats, especially those earning a foreign currency, will find that housing remains affordable.
When choosing accommodation, expats need to consider factors such as cost, security and location. As a result of the country's wealth disparity, expats can find accommodation to suit almost every budget. Expats will generally be limited to a relatively small selection of middle- to upper-class neighbourhoods that offer security and proximity to public transport, grocery and department stores and restaurants.
Most expats settle in Bogotá, the culturally rich and bustling capital. Another favourite city is Medellín, known as the 'City of Eternal Spring' due to its comfortable climate. Cali, the capital of salsa dancing, and Barranquilla, Santa Marta and Cartagena, along the Caribbean coast, are also popular locations.
Whether renting or buying, expats without a sound knowledge of Spanish may struggle to find and secure accommodation in Colombia. They may also be more susceptible to exploitative landlords and various scams. Expats unfamiliar with the local language and culture should enlist the help of a professional translator or a friend who is fluent in Spanish.
Types of accommodation in Colombia
The type of accommodation an expat chooses will depend on the town or neighbourhood they want to live in, their family's requirements and, of course, their budget. Generally, the further one moves from the city centre, the more choice they'll have and the more affordable the properties will be.
Modern apartment complexes in Colombia have good security and often offer amenities like a pool or a small gym. Older apartment blocks are usually more spacious and comfortable. They also tend to have better soundproofing than more modern buildings. Houses are typically expensive and are generally situated further away from the city centre.
Single expats and those on a tight budget might consider renting a room in a private home. Many have private entrances, including access to the entire house and its amenities, while allowing expats to improve their Spanish. Although Colombians tend to live at home until they get married, expats may also be able to find a room in an apartment shared with Colombian roommates (or fellow foreigners).
Furnished or unfurnished
Both furnished and unfurnished housing is available in the major urban centres, although furnished apartments are typically significantly more expensive.
Unfurnished apartments often lack many of the appliances that expats would expect, such as refrigerators, washing machines and microwaves. That said, renting an unfurnished apartment is often much more affordable, and expats staying in the country for a year or more will likely find buying their own furnishings worthwhile.
A short let is a good option for those who may only be in Colombia for a few months. They also allow new arrivals to get to know an area before committing to a long-term lease. A short let usually offers some flexibility in the length of the rental. These properties generally come furnished, and price often includes utilities and services.
Finding accommodation in Colombia
Securing a house or apartment in Colombia may be difficult, especially for expats who don't speak Spanish. There is a high demand for properties in the more affluent areas of every Colombian city. Expats should therefore establish their budget well in advance and research their preferred neighbourhoods to focus their search.
The best way to find an apartment is to walk around the desired neighbourhood, talk to locals and look for 'se arrienda' or 'for rent' signs, and contact the owners via phone or email. Many apartments and houses are rented out by individuals rather than agencies. It is pretty unlikely that the owner will speak English, so expats should enlist the help of a Spanish-speaking friend.
Expats can also use a real estate agency, search the classifieds of local newspapers, or refer to expat forums where other foreigners may advertise available rooms or properties. There are several different online portals for people in Colombia looking for roommates or advertising apartments.
When searching the internet, expats should avoid using English sites, which generally market to tourists. Local websites will yield a more significant number of options at greatly reduced prices.
Renting accommodation in Colombia
Renting accommodation in Colombia can be a tedious process. Rental agencies typically require expats to fill out lots of paperwork and provide references. Renting a room in a shared house or apartment is generally more relaxed and informal.
The rental market is competitive and fast moving. Expats should definitely do some research before leaving their home country and shortlist suitable cities and neighbourhoods in Colombia that will suit their needs and budget.
The rental process
After deciding on the area they want to live in and the type of property they would like to rent, expats will typically research properties online. They would also then contact real estate agents to set up viewings.
Once they have found a suitable property and made a successful application, the estate agent will draw up the contract.
Together, both parties should make an inventory (inventario del inmueble) at the beginning of a tenancy agreement. Both parties should keep a copy for their records. They should sign the inventory and add it to the tenancy contract. It should typically include details of the contents of the property. The tenant and landlord or agent should note any damaged furniture or fittings.
Expats will need one or sometimes two Colombians to co-sign the rental agreement. These co-signers will generally need to be property owners and will be responsible for payments should the tenant default. Expats may find that local friends are either unable or unwilling to take on this responsibility, but an employer will often help with the process.
Although real estate agencies tend to be strict about this requirement, expats may be able to avoid the necessity of Colombian co-signers by paying a large percentage of the rent upfront or by negotiating directly with the landlord.
Rental contracts in Colombia usually last 12 months. This can vary from landlord to landlord, depending on the contract. Both landlords and tenants can legally terminate the contract early if the other party doesn't comply with the terms set out in the lease agreement.
References and background checks
Colombian real estate agencies require background credit checks. This may prove difficult for expats without a credit history in the country, but the landlord or agent will usually accept a salary slip or bank statement.
In Colombia, insurance companies function in place of deposits. A landlord will draw up a contract with an insurance company. This company will offer security against arrears and damage to the property.
This kind of policy should cover the property owner for 36 months' rent and a fixed amount for damage to the property. They will write the cost of the policy into the lease agreement. The tenant will either have to pay a monthly charge added to the rental price or an annual lump sum.
Terminating the lease
In Colombia, terminating a rental lease involves several steps. Firstly, the tenant must provide a written notice to the landlord one to three months before the intended termination date – the notice period should be spelt out in the rental agreement. Should the tenant fail to provide sufficient notice, they may be liable to pay compensation, typically equivalent to the rent for the remaining lease period.
It is essential for expats to carefully review the lease agreement, as it might contain specific clauses regarding early termination. Upon termination, the expat is responsible for returning the property in its original condition, accounting for normal wear and tear. Lastly, the landlord and tenant should settle any outstanding financial matters, such as unpaid rent or utility bills, before parting ways.
Utilities in Colombia
The cost of services such as water, electricity and gas in Colombia vary based on usage and strata. The strata system helps subsidise the cost of utilities in lower-income neighbourhoods. In the more desirable neighbourhoods of the city, expats will pay more for these services. Many people in rural Colombia forgo the luxury of hot water, especially on the coast, where it is sweltering and humid. Expats should be sure to confirm that their chosen property has hot water.
Although this varies between rental agreements, it is usually the tenant's responsibility to pay for services such as water and electricity. Expats should ensure that the rental agreement stipulates who pays for utilities. Utilities are generally included in the rental price of short-term leases.
Regional companies provide electricity in Colombia, and the three largest are Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), CODENSA and Celsia. The electricity provider will vary depending on location. Electricity bills are issued monthly, and expats can usually pay online or at local payment points like supermarkets or banks. Most electricity providers in Colombia offer online account management, allowing customers to easily track consumption and pay bills.
Gas supply in Colombia is distributed in two ways: natural gas pipelines and propane gas cylinders. Natural gas is available in major cities like Bogotá, Medellín and Cali, serviced by providers such as Gases de Occidente and EPM. Gas bills are issued once a month or every two months, depending on the provider and service. In more rural areas or smaller towns, propane gas cylinders can be purchased from authorised distributors and empty cyliners can be exchanged at local petrol stations.
Water supply in Colombia is primarily managed by regional companies, such as Empresa de Acueducto y Alcantarillado de Bogotá (EAAB) in Bogotá and Aguas de Manizales in Manizales. Expats should expect monthly water bills which they can pay at local payment points or through online account management, depending on the provider. Water supply in Colombia is generally reliable, although water rationing may be implemented during periods of drought.
Municipal authorities manage waste management and recycling services in Colombia, contracting private companies to handle waste collection and disposal. Depending on the area, bin collection services typically run once or twice a week. Expats should familiarise themselves with the local waste disposal and recycling guidelines, as there may be separate collections for recyclable materials such as paper, plastic and glass.
Expats in Colombia should also be aware of additional utility costs, such as television and internet services. These services are generally provided by private companies, such as Claro, Tigo and Movistar. Expats can choose from a range of service packages, with monthly fees varying depending on the provider and package chosen. Account management for these services can usually be done online or via mobile applications.