Home hunting is never fun no matter where you live. But try looking for a home in a 3,000-year-old city. It’s like stepping through a time machine and emerging in post-apocalyptic neighborhoods where everyone is the size of penguins and living on top of each other. I read a lot about how crowded and chaotic Ancient Rome was, despite its bacchanalian image of gold goblets and bedroom fountains. I just learned first hand what some of the housing was like. I wonder if Caesar Augustus ever did.
After four years in my dream home, a 45-square-meter penthouse apartment with a huge 35-square-meter terrace overlooking the Tiber River, I moved. About three weeks ago I resettled across the river and up the hill in Monteverde, a leafy, upscale neighborhood my girlfriend Marina calls “chic.” Going from my old Testaccio neighborhood to Monteverde is like going from a working class, trendy ‘hood to upper middle class. I’ll be fine as long as I can overlook Monteverde’s fascist roots. For three weeks I’ve learned to overlook the swastika knife carved into my elevator door.
I never thought I could leave my old apartment without openly weeping. It was the best four years of my life. I had wild aperitivos on my terrace, made great dinners for Marina, wrote a lot of copy in my little writer’s nook next to my sliding-glass window. It was the happiest home I ever had.
However, I left for the dullest of reasons: security. In Rome housing, it’s standard to follow up a six-month contract with a three- or four-year deal, including a two-year tenant option. My landlady, a single mother non communicative in two languages, never gave me more than six months at a time. She never gave me a detailed explanation except for, “John, I don’t want to be married to you for three years.” The 900 euros I paid a month was always well below market value so I always signed. However, at the end of every six-month period I faced stress not knowing whether she’d renew my contract or raise the rent. Due to Italian tax laws totally beyond my comprehension, she could only raise it a certain percentage. However, she could throw me out on the street any time. Rarely did she tell me her intention until the day we sat down with a new contract. She only raised me once in four years so I always stayed on.
When you’re retired in Rome, small stress becomes big stress. Hell, the only other stress in my life was getting enough foam in my morning cappuccino. Facing housing uncertainty every six months became too much. After four years, I had enough. During an argument over upgraded and ineffective radiators I paid for, through my one raised rent, I told her the Roman ubiquitous “Vaffanculo” (Go fuck yourself). I started house hunting the next day.
There are two ways to go about finding a home in Rome. You can do it independently, scouring websites and want ads, meeting random agents or landlords in neighborhoods far and wide. Or you can go with one agency that knows your needs and notifies you of places likely suitable. I did both.
I have an excellent history with Property International (firstname.lastname@example.org), run by two kind, knowledgeable British women with deep roots in Rome. The first apartment Property International showed me in my first Rome stint in 2001 I took. The first apartment they showed me when I returned in 2014 I took. This time it took a little longer. My apartment in Monteverde was the third one I saw. I had to pay a month’s rent as commission but that’s standard and it’s the best bargain in Rome. An hour after I paid it, as I sat on my long balcony overlooking the treetops of Monteverde, I forgot I even spent the money.
The search, however, revealed the real lows of Rome housing. Like any major city, housing is your most crucial expense. In Rome, where the cost of living (food, public transport, entertainment) is so much lower than London, Paris and New York, rent stands out even more. The rent here isn’t nearly as high but finding quality is challenging.
One advantage I have is I’m American. Many Italians prefer us as many of their brethren, rental agents tell me, often don’t pay the rent. Italian laws heavily favor tenants and evictions are nearly impossible. Many Americans here are on rich government contracts or, like me, are retired and financially independent. I don’t live hand to mouth. I can pay a year’s rent at a time if they want. I’m a landlord’s dream — except for the, ahem, occasional cleaning lapse.
But along the way, I saw some hovels only a fruit bat could love. Some examples:
* The first place I saw was in Parioli, Rome’s most hoity-toity neighborhood. Its tree-lined boulevards pass pretty cafes with outdoor seating in the shade. Foreign embassies aren’t far away and embassy personnel populate some of the roomy apartments with doormen and elevators.
This was not one of those places.
As soon as I walked through a scruffy patio into a ground-floor flat, I came to the bed. That was most of the living room. A small table took up most of the rest of it. A tiny adjacent room held a kitchen and washing machine. The landlord, who was also the tenant, was moving to New York. At least he won’t be shocked at how small the apartments will be there.
* Centro Storico would be ideal. Rome’s historical center is the city’s nerve center. I stayed here my first two months four years ago waiting for a permanent place and had a blast. How could I not? Every night I walked past a dozen bars, enotecas and pubs and twice that many restaurants and trattorias. The first apartment I checked was on a quiet side street just across the bridge from Castel Sant’Angelo, the massive 2nd century mausoleum Hadrian built that later became a fortress. The apartment looked perfect. Big bedroom. Shiny wood floors. Roomy kitchen. Long entryway with a writer’s desk. Only 950 euros a month.
Where do I sign?
Then I looked in the bathroom. The shower was built for jockeys. I had to bend over to get my head under the shower head which made my ass bang against the side of the shower. It’s a great place if I never wanted to bathe.
* I’m familiar with the neighborhood of Aventino. So are history buffs. It’s the hill across Testaccio’s main drag and is home to beautiful churches, an orange garden and one of the best views in the city. I’ve had numerous picnics on Aventino Hill, one of the famed seven hills of Rome. According to myth, Romulus and Remus founded Rome on this hill.
Just up the road from my old neighborhood, I wouldn’t have to change my nocturnal habits much. After I saw one 60-square-meter apartment, I wanted to ask the agent if the last tenant was a vampire. It was darker than the inside of a hearse’s trunk. We visited in the early afternoon of a sunny day. We turned the lights off and the 1,100-euro apartment was nearly pitch black. Rome is sunny 10 months a year. This would feel like every day was winter in Norway.
* Undeterred, I looked at two other places in Centro Storico. One was on Via Lavatore, so close to Trevi Fountain I could almost feel the water splashing on the front door. This zone couldn’t be more touristy if it was along the shore of Splash Mountain. A few doors down from the flat, a restaurant advertised, in English, “ITALIAN CHEF.” One gelateria may be the only one in Italy serving banana splits. Menus displayed outside had more translations than The Bible. I heard more Japanese on the street than Italian.
I walked in as two other potential tenants walked out muttering to each other. The top-floor, 45-square-meter flat for 1,000 euros had a nice writing desk next to a small window. A kind gesture but the slanted roof was so low if I stood up suddenly I’d brain myself. I had to bend over to get into a storage room. Too young to stoop and too old to sacrifice, I politely declined and left wondering how Centro Storico had grossly slanted the market unfairly toward dwarves.
* Another Centro Storico apartment was just off the main drag of Corso Vittorio Emanuele about a spilled Guinness from my favorite bar, Abbey Theatre Irish Pub. The 55-square-meter, ground-floor apartment for 1,200 euros was in a giant palace where I imagined nobility or successful painters lived during the Renaissance.
Very short painters.
In two rooms the top of the door came to my shoulder. I’m not that tall. I’m only 6-foot-3. But I felt like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a Vietnamese tunnel. Who lives in these places?
Some of the buildings are hundreds of years old, dating back to before the Renaissance in the 16th century. Back then, the average Italian was maybe 5-5. It’s still only 5-8. Most Italians would find these places ideal, especially if they wanted to learn the Japanese term for “banana split.” They’re welcome to them.
I have found my new palace. My apartment is bigger at 55 square meters with a bigger living room, bedroom, kitchen, even bed. It has a real refrigerator, not like my old one that brought back memories of my freshman dorm. It doesn’t have the glorious riverside terrace but the wraparound fifth-floor balcony is a great place to watch the sunrise over the trees, cappuccino in hand. It even has — gasp! — an elevator. No longer will I have to hoof it up 90 steps straight uphill if I forget a pen.
I’m paying the same 1,000 euros as my old place but the key is this: My landlord, a gentle, kind, married guy who’s my same age, gave me a four-year contract. This entitles me to a resident’s card which, in turn, gets me a family doctor. That’s important as I’m starting to approach the age of some of Rome’s lesser monuments. I get utilities in my name which means lower bills.
In other words, I left heaven and found a soft place to land. I have four years to explore a new neighborhood, make new friends, discover new restaurants and drink in new bars. Monteverde has a deep, haunting history waiting to be studied.
In the meantime, I don’t want to meet the guy who carved that swastika.