Rent in Zagreb is hell

Last month my landlord called me and told me that I had to move out because he was going to sell the apartment I live in.

In a way, this came as a blessing. I wanted to move out of that place by the end of the year either way. But at the time I had no clue what hellscape finding an apartment in Zagreb had become since I last moved. This is a cautionary tale of what to look out for and what to avoid when renting in Zagreb.

I immediately started looking for a new place on Njuskalo (a local classified ads site).

The first thing I noticed was that rent has gone up by about 25%. I read about that in the news, so that didn’t surprise me too much. But what the news articles didn’t say is that for 3 bedroom apartments the price went up by 100% or more, which sucks because I always go for a 3 bedroom apartment so that I can have an office. Having the ability to clearly separate my work and my life environment is important to me.

After some searching I found a few reasonably priced apartments and arranged to go see them.

Chapter 1: Paradigms & Marketing

Seems like in the years since my last move most landlords took a philosophy course and decided to tackle the age old question of “What is the ground floor of a building anyway?”.

The first apartment I went to see was supposed to be on the ground floor of a small two story building. But upon entering the building - from the street - the real estate agent took me down a stairwell to a floor with a single door, opened it, and we stepped into the apartment.

“Very weird ground floor” I told him, “It’s almost 3 meters underground”. The real estate agent responded without hesitation with a happy but somewhat hostile sounding tone “Depends on what you consider the ground floor to be. This apartment is on the ground, and it has windows to the outside which are at waist height, it even has an exit to the garden. By all means this is the ground floor.”

I wasn’t in the mood to discuss paradigms like Physics professors defending the foundation of their lives work at some conference, so I sad my goodbyes and left. 

Little did I know that this would just be the first in a series of apartments that were on the ground floor while at the same time at least one stairwell below the entrance and 1+ meters underground.

There were two camps of people; one believes that the ground floor is what's at the main entrance and everything above or below that is either + or - 1 floor, while the other camp believes that the ground floor is everything that touches the ground.

I am a firm believer in the ground floor is at the main entrance, but I was thrown into some bizarre world out of Kafka's fever dreams and just didn't know it yet.

How could a fundamental fact like this be subject to relative interpretation? I tried to see the the other camp's perspective - to understand their paradigm - but no matter how I sliced it this was just complete madness. 

If everything that touches the ground is the ground floor then some buildings would have two ground floors or more - one on the street level and another in the basement - which made no sense at all. How would you explain to someone where you live? 

How would someone know by looking from the street how many stories the building had, or even if they entered it? There would have to be a label on the building that warned visitors that there were more stories below ground just for them to be able to find the right floor without a map. 

I already imagined a conversation like this: “See George, if you are one of the street-entrance-is-the-ground-floor folk, then I live on the 2nd floor; but if you are one of the-lowest-apartment-on-the-ground-is-the-ground-floor folk then I must tell you that there are two stories below street level in this building so I live on the 4th floor; but, on the other hand, if you are the there-are-multiple-ground-floors kind of guy then I', on the 2nd floor counting from the street entrance”.

Of course this wasn’t madness, this was just marketing. 

Dugouts, and basement apartments aren’t hip in Zagreb anymore. Nobody in their right mind would pay 800 Euro or more to live in a damp basement, have to listen to 3 families living above their head, and battle mold all day long. When for 850 euro you can live on the 1st or 2nd floor of the same building, or buy your own apartment (while interest rates were low).

That’s a problem for real estate agencies as they are paid by commission, and for landlords as they want to get the most out of their property. But Zagreb has a real estate problem - price per square meter is comparable to Berlin, yet over half the buildings are 70 to 130 years old, and most of them are in a bad shape from being neglected for years due to co-owners not being able to agree on anything.

(seriously though, in my last building the co-owner's counsel couldn't agree on the color of the front gate for 2 months and then they just gave up and let the gate rust)

So realtors and landlords shifted the paradigm and the basement suddenly became the ground floor. In a way this is just a white lie. If you really like the apartment and the price is right for you, all they did was bend reality a bit to get you to see the apartment. But in the process they are gas-lighting everybody and inflating housing prices.

Chapter 2: Lies, lies, lies!

No matter which apartment I went to see all of them were built after 1963. This was odd for Zagreb - a city known for it’s extremely old buildings.

For apartments in Zagreb, and Croatia in general, knowing that a building was built after 1963 is very important due to earthquake code.

Before 1963 the code didn’t cover earthquakes of magnitude 6 or 7. And with a recent 5.4 magnitude earthquake in 2020 that severely damaged a lot of buildings, people don’t want to pay as much for a building that could collapse on their head at any moment. 

So landlords started lying, and over night all buildings got 50 years younger. A case so curious that Benjamin Button would be surprised. 

Some didn’t outright lie and just said that they don’t know when the building was built. This is very odd since they invested several hundred thousand euros into that apartment, one would expect them to do due diligence. 

But some outright lie. One apartment claimed to be build in 1965, but on Google Street View it was clearly visible that the facade had a stamp with the name of the architect that designed the building and the build year - which was 1898. 

In my opinion this should be a criminal offense, as this lie could get someone killed when they thought that they were perfectly safe (and that they were paying for that safety).

This was the worst lie I encountered, but it wasn’t the only one. 

People lied about the building’s construction. For example, wooden beam floors and ceilings become concrete floors and ceilings. One is paper thin and through it you can hear your upstairs neighbor like they are your roommate, while the other blocks all sound but direct impacts on the floor above. 

Wooden windows become PVC windows. Two single pane windows become double pane windows. And stuff like that.

The funniest lie I saw was a "Modern *rustic* apartment in the center" which was actually an apartment in which somebody's grandmother lived until she passed away (recently) and they decided to rent it out with her furniture. This is usually OK, but the furniture was from the 60's, they charged for it like the place was freshly renovated, and to explain that they just slapped on "rustic" in the name of the ad like it would magically explain that the cabinets were made before nuclear reactors were invented and are starting to fall apart.

Chapter 3: *Upkeep not included

For a number of years there has been a growing number of landlords that don’t take on the upkeep but instead expect the tenant to pay it. They claim that upkeep is a utility like water or electricity so they exclude it from the rent.

Upkeep can be 30 to 150 euro or more, and it can change at any time. So an 850 euro apartment plus upkeep can be as expensive, if not more, as a 1000 euro apartment with upkeep included.

But the real problem is that upkeep isn’t like a utility. I, as a tenant, can control which utilities I use and how much I use them. And I consume the utility that I pay for.

But I can’t consume the upkeep and I can’t influence how the upkeep is spent. Only the owner of the apartment can do that.

This is like taxation without representation. The upkeep can be 30 euro today, and my landlord lobbies for a new facade for the building which then raises the upkeep to 150 euro and I'm stuck with the bill for it. I don’t get to keep the facade when I move out, and I don’t get to vote on if the building gets a new facade or not. So why should I pay for the upkeep?

This trend is just another way for landlords to reduce their risk and offload it to the tenant. It ensures that the landlord gets a constant sum of money every month, regardless of what the other co-owners of the building decide to do or if something in the building breaks. It also enables them to improve their property on the tenant's expense without having to renegotiate rent.

Chapter 4: Parking in my apartment 

A few apartments seemed quite small for their advertised size. For example one 60 square meter apartment seemed more like a 40 square meter apartment to me. 

So I asked the real estate agent what was going on, and he explained that the two out door parking spaces (8 square meters each) count towards the total area of the apartment.

Turns out that this is completely normal, and has been like this since forever. But to me this is utterly insane. 

A parking space isn’t the same as a room in an apartment or in a garage. And I can’t believe that this requires explaining. 

For one you can’t leave stuff unattended in a parking space. Just imagine leaving your laptop in a parking space and then complaining to the police that it was stolen while you weren't there. Or imagine one of your neighbors grilling on their parking space, or building a shed, or something like that...

But it seems I’m the crazy one here. Just keep this in mind when comparing two apartments by their listed size.

Chapter 5: Contracts and Xenophobia 

I was down to a few apartments and started negotiating lease contracts when I learned that another major thing has changed in the years since my last move - contracts.

Before, it was normal to have a lease contract that basically said that you are leasing the place, that you have to give one month’s rent in advance as insurance, that you will return the place in the state you found it, and that by the 15th of each month you have to pay rent and utilities to the landlord.

Today, you have to sign a contract which gives the landlord the right to seize money from your bank account (or anything you own in case there isn't enough) in case you miss payment or owe them anything. This is in addition to a one month’s rent as insurance.

When I consulted a lawyer they warned me that the “in case you miss payment” is arbitrary and that the landlord can actually seize any amount whenever they want as long as the contract is active and they have semi-valid evidence to do so. 

A government body does the seize in the name of the contract, they would give me 7 days to produce evidence that the seize isn’t valid after which they would just deduct money from my account and send me a processing fee for it. The problem here is that producing evidence is fairly easy for both sides. Just think about it, how would you prove that you are missing money? Or that it wasn’t paid in cash? Or deducted for a repair or other? So most cases end up in favor of the landlord and the tenant has to sue the landlord to reclaim the money, which can take years.

This if of course completely insane. Who in their right mind would allow a random person they don’t know unrestricted access to everything they own for the privileged to live in an apartment that they happen own?

When I asked why this was needed I got just one reply from all landlords “We had bad experiences with foreigners“. 

So… xenophobia and lies. 

Obviously I’m not a foreigner yet I’m still required to sign such a contract. But even if I was, how would this be any insurance? The Croatian government has only jurisdiction in Croatia - if a Canadian signs the contract, moves in, skip a months rent, then moves back to Canada, you’d still have to sue them and drag me to court to get your money.

So this is again just another new way of shifting risk from the landlord to the tenant.

Things can happen, people lose jobs, people get sick, people die, but the landlord doesn’t care about any of this; they just want a sure way to get their rent and this contract ensures it.

Another interesting addition to some contracts was a non-termination clause. In other words the contract can’t be terminated by the tenant, if they decide to move away before the lease expires they have to pay the lease in full for the duration of the contract. And, of course, leases are non transferable meaning that you can’t find them another tenant to replace you, and neither can you sub-lease your apartment.

This is slavery, and should be illegal. I can’t know going into a lease what will happen 9 months down the line. And I can’t know if the landlord lied to me before I move into the apartment, or what the neighbors are like. Yet I am expected to lock in for at least a year of rent, give unlimited access to everything I own, based on a 15min tour of the apartment… insanity… 

This isn't normal, and this was never normal. Avoid such contracts at all cost. If you really like the place offer up two month's rent as insurance and see if they go for it.

Chapter 6: Living in a forest

My dream is to one day live in a house in a forest, or at least very close to one.

After a month of searching for an apartment I found one that’s in a forest, in a new building, made out of concrete, has a balcony, has an acceptable price, has a bog standard lease, has upkeep included, and is in a quiet neighborhood!

But it only has two bedrooms, and it’s 40min by foot to the closes store (a very European problem since until now I didn't have a reason to own a car).

I decided to go for it, and I’m so glad I did.

Now I enjoy my morning tea looking at the forest and the fog that emanates. The cold night air carries scents of leaves and lulls me to sleep. It's much easier to recharge and take a break than it was in a city apartment.

View from the balcony at night
Subscribe to the newsletter to receive future posts via email