Why you shouldn’t look for an apartment in Cambodia before you arrive

The way normal, responsible people organize a move involves finding a home before they arrive. So when normal, responsible people move to Cambodia, of course they assume they should do the same, and spend weeks or months before their move scouring the Internet and contacting letting agents via email. While this might seem the best course of action, quite frankly, it is not.

An apartment block in Phnom Penh's Riverside neighborhood.

An apartment block in Phnom Penh’s riverside neighborhood.

Why, you ask? In general, the properties and apartments you’ll find listed online cost a minimum of double what they’re worth. The other day I saw a two bedroom apartment in my Phnom Penh neighborhood listed at $1400. I’ve seen a lot of apartments in this area, and I can say with absolutely certainty that the apartment listed should have cost around $500, maximum. But letting agents in Cambodia, especially those that deal with Western clients, raise the prices on apartments to preposterous levels when advertising online.

I’ve spent a long time trying to figure out why this is, and I’ve come up with the following possibilities:

They take you for a sucker

Letting agents know that someone searching from abroad probably doesn’t know what the going rates for apartments are in Cambodia (which is why you should buy the book). They also know that if you’re coming from a major Western city such as New York, London or Sydney, that you’re used to paying an awful lot for rent, so a $700 apartment will seem like a steal, even if that apartment is really only worth $300 on the open market. Letting agents prey on your fear of coming blindly to a country with no accommodation lined up, and your laziness in not wanting to go out and hit the streets to find a place on your own.

My least favorite expats are the ones who don’t care if they are suckers because they’ve got an expense account. There are a number of companies and organizations that give their employees a monthly per diem for accommodation. Employees for these sort of companies feel compelled to spend the entire amount allocated, and will spend $2,000 on a $600 apartment just so they feel like they are milking every last drop out of their employers. This is doubly frustrating for everyone else, because most of these types are Western government and NGO workers, which means the rest of us are basically subsidizing them to ruin the expat housing market.

The more agents mark an apartment up, the more they make

A year or two ago, you could guarantee that if you used an agent, they would take the monthly price the landlord asked for and then add $50 to it. The $600 extra for a 12-month lease would be the agent’s fee paid by the landlord. Now, however, agents are realizing that the landlords don’t really care what the apartment rents for, as long as they get the amount they originally wanted.

For example, I had a Khmer friend call about an apartment on my street and the landlord told him it was $450 per month. Then, I asked an agent about the same apartment. He told me it was $600 per month. The agent was probably going to offer the landlord $500 per month and take the extra $100 for himself. The landlord is fine with this arrangement because he’s getting more than he originally asked for, and the agent will get $1,200 to talk you into signing a year-long lease on the place. After you sign the lease, the agent’s work is done. And because the landlords are the ones paying the agents, don’t expect the agent to do anything that’s in your interest versus the landlord’s. In this example, if someone new to Phnom Penh had leased this apartment through an agent, they would pay $1,800 more per year than if they leased it directly from the landlord.

Landlords and agents that use the Internet are savvier

Many of the letting agents in Cambodia that list online are Western, and are much more aware of the previous two points. Most Cambodian-owned businesses are not online yet, and the ones that are are usually savvier than the ones that aren’t. Not in a good way, mind you. Just in the they’re going to push for the highest price possible sort of way. Which is how capitalism works, I suppose, but it’s still infuriating to see $250 apartments being rented to chumps for $800, who, once they know better a few months later, complain about it endlessly.

So what should you do?

If you’re in a panic about what you should do about accommodation when you move, don’t be. Phnom Penh particularly is one of the easiest cities to find an apartment in; the whole process won’t take you more than a few days at most. When I went hunting for my first apartment, I went to eight places in a day and moved in to my favorite the same evening. Although there aren’t as many options in Siem Reap, it still won’t take long.

So book in at a hotel or guesthouse (many offer deals for long stays) and take a deep breath. Finding a great deal is possible, but takes a little more time than using an agent. The best way is to walk around the neighborhood you want to live in, and look for signs on the apartments with phone numbers (look up, because most of the rental apartments available aren’t on the ground floor). Lots of time, you’ll find an English-speaker on the other end of the phone and can see the place immediately.

If not, ask your guesthouse to give them a call, or enlist an English-speaking tuk tuk driver to help you with your search. Most tuk tuk drivers are happy to take a daily rate of $10-15 to drive you around a neighborhood and help you look for properties. If he does help you score one–and doesn’t try and get an agent fee out of the landlord–reward him generously for he’s just saved you hundreds of dollars. Even if you end up using an agent, use one that doesn’t list the properties online. For all of the reasons listed above, agents that don’t list online usually have far better deals than the ones that do.

*Edited to add: The one exception to all of this is finding apartments online through expats who are looking for new tenants to take over their lease, or landlords who ask other tenants of theirs to post something online about other available apartments in their buildings. I’ve found good deals this way, and so has Ramon (who reminded me of this fact in the comments).  You can find a listing of online forums and Facebook groups to make contact with other expats in our Web Resources section.

We’ve got more complete details on how best to search for a house, villa or apartments in Cambodia in the How to find an apartment section of the book.

21 Responses to Why you shouldn’t look for an apartment in Cambodia before you arrive

    • Lina says:

      You can, but it is not required. It’s considered sort of bad form to use multiple agents at the same time, I think, because any agent can get you any apartment in town. Meaning, different agents don’t have exclusives on particular apartments, so you can just as your original agent about any apartment without switching agents.

  1. Sethdo says:

    When people arrive in cambodia just stay at guesthouse for couple day and ask Tuk Tuk driver or Taxi to help find you an apartments renting…is better, don’t let those agents rip you guy off!!!!!!!

  2. Steve says:

    Thanks Lina. As discussed by email a while back, I cant get the book sent here by Amazon. :(
    I am single, no kids and 48yo. Happy to go out and investigate the nightlife once or twice a week, and eat out quite a bit, but I dont feel the need to party constantly.
    Will be living on a pension of AUD 2000 pm. Some friends that lived in Cambodia for 7 years said that is enough to be comfortable.
    Allowing 400pm rent, leaves $50 per day. Using a cost of living site numbeo.com it seems that will be enough to be reasonably comfortable, but will still have to watch the pennies a bit.
    What say you?
    I will be looking for some form of employment to supplement the pension, and keep me busy. It’s easy to slip into the routine of the middle aged expat, crying into beers every day. I see quite a bit of it here, and want to (will) avoid it. Having run my own business for the past 12 years in a Least Developed Country, I am looking forward to not doing that any more, but will need to do something, maybe part time. Do you know of a good website that I can check out for an indication of available work?

  3. Steve says:

    Good info, in both the article and the comments. For those of us that have yet to step foot in Cambodia, how do we find the most suitable suburb? Of course it comes down to individual likes and dislikes, needs and requirements. Is there such thing as a quiet suburb in PP or SR, without being a million miles away?

    • Lina says:

      Steve, we’ve got a rundown of Phnom Penh neighborhoods in the book, as well as reasons why you might prefer one city over another.

      It all really comes down to budget and requirements — for example, people with kids might not like Phnom Penh’s busy riverside neighborhood, but find the Russian Market area or Toul Kork more appealing, because they aren’t as concerned with nightlife options.

  4. Lara says:

    If you had experienced the cost of electricity in my country, you’d understand why I find it cheap here – ridiculously so : )

  5. Lara says:

    Dragon Realty, and they came recommended by numerous expats.
    As for utilities, cable and so on…the price in my lease has never been changed since I signed it, and I find utilities here extraordinarily cheap (double digits per month for water, power, trash and cable).
    I agree that it’s best to find an apartment in country, but I don’t agree that all the agents are out to rip you off.

    • Lina says:

      Thanks for the tip, Lara, and I’m glad to hear you had a good experience with your agent. At the end of the day, even if an agent is honest it’s more expensive to use an agent than to not. But obviously for some people, saving time is worth more, so it’s up to the individual.

      Also, while utilities aren’t too much, the price of electricity here is higher per kilowatt than the cost in the US, UK or Ireland, so you can’t really call it cheap! Cable and water, on the other hand, is very inexpensive compared to home.

  6. Lara says:

    I don’t agree that all the agents using online listings rip you off or mark up the apartments extravagantly. I got my apartment through an agent and pay $350 a month. I’ve been in Phnom Penh long enough to have been in various friends and acquaintances apartments, all of who pay more than I do and didn’t use an agent, all of who say ‘You’re apartment is waaay nicer than mine’ (and it is : ).

    • Lina says:

      Who did you use, Lara? I found one decently-priced apartment through an agent, but after I signed the lease he changed the price of electricity/cable/water. This sort of behavior is pretty common, as the agents don’t have any real incentive to protect the lessees beyond getting them to sign the lease. Also, it seems that the real estate scene has changed here a lot in the last year. My $290 luxury apartment would be pretty hard to find these days.

    • Ramon says:

      No, from the beginning, even outside Cambodia, I figured out that these rates agents use couldn’t be fair. At all. So I find that apartment through a previous expat leaving who simply posted the apartment on a forum.

      • Lina says:

        Actually, I’ve found an apartment that was a great deal the same way. But my advice to those that aren’t here yet remains the same. You need to be in-country already to do a good search, and agents that are using this property-listing sites are all overpriced. It is true, though, that you can find good deals on CPN and the like from expats that are leaving.

      • Lina says:

        But it is surprising how many people don’t realize that the prices being advertised aren’t fair, isn’t it? I’ve had a lot of friends who have been surprised to find out that their $1,000 apartment isn’t a great deal!

  7. Ramon says:

    When I moved to Cambodia in 2010, I stayed three days in a guesthouse to catch my breath, acclimatize to the heat and the bustling city. I used an English-speaking tuk tuk driver to help me with my search and he drove me around and I saw many options. Even a $120 1-bedroom apartment which was purple tiled from bottom to top and overlooking slums. And these long 4-meter wide apartments with barely a window. It was good try. However it was through a post on various expat forums that I found myself a 4-bedroom villa, with 4 bathrooms, a giant living room, family sized kitchen, a garage, balcony and rooftop for only $550 per month. Done! And I moved in on my 4th day in Cambodia!

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