Monday, March 2, 2015

Renting an Apartment in Venice, Part 1

Could this become home? A glimpse of a Venice apartment for rent to residents

It's not hard to find a nice apartment to rent in Venice.

If you're a tourist. Or if you're a non-resident.

But it's another matter altogether if you're a resident. That's because for the more ambitious of landlords, and for those who hold their properties in the highest esteem, Venetian residents rarely offer the chance to maximize their returns.

For reasons I've never understood, a lease to a resident of Venice must run for four years, with the option to renew for another four years. In contrast, a lease to a non-resident can, at most, be for only one year. It's not hard to imagine why a landlord might prefer the flexibility of the latter type of lease.

Additionally, according to many landlords, something about the law in regard to renting to Venetian residents can make it almost impossible to ever get rid of a tenant, even after what's call the "4+4 contract" is up. I've heard more than one landlord complain about tenants who simply would not leave, and whom they could not force to leave, even if the tenants were not paying rent.

Add to these factors the change in law some years ago that opened up the way for an explosion of B&Bs in Venice, and the number of absentee and/or foreign owners, whose usually-empty properties are reserved for their own occasional enjoyment (or passive investment), and you find, rather paradoxically, that rental apartments for residents have become harder to find as the city's population has decreased.

Which is a long preface to saying that we are about to move.

Now, there was a time not long ago that I thought we would never move to another apartment in Venice. But as our son Sandro has grown from the 3-year-old he was when we arrived to the 7-year-old he is now, our small but comfortable apartment has become even smaller--and increasingly less comfortable. The small salotto, whose little area must function as living room, dining room, play room and thoroughfare between kitchen and the rest of the apartment, now has a hard time fulfilling just the last duty. I can hardly walk from my desk in our bedroom to the kitchen for a cup of tea without tripping over at least two toy vehicless and demolishing, Godzilla-like, a cantiere (work site) of Legos or wood blocks on the way.

True, I could always take a certain pride in knowing that we were not like those suburban Americans roaming wastefully among the unused square footage of their McMansions--with two bathrooms for every bedroom--but even our Italian landlords began to marvel that we showed no inclination to move to a slightly larger space.

Of course our two landlords, who live in an apartment upstairs from us, were two good reasons we wanted to stay. I'd say that everyone should be so lucky as to have two such thoughtful, generous and interesting landlords as we've had here for the last four years, but that would be too limiting. Better, and more accurate, to say that everyone should have the good fortune to have two such thoughtful, generous and interesting friends as we've had here for the last four years.

Once we realized, however, that they could remain our friends even if they were no longer our landlords and neighbors, a move began to seem like not just a possibility, but a necessity.

Moreover, we were sick of the time we spent getting Sandro to and from school. What if just a few minutes' walk lay between where we lived and where Sandro went to school, instead of the 45- to 60-minute journey we'd been making four times a day for the last three years?

A move, too, would open up an whole new sense of Venice to us: from a place on the periphery of the city, which we'd loved, to someplace in the historic center which--well, we'd have to see what we thought about it. But the process of finding out would be exciting, wouldn't it?

An example of arches in the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi
The first apartment we looked at in the center was certainly exciting. It was, remarkably enough, the entire mezzanine floor of a 16th-century palazzo, its other floors still inhabited--as had once been the norm for such places--by members of the same family. The door handles on its gargantuan exterior entrance were those worn ornamental brass heads (musi da porton) visitors like to photograph, and they opened (heavily and with some effort) to a large high central court surmounted by the largest arch in Venice (whose soft soil kept massive arches to a minimum in its buildings): the whole space looking a lot like a Piranesi print, in this city where I've never before found myself reminded of Piranesi.

There were wide grand staircases to the right and the left. We took the one to the right, which needed only a small tea light on either end of each very wide step to look entirely magical, and came to a broad landing with two imposing doors on opposite sides: both of which belonged to the apartment we were about to see.

Or not see, as it turned out.

It was the darkest apartment I have ever been in, with the notable exception of an impressively rambling (and shockingly affordable) apartment I looked at when I first moved to New York City in 1993. It was just one block south of Central Park South, in a grand Pre-(World)-War-(II) building--and entirely devoid of windows, but for two narrow slits running along the ceiling of the room furthest from its entrance.

What this Venetian apartment revealed to me is that a floor-through mezzanine level abode in a monumental palazzo almost entirely surrounded by the city's famously narrow calli could be almost as dark as any subterranean Manhattan lair.

It was a raw remarkable space. Empty and unlived in for who knows how many years it ran in a horse-shoe shape around the courtyard, with a couple odd galleries running between clusters of rooms, and with two dead staircases, one of which led up to an ersatz wall, one down to a water gate.

A couple of windows overlooked a small lovely campo, one other opened onto a small enclosed garden, but everywhere else one could have leaned out and touched the wall of a neighboring building.

It was 2 o'clock on a sunny late fall day and yet in one large room--with all its shutters wide open--our real estate agent resorted to a flash light to lead us around.

The owners, the realtor told us, were ready to do a complete renovation as soon as they'd found someone to rent it, so it wouldn't be available immediately. This would have been fine with us, as we couldn't have moved immediately. But the owners' hesitation to perform a renovation before finding renters said as much about the apartment as the Venice rental market. They knew finding tenants would be a struggle.

Sandro loved it, though. Its sprawling disjointed quirky 2,000 square feet added up to everything our tidy compact logical apartment was not: a space one could literally get lost in.

And, really, you could close your eyes and imagine it transformed into the most exotic of Venetian interiors--and, giving way to Romantic impulses, imagine your own familiar life transformed in unpredictable ways within it.

But, in fact, closing your eyes would have been redundant. You were in the dark in there even with your eyes wide open and straining. And, all romance aside, how pleasant could life actually be in such pervasive perpetual gloom?

It was in some ways, especially considering its price, a dream Venetian apartment. But like most dreams born in darkness it vanished as soon as we stepped out into the light of day.

We had to keep looking. What we found will be the subject of a future post--when we manage to get settled in it. A process which is ongoing as I type this....

Go to Part 2:


  1. I'm really looking forward to following your apartment hunting adventures.

    1. I have to admit, Andrew, that I myself at this very moment am wondering how they will all turn out--though by this time we should already have an answer. I hope to have enough time to write & post part 2 tomorrow.

  2. We always look for the key word..."luminoso."

    1. A very very sound way of proceeding, I think. And yet even without it we couldn't help but take a look at the entire floor of a palazzo, if only just to see it.

  3. how fascinating. i hope you go into loads of detail about this process - where do you find listings, for one.

    1. I'm glad to hear you like the post, I.I., thanks. But as for listings, Venice is much like any other place: on real estate agency websites, posted in windows of the agencies, on the website "". Of course the best way would be through a friend or acquaintance, so as to avoid the agency fee that the renter must pay of 10% of the first year's rent. (Which is higher than the 1 month fee paid to the agency by the renter in NYC!)

  4. The apartment sounds fascinating and I could almost have gone along with Sandro on that one but anyway will look forward to reading about later developments.

    1. You must be a Romantic, Rosalind! And if you are--or if you are a vampire, for that matter--the floor of the palazzo would be hard to beat. Though because it was on the mezzanine level it did not have the high ceilings one often thinks of when imagining a Venetian palazzo. We tried to balance our Romantic impulses with Rationality--and I hope tomorrow to have time to write of how that is working out.

  5. Wow, your quest raises so many questions.
    We visit Venice every Christmas, and always look in the estate agents windows. We've seen the rents rise and rise and now they seem to be in line with London prices. As the average Venetian salary is not aligned with the average London salary how can locals afford to live in Venice.

    1. You've stated the problem exactly, Rob, the price of apartments in Venice is way out of line with average salaries--which are, if one is lucky, 1,000 euro per month. Though, fortunately, while Venice is very expensive for Italy, it's not as bad as the rents in NYC, or (I believe) London. Of course you also have to figure in that, if I remember correctly, food here is also about 20% more than on the mainland...

  6. I wonder if the apartment is still available!

    1. That's a good question, Janet. I few months back I noticed there were signs that they were perhaps making some renovations in the large dark apartment, but I haven't passed by it since. I'll have to check it out.