Howdy, ya’all. What follows is an excerpt from our upcoming e-book which should be done around January or so. I am working on it with two other expats who have been here much longer than I have, so it should be pretty good. And since Sara and I are house hunting, I thought it would be appropriate to post part of the “Housing” chapter. Oh, and ignore the recycled, fish-eye photos we are attaching – the final copy will have much better pictures.
The economic refugees that litter the shores of this tropical archipelago will frequently cite cheap housing as the number one cost savings. I couldn’t agree more. Back in the US, a one-bedroom apartment in my home town typically goes for about $1,000 USD. Here in the Republic, the same place goes for about $110 to $220 a month, depending on whether you are in the city or in a more provincial, country area. Renting a house can see even greater savings. Our two bedroom home on the outskirts of Dumaguete (nice blend of cleaner air and easy city access) costs us $229 USD a month. And while it’s not your typical American colonial four bedroom on a sprawling acre of land, it suits us just fine.
ACCOMMODATIONS ARE DIFFERENT HERE
Like virtually everything in the Philippines when compared to the West, accommodations are a bit different here. This is primarily due to environmental factors: The heat, the humidity, extended rainy seasons and the constant threats of natural disasters all factor into construction and design considerations in the Philippines.
The first thing you will notice is the preponderance of “hollow block” construction. Instead of using wooden framing – which would be devoured in very short order by termites and/or moisture damage – modern Filipino homes are made of concrete cinder blocks reinforced with rebar and poured concrete. While this is also common in the West, the way in which hollow block is laid out is generally different – to a foreigner, it might not appear to totally be “up to Code,” but for Filipinos, it works out just fine. Cement is BIG business here. Driving about – especially on the outskirts of Cebu and Manila – one will commonly see massive concrete factories in operation, covering many hectares of commercial ground. The only production facilities to rival these factories are the sugar processing centers on Negros. As previously noted, this hollow block construction provides stronger protection against bugs and rot and also affords some additional protection against typhoons and super-typhoons.
In the West, drywall framing usually lines the interiors of concrete construction. Due to the constant humidity and threat of rot and vermin, you won’t see that a lot in the Republic. Instead, interior and exterior block construction typically has a skim coat “slapped” on to it and smoothed out. Once the skim coat cures (which takes a good long time in some cases), the surfaces are ready for painting. And while the Philippines doesn’t go to the kaleidoscopic color extremes of the some Caribbean communities, Filipinos do seem to like some extreme paint colors. At this time, bright green, yellow, and orange seem to be favored on interior colors, with pink (salmon), green and yellow being popular exterior colors. It takes some getting used to – and if you can’t get used to it, you can always talk to the landlord about rounding up some nice, neutral beige paint so that your eyeballs don’t burn out.
Homes and apartment complexes in the Philippines are also usually surrounded by hollow block security walls topped with razor wire or broken glass bottles. Egress for your car and yourself are provided with a lockable security gates, a smaller door usually fitted into a wide, double steel gate for vehicle access. This fortress mentality has been utilized for over a hundred years in the Republic, and even though it won’t stop a home from being burglarized, it does slow potential burglars down. Some richer Filipinos actually spend a good amount of money customizing their walls with wrought iron embellishments, textured surfaces, and decorative motifs with personalized engravings proudly showing off their family name. And since so many homes here have guard dogs, the walled compound provides them room to roam around when they are on duty. On the topic of guard dogs, you may have noticed in the video that some families keep “alarm dogs” in little metal cages. This is pretty common, and to a Western eye, it is a very sad life (IMHO) for a dog.
Most windows in the Philippines are protected by fabricated (welded steel stock) window grates. Some are thicker than others, and although most can be cut with bolt cutters (or saws), it – like the security wall – does slow any potential intruders down. It also makes a lot of noise when they are trying to break in, so it gives a home owner (or renter) time to utilize other methods to deter entry. If ya know what I mean……
Subdivisions: This fortress mentality when it comes to residential areas can best be seen in the subdivision areas of Manila, Cebu, and other large urban areas. These communities have come in existence for two reasons: First, it provides wealthier Filipinos and expats with a sense of exclusive living (keeping the riff-raff public out) and second, it provides a higher level of security in the face of urban, poverty-fueled crime. These subdivisions are usually walled and gates manned by armed security guards and roving patrols. Exit and entrance to these areas is controlled with access passes and car stickers which are checked by the gate guards. Taxi drivers and the like usually are required to leave their drivers licenses and/or registrations with the gate guard when picking up a resident. Subdivisions also usually have a homeowners association in which security issues are addressed on a regular basis. Despite the presence of a private uniformed army, crime still occurs and guards – on occasion – and other workers have been known to be involved in inside jobs. Another downside of these exclusive subdivision is the further distancing between the social classes – where once gated mansions could be seen right next to poorer homes, all caught up in the same social, neighborhood network, many of these relationships no longer exist.
One of the issues I had with the “Pink House” that is noted in the video is the way the roof was constructed. Like many roofs in the Philippines, it was fabricated of corrugated metal panels that are painted a dark color – red is the most common, which is probably a carryover from the Spanish occupation and their use of red clay roof tiles. The dark color of the metal roof sucks up the sunshine, and it would probably make more sense to have them painted white or silver (like in the Mediterranean) to reflect the relentless solar heat that is common in the tropics. And although the house had vents under the eaves for air intake, there is no provision for venting the heat out of the top of the roof – no ridge vents or anything like that. So, the dark roof heats up, transfers it to the uninsulated crawlspace, and it radiates down into the house all night. Ugh….. not good…..
Tile, Tile, Everywhere….
Porches – called “sala’s” or “lanai’s” here – are usually made of tile laid down over poured concrete. Again, with all the wood eating critters lurking about and the prevalence of water and dampness, it doesn’t make sense to construct porches of wood as they are in the West. The interiors of the homes are also tiled, which makes sweeping and mopping very easy with those little Filipino brooms. Noticeably absent is carpeting – in this environment of dampness and intrusive vermin (ants, roaches, fleas, etc.) carpeting makes absolutely no sense. Plus, those little Filipinos brooms don’t work very well on shag. J
Filipino middle class (and above) homes generally have two kitchens: A standard kitchen inside the home and a “dirty kitchen” set up outside – typically adjacent to and accessed from the main kitchen. The main kitchen is can be seen a “show piece” while the real grunt work is done outside. There are a few reasons for this. First off, one has to constantly keep the environment in mind – it is hot and humid year round, and running a stove inside a house can make a hot area unbearable. Secondly, many “wealthier” Filipinos have hired cooks on their “staff,” and their work is best left tasted but unseen. Inside kitchens can frequently be up to Western standards, with shiny appliances all laid out atop marble (or faux-marble) countertops. This area is usually just reserved for show or for the lady of the house to occasionally indulge her culinary flair, while the real work is done outside in the more rustic and poorly lit dirty kitchen.
There are not many garages in the Philippines. You see them every now and then but usually what you have is a “car port” which is again, just a poured concrete slab. These can either be covered with a second floor porch or living area (for richer folks) or uncovered and open to the elements. At Pink House we have a rickety metal frame with a perforated tarp stretched over it, but it but generally did a pretty good job of keeping water off of the motorcycles. The tarp frame is pretty common, and it’s of great use when one considers that direct sunlight can rapidly turn your car into a veritable oven and that rainy season often brings in drenching rains. You will also find some larger car ports devoted to other duties – washing machines, tooling/fabrication, and storage being among them. This is also a popular area for Filipinos to install a metal cage for their four-legged alarm systems.
Water and electrical connections can be… interesting in the Philippines. There really are no building or construction codes, so people can get a bit creative when it comes to delivering water and electricity. You don’t often see metal water pipes going into houses here. Instead more commonly you will find what are basically garden hoses leading to the house that run off of the meters by the road. Water pressure can be a problem (especially when a lot of neighbors are using water at the same time), so what some folks do is install big water tanks elevated up on towers. An electric pump sends up water to the tank which in turn sends water down into the house at a much higher pressure due to the tank’s elevation. Tanks are also good as they provide a backup water supply if the mains are cut or if there are weekly water outages, which aren’t all that uncommon out in the more provincial areas.
Remember that electricity here runs at 220 volts – most adapters and appliances will automatically switch between 220 and 100 volts, but make sure you check the data plate to be sure. Electrical supply – as is often noted – is haphazard at times. When it comes to houses and apartments, the lack of a real electrical code often leads to loose grounds (if any grounds) and bad connections that can lead to shorts. And since the lines are run through the hollow block walls, accessing these conduits can require quite a bit of excavations. To deal with brownouts, some homes have generators or supplement solar arrays. Folks also have an AVR (automatic voltage regulator) or UPS (uninterruptable power supply) to deal with variances in delivered voltage, which can cause serious harm to sensitive electronics.
One last thing you won’t see a whole lot of in the Philippines are basements. The majority of the population lives along the coast, so the water tables aren’t that deep. Also, with the torrential rains that we get, having a basement would be more of a trouble than it is worth. Well, unless subterranean swimming pools are your thing. Westerners used to storing all their superfluous “stuff” (of which we seem to accrue a great deal of trying to keep up with the Jones’s) will find that in the Philippines, such storage duties are served by “bodegas,” concrete storage sheds situated somewhere about the property much like the wooden tool sheds in the West.
What Island Should I Live On?
With over 7,000 islands scattered about the archipelago, determining which island you want to relocate to can be an adventure unto itself. That’s a difficult question to answer as it mostly comes down to personal preference. In determining this, we usually recommend that people spend some time traveling around to different areas to do a “boots on ground” reconnaissance of prospective areas. Travel light (backpack-level light), stay in hotels or furnished studios and just take a few weeks to check out each area. And don’t limit yourself to the city limits – make sure you have some provision to see the surrounding sites – a scooter or motorcycle is ideal.
LOCATION: CITY OR PROVINCE?
We get a lot of inquiries on where the “best” place to live is. Truth is, there is no “best” place, and what might be perfect for one person could be a horror-fest for another. I had come to the Philippines hoping to find a nice little house or condo by a white sand beach, thus allowing me to laze about on my hammock while sipping margaritas and gazing out over the turquoise sea. Arriving here, I quickly realized that a place like that was going to cost an arm and a leg and that all the good places had already been rented out long ago.
After a while, I found this cool little house down in Dauin that seemed just perfect. (You can check out that video here.) It was rustic, right on the water, had a massive yard and even came with its own kayak. After moving in, however, we soon found out that living without window screens isn’t much fun and that my internet-based work was being stymied by a noticeable lack of internet – most of the time it was crawling along at .3 MB per second and was basically unusable after 5 PM and on weekends. Not cool. I also found out that I actually like living closer to the city. We were about 26 kilometers from Dumaguete, and getting into town was a real chore.
Now, we seem to have found a good balance – we are in a suburb of the city and benefit from easy access to its amenities while still being far enough from the heat and congestion that any urban area creates. We also have great internet here and the electrical grid is a lot more solid. Yeah, the house we are renting isn’t perfect, but we’re going to improve on that when a more ideal house or apartment becomes available.
Benefits of the City
Restaurants, shopping, and nightlife are all close at hand.
More to go out and do.
Better access to medical care (can be a crucial factor for some).
Benefits of the Province (Country)
Less congestion and heat.
More open space.
Peace of mind.
So, I guess it’s all about finding a balance, and – more importantly – finding out what you really want. Because – as I have learned – you might think you want one thing, but when you get it, you could find that you don’t.
And then you have to move.
HOUSE AND APARTMENT HUNTING
Wake Early, Hop on Your Bike, and Go Hunting…
Unlike in the West, you won’t find a whole lot of prospective houses and apartments for rent on the Internet – and those you do find, will typically be overpriced. I have actually been following the housing offers on Sulit.com and Olx.com for the past six months, and it’s usually literally the same overpriced apartments being offered up for rent month after month. So, if you are serious about finding the “right” place, you’re going to have to work for it.
The best way to look for a house or apartment is to actually get out and look around. Many landlords advertise their places with simple signs placed on the gates of their residences. Finding these rentals can be a bit of a chore, so we recommend getting up early and riding your scooter or motorcycle around local neighborhoods, taking phone photos of the rental with the contact information, and texting the landlord for an appointment to check out the property. And when I say early, I mean early: The crack of dawn is best – the temperatures are cool and the roads are typically clear. Late afternoon is also a good time to go house hunting, although you generally have to deal with more traffic.
Checking out houses and apartments can also be a bit of a hassle, but I can’t stress the importance of finding a place that’s appropriate to your needs. Make sure you know what you want: Window and door screens, security grates, provision for air conditioning, roof ventilation and shade are all high on my list when it comes to physical layout. Some people can live without some of these, but I have found that I cannot. Other things to keep in mind include, but are not limited to:
Traffic: Is the area you are considering plagued by traffic jams and congestion? Will it be a daily chore to get from point A to point B?
Air Quality: Do the neighbors burn trash throughout the day? Plastic and Styrofoam don’t give off pleasant aromas and are toxic. Are you near a road that sees lots of traffic and hence, a great deal of two-stroke and diesel engine fumes? For some this is more important that others. Urban areas in particular can have very nasty pollutant levels. Some folks can’t stay in Cebu or Manila because of it.
Noise: Do your neighbors have scores of roosters and dogs? Is karaoke pumping out day and night? How about road noise? The best thing to do to check this is to swing by the prospective rental throughout the day and night to check on 24 hour sound levels – it might be quiet during the day and a constant subwoofer-fueled fiesta at night (or vice-versa).
Garbage: Is the area clean? Do the neighbors keep a tidy neighborhood or is garbage strewn all about. Is there a garbage collection point nearby with a frame and elevated hooks to place your garbage bags for collection (if there is collection) or is it just put out for the dogs to rip apart?
Security: Is the house or apartment secure? Is it surrounded by a wall and locked gate? Are there thick window grates in place? If it’s a subdivision, does it have guards? Is the house near a vacant, unlit lot or in any dark, secluded area? Also check the door locks and exterior lighting.
Elevation: Many areas of the Republic experience very heavy rains throughout part of the year, so it’s wise to check out the elevation, road condition and surrounding contours. Check for watermarks along walls or fences. Does the property have gutters and rainspouts? Roof leaks can also be an issue, so make sure you check the interior ceilings for dark discolorations indicating water damage. Also keep in mind that even a minimal 1,000 foot elevation change can bring in cooler, fresher temperatures with corresponding cleaner air.
Area Construction: Nearby road and building construction can be very noisy and – in some cases – go on for months, if not years. Road construction in particular can be a bear as constant rerouting dramatically increases congestion and road noise. Properties being built or renovated next to yours can also be irritating – plus, you don’t know who might be moving in.
Water Pressure: Having enough water to do the dishes or take a shower is pretty important, and the Philippines water supply can be pretty much hit or miss at times. Manila in particular has been dealing with this issue for decades, as rapid growth has continued to outstrip demands for new water lines. Some Filipinos have resorted to using booster pumps, which only makes matters worse for those without the pumps. In provincial areas, houses typically have black “garden hoses” running to them off a central supply pipe. This isn’t uncommon, so don’t be overly concerned – what is more important is the actual amount of water in the system. Elevated water tanks are also used to make up for inadequate water pressure, with electric pumps sending water up to the tanks. This actually provides the additional benefit of having a decent supply of water in case of a catastrophic utility failure which is known to happen. Be sure to test out the pressure in the place by turning on a few of the taps and flushing the toilet at the same time. Doing this at peak demand hours will give you a better sense of how much pressure is at hand. Also keep in mind that in order for electric water shower heaters to work, they must be provided with a certain amount of water per minute.
Electricity: Having a fairly regular supply of electricity is important to me. I – like most – am not a fan of “brownouts,” and having a fairly solid supplier is part of the equation I use when it comes to determining where I live. Luckily, we have the thermal plant on Negros Oriental which is very dependable, and “all day” outages to check lines and cut away trees are rare (about once a month) and announced weeks ahead of time – usually on the NORECO Facebook page. My co-authors are not so lucky – Mindanao is liable to outages during dry season and Leyte’s supply is very hit or miss. If you can, try to check your voltage after 5 PM when everyone is coming home and turning on their lights, fans, and air conditioners. Voltage dips are pretty common, so if you see the lights dimming, it’s cause for concern. Purchasing an AVR (Automatic Voltage Regulator) for your more expensive items (TV and computer) is a good idea – and if you have a sensitive desktop system, you will probably find an AVR (and UPS, possibly) are mandatory. Rentals very rarely have generator backups or solar arrays, so finding a place with either is a major bonus.
“Brownouts”: These are actually blackouts – total loss of power – but they refer to them as brownouts since they are generally “just” confined to certain sections (residential areas) of a power grid. Brownouts can occur randomly due to system issues or be planned (and announced) ahead of time for line or grid maintenance. “Rolling brownouts” occur when demand for electricity outpaces supply and some areas are shut down to provide power to other areas and vice-versa. Filipinos sometimes deal with brownouts by having generators as backup but running them long term – considering the high cost of petrol and diesel – is an expensive proposition.
Shade and Venting: Filipino houses generally have metal roofs that are painted dark color – red is a favorite and is probably a carryover from the Spanish occupation. They also typically have eave venting but no provision for ridge venting. As a result, it can get VERY hot in the house during the day. If you find a place with good roof venting, consider yourself lucky. Shade is also worth it’s weight in gold, so if you find a house or apartment surrounded by soaring shade trees, consider yourself lucky!
Road Access: This is more of a concern for those looking to purchase a home or property. Note that “easement” does not exist as it does in the West: If a landowner has been providing right of way for a period of time and decides to suddenly take it away, there’s not much you can do. The neighborhood in which we rented had to deal with roads being suddenly closed off when a few of the land owners in the area took up a feud. The situation got caught up in the courts, and we eventually had to move.