Great expectations and harsh realities of renting in Tallinn

Amalie Khachatryan, a Tallinn University MA student, details the many obstacles she faced while apartment hunting in Tallinn, the Estonian capital.  

Though everyone chooses to live in Estonia for different reasons – work, study, research, volunteering, joining a spouse or just wanting an adventure – they’ll doubtlessly go through the same procedure when settling here. The hope is that everything happens as smoothly as possible, so we have time to focus on why we relocated.

However, the first stage, renting an apartment, has all the potential to be a nightmare for foreigners in Estonia. If renting weren’t so tough, I wouldn’t have written my first piece for Estonian World about it. Of course, there might be many expatriates who found their dream flat in a day. However, the vast majority of people I’ve spoken to tell similarly frustrating stories about renting an apartment in Tallinn. 

Despite the fact that I am an MA student at Tallinn University, I can’t live in a dormitory because I am here with my husband who is also pursuing a master’s. And given the school’s policy about couples sharing a room, we had to rent an apartment.

Unfortunately, we ended up wasting almost two months in the lead-up to our departure, browsing websites and attempting to find a place we could move into when we arrived.  

The university provided several links including City24.ee and kv.ee, where we did in fact find our ideal apartment in the end. These two property portals are the most popular and regularly updated with new listings. There are other possibilities, such as expatriates’ Facebook groups which are full of folks ready to assist each other and help newcomers find what they’re searching for. You can also go the traditional route and employ a broker who will handle everything for you, but this is certainly the costliest choice.

Tallinn’s skyline. Narva Road runs from the middle, with Tallinn University’s campus on the right. Photo by Tallinn University.

Wait until you arrive

Don’t start looking for accommodation months in advance because Tallinn is a popular long-term destination, and homes are swiftly rented out. No one will hold their apartment for you and greet you with flowers at the airport.

We began looking for flats before we even filed for our visas. It’s normal to plan ahead, but we weren’t simply browsing – we spent hours virtually every day, only to find places that were no longer available.

Within 15 to 30 minutes of an apartment being published on a website, we would phone the owner and learn the flat had been snapped up. Some even scoffed when we said we wouldn’t be relocating for another month. Of course, this won’t be true of all apartments, but we were filtering something that everyone wants: affordable, close to the city centre and reasonably sized.

A map of Tallinn city districts (the names are in Estonian; Kesklinn stands for the city centre).

What seems logical to you might not be to them

You are an outsider, a landlord has never met you and anybody, especially Estonians, will likely doubt your story based on a phone call. It’s better to arrive and meet them in person.   

After realising it was a waste of time to be contacting landlords a month or two out, we decided to try again 10 days before our flight. But when we contacted owners and brokers, we were still getting rejections. It’s possible that the apartments were no longer available, but at this point, we felt they were hesitant for a different reason.

We were foreigners calling from another country code, speaking English or Russian, with what I guess was a mysterious story about a married couple who decided to relocate for our studies.

The best thing to do is accept the reality of the situation and not take things too personally. Imagine yourself in their position – they have never seen you, can’t pin down your nationality and understandably don’t trust you enough to grant you an apartment. Why bother with all that if you can rent to a local?

While all these sceptical owners and hesitant brokers refused to confirm anything, we were losing valuable time that could’ve been spent more productively. We were leaving our ideal apartment in Yerevan and travelling to Tallinn, where we had nowhere to stay.

As it became increasingly stressful and unbearable, we finally decided to book a hostel, so we at least had somewhere to go when we arrived.

An old wooden house in Kalamaja, Tallinn. Photo by Matheus Frade on Unsplash.

Don’t panic

You may be lost, but that doesn’t mean you should jump at the first place you see. Your dream flat is waiting for you!  

We were no longer tourists, so we wanted to locate an apartment as quickly as possible and focus on our studies. A bit of panic set in when we realised that, despite the fact we were in the country at this point, the process we had started almost two months earlier as well as its many obstacles and frustrations seemed to be playing out all over again.  

We felt lost and unwelcome, vulnerable to the point of agreeing on anything.  

The climax of our story occurred on the second day when we went to see an apartment five minutes from our university, happily agreed to rent it, and then received a call and a rejection without explanation just two hours before we were meant to sign the contract.  

We had given up hope of finding a suitable apartment near our institution in the city centre and decided to look at any available flats in the Lasnamäe and Mustamäe districts. Needless to say, we had also reluctantly broadened our search to include shabby one-room apartments with damaged furniture, incredulous brokers and unfriendly landlords. The irony is that we were still rejected by many of these places.  

Honestly, the whole process seemed harder than getting accepted to university.

Not so close to the city centre: the Soviet-era apartment buildings in Tallinn’s Mustamäe district. Photo by Tallinn City Government.

Happy ending

Good things come to those who wait. An open-minded landlord with a gorgeous flat is waiting for you. Just trust the process and learn from the experience of others.  

After a week of nonstop calling, emailing, scheduling, venturing all over Tallinn to view apartments, missing our classes, negotiating with brokers, receiving unjustified rejections and developing our first negative impressions of locals and the city, we finally found our love.  

Everything happened the same day: we phoned the broker, met them and the landlord in person, checked the property and got approved.  

I am writing this piece sitting in the kitchen of our lovely two-room apartment on Narva Road next to Viru shopping centre, a place so dreamy and affordable that even locals would be jealous.

The office- and apartment buildings around Viru Keskus, a shopping centre in Tallinn. Photo by Toomas Huik.

Planning everything ahead of time is a completely valid concern, but it’s important to remember that an apartment is not a pair of 58-euro shoes you can buy online and sell or give to someone if they don’t fit.  

Though this may seem insignificant, it is vital to be at ease in your apartment and sign a long-term contract, freeing up your mental energy to face all the other hurdles that come with living in Estonia. At the end of the day, we all want to return home and feel comfy.

The opinions in this article are those of the author.

2 thoughts on “Great expectations and harsh realities of renting in Tallinn”

  1. Omolade Olorundare

    This is so Trueeee!!!!! Such an amazing and interesting article to read. Thank you so much Amalie for capturing the struggles so wholely. This article was definitely worth the read. Hopefully we get to see more articles from you in the Future. Go girl!!!!

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