The lease on my old 55-square-meter apartment in Tehran is up, and that means another long, arduous search for a new place. My landlord’s excuse for driving me out this time was that his daughter, who is coming back to Tehran from Canada in May, needs a place of her own. As the Persian New Year begins, I begin my search for a better place than the one I’ve just been kicked out of: a ground floor unit in a 40-year-old, three story, 11-unit building on Daman Afshardar Street near Vanak Square.

In Iran, like many other big cities, people generally rent apartments by paying both a monthly rent as well as a security deposit. Some landlords prefer to get most if not all of the money up front. In Tehran, for every 30,000 tomans of monthly rent, a 1 million toman - or 10 million rials - security deposit is generally required [$300 US]. Renting without a security deposit is virtually unheard of. The monthly rent on my quiet apartment on Daman Afshardar Street was 1.95 million tomans, for which I had paid a 15 million security deposit. I’m now willing to pay up to 2.4 million a month for a bigger place (70 square meters at least). I have also managed to save up an additional 15 million tomans over a one-year period to double the size of the security deposit I can afford to put down for something in an acceptable neighborhood.

Neighborhood is key.

In Tehran there is a widely held belief that substantive differences exist between those who live in the north and south. Many see this issue as a historical one. When Iran was modernizing in the early to mid-20th century under Reza Shah Pahlavi, the aristocracy and the moneyed classes largely moved to the northern parts of town, whereas the poor and working classes (and many traditional ones) stayed put in south Tehran. Valiasr Street, the longest north-south street in Tehran, serves as the most frequent point of reference when asking where in Tehran a new acquaintance lives. A lot hangs on the answer, too, and it can even have implications among friends and loved ones. Tehranis derive a sense of respectability from being able to provide the right answer to this question, to strangers at parties, whose smiles grow wider and wider depending on how far north an address is located. Even at work, the question is not uncommon, and people use it as a standard to judge others and rely on it as an indicator of how they can expect to be treated.

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My adventure to secure a new home began just two days after Iranian and western negotiators hammered out a framework agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. Unfortunately, however, the news that brought Tehranis out into the streets in celebration didn’t have the intended effect on the housing market, and rents in Tehran shot up. While I’ve never had a great deal of patience for socialists rambling on about living in a classless society, I’ve also never entertained fantasies about living on Elahieh Street, Zafaranieh, Aghdasieh, Farmanieh, or any of the other more glamorous spots in north Tehran. For me, a car, occasional trips, decent clothes, and cologne are much higher priorities than a trendy location. But the problem is that Tehran has a way of convincing you that location really is everything, and it leads many to allocate ever-larger portions of their monthly income to rent.

Even though we don’t even live together, my girlfriend has also played a role in my present predicament. She occasionally complained about my place, saying that if it were up to her, she would never have guests over. So in hopes of securing a bigger, newer place - maybe one near Vanak Square - I’m prepared to pay around 90,000 extra tomans per month.

I’m looking to score a place on Molla Sadra, Gandhi, Vozara, Mirza-ye Shirazi, Karim Khan, Argentine, or somewhere near the beginning of Africa Street. Altogether there are three major pros to living on these streets: first, you have easy access to other areas of Tehran, the main squares, and the rapid bus and metro stops. Second, even though they don’t have quite the prestige of streets like Mirdamad and Jordan, they’re still respectable areas that are mostly home to educated, middle-class people. Third, rents there are much lower than in some adjacent, more luxurious areas.

The most important source for information about available homes in Tehran is the classifieds section of Hamshahri, a newspaper owned by the Tehran city government and the newspaper with the highest circulation in the country. Apartment listings in Hamshahri are by size: there are categories for 50 square meters, 50-70 square meters, over 70 square meters, over 90 square meters, and over 100 square meters. I found only a few suitable apartments in the 50-70 category, and most of the listings advertised places far to the west, like Jannat Abad, or very far south, like Pirouzi. The only two or three in the areas I wanted asked for too much up front, plus a monthly rent, so they were out of the question.

Many of the ads don’t even publish the prices in hopes that more people will call in to inquire. Contrary to what I’d expected, most of the numbers I called didn’t connect me to building owners, but to real estate rental agencies. Building owners hand over the job of renting out their apartments to these places, which publish the ads with the rents in Hamshahri in hopes of renting them out faster. Calling these agents on the phone can be a stressful and ultimately fruitless affair: at any moment, they can put a caller on hold and start chatting with someone else, only to forget the first caller altogether. And even if you’re lucky enough to get through an entire conversation without being cut off, you still won’t walk away with a great deal of information. For example, when you ask about the specifics of an apartment, an agent might respond, “Well, I can’t discuss that over the phone; you’ll need to come down and see the place for yourself. Here, write down our business address...” They also seem too hurried to answer many basic questions that people might have about an apartment, such as the age of the building, the unit floor, elevator, parking, and storage space.

Tehran’s 3.5 million vehicles are engaged in an unending search for a place to park. Even though people now park on Tehran’s narrowest streets, and many other streets have been turned into free or paid parking zones by the municipality, finding parking near one’s home is still a constant struggle. My old place didn’t have parking, so I paid 100,000 tomans a month to the guard at the municipal parking lot to let me park across the street. For my new apartment, I’ll need a place with secure parking, as I’m not looking to add a stolen car to my list of potential troubles.

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After a while, it starts to seem like calling the agencies is a waste of time and that simply showing up at their offices might be the best option. There are also numerous apartment hunting websites that promise more information on available apartments, such as “Iran File,” “The Wall,” and “Home Bazaar,” but even the phone numbers there often lead right back to one of the agencies.

Iran has two major types of real estate agencies: old-school and modern. The agencies operating the old fashioned way are generally 20-30 square meter operations run by people over 50 and featuring only one or two desks, and a handful of chairs arranged around the office. When you ask about the size and price of a home, they refer to thick tomes containing the desired information.

The modern offices are typically much bigger - 100 square meters of open space - and they inevitably have an attractive young lady greeting guests at the front door. After asking whether the potential client is looking to rent, buy, or sell, she directs them to a commensurately young, attractive and well-dressed man. There are generally around ten desks in such offices and as many real estate brokers. They adhere to the practice of introducing themselves by their first names and have clients fill out and sign a lengthy intake form. The form even has a place for “level of education” and “occupation,” and it asks customers’ preferences in terms of location and a variety of other factors, although desired rent and area are notably absent.

The first home I saw was just a little bit above Valiasr Square on Karim Khan Street. Even though I had specified that living in peace and quiet was of the utmost importance, the apartment is in an area just off one of the most congested and noisy parts of the city.

“Relax, buddy!” the agent reassured me when I asked why he bothered bringing me to such a noisy area. “First of all, you’re at the back of the building where there is less noise. Second, you’ve got double paned windows up there. And third...well, you’ll just get used to it!”

Karim Khan Street is one of Tehran’s commercial hubs, and the traffic there is so frenetic and unceasing that the area always finds itself the target of municipal traffic plans, meaning that only buses, taxis, and cars holding special traffic plan tickets can travel through the area. The street is also bursting at the seams with shops: the center of Iran’s gold exchange market calls it home, as do a number of large booksellers and confectioneries. One of the largest national pharmacies in the country, 13th of Aban, is also there. Many of Karim Khan Street’s residents are middle class, educated, and frequently employed in offices or as teachers.

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Upon opening the front door, we walked into an old, dirty hallway and took a minute-long elevator ride to the fifth floor. The house was 70 square meters and, at first glance, didn’t inspire much confidence: the ceiling had numerous cracks, there was obviously no room for a washer and dryer, and the noise from the street filled the room, contrary to what the agent had just said downstairs. What’s more, the price was higher than similar places on Karim Khan: 2 million tomans monthly rent plus 30 million tomans up front. After seeing a few more places on Karim Khan and in nearby South Mofateh to no avail, I figured that the average rent in these areas had risen sharply since last year.

One apartment on the relatively well-to-do Mirdamad Street was so nice that I was all ready to sign the contract. Mirdamad has many of Iran’s biggest commercial buildings, meaning rents are pretty high. For example, a relatively new but otherwise average 65 square meter apartment on South Razan was going for 3 million tomans per month and 45 million tomans up front.

Still, I was able to find a quiet apartment on small Nesa Street just off Mirdamad, and the price wasn’t half bad either: 2.5 million toman per month and 30 million up front. The six-story, thirty-unit building had a mostly granite front, a big parking garage, and two elevators. The interior of the apartment was equally pleasing. It had parquet floors and bright wallpaper that brought the whole place together, a chic, open kitchen, MDF cabinets, and an advanced ventilation system. It had one 20 square meter bedroom with an ideally situated window and a 35 square meter living room with sofas and a dining table with enough room for six people. The apartment’s main drawback was the 2.5 by 1 meter bathroom, which had a toilet and a shower smashed up next to each other.

The agent told me he would try to get a good discount from the owner, a middle-aged woman, and negotiate the contract to 2.2 million tomans per month and 30 million up front. He called the owner to arrange a meeting between us at the real estate agency and we planned to meet at 8pm in Vanak Square. This was the fourth straight day that I had been out apartment hunting from 8 in the morning to 9 at night. I’d fallen behind in my work and my editors were giving me a hard time about deadlines, but I was nonetheless overjoyed to have found a place not only at a decent price, but in an area I knew I would really appreciate.

Just a few hours later my euphoria was shattered by a call from the real estate agent, who said that the owner wasn’t answering her phone to confirm the 8pm appointment in Vanak. He told me to wait for his call. After 24 hours, the agent finally got a hold of the owner, who said she was extremely sorry but she’d given the place to someone else. The news hit me like a sledgehammer. I shuddered at the thought that all of that schlepping around Tehran, suffering through the heat and breathing in all the exhaust, had been for naught. But there was nothing else to do; I had to go down the treacherous road once again. I ended up seeing between 10 and 15 more places in Molla Sadra, Yousef Abad, Vozara, Argentine, and Sanaei. Either the rents were astronomical or they were tolerable but the places were totally unsuitable.

Even when there were decent apartments with decent rents, I ran up against my one fatal problem: I’m a bachelor. Landlords and single people in Iran have a historical enmity towards each other, and the former typically prefer to rent homes out to families or young couples. Their main reasoning is that single men and women are only going to throw wild parties and “do nasty things” there. To my chagrin and outrage, many landowners wouldn’t even agree to show me the place in question upon learning that I was unmarried. Despite all of the love I have for my Iranian culture, it’s sometimes difficult to suppress the hate and frustration that bubbles up when I’m reminded that being single is depriving me of finding a place to live.

The real estate agents assume almost no responsibility either; after all, their main job is pulling the wool over people’s eyes. You can now count me among the many Tehranis who have a negative view of these real estate agents. Some of the listings they sent made me wonder if they’d even bothered to look at my intake form. The supervisor at an agency on Shariati Street set up an appointment for me to check out a building on Farid Afshar in a pretty fancy area called Zafar. The rent was 2 million tomans per month with 10 million up front, and the apartment was 90 square meters. I arrived to see the place at 11am. It was old, had no private parking, and was on a dead end with very little room for parking on the street.

An attractive, well-dressed woman of about 50 opened the door for me. I could tell by the endless ceremonial hellos she was giving me that my bachelorhood would pose no problem for her. Contrary to what I’d been expecting, the apartment was actually underground. I hate living in a basement apartment, and as we trudged down through what felt like a dusty, musty garage, I remembered exactly why that is.

Meanwhile, the woman did her best to try to rent the place out to me. “I have only one condition for you if you rent the place: You have to have at least two parties a week,” she said at one point with a hearty laugh. “Otherwise, what good are you?” I forced my own laugh, but my gut told me that she was preparing me for a real eyesore of an apartment. Even listening to my gut wasn’t enough warning. When she opened the door, my heart sank. It had a big living room, but with the oldest and dirtiest walls I had probably seen since the Iran-Iraq war. The floors were an oily, muddy stone, and the cabinets in the kitchen were literally falling apart. Even at 11am, so little light made it into the apartment that the place looked like a dank cave. The adjacent bedroom was even filthier than the living room and so dark that I had to use the light from my mobile phone just to look around a little bit, and the toilet was full of broken tile. The scene reminded me of stuff I’d imagined while reading Oliver Twist at a young age.

As I reeled from taking the place in, I heard the woman’s muffled voice from the other room. “You can hang your whiskey glasses up here if you want,” she said. “Rent here and I’ll give you a great discount because you’re such a nice young man.”

After hurriedly bidding her farewell, I called the agent who had referred me there and took out all of my anger and frustration from the past several days.
“I told you I wanted a place with light and you sent me to a mausoleum!” I yelled. The agent was about to start explaining when I hung up the phone. I was disappointed and hopeless and had nearly lost all my patience. I decided that I would have to rent a slightly more expensive home if I was going to be happy. I was willing to pay 3 million tomans a month for one of the decent apartments I’d seen earlier. Sure, that amounted to about 80% of my monthly income, but my common sense had basically run out too.

As I walked farther and farther away from the apartment that had so sharply resembled the Dickensian soup kitchens, I turned toward Molla Sadra, near Vanak Square, a relatively calm area near the Kurdestan Freeway that has mostly new apartments. There a miracle occurred in the form of a 75 square meter apartment that fell right into my lap. It had white ceramic floors, beautiful wallpaper, a western toilet, a large living room and bedroom, plenty of light, parking, and storage.

The final stage in the process is signing the contract back at the rental agency, and the final moments leading up to it provide the best opportunity to get a last minute discount from the landlord. The landlord in my case was a retired high school teacher who bought the remodeled apartment in 1997 with a government loan.

“I’ve got a duty to help you out,” she said upon hearing that I was a journalist. “I’ll be really flexible with you. Here, I’ll even knock a million rials off your rent.” Even when I ask for a bigger discount a moment later, she obliges me. When all is said and done, the year-long lease comes out to 30 million tomans up front and 2.2 million a month. I was even able to score a major victory in the form of a roughly 200,000 tomans a month discount.

In order to finalize the contract, I have to sign and date twelve checks, one for each month of the year, up front. The rental agent also gets the equivalent of the first month’s rent from both parties; in addition to that commission, I also have to deposit 1.1 million tomans into the account of the agency’s owner. As I was thinking to myself what a sweet gig those real estate agents had - all that pay for so little work, after all - I overheard two of them speaking near the exit about a colleague’s income.

“You can bag twenty billion rials a month from that complex,” one of them said. “Even someone building high rises doesn’t make that much money.”

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