Part of the D7 visa requirements is securing a registered, long-term rental agreement (at least 12 months). In many places, the Algarve in particular, landlords like to rent from October to May, leaving the summer months open to more lucrative short-term tourist rentals. It’s easier to find a rental in the winter than in the late spring or summer. In cities like Lisbon and Porto, prices are going up, long term rentals are hard to find, and people are offering over asking price for rent and often paying for six to twelve months upfront. The market is crazy right now, to say the least.
Securing a long term rental contract seems to be the trickiest part of the visa process: You are being asked to commit to a 12 month lease without knowing if your visa will be approved or when it will be approved. It is a leap of faith and it represents a potential substantial loss if something goes wrong.
When I applied for my D7 visa, you only needed six months of accommodations and you were allowed to use short term rentals, aka, Airbnbs. Once here, I had several months to look for a long term rental. That is no longer the case and that is why I recommend making a scouting trip (or several) to find the area you’d like to live in.
You will need a 12 month lease, registered with Finanças, that starts on or before your arrival date in Portugal. Sometimes you will pay for a month or two of rent before you arrive. (I ended up paying for a week of Airbnb due to a flight delay.) Consider that part of the cost of getting your visa.
Once here on your visa, you have time to explore more thoroughly. You may find an area or even just another apartment that you like better. That’s fine. You are not committing to living there forever, just one year. If you find the property you have contracted for is truly unlivable, most rental agreements can be cancelled one-third of the way through with a 120 day notice. Frankly, if you’re not going to stay for the term of the contract don’t sign the agreement. Portuguese landlords are looking for people who will stay long term—years. Many rental agreements here have a rollover clause. You don’t have to take advantage of the rollover if you decide you don’t like where you are, but it is good to have because it basically extends that 12 month time period.
Currently, most SEF appointments are set for about four months after you arrive. At that point you have eight months left on your 12 month lease. That’s okay. SEF mainly needs to make sure that you have a valid address to send your residency card(s) to. (The cards usually arrive within 30 days.)
Work with a Real Estate Agent
I never used an agent when renting in the United States. I know it is done in some areas, but it was a new experience for me here. I looked for rental properties on Idealista and Olx (kind of the Craigslist of Portugal). Most owners list their properties with an agent and many agents speak several languages. Agents here only show listings from their brokerages; if you want to see a listing from another broker (say Century 21 as opposed to Keller Williams), you go to that broker. In the States, you use one agent who can show you listings from all brokers; here they only show their own listings. I looked at three apartments: two with two different agents and one that was being rented by the owner herself.
Here’s why you should work with an agent: First, they will save you search time. Agents have properties that are not yet listed online as well as give you access to all the listings in their agency. Most agencies can supply your rental agreement in English and Portuguese. (VFS and SEF will want your rental agreement in Portuguese.) Unless you are fluent in Portuguese, you’re going to need someone who understands the language to negotiate for you.
Agents can advise you which utility companies to use and help you set up your accounts with them. If an owner is using an agent, you are less likely to end up with a non-registered lease (you need your rental contract registered with Finanças in order for it to be accepted by SEF). Agents make the rental process go much more smoothly.
Deposits and Utilities
It is customary to pay about three to four months’ rent up front, between the deposit, the first month’s rent and the buffer month(s). The buffer month? I don’t know if that’s what they call it, but in many rental agreements, you pay two months ahead. The rent you pay on June 1st is not for June; it’s for July. This gives extra security for the landlord. Everything is negotiable and the upfront payment probably changes with what the market will bear. It also depends on the landlord. My landlord is very relaxed and I paid one month’s deposit and then the rent for the first month on the day I moved in. (Did I mention how lucky I was in finding my apartment?)
Some landlords will include utilities, most do not. My landlord kept all the utilities in his name, which made it so much easier for me—no figuring out who to call, waiting for connections, etc. I pay a flat fee of €50 for electric as part of my rent. My landlord drops by with the water and gas bills each month and I pay them online. Sometimes he pays them and I reimburse him. It’s casual. I do pay for my own cable/internet separately. (It runs about €40 a month, but I don’t have any extra channels. The TV channels came with the internet package.) Again, your agent can help you with setting up your utilities.
Renting Directly from the Owner
You can rent directly from an owner, of course. Always have a lawyer review your rental agreement (whether you use an agent or work directly with an owner). You need to make it clear to them that you need the agreement registered with Finanças. You also need to make sure that the property is registered as a long-term rental property, not short term (Alojamento Local).
I do NOT recommend flying by the seat of your pants and renting directly from an owner if a) you’re renting a property long distance (sight unseen) and b) you don’t speak Portuguese fluently. If you’re doing either of these without a lawyer involved, you’re just asking for trouble. You may get lucky, but really, a twelve month rental agreement before your visa is approved is risky enough—why tempt the gods?
Furnished or Unfurnished?
All of the places I looked at came furnished. I had lived in a furnished condo for ten years in Florida before moving here and all my furniture had been donated to a friend long ago. I like to keep my options open and I recommend that if you’re not 100% sure that you will live in Portugal til the end of your days, put your stuff in storage for the first year and rent a furnished place. Or rent an unfurnished place and hit IKEA.
The style of your US furniture may not match your new life in Portugal. Most of your appliances probably won’t work here. You might take the opportunity to purge your possessions and free yourself up for a new lifestyle. On the other hand, you probably have a sentimental attachment to certain items. That works, too. Bring some or store them until you are sure you are staying. After a year of living here, I know that there are many items in my storage space that will not be making the trip over here.
Found Your Place? YAY!
Finding a long term rental is the hardest part of the equation—all the rest is filling out forms and doing a few easy tasks like getting fingerprinted or having your visa pictures done. And paying various fees, of course.
This is one of the bigger financial commitments you will make in the moving abroad process and it’s a bit scary. But it’s also one of the most exciting parts of the process: You have found your new home! The rental contract is physical proof that your dream of moving to Portugal is coming true.