Hello! I’m Ayessa, trailing spouse to a diplomat.
My husband is a Diplomat with the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines. Whenever we get posted, we are responsible for looking for our housing for the next 2-6 years. We lived in Jakarta for 4 years, in Berlin for 2.5 and we are currently on 4.5 years in the Philippines.
In a way, I appreciate moving with our stuff, because we have a clean slate each time to place our furniture that expresses our own personal style. I love Scandinavian Style and #whiteliving so my home is usually bright, white, and airy while still being cozy, homey, and very comfortable
Creating beautiful homes that are a haven from the outside world is really important for me because I grew up not having a home of my own. I was basically boarding at a relative’s home and I did not have any control over the colors and design of my room because as I was told “it was not mine anyway.”
Here are our non-negotiables when we are looking for our dream home, each time we move:
1. Proximity to parks and open spaces
Having green spaces nearby is really very important to us. In Manila, we wanted to be near a very specific park so we literally walked into condominiums that surrounded the park to check if there were any units available for rent. This worked out very well for us because we were able to get a flat right across our favorite park, which also hosts a weekly food market. In Berlin and Jakarta, we also had parks nearby. Living around green spaces has a good effect on our mental and physical health.
Whenever possible we also have a balcony, so we can have a small outdoor garden. This was not possible in Manila, but I still manage to have lots of greens inside our home.
2. Quiet neighborhood
When we view a place, we usually walk around the neighborhood and are drawn to family-friendly, quiet neighborhoods that have stores and restaurants nearby. We don’t usually go for the cool/hip neighborhoods because we prefer quieter places and older neighbors. This also means less noise pollution from bars and house parties.
I think the feel of the neighborhood is a very personal preference, so it really depends on your personality.
3. Flats instead of houses
We prefer to have building security so when we travel, we can just lock the door and not have to worry about security. In Jakarta, if you have a home, you have to hire your own security guard.
We also do not want the financial burden of hiring a pool boy and gardener. Most expat-oriented condos have amenities included in the association dues. Another consideration in Manila and Jakarta were blackouts. Condos usually have generators while houses do not.
4. Large floor space
We usually look at older buildings and sacrifice newness to get a bigger floor area. This means that there will be quirky features; like weird doors or a storage room on top of the guest bathroom, to no floor heating or no split-type air-conditioning. We are happy to sacrifice modern amenities for a bigger space.
5. High ceilings or the feeling of high ceilings
In Berlin, we were lucky enough to experience living in an AltBau or an apartment that was more than 100 years old, so the ceilings were around 5 meters high. It was wonderful and I felt truly lucky to experience this because this is not usually possible in other postings.
Here in Manila, we found a flat with 3.5-meter ceilings, which is not very common in this city. We were instantly in love. I appreciate this every day!
6. White walls always
One thing all our homes have in common is that they have the feeling of being light and airy. And one of the reasons for this is having white or light walls that also gives the illusion of height because of how the walls fade into the ceilings.
When we returned to Manila, I did not realize that the walls in our living room and hallway were peach before we signed the contract. Otherwise, I would have included it in our negotiations that they repaint it white with low-VOC paint. I couldn’t unsee it! Warm walls make spaces feel darker so 4 days before our furniture was going to be delivered, I started painting the walls myself with the help of my husband. I couldn’t go up to the cornices, but at least the walls were white before they put in our furniture. I eventually hired a contractor to finish the work and I’m so happy we did.
7. Window treatments
We always negotiate for window treatments because they are one of the most expensive things in the home, especially in Manila. It doesn’t make sense for us, as tenants, to invest in window treatments that can only fit the specific flat, so we always ask that our landlord provide it as an improvement to their property.
Many landlords will try not to provide it, but we always ask for neutral curtains or – even better – roller blinds. Roller blinds are low maintenance because you can clean them with a vacuum cleaner while curtains usually require expensive dry cleaning.
8. Bare flats, except for window treatments and kitchen appliances.
I designed our large pieces of furniture in Jakarta so they could be made of antique teak, be modular yet look built-in so that it can fit the different layouts whenever we moved. We also bought furniture from KOI Kemang (an export-oriented furniture company) like our dining table, bookshelves, and bar, all of which can be dismantled and flat packed.
The reason we invested in high-quality hardwood furniture & decorations, is because my mother-in-law (also a diplomat’s wife) taught me that whenever they moved, she would try to recreate the same spaces so that things would feel familiar immediately. This was a wonderful piece of advice that made all the sense to me: things feel familiar and your life is immensely simplified since you do not need to think of a new design every time you move. We can’t do it 100% of the time because each home is different, but I definitely recreate our favorite corners or vignettes.
9. LED lights
Our energy bill is quite low because we only use LED lights. If you use traditional bulbs not only does it require exponentially more energy than LEDs but it also emits a lot of heat, making your air-conditioning bill higher too.
This usually applies to the overhead built-in lighting of the unit. I usually ask that these “work lights” be cool tone LED lights.
Then for warm mood lighting, I have our own lamps arranged all over the room. Having a lot of beautiful lamps around the room helps me adjust the mood at night.
10. Inverter technology appliances
Here in Manila, we asked our Landlord to change all the old appliances that would have led to astronomical monthly electric bills (the Philippines has the second-highest electricity rates in Asia) – air-conditioners (AC), refrigerators, washer/dryer – to inverter technology. Because of this, we can have 2 ACs on the whole day/night and still have an affordable bill.
What I did was to go shopping for the exact appliances that we wanted and include it as an appendix to the contract. If you don’t do this then the landlord might cheap out and give you a refrigerator that is too small, underpowered ACs, or a cheap top-loading washer.
Incorporating it in the contract is smarter to have things that truly save us money and that we truly enjoy using.
11. High floor flat
We never get an apartment that is on the ground floor because they are prone to theft and it’s very noisy to be in the same level as the street. In Berlin, ground floor apartments are also responsible for clearing the snow outside during winter and can be liable for accidents that happen to people outside.
In Europe, we tried looking for a flat that was just above the ground floor because if there is no elevator or if the elevator is very small (which is usually the case), the shipper/mover charges more. The higher the floor, the more they will charge.
However, in Asia where there are service elevators that are large enough to bring in large pieces of furniture this is not a problem.
12. Must allow Pets
We have moved with DiploDog from Manila to Jakarta to Berlin and back to Manila. So, it’s important that the building or landlord allows us to have a dog.
Bonus: low volatile organic compounds (VOC) paint
I mention low volatile organic compounds (VOC) paint because traditional paint is usually poisoning your air up to 6 months after it has dried. This is one of the contributing factors to why indoor air is more polluted than outdoor air. VOCs are really bad for our health, especially if you have asthma like I do. So, if painting is required we ask for low-VOC paint. Low VOC or no VOC paint dries fast and once it’s dry it no longer has a toxic smell.
In our expat/diplo life we are perpetually renting. I hope that by sharing our learnings through the years of renting, you found useful tips and tricks to find and create your own dream home wherever you are posted. Here you can see complete photos of how I created a Scandinavian design home here in Manila.
In my free time, I also love writing about my tips and tricks to creating my DiploHome.
* Some photos of my home in Manila are by Kaho of ChuzaiLiving
Ayessa is the blogger behind undiplomaticwife.com, where she writes about life & space hacks, being a diplomat’s wife & mom to DiploBaby and DiploDog. She hopes that by talking openly about her journey as a bipolar & plus-size woman, she can inspire women to love themselves in whatever shape, size & state they are in.
She is also a professional organizer & the founder of DeclutterMNL where she helps people achieve a more minimal yet luxurious life & home.