First up: how to rent an apartment.
Before you arrive
Unsurprisingly, it's difficult to set up permanent accommodation in advance of arriving in Spain (or any other country, for that matter). Unless you have someone already in your town or city of choice who's willing to do the groundwork and apartment visits for you (and whose taste you trust, obviously), I'd recommend sticking to research only rather than committing to something you've never seen. There's also the issue of whether the person you're dealing with over the internet is genuine. Even if that lovely apartment you've seen soft-focus pictures of does exist, it could well be in a less-than-desirable area or on a noisy street.
|You'll be seeing a lot of these while you're flat-hunting|
That said, you can accomplish a lot in terms of research. Before I moved to Madrid last year, I spent a few weeks trawling Idealista for flats to rent in the approximate area I had identified. Based on my experiences on several occasions, Idealista is the best site to use: it seems to have the most options and be the most up-to-date, both for renting an entire apartment and a room (flats for sale are also advertised). Although I live in Madrid, properties all over the country are advertised here. You can search the entire city or wider areas, identifying criteria that are important to you in a future home: number of bedrooms and bathrooms, furnished or not, air conditioning, etc. You can also include 'exterior' as a search filter: if you aren't familiar with Spanish flats, this may sound odd, but what it means is that the windows face out into the street rather than onto an internal patio. Interior flats tend to be pretty dark inside, so if you're a fan of natural light, check the exterior box. In addition to Idealista, you can also try Fotocasa, but I found the selection a lot more limited.
One thing to consider when reading adverts is whether properties are being advertised by an agency or a 'particular' (private landlord). Personally I chose to go with a private landlord, as it eliminates agency fees: in Madrid, these are equivalent to a month's rent (whether that be €500 or €1500, even though they're doing the same job) which you'll never see again. As for deposits, since the crisis hit, one month's rent is the norm, although in some cases you'll see two requested, but you can probably negotiate this.
Before you move, use your sites of choice to create a favourites list and contact landlords or agencies to book viewings. It's also worth making sure you'll have funds accessible to pay a deposit. If you don't know the city you're moving to very well, it could be worth arranging a temporary apartment for a month to give you chance to get to know your new hometown better and explore areas before you decide where you'd like to live. I once did this and rented a room through Accommadrid which is more aimed at students, but you could also try Airbnb or look for short lets on Idealista.
What you can expect to pay
As with any country, the capital city is the most expensive: but it still might be cheaper than renting in your home country. For example, I rent a two-bedroom apartment in Madrid for around the same price as a room in an equivalent area in London. In Madrid, one-bedroom flats can be found from around €450 a month slightly outside the centre, although double that price is also possible – it just depends on the area. You should be able to find something decent in most areas for around €600 excluding bills. The more rooms, the more money you pay: a 3-bed apartment comes in at around €900–1200. You can rent a room in most areas for €350, give or take a bit, with prices rising to around €500 all inclusive in a smart area. Barcelona is only slightly cheaper, and in other cities the price drops, with one-beds in central Sevilla and Valencia around €450–600. The advertised price really depends on the area, whether or not the flat is furnished and how desperate the landlord is to rent it. Outside of cities, rooms can usually be found for €200–300 and flats for €400 or so – in some cases, we're talking about a 3-bed. Just have a look on a few websites and compare similar properties in your chosen area so you can gauge what the going rate is.
When you arrive
Armed with your Idealista hitlist, go forth and view as many apartments as you can. You'll also see plenty of 'Se alquila' (to rent) signs around cities, so if you like the look of a property, call up for more information. I found that a lot of agencies and landlords responded to phone enquiries much more readily than emails, so I set up most of my viewings in this way. Once you're at a flat viewing, questions to ask include whether there are any comunidad charges (for things like the portero – doorman/caretaker – or the cost of refuse collection) and whether they are included in the rent, how much a typical month's bills will be and whether the heating is centrally operated or controlled by each flat individually.
Once you've found a flat you like, you can discuss all the terms and conditions with your new landlord. Spain is currently a renters' market, so don't be afraid to negotiate on the price. Many landlords want tenants to sign a year's contract, but six months is also possible. Once you've agreed on everything, you'll need a contract (those renting a room, see the section below) from your landlord. To draw up the contract, the agent or landlord will need your NIE (national identity number for foreigners), so make sure you have this to hand along with your passport and proof of earnings (your Spanish job contract if you have one, payslips from your previous employment if not). Sometimes salary-related information won't be needed, but many landlords want to feel assured you'll be able to pay the rent every month, and as you'll soon learn, taking every possible document to any kind of official appointment is the way forward. In Madrid, you want to make sure that your landlord registers your deposit with the Comunidad de Madrid, which means you'll get a discount on your annual declaración de la renta (tax return: we'll cover this in another post) for being a renter.
Renting a room
If you're looking for a room in a shared apartment rather than a place of your own, you'll have even more choice. In addition to Idealista, you can try Easypiso which specializes in flatshares. Again, be cautious about setting something up in advance of moving, and never pay for anything until you've seen it. It can be more difficult to get contracts when you're renting a room, as sometimes one flatmate has a contract with the landlord or lady and then sublets to other tenants. Ensure you get a contract though, so that your rights are protected.
Some room rates include all bills (electricity, gas, water and internet) so make sure you're clear on this. It can be easier to do things this way, as you know exactly what your monthly outgoings will be and it prevents any potential wrangling over bills with flatmates.
Paying rent and bills
Nowadays, rent is usually paid through via monthly bank transfer. Agree a date for this with your landlord. You can set this up automatically with your bank: some banks charge for this, but Santander doesn't (more on Spanish banking to come. I warn you, it'll be a fun one to write/read). Check whether bills are still set up with particular electricity, gas and suppliers, and whether you'll need to change the accounts into your name or whether the landlord will pay and you'll reimburse him.
I hope you found this post useful. In future posts, I'd like to cover residency-related bureaucracy (getting a NIE and social security number, doing your empadronamiento, opening a bank account and registering with the doctor), but please do suggest any other topics regarding relocating to Spain that you may find useful. Note that I'm an EU citizen, so some of the advice I give may be specific to my situation. Any American readers will find Cat of Sunshine & Siestas a great source of expat information.
If you're moving to Spain on your year abroad, you may be interested to read about my experiences as a language assistant here.