How to Find an Apartment in China: Tips and Tricks

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Trying to find an apartment in Beijing sometimes feels more hopeless than trying to climb up a rock wall slathered in baby oil.

The real estate agents, all working for a different real estate company, somehow all manage to show you the same godawful apartment in your round’ of the neighborhood. (You know, the one with a wretched stench and cracked faucet).

Before moving to Beijing, I was not used to such extreme apartment hunts. I grew up in suburban America. Finding an apartment there meant that all you would had to do was to type Craigslist.org into the URL bar of your favorite internet browser, then look up the number of a man or women that had a room in some empty farm house or the like. There were no thirty-story apartment complexes. I didn’t even ride on the metro until I was in my twenties.

In fact, prior to moving to China, I had only lived in a city once before – and that was during a study abroad program in Budapest, Hungary. And even then I didn’t have to find my own apartment as it was provided by the university

Searching for an apartment in Beijing or any other large Chinese city is no easy task. Here are some pointers.

Tips and tricks

  1. Agents charge one month’s rent as commission. In Beijing that means a full months rent. You might be tempted to skimp out on the agency fee, but this is hard. The best way to do this is to find a room in a flat already leased on the Beijinger’s housing classifieds (Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenzhen should have something similar). However, if you don’t want to share a place, be prepared to fork out one months rent.
  2. When talking about the size of an apartment, the common language is square meters (Chinese is 平米). This is a good way to know how large an apartment is before you visit. Sometimes the floor space can be laid out nonsensically, which makes this metric less useful, but still it is a good measurement to start out with nonetheless.
  3. Which way the apartment windows face (north, south, east, and west) is very important. At least, it’s important to Chinese. I am still not quite sure how much this really matters, but for some reason the Chinese are slightly obsessed with the direction of their apartment windows. For me, I think of it in terms of sunlight and the other buildings surrounding the apartment. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that the cult of fengshui (风水) is also behind this.
  4. An apartment’s location in relation to the nearest subway stop is crucial. You should find out the address, shops around the apartment, and how long it takes to literally walk there. The subway line which you choose to be close to should be carefully considered in terms of where you work and your main areas for social interaction.
  5. Have a budget laid out before you decide on your apartment. This is tricky, because we can often be lured away from factors of convenience like distance to the subway, work, and social life, for the sake of shaving off a couple hundred RMBs. If you know how much you are willing to spend ahead of time, then you can more easily filter out apartments which are out of range or fail to meet your requirements. (Remember to factor agency fee and deposit plus three months’ rent into your budget. You will need to pay this upfront if you are using a traditional real estate agency. When planning my budget, I find it most useful to think of renting in terms of all monthly payments plus agency fee; i.e. rent= monthly rent x 13.).
  6. Make sure that your landlord can provide both a deed for the apartment (房本) and Chinese ID card (身份证). This means that your landlord is legally allowed to rent to you and you will be able to register at the local police station (a requirement for all foreigners in China).

These are some of the basics that I have picked up along the way while searching for an apartment. Keep these principles in mind during your own apartment hunt to find a suitable apartment in a city which is very unforgiving to those not well prepared.

A note on landlords: Landlords in China, especially in comparison to back in America, don’t believe that much, if anything, is their responsibility beyond collecting your money. In America, it’s very much considered normal for the landlord to replace basic things and make sure that the maintenance of the place is kept up well. However, Chinese landlords really just ignore your request most of the time, unless of course you find a good one. (I’m not saying that good ones don’t exist, just that I have had a very hard time during my four years in Beijing).  

A note on location: Commuting in any large Chinese city can be incredibly rough, so one learns quickly to either rig the game in one’s favor, reconfigure the “chessboard”, or leave the city altogether. Take it from me, you really don’t want to spend an hour and a half one way to travel to work sardine style, packed into a subway traveling across town. You also don’t want to live in the middle of nowhere, isolated from a Starbucks or friends. In short, a balance must be struck.

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