Apartment Hunting

The last time I had to hunt for an apartment in China was in 2004 in the city of Kunming. That experience didn’t leave me with a good impression of the process. I remember walking into real estate offices and asking them what kind of fees they charged and having the answers vary wildly. There was no city wide standard and you had to bargain with them. The same went for rent and trying to get your landlord to cover utilities, as well as bargaining over how many months you had to pay in advance. Some landlords would try to make you pay a year’s rent up front, which was a problem because A. What student has that kind of cash laying around? and B. The real estate agencies wouldn’t step in if the landlord decided three months later that they wanted their place back and wouldn’t refund your rent. I knew a couple of people who had this happen to them. One guy had spent a ton of money to remodel/decorate a gutted apartment that he rented for cheap and once the landlord saw how nice it was, he kicked my friend out of the apartment so he could move in himself. Basically, the whole process completely lacked transparency and we all know that foreigners are highly unlikely to come out on top in a situation that requires bargaining.

Even though that was 10 years ago and occurred in a “backwards” city, I couldn’t help but drag my feet on starting the hunt, especially because my company was paying for 6 weeks in a serviced apartment. However, living in a hotel got old quickly and I decided to stop putting off the inevitable. My friends had all told me how terrible the apartments in Shanghai are, either they’re way over priced or really shitty. Many of them had spent a month or more before finding a place they liked. I called an agent that a friend of a friend had recommended. I was prepared for the worst after hearing the stories my other friends told of dealing with agents who tried to get them into apartments that cost twice their budget or agents who were simply stupid. I met up with the agent, who had prepared a list of four places to check out initially. They weren’t bad, but not great. One of them was on the first floor (i.e. noisy) and another one had a landlord that I knew would be trouble. After looking at these places, I went back to the agent’s office and he talked to me about their fees, which were exactly what I’d heard from other people and I was able to look at apartment listings right on his computer that showed how much rent the landlords were asking. It was far more straightforward this time around and I felt like I wasn’t getting ripped off because I’m a foreigner. We looked at a few more places and not being overly impressed with any of them, I asked him to call me if anything else came up and I headed to a different neighborhood to look around. I made the mistake of going to a small, privately owned agency (not a chain). The agent showed me several shit holes and was really pushy about trying to get me to agree on the spot to take one of them. I used the excuse that I was going to take pictures of the places to show my husband and see what he thought. I had no intention of renting anything from this guy. However, he proceeded to call me several times a day for the next few days until I finally answered and he proceeded to yell at me for not renting from him. I just said “嗯嗯,知道了,嗯,挂了啊” and then I hung up and didn’t answer his calls anymore. I didn’t care because the first agent managed to find me a great place later that evening! He found me an awesome little place in one of Shanghai’s traditional style homes, the 石库门. It’s within my budget, recently remodeled, only 200m to a subway stop with easy access to my office and the airport for business trips. There are also a ton of restaurants nearby, which is necessary because I don’t cook.

Finding an apartment was so much easier this time around. Of course, part of it was that I got lucky, but a large part of it is that things have changed so much. Well, actually it’s hard to compare Kunming and Shanghai. I haven’t been back to Kunming in a long time, so I’m not sure if the apartment hunting process has improved to this level yet. However, this experience made me realize that I need to be careful about letting my earlier experiences from over 10 years ago impact my opinions and attitudes now if I don’t have any current experience to back it up. China is funny in that some things change so fast, so much, but other things don’t and seem like they never will.

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6 thoughts on “Apartment Hunting

  1. I heard so many stories about renting apartments in China. Some have good luck others suffer several months or even years until they find a proper apartment or one where no shit is going on with the landlord.
    The whole system thus far in China seems odd to me, at least what I learned. For example my in-laws are renting out one apartment. Everything, really everything is going through an agent. He takes care of everything and transfers the money to my in-laws. This makes me wonder if they even get an appropriate amount as they have no control how much the agent is charging for the apartment and so on.

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    • Wow, that’s weird. I had to meet with my landlord before I could officially rent the place. She said she’s pretty picky about who she rents to. She won’t rent to mainland Chinese (she’s a Shanghai local) because they trash apartments they don’t own. I also give the rent money directly to her. I only need to deal with the agent to get my fapiao and in case I have a problem with the landlord. I think your in laws are being taken advantage of!

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  2. My husband and I had pretty terrible experiences renting in Beijing back in 2006. I think part of it was my fault though. I assumed my husband (who’s Chinese) knew what he was doing. He didn’t.

    You make a really good point. We can’t let some of our more outdated experiences cement our opinions. I’m definitely guilty of doing this. Some things are changing and many of them are changing quickly. Also, China is a big place and circumstances vary widely. I also have to concede that I don’t always know what’s going on, even after living here a long time and having a decent grasp of the language, simply due to language subtleties and those pesky cultural differences!

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    • I know exactly what you mean! I often find myself thinking “I understand the words that are coming out of your mouth, but I have no idea what you’re saying.” Chinese logic is so different from western logic at times that things that go unsaid may seem obvious to them, but not to us and vice versa. I’m not surprised that you had a hard time finding an apartment in Beijing. To me, Beijing is the city of pianzi. Getting anything done there without getting screwed is difficult.

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  3. It’s been my experience (along with several other foreigners I know) that landlords will ALWAYS ask for a year’s rent up front. In fact, that’s often how you can negotiate down to a cheaper monthly rent if you pay more up front. For instance, if the landlord if offering a place for 1400 RMB per month, it’s better for you to bargain down to 14400 RMB for the year rather than saying “I’ll give you 1200/RMB for each month.” That’s what a friend of mine did this summer, and it worked for her!

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    • I don’t think that asking for a year’s rent up front is the norm in Shanghai anymore, maybe since the rent is too damn high and almost no one could fork over that kind of cash without taking out a loan. Do you seriously only pay 1400 RMB in rent, or is that just a random number? I wouldn’t even want to see the kind of disease infested rat hole that would get you in Shanghai. My apartment in Kunming that I finally found was a huge three bedroom place near the school for 1200 RMB a month, but that was 10 years ago. I split it with two other people so we all paid practically nothing.

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