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.