As we pack up our apartment I’m reminded of when we first moved to China and began looking for a place to live. The process of apartment hunting in China is vastly different than in the States. Here, you find a local agent in the area you want to live and go to their office. You describe what you want in an apartment to the tiniest detail. While you wait (“would you like more tea, sir?”) they search online listings and their own reserve of available housing. After a half hour or so of searching and phone calls the realtor puts on his or her jacket and you march of, always on foot, to view the apartment. You arrive at the apartment and it is in shambles. In the US, realtors ensure the house is looking its very best before they show it. In China, you must see potential instead of beauty. One apartment we saw was so filthy we left footprints in the grime and dust as we perused the layout. Another apartment we viewed was covered in moldy, dirty dishes and overturned furniture. It was as if the residents quickly packed a few belongings and ran out in a hurry.
We saw about ten apartments before we found one we liked. We were shown several apartments that did not meet our criteria because the realtor gets paid by how many times he can show a place. Once you express interest the landlord and the realtor begin to scream at each other over price, additional fixtures, cleaning, etc. After an initial bartering phase the realtor reports that the lowest the landlord will go is, for example, 5,000RMB. You act offended and counter, naturally, with 4,000RMB. The landlord pretends not to hear you. Once the realtor turns and gives the counter-offer to the landlord he or she erupts in a stream of rationalizations for the 5,000RMB price. Eventually (after much bartering) the price is settled around 4,300RMB with a few extras like a cleaning crew to sweep through and a replacement chair for the office.
Now comes the tricky part. Money needs to be exchanged on the spot or else the landlord will not hold the apartment. Usually one month rent is put on the table. The realtor takes the money to appease both parties. The whole process takes less than half an hour. A move in date is set and when the happy day arrives the realtor emerges with contracts, candies, your deposit and a big smile – the realtor’s fee is one month’s rent split between the landlord and the renter.
There are, of course, apartment postings on craigslist and other expat sites. But usually these are more expensive and it is a bit harder to find someone who will sign on the spot. We recommend playing along with local custom and finding a local realtor. If a realtor does not find you an apartment you like you do not owe them anything. They only get paid if they please you, and the landlords whose apartments they show. The downside is that the realtor has no incentive to help you barter down the price, as he is merely helping to lower his commission.
For a two bedroom in Shanghai on a subway line we paid 4,300RMB a month. The
place was western in style with a tub, fully-stocked kitchen, wrap around sofa and big screen and an office. Our last apartment in China was tiny, with a fold our bed and a kitchen that stretched into our laps in the living room at a price of 3,000RMB a month. Our first apartment in Beijing had no toilet and a sink that spewed brown liquid and tiny insects but cost only 1,200RMB a month. So, you can find something at every price range here.