Finding an Apartment
I am re-writing this paper that I previously did in the summer of 2018 as I have recently moved house again in China, making it the 5th time in total! Twice in Guangzhou and thrice in Shenzhen. This guide will mostly be focused on Shenzhen and Guangzhou, as those are my experiences. Should you be looking at moving to a different Chinese city, a lot of the information here will still be relevant, though take it with a pinch of salt. It might be worth checking www.travelchinaguide.com for more information about your city in particular.
I think my method for finding an apartment works pretty well so I would like to impart what information I can to make your move a little easier.
Decide where you want to live. For me this means looking at the metro map, pin-pointing the locations I visit most often, where is most convenient (a junction between two lines is always good), where the price won’t be ridiculously high (not in the city centre, go near to the city centre), and on the same side of the city as the airport. Ideally you want to be near one of the connecting stations on the metro so you have access to two lines. On the map below of Shenzhen metro, I would start by looking at the areas in green, whilst avoiding the CBD in red.
Usually the end of a metro line will still be fairly undeveloped, meaning it will be cheaper. Another reason to avoid the city centre is the metro stations will be too busy in the morning, and it will take you half an hour just to enter the station, let alone forcing your way onto a sardine train. You’ll also find that naturally, prices will be higher, both for rent, and local amenities. I find the expense is simply not worth it.
Having said that, I have met many expats who prefer to live in the CBD area as the environment is a lot more modern, English language speakers are more common, and choices of Western foods and supermarkets will be aplenty. Personally that’s not for me, but if it is your cup of tea, you can double any example prices I put in the rest of this guide.
Normally, the selection of apartments in the CBD will be of a higher quality, though there will always be development projects going on everywhere in the city, and some of the apartments I have lived in look quite dated on the outside, but are newly decorated and renovated on the inside.
Once you have decided upon your location, visit and spend half a day or a day there finding out which garden (like the apartment complex above) you like. For me that means which blocks look fairly modern, are within a 5 minute walk of the metro station (think about what the weather will be like in the summer, and rainy season), has a Western restaurant nearby (or McDonalds, KFC), where the banks are, a swimming pool, a phone shop, and a large supermarket. Typically, every garden will have these amenities, but not always. I have lived in a solitary apartment before, literally nothing around it except construction sites, perhaps in 5 years it will be great, but not now- always research the area!
This was where I lived in Guangzhou for 2 years, Chigang, note there’s a few food choices nearby, banks, metro across the road, the local bus cost 2RMB to get to downtown, literally 2 stops away. Also there is a large hospital, just in case.
On a larger map of the area, the green square is Chigang, red is downtown CBD, purple is the international expo centre, and yellow is where most factory sourcing can be done. For 3,000RMB a month I was living in the perfect mid-way point of all the main places I needed, whilst also living on the wrong side of the river to the CBD, and thus not paying exuberant prices.
Talking of exuberant prices, when I first arrived in Guangzhou, I lived in Liede, the green box on the right, fairly new apartments, right next door to the CBD, had a Lamborghini and Ferrari dealership around the corner, pricey neighbourhood (the above photo was taken from Chigang looking towards the CBD).
On the left side of the picture, next to Guangzhou Tower, the higher ones are closer to the tower, and newer, and thus more expensive. The lower set you can clearly see are older buildings, and thus, cheaper.
Similarly, for Shenzhen I am based in the green box, the 2 business districts are in red, airport in blue at the top left, factory area in yellow, and border checkpoint for Hong Kong in orange. Again, ideally situated between all of these areas, so they are all as convenient / inconvenient as each other. Being 30 minutes’ metro ride from the CBDs helps with rental costs too, of course. Also a stone’s throw away from 3 universities, so there’s lots of cheap food and bars dotted around.
Taking a look
Once you have seen a couple of gardens which tick your boxes, visit the estate agents posted around the ground floor. Much like in the UK they will have a selection of pictures in the window of houses for sale. You want to go in and say
我要租房 [wo yao zu fang] “I want to rent an apartment.”
and someone will talk you through what they have in stock. Important point, 房 [fang] does not always mean number of bedrooms, it can mean number of rooms. A 1 bedroom apartment might be advertised as 2房, if you want 2 bedrooms you need 3房. It will help if you can be more specific:
我要一房一厅 [wo yao yifang yiting] “I want one bedroom, one living room.”
我要两房三厅 [wo yao liangfang santing] “I want two bedrooms, three living rooms.”
Alternatively, you can use the character 室[shi] instead of 房 [fang].
Next, make sure if comes with furniture, unless you really want to buy everything yourself, including air conditioning and a fridge.
已经有家具吗 [yijing you jiaju ma?] “Has it already got furniture?”
I’ve seen some that were semi-converted offices, no air conditioning, nor bed, though the boardroom table would have been good for indoor ping-pong.
有西方的马桶吗？[you xifang de matong ma?] Does it have a Western toilet?
Normally the estate agent will be able to take you round to visit a few there and then, so if you plan to go flat-hunting make sure you haven’t any other appointments that afternoon. Usually the first two he shows you will be his best, so if they are not up to scratch then forget this estate agent and find a different one. I’ve heard that, unlike in the UK where if you are a landlord and you want to rent your place out, you use one estate agent to manage that, in China you can use as many estate agents as you want, so often they will have the same properties as each other on display. Having said that, two estate agents next door to each there will have unique properties, so it can be worth going between different ones if the first doesn’t have what you want, though I’ve only used a second estate agent once.
Tip: take a look online [http://www.zufang.cn or 58.com/zufang/ etc.] at apartments in the area you like, and you can have a look at the sort of apartments your budget will allow, however I wouldn’t commit to an apartment over the internet, better to visit the estate agent in person and have him take you to the apartment. Online listings are… I don’t want to say fake, because it seems unintentional, but they will pretty much always say “oh, someone just moved into that one, but I have another I can show you instead…”
Regarding prices, the estate agent normally charges 10 to 50% of a month’s rent from you, and from the landlord. When you wish to reserve the apartment, they will normally ask you to put down a reservation fee, which will be deducted from the charge once the deal is done. Deposit is usually two months rent, and you will need to pay the 1st month of living too, so it can be quite an expensive day when you move in. A 4,000RMB apartment may cost you 14,000RMB on month one.
Apartments in China come in various shapes and sizes, and various costs too. I’ve individually rented my own two bedroom place in city centre, but in a 40 year old building (with only 2 electric sockets in the whole place!) for 3,000RMB a month. I’ve also rented a city centre place in a modern building, 3 bedrooms that were rented to others, for 2,000RMB a month each. My last place was a large 1 bedroom 1 living room in a converted hotel, in a convenient location outside of city centre for 4,200RMB a month. As you can see, prices are fairly similar to what you’d pay in the UK. Gas and electric will come to about 300RMB a month, then management fee is based on sqm, probably about 200RMB a month. There may also be a garbage collection fee for around 20RMB, and my current place requires us all to chip in for the lift and corridor lights, 13RMB.
In my first apartment I let my friend handle the utilities, since he had been in China much longer than I. In my second place the land lady sent over a picture of the bill via We Chat, and I would transfer over to her on We Chat. In my last place the land lady didn’t want me on the We Chat utilities account, so she gave me a little red ICBC book (reminded me of the old Post Office savings account) which I had to take to the bank every month to “top-up”. With that one I set-up Wi-Fi myself with China Mobile and paid it in line with my phone bill (done over We Chat). Lastly, in my current place, all bills including internet are added onto my monthly rent bill, as you can see, utility payment comes in different styles too.
You`ll usually get a washing machine, but no tumble dryer. Bathroom will probably be a wet room, without a partition dividing the shower. Living room and bedrooms will have A/C, I advise you buy a fan for night time. Kitchens will have hobs (/stove) but no oven, might have a microwave.
Unless it’s a brand new apartment, it probably won’t have been cleaned very thoroughly, and I’m afraid it’s on you to clean it, or pay someone to clean it (ask your estate agent or the security guys downstairs). It’s worth talking to the previous tenant if possible to find out what’s wrong with the apartment, what doesn’t work, are the neighbours annoying, does it get wet when it rains etc.
Obviously as you would in the UK, take your phone and phone charger with you around the apartment checking the electric sockets. Turn on the washing machine and hob. Is the fridge freezer cold? Do all the lights work? Same as you would in the UK. If the air conditioning is a very old unit (as in my last place), demand that if you are going to sign a 1 year contract then they have to replace it with a newer unit. They said they would send somebody round to check how it works, I refused that offer by asking if they will be sending a Chinese person who is used to the local climate or a British person who is in the same boat as myself, obviously a local person is used to the local humidity and would say its fine. Haggle as many repairs as you can out of the place. Helps if you can speak Chinese… For sticking stuff to walls, or hammering nails in, best to check with your landlord first. In terms of buying furniture, they normally won’t mind if you leave it behind after (except mirrors), or take it with you. When you leave you can put adverts up on 2nd hand websites, if you can be bothered with the trouble (I haven’t yet).
You will be given an itinerary of all the current furniture (in Chinese), tick what is there, and write any comments on if its broken or not. I got the estate agent to fill it in and write what I wanted writing. Remember, you’re paying him. It is also worth asking for a pest control guy, there’s probably a cockroach nest somewhere that’s worth clearing up, and they’re not expensive.
Personally, I prefer the slightly older apartments than the newer ones. The converted hotel was great, apart from the lack of sunlight in the living room. But it was very spacious, and I liked the feeling of it being a little worn in, rather than brand spanking new.
Chinese sockets typically look like this, you can find adaptors fairly easily on the ground here, even for UK plugs. Just take your phone charger to some electrical hardware stores (malls or big outlets are usually best) and get some adapters. Typically, about 20RMB each. Easy enough. Added to that are the USB connection plugs which work a treat for mobiles etc.
Remember that once the deal is done and you are in the apartment, the estate agent no longer has anything to do with it, so don’t bother asking him for help. It’ll all be between you and the landlord, who will probably now have your We Chat. You can normally transfer your rent by We Chat, go to your bank and transfer at the desk, or you could sign in online, very straightforward.
You will likely not be interacting with the security guys downstairs very often. They can be helpful if you need to borrow a ladder, order pest control, or call someone in to clean your place. One of my current guys I guess is related to a farmer because he is usually flogging cheap fruit and veg off downstairs.
Wi-Fi will likely not be included in your apartment, you’ll need to go down to China Mobile yourself, take your passport, and get them to do that. In the phone shop you’ll give them your address, and someone will come along to your home, probably that afternoon or the next day, and get your router etc. installed. Ready to use within half an hour.
Lastly, once you have finished moving in, head down to the local police station (派出所) to get your residency permit. You will need your passport, with a copy of your ID page and the visa page, passport photo, and a copy of your housing contract. Do not delay on this or you can get a nasty fine (I think about 2,000 RMB, but I’ve never had it so not sure, #goodcitizen). Sometimes you will need to go through several different police station until you find the one that deals with residency permits, strong chance your landlord won’t know which one.
Quick look on Google and my local police station isn’t even on the map, though on Gaode Maps it is. Worth noting that Google Maps is very unreliable in China, seems it has not been updated in a long time.