5 Steps to Renting an Apartment in China

Having tallied six apartments in three different Chinese cities, the apartment hunt has become one of my least favorite but most fundamental routines here in China. Why so important? A great apartment is the launchpad from which you can set your life hurtling towards a bright, glimmering future. Misfire on your living situation and fling yourself into the dark, cold outer reaches of a Chinese city’s orbital system.

Abstractions aside, the difficulties of searching for the perfect apartment in China leave many disheartened, dejected, and hungover. This article will present a few steps to making the process a lot easier.

Before scanning this article to glean the good bits, I’m going to shout out the most important segment: you don’t need an agent. Following these steps will help you avoid pesky agent fees, wasted time, and the despair of feeling that your dream apartment is lost in the galactic wastelands of China’s real estate market.

Renting in China

You probably won’t find a place like this in China

Step 1: Define Your Criteria

Do you want to live around other foreigners? Do you want to live in a quiet part of town? What about a student area? Are you trying to be able to stumble home from your favorite bar? Be honest with yourself here. Whatever your criteria is, being clear about it from the get go makes looking for apartments infinitely simpler.  I remember I wanted my first apartment back in Suzhou to be, quote, shitty, end quote. I wanted to pay the minimum, live on my own, and “eat the bitters.” That cold, dark place I described in the first paragraph is a very real, sad apartment in Suzhou, China.

If cash is your major limitation, defining how much you are personally willing to spend will narrow down your locations, roommate options, and quality flexibility. If a prime location—inside 2nd ring road on the south side of the city, bonus pts. for subway access—is your priority, than that will tell you right out that you’re going to be forking out a bit more coin.

This time around in Chengdu, location and price were my biggest limits. I wanted to find a place by Sichuan University, as I’ve found that student areas have cheaper, better food and a good amount to do. Also, there are normally higher levels of standard Putonghua (standard Mandarin) in the area due to diverse studentry and higher levels of education. Price was a big issue because I was dead set on living with my roommate who wanted to be saving a healthy chunk of his money. Quality-wise, my only requirement was that my room have wooden floors and their are no showers in the kitchen (a real situation).

Wanting to live in a prime spot and spend less cash usually equates to living in an old building,  a walk up. Not the end of the world, but it won’t have the modern flair of some of the pricier places. I live in one now and can say you save more cash than you forfeit quality.

Renting in China

My wonderful home and wonderful roommate

Step 2: Ask Knowledgeable People

Bring your criteria to the foreigner who has been in Chengdu back since the Three Kingdoms era. That guy, or girl, will be able to synthesize in two minutes what hours of online research will barely begin to unearth. Chengdu is replete with long term expats who are just waiting to tell you their opinion about most everything regarding Chengdu life (read: all the other authors on this site).  Take them up on it, and be specific with your criteria.

Where to find that keeper of secrets? Chengdu Living Forum is the easiest way to do it. Post criteria, keep it simple, offer a beer as a bribe. Couldn’t be simpler.

Step 3: China Friends, Assemble!

Apartment calculus is defined by a linear relationship: the more folks you have the sweeter deal you’ll get. Here, roommates are the primary price liberator. They make most every location in Chengdu within your budget.

For example, I am renting with two other people. Our apartment is nicer, bigger, and less expensive per person by 350 kuai per month (4,200 kuai per year = 4,200 bowls of rice, 2,100 lamb skewers, 280 lunches, or 2 times holding a panda) than my friends renting with only one person. If you’re looking to live alone, prepare to pay the price.

My roommate and I decided to go for a three bedroom, called tào sān (套三) in Chinese. We found that the price and quality of a three bedroom place versus a two bedroom place was nearly identical despite having the extra room.

If you’re just looking for a hassle free single room—known in Chinese as a dàn jiān (单间)—that is decently decorated and has wifi, uoku.com is an excellent option. They have professionally decorated and furnished single rooms as a part of a larger apartment. Your roommates will be strangers—mostly students—but the prices are great and the quality is unparalleled for the price point.

Renting in China

Chinese students live in close quarters, but you don’t have to

Step 4: Scout Online

Use two or three sites to save time and check out the neighborhoods you’ve heard about.

Two of the best sites are ganji.com and 58.com, which are a great way to feel out the price to quality mix of any area you’re interested in living in. They unfortunately do not have English versions. Even if you cannot read Chinese, this is a great time to get a Chinese friend or a Chinese speaking foreign friend to point out the basics of what each section means. It will save you hours upon hours of wandering around the city, as all Chinese cities are bigger and less convenient than you think.

Fortunately, the sites are all standardized so if your friend can show you how to read one posting you’ll be able to read all of them. I personally prefer ganji.com because it posts the area of an apartment on the search findings page.

If you are only looking for a single room and uoku.com is not producing the results you’re looking for, these sites also have shared hé zū (合租) postings. That means an apartment is renting out one of their single room. Obviously, engage at your own discretion.

The best part about these sites is you can filter location, price range, number of bedrooms, as well as “personal” listings, called gè rén (个人), which are those without agent fees. Agent fees typically run you month’s rent, so you’ll want to avoid those if possible.

The worst part about these sites is that it is difficult to quality control. I spent three days looking at 10 different apartments that I had found on these sites. None of them were quite what they posted.

Step 5: Talk to Security Guards

Here is the fun part. Hop on a bike and go directly to where you want to live. Do not talk to any agents in the area. That’s right, skip the agent (中介) and go straight for the security guards (保安). If the above sites didn’t produce results in terms of a place you actually want to rent—they didn’t for me—do not believe that an agent is your only next option.

The move is to take your criteria, go to your selected location, and choose the complex that you like. Best here is to take a bike or rent one (talk to the kind fellas at Natooke for rentals) and tool around your neighborhood until you find two or three complexes that would suit you.

Renting in China

Bathroom, kitchen and shower, together.

Once you know where you want to live, walk straight up to the security guard and tell him you are looking for an apartment. The first time I did this I was a bit hestitant. Not this guy’s job, right? Sort of. It’s not officially on the books, but the speed and glee with which these guys respond to these sorts of requests confirms it is very much within their area of expertise. These guys will serve as a sort of agent and will usually be happy to help.

There are three upsides:

  1. You choose your exact location. Agents will run you around inconvenient neighborhoods, noisy thoroughfares, and more or less the dregs of the apartment supply that they are trying to foist on someone who they might assume knows less. Going straight to the security guard allows you to choose the exact, precise location of your new dream home. For me, this is in a quiet back alley by a busy student street lined with old school mahjong parlors where I play at least once a week.
  2. Security guards ask for less cash than agents. Agents always ask for a month’s rent. There are ways around this as many people will triumphantly exhort. Those ways don’t always work, even if you speak Chinese. Guards ask for about 500 kuai depending on how green you look.
  3. You get to look at undervalued apartments. Agent overseen apartments are always exceedingly professionally priced. Because agents get a month’s rent, they always skew prices higher. We skipped the agent and dealt with a lovely landlord. She was offering a three bedroom 105 square meter apartment with three air conditioners, fully loaded and functional kitchen and bathrooms, and a quiet, safe location walking distance from many of the major hangouts in the city. All of this was for 2100, a price that would have been grossly distorted had an agent got a chance to manipulate it.

Now you should be able to find the apartment you want at a price you like in the exact location and apartment complex of your dreams. Don’t be intimidated.

If you have any tips or experiences to add, I would love to hear them in the comments below. Happy hunting!

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Zak

About Zak

Zak Dychtwald is a writer and consultant living in Chengdu. Demography, literature, history, and weibo help him make sense of modern China.

19 Responses to “5 Steps to Renting an Apartment in China”

  1. I remember my first few times looking for apartments in Chengdu, constantly getting the run-around from local agents. It took a few years of moving to different places to learn the process and discover where all the potential problems emerge. Thanks for writing this and giving newcomers to Chengdu an easy place to start.

    I moved to a new place, in a different part of Chengdu, every 6 months for the first 2 years that I was here. After I found a place that met all my search criteria (located in Yulin, 2+ bedrooms, private rooftop, rent under 2500) I never moved again.

    But if I were to find a new place now, I would mostly likely skip directly to the internet search on 58.com unless I had a specific idea of where I wanted to live. I know that one complex down the street from me (Tianfu Gardens) has some really nice places, like this one recently posted in the forum: Room for Rent in Yulin

    I would be missing that rooftop, though… that strikes me as an expat amenity for sure.

    • Zak

      Glad it struck a chord. I feel like most folks who have staked their claim in China have been through this stuff a few times over.

      The rooftop is the clincher. My apartment is glaringly rooftop-less. It is an expat must-have that I wasn’t able to snag.

      My issue with 58.com is that it doesn’t list square meters on the search page, which, for me, was really important. We were looking to sacrifice quality for size since I work at home and needed a spot for a makeshift office.

      I agree that, without the specific locale in mind, start by scanning online for deals. Yulin in particular and the whole wuhouci (武侯祠, if anyone wants to check the site) area is surprisingly cheap, especially compared to the southeast. I think that can be attributed to no subway?

  2. Great article. I’d like to add one of my personal favorite sites, http://www.haozu.com. This is my personal favorite because it provides pictures, and it’s easier to find those unfurnished flats. Unfurnished flats are dirt cheap, and you can buy whatever you need. When I was “hiding from the fuzz due to visa situation”, I had discovered a 900rmb, 100 square meter, unfurnished flat in the northern Baoshan district of Shanghai. Since I was down on my luck, the bed made me itch, I made a bed in a clothes heap on the floor with a fan to keep me cool. Unfortunately for me, I had used an agent. When the fuzz came knocking for registration (thank you security for having a big mouth), I refused to open my door. Their next option, talk to the agent whom had a copy of my passport on file. Lesson learned, agents are an expensive waste, and they’ll rat you out the minute the men in blue walk in their office.

    • Zak

      Devon, that is a wild story. Piece by piece:

      First, I’d never come across that site, but then I always explicitly look for fully furnished places. I ran this article by a friend and he also brought up another 5 that I’d never seen. I think there are a lot that are province specific or at least provincially popular.

      The unfurnished angle is also a cool one. I usually try to minimize accumulation, but 900 rmb for 100 square meters in Baoshan is pretty nuts. My friend just payed 2300 for a 20 meter room there.

      Sorry to hear about the bed, the luck, the agent, and the door-knocking fuzz. Next article I write, I’ll make sure to add “narc” as another potential downside for hiring an agent!

      • The important thing to remember when renting a place is to consider WHAT DO YOU REALLY WANT?

        If you get a place with tv, internet, bedding, etc…you’re paying a high price each month for those things. IF something breaks, you’re accountable for it. Even if it’s just a dead light bulb.

        IF you get an unfurnished flat, then there’s less responsibility, you can buy your own things (do you really need a tv when you can watch all your favorite shows online?). The other cool thing about unfurnished apartments is you can negotiate for a long term lease, demand dirt cheap rent, and explain that you plan to paint/decorate the place. IF you do this, the landlord would be happy that you are incurring the costs of decoration. They’d be more than happy to receive back their flat at the end of the contract in a better condition than when they rented it out. Who wouldn’t love renting something, and getting back 10x the value? I used to do that kind of business a few years ago. Subletting is a fun opportunity to try.

        • Zak

          All of this adds up. The x factor here seems to be the commitment to long term. One of the issues I had in Suzhou was I kept expecting to leave, so I never signed longer than six months. (I was only there for a year). Once you start getting into long term leases, decoration options, renovation options, and price negotiation power all seem to fall into line. I know for sure if I had gone 2 year lease on my current place instead of 1 I could have gotten it down to 1900 for a 3 bedroom fully (FULLY) furnished 100 square meter flat.

          I’m sold on this unfurnished idea. Next time, that is the move.

  3. I always used the guards of the complex when I went searching. And I make it a point to get in tight with the guards of any complex I move into, I’ve only had to rely on them to pull my ass out of the fire twice that I can remember, but it was worth it. For the little things really, like never messing with you or your buddies when you are coming home late or whatever.

    保安 are cool.

  4. Great article! If you do decide to go with a real-estate agent, make sure to be insistent about your criteria, otherwise they will end up showing you a bunch of junk and wasting your time.

    • Zak

      Could not agree more. On top of that, even when you are insistent on critera they will still show you a bunch of junk and waste your time. My first apartment in Suzhou I fell prey to this. Coupled with my miserable fresh-off-the-plane Chinese, the onslaught of junk they showed me ended up wearing me down. I caved and lived in a hole. Don’t let the junk show make you believe there is only junk!

  5. Wow, sounds like you got a sick deal. I concur that using an agent definitely isn’t the way to go if you’re looking for a great bargain.

    It’s also important to be able to negotiate with the landlord. Especially, if you don’t go through an agent the lease terms can be very fuzzy. You have to be very direct with your demands. Things that need to be fixed, who will cover the costs for repairs, whether you require additional or newer appliances, whether you can trash old ugly Chinese furniture are some examples.

  6. You are definitely right about getting a better deal by living with other people.

    In addition to the fact that it is probably a healthy socializing experience to try living in close quarters with another human at some point in your life, there are clear economic befits in the real estate market.

    You get more space per person per dollar when you rent with more people… but you also open yourself up to the possibility of renting more unique units. There are just not many special one bedroom places. Most of the quirky, unconventional, great-deal places seem to be 2 or 3 bedroom spots. When you look at 1 bedroom places, it is a lot of the same thing in varying themes.

    • This is so true, and is the reason why I’ve had a roommate for the majority of my time in Chengdu. It’s really an enriching experience if you have good Chinese friends and you save money.

      Another thing I’ve noticed in Chengdu is that there’s a price threshold for luxury and comfort. What I mean is, if you spend 1,500 rmb you can get a decent 1-bedroom place. If you up that to 2,000 rmb you can get a much more comfortable 2-bedroom. In the 2,500 rmb range and you’re in serious luxury. Spending an extra 1k rmb makes a larger difference than the price alone would suggest. Obviously this depends on location and other factors, but in general you get so much more in the 2k range than you do just around 1,500 rmb.

  7. As someone looking into moving to Chengdu who doesn’t speak Chinese this is very helpful information. Thanks!

  8. Thanks for this article! I am moving to Chengdu in a few months, and I am really nervous about all these little details. Articles like this make it feel a lot less frightening.

    Now, if I can just find some good information on actual costs of things in Chengdu, that would be awesome!

  9. Katherine

    It is really a challenge to rent a good apartment !

  10. nice wrok. i know someone find house on 58.com ganji.com and sofang.com

  11. “my only requirement was that my room have wooden floors and their are no showers in the kitchen”

    Should be “there”, not their.

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