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.
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.
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 s?n (??) 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 ji?n (??)—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.
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 z? (??) 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 (??), 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 (??) and go straight for the security guards (??). 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!