Apartment hunting abroad – what no amount of House Hunters can prepare you for
Way back in November, when I decided I was going to keep studying abroad in Beijing for an indefinite amount of time, I made a list of 3 major things I needed to get done in order to stay/survive here: get accepted into a Chinese Language Program for the Spring semester, find a place to live, and make some sort of income. I ended up adding “get a Bank of China bank account” to the list (different story for a different day), and I’m still working on the income thing, so you could say I’m about 83% of the way to a stable life. For the benefit of anyone studying abroad here in the future, or those looking to be amused, I figured I’d share my experience with #2 on the list – finding my first apartment abroad.
A Lesson In Chinese Real Estate
If you’re expecting to come to Beijing and speak English with a Century 21 or ReMax agent about finding an apartment, you’re sadly mistaken my friend (as was I). Even if you just semi-regularly read my blog, you’ll know most people don’t speak English here, Century 21 only deals in commercial real estate, and the term “agent” is laced with pessimism when spoken by anyone who’s tried to find an apartment for more than a day in this city.
So how does it work? You start by going to listings websites, like thebeijinger.com, and peruse ad after ad of apartment descriptions – all of which say they’re conveniently located just a 5 minute walk to the nearest subway station and all of which have pictures of places that any 22 year old student would be more than happy to live in.
You narrow it down your to your top 3-5 choices (because you’re obviously bound to get one) by checking of the neighborhood, price, and number of rooms. Then you give the phone number at the bottom of the ad a call, speak with someone whose Chinese is relatively clear, and agree to meet at a time and place in the next day or two.
Then that unfortunate day comes. Why is it unfortunate? Because there’s a 99% chance the first words that come out of the agent’s mouth will be “I’m sorry, I just rented out the apartment you were looking at, but I have one that’s just as good (and twice the price)”. Already feeling just the beginning of what will be day after day of heartbreak, you reluctantly follow said “agent”.
You’ll eventually arrive at an apartment. If it’s the same price as what was advertised, you’ll probably be staring into a 1 bedroom (I use the term “bedroom” loosely because most of the walls will probably be disintegrating) dungeon, or if it’s the same quality as what was advertised, you’ll be standing on the doorstep of a place you could only afford in your dreams.
Maybe you’ll even find a place that’s close to your price range. But when you ask the landlord if he can drop his price by 200 kuai ($31.55) a month, he’ll tell you it’s possible…if you pay 6 months up front and sign a contract for a year. And don’t forget the deposit, equal to 1 months rent (which you’re assured isn’t all that bad because you’ll get it back), and the agency fee which is also equal to 1 months rent. 8 months rent up front, good times.
Did I mention you’ll have to pay in straight cash? Well that you will, because using a bank for anything more than depositing your bi-weekly paycheck and withdrawing cash from the ATM is unheard of here.
And this is how it will go for 6 days until you finally break down, up your budget, and move into a place that’s actually 25 minutes from the nearest subway station (as opposed the advertised 5 – 10). You’re probably saying, “I would just go find a real ‘agent'”. If you can find one in this city of 13 million people, afterwards come find me, because I will be seriously amazed by your talent.
(As bad as that sounds, I’m well aware apartment hunting has its ups and downs wherever you are, and no matter what, I know I’m still fortunate to be living the dream over here – now in a sweet apartment.)
My Apartment Hunting Experience
I did go through those 6 days of house hunting hell as described above, everyday from 10 AM – 8 PM, in 20 degree weather, speaking only Chinese. I tried 5 different agents (would’ve been 6 but one of them posted himself as 2 different people), begged an elderly lady to let me see the inside of her apartment (because the apartment next to hers was for rent but I technically wasn’t allowed to see it for another month), and was harassed by people calling to show me places days after I had told them I was done searching.
I was fortunate enough to finally work with an agent named Baatar, a guy right around my age who had helped my two best friends find their apartment when they moved here in August. At first, the places he was showing me were no question out of my price range. But he was genuinely a good guy, i.e. not blatantly trying to steal my wallet, and so I kept my faith in him.
Apartment hunting with Baatar was definitely an experience – I even got to rode a motorcycle for the first time since I’ve been in Beijing. Baatar and his co-worker wanted to show me a place that was a few blocks down the street, and when I asked how we were getting there, they pointed at two mopeds.
So my friend who came with me (the one who got his place this summer) and I sat on the back of mopeds while the two agents drove…just 4 adult males swerving dangerously up and down streets, sidewalks, and anything that resembled a paved surface. Was it a little weird? Definitely, but I’ve stopped trying to analyze the ridiculousness of this place a long time ago. And once you do that, moped racing around Beijing is a pretty good time.
In the end, I found a place I really like and also happened to get a really good deal on. Not only did I not have to pay 6 months rent straight up, since I’m subletting, I didn’t have to pay an agency fee either. I have a Western bathroom, a mini-kitchen, my own washer, a TV, and a giant window looking over what will hopefully be a park in a few months. For a 23 year-old in Beijing, I live pretty darn well.
It’s a little further from my friends (and the subway station) than I wanted to be, but when I thought about people who live in the suburbs of Boston or New York and have to ride a 45 minute train to work every morning, my 5 minute bus ride to the subway station and 20 minute bus ride to school are nothing.
After a trip to IKEA (the playground of middle-aged Chinese people) to get some sheets, an electric kettle, and a new coffee cup, my apartment started to feel like home. And it feels good.
Was it the funnest thing I’ve ever done? No. But as I always tell myself, you can either stop (in which case I’m stuck on the streets in the middle of Beijing) or keep going and eventually come out on the other side (victorious). Next task, memorize my address and figure out how to use my washer.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below and I’ll get back to you!