If you're new in town in Beijing, finding a good apartment here can be a regular pain in the butt.
Most of the decent listings are in Chinese; most of the landlords don't speak a lick of English; and if you're trying to navigate your way around the ever-present real estate agents, you'll soon realize this Herculean undertaking is also a next to impossible undertaking.
And if it's all driving you a little crazy, well, you're in luck, because you're exactly the sort of person we put today's article for: our authoritative guide on how to find your very own Beijing apartment.
While the Beijing apartment market can be a bit labyrinthine to navigate, it's not a completely uncrackable nut.
And crack it for you we have - so have a seat at your computer, grab a notepad and pencil, and let's take a look into how you can pry off the lid of this perplexing place to find a new home and get yourself living in your dream flat in no time.
Apartment Renting, from a Landlord's Perspective
You may be comforted to know that you're not the only one being driven loony by the Beijing rental market - your future landlord's probably busy being driven up the wall by it, too.
So how's the apartment rental process work if you're a landlord? Well, in most countries in the West, it looks something like this:
Your last tenant gives notice that he or she is moving out; you realize it's time to start looking for a new tenant to take the departing tenant's place.
You head over to Craig's List or Padmapper (or maybe both) and post a listing for your apartment that includes photographs, a description, contact information, and the price you want per month for the apartment.
You sit back and wait for the emails and phone calls to roll in, then schedule times for your prospective tenants to stop by.
You pick the most reliable-seeming interested tenant from the bunch, maybe run a background check, then sign the lease, give him or her or them the keys, and you're good to go.
Simple enough, right?
But how's it look for someone living in Beijing who wants to rent out an apartment?
Well, it looks something a lot more like this:
Your last tenant gives notice that he or she is moving out; you realize it's time to start looking for a new tenant to take the departing tenant's place.
You sit back and wait for the emails and phone calls to roll in... and suddenly they are pouring in non-stop! It's great! But then it starts to dawn on you... none of these phone calls or emails are prospective tenants - they're all real estate agents!
Angrily, you tell the real estate agents off, but keep fielding calls and emails until you finally get someone who's legitimately interested in the place. You schedule a time for him or her to visit... only to find out on his or her arrival that this is yet another real estate agent! You kick the agent out of your apartment, frustrated and annoyed.
The phone calls and emails from real estate agents keep coming. It begins to dawn on you that they have so effectively saturated the real estate classifieds that you are never going to find a tenant unless you just give in and let them bring you people. Finally, you relent, and get into a conversation with them.
Originally, you wanted ¥6,000 per month for your apartment, but the first agent convinces you that's too low; he can get you ¥7,000 per month.
Then you talk to another agent, who convinces you that ¥7,000 per month is ridiculous... your apartment is worth at least ¥7,500 in today's apartment market. But then you talk with one more, and she tells you she can get you ¥8,000. You decide to go with her, since she can get you a full ¥2,000 more than what you'd originally planned for.
A small trickle of prospective tenants starts to come by your apartment now... but most of them think your asking price of ¥8,000 is ridiculous. Your agent tells you to hold firm though; she's confident your apartment is worth that much. The most any potential renter wants to offer though is ¥6,500, which you now think is outrageously low.
A month goes by, and no one's rented your apartment. You tell the agent if she needs to rent it at ¥7,500, that's fine. Finally, someone comes along and offers you ¥7,200... and you accept.
For her services, the agent demands a month's rent pay. That's fine, you discussed this up front. But now she wants to tack on additional fees too. You spend over an hour locked in a back and forth battle over how much the agent ought to be paid, before she finally relents and accepts the one month's rent payment she originally contracted with you for.
You sign a 12-month lease agreement with the tenant for ¥7,200 per month, having lost a month's rent waiting for a higher bidder, and hand over a ¥7,200 payment to the real estate agent.
You do the math and realize that had you been able to rent your apartment on your own at ¥6,000, it would've been quick, hassle-free, and you'd have made ¥72,000 on the year. Because you had to use an agent, you spent more than a month haggling, showing prospective tenants the apartment, and in gridlock with the real estate agent, and will make exactly the same amount of money over the time period that you would've been able to make ¥72,000 at your original ¥6,000 price (you make ¥7,200 times 11 months, minus a ¥7,200 commission fee to the agent, so ¥72,000).
That's renting an apartment in Beijing from a landlord's perspective.
So if you meet a potential future landlord of yours and wonder why the heck he or she is so grumpy, that's why.
Whether a landlord makes more or less money in the long term due to
agents' help (or interference) is up in the air; usually it's a wash. But the real pain for landlords is the time
and energy spent dealing with agents and the difficult prospects agents
bring with them.
You can imagine how frustrating this is for Beijing landlords. But now let's look at the other side of the equation - let's look at what it's like for you.
Renting an Apartment in Beijing: The Tenant's Point of View
Just as renting is a lot less straightforward for landlords in Beijing than it is in other metropolitan cities the world over, it's also a lot less straightforward for renters themselves, too.
The real estate companies don't just bombard apartment owners who post their apartment up for rent online with phone calls and emails... that's only one half of the equation. If they only did that, they couldn't corner the market; landlords would still get emails and phone calls from legitimate prospective renters using the listings sites.
So what's the other half of the equation, you ask? How do the real estate agents stop you from contacting the landlords posting their ads online directly? Surely they can't intercept your phone calls, can they?
Well, no, they can't do that. So instead, they do something just as nefarious:
They deluge the classifieds sections in ads.
Hundreds upon hundreds of ads, every day. One ad after another after another... all posted by real estate agents. They post so many "fake" ads (ads for one of the properties they're showing, with their own phone numbers and emails attached) that the "real" ads get buried deep on Page 19, mixed in with all the dredge. You'll never find them.
And because of that, when you try to find an apartment on your own via the classifieds, all you really end up finding are... more real estate agents.
Which means, no simple process - you can't simply pick an apartment and say, "I want that one," then go there and that's that. No siree, not that clear cut.
Instead, you go hunting for a Beijing apartment and end up instead with a Beijing real estate agent, who's more than happy to take you around Beijing showing you a bunch of apartments... that don't really suit what you're looking for at all.
It's a nightmare.
For this reason, something that often takes only a week or two in Western countries - looking for an apartment - often takes a month or longer in Beijing.
It's not that there's a lack of apartments... there are plenty of apartments!
And it's not that agents are necessarily a bad thing... provided they were showing you the kind of places you're looking for.
But they're not. Oftentimes you need to go through a bunch of different agents, and wait for some time before you're able to find a place that fits what you're in search of.
And that's just annoying.
How to Find a Beijing Apartment
So let's say you don't want to play these games. How do you go about finding a decent apartment in Beijing without spending a sizeable chunk of time doing it?
Well, we've laid out for you here, step-by-step, so you'll be armed to the teeth with rental market know-how and apartment-finding expertise that'll knock the socks off of landlords and real estate agents alike.
Here it is, your guide to the Beijing apartment market.
Part One: Knowing What You're Looking for in an Apartment in Beijing
You'd be amazed how many people set about looking for an apartment without sitting down and taking 10 minutes first to figure out exactly what they're looking for. This simple exercise can cut down on the time you spend looking for a place dramatically - because it helps you narrow down your options before you even start casting about.
Before you do anything else, take a few minutes to read through this list and write out your answers to each of these points: what area you want to be in, what your budget is, what amenities you need, what kind of social life you'd like, and what kind of apartment you want to be living in.
Here's the detail on each of those.
Know what area you want or need to be in first. Beijing is a huge city. If you're not sure what part of town you want to get an apartment in, spend some time reviewing the Beijing districts first. Are you going to be studying Chinese? You'll probably want to be in Wudaokou (五道口), the student area in North West Beijing. Are you going to be working for a Western multinational company? Then you'll probably need to be based out of Guomao (国贸) or somewhere nearby, close to the heart of downtown.
And you'll definitely want to make sure you pick the right area - if you need to be in Wudaokou but you get an apartment in Guomao, or you need to be in Guomao but you get an apartment in Wudaokou, you'll be looking at a one hour commute minimum, each way, every day, assuming you don't mind muscling into the throngs of commuters piled up waiting for the subway. If you want to go by car, depending on traffic, your commute might be significantly longer. Know what part of town you'll need to be in, and make sure you're close.
Know your budget next. Beijing might not be London or Tokyo, but it's not exactly cheap. You can find some real budget accommodation out in the suburbs - say, in Tongzhou District (通州区), far to the East of downtown - but you'll have a pretty substantial commute anytime you want to come into the city, and you'll be hard pressed to find anything approximating Western accommodations there - let alone anyone speaking a Western language (like English).
Assuming you want to stay in the city proper, rents can range anywhere from ¥3,000 (or sometimes a bit less) / month for a barebones studio apartment in a less expensive part of town farther away from a hub area like Chaoyang District (朝阳区) or Haidian District (海淀区), to ¥6,000+ / month for a one-bedroom closer to downtown, to up to ¥15,000 / month or higher for a premium apartment in a great location. It's crucial you know what you can afford to spend on accommodations so you know what sort of accommodation you can look to stay in next.
Know what kind of amenities you require. Do you prefer to be close to a subway station? Your rent will be higher, but you'll save time commuting to and from Beijing's major mass transit system (and there are always plenty of bus stops next to subway stations too). Not to mention you'll save yourself some time in the cold during the windy, biting Beijing winters.
Do you need to be near to Western restaurants or Western grocery stores? Some expatriates take to Chinese food like white on rice, but a large portion of them find themselves craving a box of cookies or a frozen pizza or a sandwich within a few days of arriving here. If you think that might be you, you'll want to make sure you plan on being with walking (or delivery) distance of a store with the kind of food you prefer.
Know what kind of social life you want. If you plan on going out a lot, you won't be very happy stuck somewhere in West Beijing. Likewise if you're a shopaholic or a restaurateur. If you're any of those things, you'll want to be in or close to Sanlitun (三里屯), the embassy area and home to a plurality of Beijing's major bars, nightclubs, Western restaurants (and many Chinese ones, too), and shopping malls. Other areas have their own small bar areas too, like Wudaokou and Shuangjing (双井街道), but they're nothing compared to the main event.
Finally... know what kind of apartment you want! Some expatriates are perfectly happy living in a simple apartment with a bed, sofa, running water, and 20 Chinese television stations (with one in English). Others want a place that's nice: great rooms, a completely Western bathroom (no draw curtain in lieu of an actual shower stall), and modern, well-maintained appliances and furniture. Knowing what you want in an apartment before you start looking can save you a lot of hassle... and a whole lot of wasted time. Make sure you have a reasonably clear idea before you set out.
Once you've answered these five questions and you know what you're looking for, you're a lot more prepared to get out there and find your dream apartment.
But before you can do that, we've got to arm you with one other set
of knowledge first...
Part Two: Navigating the Beijing Apartment Market
If getting an apartment in Beijing was a cakewalk, you'd probably have one already.
Or, at least you wouldn't be reading this article.
The fact is, it's frequently challenging, often annoying, and sometimes very, very frustrating, especially for expatriates traveling to Beijing without many ties in the city. And while an article on the Internet can't make the entire process a complete breeze for you, what I can do for you here is load you up with all the information you need to make the process a lot more clear and a lot less intimidating.
Here we go.
Decide if you want help or you're going it alone. If you want help, there are a handful of real estate agents in Beijing who speak English and know the kinds of apartments Westerners prefer. You won't get the best deal from these agents, but for most expatriates the freedom from hassle and the ability to quickly find a Western-style place to live is worth paying a small premium. You can contact me to help you in your apartment search; you can also ask friends to refer you to an agent they know, and sometimes you can locate English-speaking agents on the foreign housing classifieds too.
If you'd rather go it alone, that's a fine path too; you can always come back and seek help if you run into difficulty. If you're going it alone, you'll primarily be relying on the classifieds to find apartments, and you can also ask friends, coworkers, and other contacts if they know anyone who's moving out of his or her apartment soon or if they know a landlord who's seeking tenants.
If you're getting help: dealing with agents. Depending on the kind of agent you get, you'll want to make sure you're very specific about what you want. An agent who's used to dealing with foreigners will be able to show you some good places very quickly; an agent who isn't might be hit or miss. The clearer a picture you can give to your agent, the faster you'll find an apartment that meets your criteria and the less time and footwork you'll spend doing it.
Most agents collect their commissions from the landlord, so you won't have to worry about being asked to pay a fee; you should never pay money up front to any agent. If you find a good agent, you won't have to worry about being asked for any money other than your rent money and security deposit at the lease signing.
If you're going it alone: finding apartments. You'll probably be starting with the classifieds if you're going it alone, unless you have friends who can refer you to someone moving out of his or her apartment. You should be prepared to run into a lot of agents; remember, this is how agents get their business. The first question you ask anyone you call should be, "Are you the apartment owner?" If you get someone saying they are a "friend" of the apartment owner, you're probably talking to an agent (thought not always, especially on English-language classifieds, where Chinese landlords will sometimes ask English-speaking friends or relatives to post ads for them).
Here are the major English-language classifieds sites you can search for housing ads:
If you can read and speak Chinese, or have Chinese friends who can help you in your search, you can also check out the major Chinese classifieds:
... although be aware that you'll run into a LOT of agents on there.
Negotiating the price. You can sometimes negotiate the price down, although it can be hard to tell how in-demand a place is and how close to the landlord's actual floor price the price you're being quoted is. I've seen times where landlords have come down ¥2,500 off of ¥8,000 or ¥9,000 apartments, but I've also seen times where someone agreed to pay the asking price and ended up being outbid by someone willing to offer more. Partly this can depend on the time of year - summertime is peak rental season, while not nearly as many people are looking for a place to live in the winter.
A good rule of thumb is, if you don't mind losing the place and price is the more important factor, haggle away and see if you can save yourself¥600 or ¥800 a month. If you've absolutely got to have the place though, or you're tired of looking, you'll probably just want to pay the asking price to make sure you lock up your apartment.
Signing the lease and paying your landlord. When it comes time to sign the lease, you're likely to find that it's all in Chinese. If you have an agent who's used to dealing with Westerners, or you have an exceptionally thoughtful landlord, you may get a copy of the lease in English as well. Assuming it's all in Chinese, make sure you have someone there (friend, coworker) who can translate for you so you know you're protected. Chinese people are known for their craftiness, so it's always good to keep an eye on things and make sure no one's pulling one over on you.
The payment you'll typically make is one month's rent as security deposit, plus three months' rent paid in advance. That's right - you'll be paying four months' rent, in cash, upon the start of the lease. You'll never get a Western pay-after-the-month-is-over-style apartment lease in Beijing; Chinese landlords want to make sure they're covered in advance. It's not uncommon for you to be asked to pay six months, nine months, or even a year in advance (a year's rent in full on move-in) and to be offered a slightly lowered rent price for the trouble. You usually won't have any trouble keeping things to three months' rent plus deposit though.
Also, once your three months have passed, you'll pay another three months' rent to the landlord (or sometimes to your agent if you trust him, who then releases the money to the landlord) - rent is almost never month-to-month in Beijing.
Keys, utilities, and all
You'll receive keys at the lease signing. For some reason landlords in
Beijing often forget to give you the keys to the mailbox, so if you
expect you'll be receiving mail at your new apartment don't forget to
ask for these. You'll also receive your utility cards for the water,
electric, and possibly gas and toilet water. The landlord will give you
instructions on how to use these (taking care of utilities,
housekeeping, and other details so you don't have to is one of the services we provide at Beijing Abode).
... so there you have it. Your complete guide on how to find your very own Beijing apartment. You can strike out confidently into the Beijing rental market knowing that you're armed now with more knowledge and know-how of the inner workings of apartment rentals in Beijing than 99% of other prospective tenants - foreign or Chinese - who aren't otherwise employed in or engaged by the Beijing real estate industry.
Do you think you have what it takes to find a great apartment in Beijing without having to run around like a madman (or madwoman)? You'll spend some time sifting through classifieds (if you're doing things on your own), or at least sifting through actual apartments (if you're doing things with help), but one way or another, you'll find an apartment here that's to your liking - and with this guide, it's likely that'll be sooner rather than later.