Renting an Apartment in Shanghai

Renting an apartment in Shanghai is an adventure. Maybe it isn’t a very fun adventure. Maybe it’s a bit of an annoying, stressful adventure. But, nevertheless, it’s still an adventure. And hey, isn’t adventure what moving halfway around the world’s all about?

How Renting an Apartment Works in China

Apartment rentals, like many things in China, don’t work the same as in the U.S. I was used to renting apartments in quaint mid-western cities; where the women are robust, the men are pink-cheeked and the children are pink-cheeked and robust. Where landlords own the building and the plot of land the building is on. They rent the apartments themselves and take a week to fix the damn toilet.

In China, the government owns all the land, because, communism. Building developers buy the rights to the building. Then landlords buy individual apartments, or rather, buy the right to use the individual apartments for 70 years. When you rent an apartment, you probably have a completely different landlord than your neighbor across the hall.

There are much nicer agencies out there than the ones pictured here.

In China, they build apartments in clusters. The 老外 (foreigners) all call them “compounds” but there’s probably a more poetic name in Chinese. The compounds are almost like little villages within the city. There’s a neighborhood or building committee responsible for garbage collection and building maintenance.

Our landlords have all been pretty on the ball fixing things, so far. However, if you’re in China and your landlord is a dick and won’t fix anything, there’s a special government phone number you can call. Getting your toilet fixed right away is one of the major upsides of communism.

When you’re apartment hunting, you don’t have to deal with Craigslist or newspaper classifieds (remember those?). Instead, you get yourself a real estate agent. They charge 35% commission, and you don’t pay until you sign the lease. We used about five different agents in our apartment hunting adventure.

Our Shanghai Apartment Renting Adventure

The first challenge we faced during our adventure was that we really wanted a balcony. I just think it’d be nice to sit outside, have a cup of tea and watch the smog roll in. Unfortunately, in China, balconies aren’t really a thing. Plenty of buildings have balconies, but they’re used more for drying laundry and storage than for enjoyment.

We’d say we wanted a balcony, and they’d send us pictures of rooms with big windows. One agent finally got it, although when we met him in person, he asked us three times how to say it. “…ny?” I really don’t think he’d ever heard the word before.

The other problem was price. Our limit was 10,000 RMB a month (about $1,490), which I think is a pretty good deal for a place in the center of a major world city. For comparison, our boss has a roomy two-bedroom place and pays 9,000 a month. Of course, you always pay a little more for the luxury of doing business in English. No big deal.

Except, most of the agents didn’t seem to want to accept that 10,000 was the MOST we wanted to pay. They kept sending us places for 12,000 or even 15,000 RMB a month. Yes, rent is negotiable here, but nobody’s going to knock 5,000 off the asking price. I’m just not that good of a negotiator. And I strongly doubt our agents were going to fight very hard to negotiate themselves to a lower commission.

The Great Apartment Race

The biggest problem we had wasn’t even price. The breakneck speed in which apartments get taken is easily the most difficult thing about renting in Shanghai.

We saw one place, in a perfect location, that had a real balcony and a spacious kitchen. We made an appointment to see it the following day. The next morning, we woke up to a message from the agent. “Sorry, someone already rented the apartment.”

This kept happening again and again. We’d make an appointment to see a place, and before we were able to actually go see it, some other jerk would swoop in and rent it out from under us. Once, an apartment got taken in the amount of time it took us to respond to the pictures the agent sent us. Like, literally, in the space of five minutes.

I keep reading articles about how there’s a housing bubble in China. I’m not sure I believe it. I’m no economist, but it seems to me like demand for apartments must be high, considering how quickly things get snatched up.

Renting an apartment in Shanghai is absolutely cutthroat.

Finally, though, we were able to go see a place. It looked nice enough in the pictures. The asking price was 11,000, but we were sure we could talk them down. So, we hopped in a car, excited to actually be looking at a real apartment, and not just pictures.

We got there and came to an old building that looked like it might house witches in 17th century New England. There was a big yard, full of trash and raggedy clumps of un-mowed grass. The stairs were dusty and rickety, leading up to the third floor. The bedroom was a loft, and about the size of our current bathroom. The bathroom was built into the roof, so that it was impossible to stand up. You’d have to crawl to get to the toilet. The balcony was okay though.

We Finally Found a Place

Needless to say, we turned that one down. After another week of disappointment, we were finally able to make an appointment to see a place that ticked our boxes and was in our budget. We rushed over after work, met the agent in the parking lot, and headed up to the apartment.

The current tenant was still there. She answered the door wearing a nothing but a towel with a baggy t-shirt thrown over it. It was weird.

But, she was very friendly and helpful. It was actually pretty cool to be able to talk to the current tenant, which is something that doesn’t often happen when renting an apartment in Shanghai. However, the place was absolutely filthy. Crap was thrown all over the floors. There were empty wine bottles stacked against the walls.

We ended up taking the apartment, on the condition that it’s deep cleaned before we move in. It’s a two bedroom, with an actual balcony. The landlord was asking 9,600 a month, and we were able to talk him down to 9,000. Win, win, win.

Advice for Renting an Apartment in Shanghai

There are a few things I’d recommend if you’re looking to rent an apartment in Shanghai, or elsewhere in China.

First, use a lot of agents. Like I said, we used about five. Only one of them really respected our requirements in terms of price and what we wanted in the place. I’m keeping his contact info just in case we need another place in the future.

Second, if your upper limit is 10,000 a month, tell the agents your limit is 8,000 or 9,000. They’re going to try and push you to more expensive stuff. Be polite, but firm.

Third, you need to be ready to act quickly. You really have no time to dilly dally or even consider. Don’t be sad if the apartment you like is taken out from under you. Don’t get too attached, and just on keep looking.

Unlike the States, where we’d start looking like three months in advance, you really only need a month’s notice. Even then, we found our place in like two weeks. I have a friend who only started looking a week before she was supposed to move. Just be prepared for the week (or two) to be very intense.

Also, never, ever, live on the first floor. We did it once. The rainy season mold came and we threw away so many clothes. One time we came home from vacation to find the entire wood floor covered in fuzzy white something or other. When we moved the bed to clean the floor, we found the bottom of the bed was full of black mold. Also, you’ll get roaches. You might get roaches anyway, but your chances are higher on the first floor.

There are also some other good bits of advice here:

and here:

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