After 3 great years in the Lao Xi Men area of Shanghai (West Gate Apartments on Xizang South Road a little south of Fuxing Road), we have moved close to the Yili Road subway station on Line 10, which puts us in the Gubei area. It’s quieter, cleaner, and with a surprisingly high concentration of fun restaurants and beautiful spots such as the marvelous New Hongqiao Park. We moved because my wife already has too long a commute, and I just found out that my office will be moving to a location closer to where she works, so, as our previous contract was coming to a close, it made sense to move rather than renew. We were delighted with what we found, and it even saves us money.
There are several ways to find housing in Shanghai. Many people do it themselves through word of mouth or especially through online postings. For foreigners, the most popular tool seems to be the housing section at SmartShanghai.com.
For many, another popular way to find an apartment in Shanghai begins with finding a good real estate agent. Quality varies wildly. Some are inexperienced and not very helpful, while others go the extra mile to get your the right place at a good price and make your move a success.
Our move to a new place was greatly assisted by one of the best real estate agents I’ve ever worked with. He speaks terrific English and went the extra mile to help, not just before the deal is closed but especially after. After the deal was signed and his fee pay, he continues helping us. He has helped us set up our Internet service, he made the calls to get our budget TV subscription turned on, he helped us solve some other minor problems, he told me today which office to go to and what to bring to register with the police after our move, he picked up and delivered our fapiaos, and he even came over to show us how to change the combination on our door. He’s extremely kind and really committed to serving his clients. He can help clients anywhere in Shanghai. I can give you his cell (email me at jeff at jefflindsay d0t com) if you wish.
When you are looking for an apartment, start with the region you are interested in and find an agent that serves that area. A good company like David’s can access broad listings and work local connections to help you find candidates where you want. Some just have listing for fixed regions, but they can he helpful, too. Your agent will take you to view available places. A lot depends on whether you want furnished or unfurnished. Then you need to set a budget (ouch, they are expensive here!) and determine what total area you want to consider (e.g., around 50, 100, or 150 square meters) and how many rooms you want and what other features you want. The more places you look at, the more you can recognize what features are important.
For us, having a big kitchen with either an over or a space where we could install one was important because we do a lot of entertaining and a lot of cooking, and our style of cooking often requires an over, something most apartments in China do not have. China is a nation of stove-top cooking. Ovens in apartments are rare. But you often can take out the ubiquitous and worthless “sterilizer” unit in many kitchens and replace it with an over, though electrical connections will have to change and the landlord must be on board (and make it clear what happens with the unit when you move away). In our last place, we agreed to a higher rent in return for the landlord buying an over that would stay with the apartment–good deal for him. We’re buying the oven in the new place. Will cost about 4800 RMB.
When you rent, you will normally be asked to pay a deposit of two months’ rent in addition to one or two months rent up front, so you really need a wad of cash to get started. Foreigners coming to work in China often don’t know this. In addition, the renter will typically pay the commission to the agent, which is normally 1/3 of a month’s rent, sometimes a little higher. Before you rent, make sure you negotiate any significant changes that are needed like painting the walls, repairing things, replacing or adding furniture, etc. Make sure you know how to handle utilities, how to get Internet and TV, how to register with the police, etc. If you need a fapiao, this costs 5% of the month’s rent, so make sure you know who is paying for that (it is normally included in the monthly rent).
Everything can be negotiated, so perhaps you can close a deal for less (typically around 10% less) than the asking price. Ask for too low, though, and the landlord will throw you out and not negotiate further.
Landlords in China might often own just one rental apartment that they rent out. It’s a precious piece of property to them and they may be evaluating you as much as you are evaluating the unit. If you seem too demanding, slovenly, or irresponsible or do anything to create a negative emotional reaction, they might not rent to you, even if you accept the asking price. I know two Chinese guys who were planning to rent an apartment together and had agreed on the price, but the landlord got nervous about how clean two men would be and decided at the last minute to turn them down. End of story. For best results, dress nicely and radiate “clean, responsible, friendly” if you can.
When you close the deal, you’ll sign a contract, typically in Chinese and English, and it’s almost always for a year. Have someone you trust review it. In this case, the contract was standard from Oriental Real Estate which we already trusted, and it worked out fine.
If you move, you may want to get a lot of boxes. These can be hard to find on sale, but you can get them at B&Q for about 15 RMB each. Cheaper is to track down a recycler carrying loads of boxes and boxboard down the street. He’ll sell you boxes for maybe 2 RMB each. Cheaper still is to go to department stores or other places discarding boxes and take away used boxes for free. Keep some boxes around the house–they often come in handy and can be a pain to find when you need them. Also prepare by getting bubble wrap, newspaper or wrapping paper, and lots of good packaging tape, which isn’t always easy to find. When you see it, get some well in advance. You can also order boxes and tape online at Taobao.
I also recommend hiring an ayi (local maid) to come in and clean your new place before you move and also to clean out your old place after you move out, leaving it in good condition to keep a landlord and the next tenants happy.