Surviving China Tip: The Glass in Your Bathroom May Not Be Safety Glass

From an earlier disaster: the remnants of a shattered shower that cut my wife’s foot when it failed as she simply tried to exit the shower.

As I write, I’m looking at three new cuts on my right foot that happened when my elbow gently bumped a glass shelf in the corner of  my walk-in shower. The glass was unsecured and it only took a gentle bump to send it to the floor. When it shattered, fragments of glass went flying, 3 with enough force to cut my foot that was about 30 centimeters from the impact. One gash was about an inch long, while the other two were small puncture wounds. But none were welcome on a busy day like today.

In China, don’t assume that safety glass has been used in places where you would expect it. If there is something like a glass shelf in your shower, remove it if you can because when it breaks, you might be injured.

My wife had a more serious problem in a different apartment. One of the two sliding glass doors of the shower wouldn’t slide at all because the roller bearings supporting it were so old that one of the little rubber rollers it required was missing about half of the rubber. The landlord refused to repair the glass door and said it was still possible to move the other door, though it, too, was becoming rough for similar reasons. But she refused to spend any money to repair it. A few weeks layer, as my wife was trying to exit the shower, the door wouldn’t move normally. She grabbed the metal bar on the shower door and tried to slide the door open, at which point the entire door shattered. It crumbled as if it were made from some kind of safety glass, but there were still hundreds of sharp edges and her foot was badly cut. (As I said, be careful with anything glass in your bathroom or anywhere else. There could be danger a foot. Or both feet.)

When we reported this to the landlord, complete with photos of the shattered glass and her bleeding foot, we did not even get a “sorry!” in response. Her reply was that this was our fault and we would have to buy her a new glass door. We met later and after some firm negotiation, we got that down to just paying for half of the cost of the door. Plus she chewed us out for having thrown away the metal pieces from the shattered door, which added to the cost of the repair. We were out about $150. We could have gone to arbitration and easily wasted much more than $150 worth of wasted time and anxiety, perhaps with a victory, or more likely the kind of ruling that is favored in China: “Why don’t you two just split the difference? You guys pays pay $150.” We wanted to stay on friendly terms with this woman and chose not to fight — it’s often futile, anyway.

Incidentally, we spent a good deal of our own money to fix up the apartment belonging to that particular prior landlord. We paid to have an ugly living room painted in fresh white, bought new furniture, decorated it, etc. She was impressed with how much better it looked. Delighted, in fact. So delighted that she realized that her attractive refreshed apartment could be rented at a higher price than the good deal we had obtained when we moved in, so she announced that she was raising our rent by 30%. Ouch. We refused and moved out. Glad to go, though we loved the place and the complex it was in.

Our current landlord, though, is just wonderful. Very kind to us and very attentive, often brings us good food, and is a friend. But we are sad that her place is getting old and will require some serious repairs in the future for some of the things that we are just living with because we like her — things like corroded original water pipes under the floor that were replaced recently with a wild system of visible PVC tubes running between rooms. Probably not up to code, but we’ve been able to cope. Just wish the glass shelf had been made with safety glass!

This tip applies to apartments, hotels, and anywhere else there is glass that could break. Be careful here or in any part of the world. My bad for not removing the glass shelf before the accident!

By |2019-09-03T22:06:39+00:00September 3rd, 2019|Categories: China, Consumers, Housing, Products, Shanghai, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , , , |Comments Off on Surviving China Tip: The Glass in Your Bathroom May Not Be Safety Glass

Accepting a Job in China? Some Questions to Ask (and an Exercise for English Teachers)

After nearly 8 years in China, I’ve met a lot of foreigners and heard many surprising stories of some of the challenges they face in their jobs, especially when working for Asian companies. In most cases, the employee made assumptions about their job and their employer based on their experience with Western companies. Others didn’t fully understand what was expected of them and what they would have to do. This can lead to pain, frustration, embarrassment, and financial loss. Please don’t make lots of assumptions and assume that everything will be like it is back home.

You need to ask a lot of questions! If you find yourself saying, “I’m sure it will be OK” or “I trust it will be fine,” you may have a problem. In a very foreign culture with different laws and different levels of compliance with those laws, it’s much better to be asking, “What could go wrong?” Some of the questions you might want to ask may seem a bit bizarre, such as “Do I need to bring my own mop?” It’s a fair question, though tongue-in-cheek in most cases, as explained below.

Here are some suggested questions to ask:

  • Can I see the contract(s) you want me to sign before I resign my current job and show up for work in China? Sometimes the “standard” contract your company will give you when you show up for work will be a shocker. You may find the salary you agreed upon is not what is in your contract, that the benefits that were promised are not in the contract, and that troubling provisions are in the contract, such as a rejection of many of the normal employee rights provided by China’s generous labor laws, and even a requirement that portion of your income will be withheld for some period of time and perhaps only given to you if certain goals are achieved that you may not be able to control and achieve on your own. When you ask about the benefits or other terms you have negotiated, the response may be, “Of course! But that’s just verbal. Trust us.” Realize that the HR person saying that may be totally sincere, but several years or weeks later he or she may be gone (HR turnover is intense in China) and the new person will not believe you when you bring up the verbal agreement that supposedly was made. Contracts may not always mean a lot in China, but verbal agreements with people who are no longer around mean even less.
  • Can you put that in writing? Don’t assume that any of the benefits and other terms you have negotiated will be put into writing in your contract. Be prepared for that, which is usually something that we gullible foreigners have not even imagined as a possible risk. I suggest that you insist that everything is in writing. At a minimum, have emails confirming the terms before you accept an offer and keep copies, copy other witnesses, etc., to create a paper trail, and have dated and signed printouts of those terms witnessed and notarized as a defense (get them notarized in China also, if you can, or at least signed by Chinese witnesses), but also realize that the paper trail may not do all that much for you if you don’t get those terms in the contract.
  • Will there be more than one contract to sign with potentially inconsistent, conflicting, or generally problematic terms? This is likely if you end up with a split income, as described below, or if you are a high-end employee subject to a non-compete agreement or other special terms in addition to a standard employee contract. The additional contract(s) may have terms that undermine or exacerbate portions of your basic contract, or that create serious problems in other ways. Be ready for careful analysis and outside legal guidance and recognize that you can propose alterations. The worse thing to do is say, “Well, I trust that it will be OK.” Remember, the key question is, “What could possibly go wrong?”
  • Will I have a legitimate work permit and a work visa? Sadly, many companies bring people here on a tourist visa and have them work illegally. This can get you detained, fined, and deported. If the company is not actively working to get documents needed for a visa long before you come to China, they may be planning to rely on your tourist visa, even if they promise they will get you a visa once here. Sadly, I know too many English teachers who get into awkward situations when some of the companies that bring them here don’t properly provide work visas for them. Sometimes the company tries their best but the Chinese side (a company or school) takes short cuts and put the teachers at risk. Ask lots of questions. If there is uncertainty, be sure to try out the bonus exercise I give at the end!
  • How will the taxes due to China be paid? Ex-pats are typically told that the company will handle all Chinese taxes. Make sure this is in writing. Also make sure the company will pay taxes on your full income, which leads to the next question:
  • Are you going to split my income to evade taxes? Sadly, some companies use a practice of splitting a foreign employee’s pay, with part of the salary being paid to a Chinese bank account, and another part being paid to a bank in the employee’s home country, typically using some foreign (non-Chinese) agency to wire money to the home country. That system is convenient for getting money to your home bank account, but the problem is that the employer typically doesn’t report the foreign income to China and only withholds Chinese taxes for the China income. Ex-pats generally don’t understand that taxes aren’t being paid on the foreign income when this happens, and it can be a devastating shocker to eventually learn what might have been going on and how much risk and gargantuan penalties you potentially face. There are cases where an employee in China may do genuine work for oversees entities that may justify offshore income, but you should check carefully into this matter and get legal advice before accepting split income arrangements. Do not risk getting into trouble in China, and do all you can to respect Chinese law. If you find your company is not respecting Chinese tax laws, it’s time to resign. For some good guidance, see these articles by Dan Harris at the China Law Blog: “China Expat Pay: Splitting with Hong Kong is 100% Illegal and 200% Dangerous (Part 1)” and Part 2.
  • Will you respect Chinese Labor Law or will my work contract say I have essentially no rights (e.g., no severance pay, etc.)? Some contracts say that there will be no benefits or rights except for what is mandatory under China’s labor laws. That means no severance pay, for example, and other potential disappointments.
  • When I leave, how much notice do you require? If you are asking me to give, say, three months of notice, will you respond to my resignation notice by exercising your right to terminate me with 30 days’ notice with no severance pay? Yes, this absolutely can and does happen, even for employees who have seemingly been loyal and valuable workers for many years. It’s an ugly way to treat an employee, but there are often incentives for some people in the company to lay off a certain number of people, so they might jump at the chance to turn a voluntary resignation into a lay-off that gets them credit for their own KPIs, so I’ve been told by a China expert. The employer will always retain the right to fire you with 30 days notice (some will give less and dare you to sue), so if you are asked to give more notice than that, point out that this is unfair and either change the contract to require 30 days or consider a provision that gives you compensation if they refuse to respect your advance notice and respond by giving you 30 days notice in return.
  • How much cash will I need to bring to get started with housing and everything else in China? Many people don’t understand that the company is not going to help you with housing at all or that at most they will provide some monthly stipend toward housing, but only after you have found your apartment and paid the huge fees and deposits required to get started, and then present your company with an official receipt for your first month’s rent. If you are renting, say, a 15,000 RMB/month apartment, you may have out-of-pocket expenses from paying your first month’s rent plus a deposit of two-months’ rent, plus a rental agent fee of 35% of a month’s rent, adding up to a little over 50,000 RMB, or nearly $7,400 in cash before you receive your first paycheck and long before you’ll get your first housing stipend for some portion of your monthly rent. It’s expensive to start working in China. Are you ready?
  • Will housing benefits and other benefits begin as soon as I start, or is there some minimum term of service required before they begin? Which ones actually begin on day one? And can you put that into writing? One friend relied on the promised housing stipend in selecting a nice apartment, more expensive than he might want if paying for it on his own, but only later found out that the significant housing benefit would only begin after several years of service. Ouch.
  • To begin my job in China, will you bring me through China customs in the normal legal way, or will I be smuggled in by, say, crossing a mountain along the Vietnam border? If your employer turns you over to a smuggling team and requires you to march through the jungle or scramble over a mountainous border to sneak into China, or even if you come through a legal port but are just whisked into China through a “special lane” without your documents being checked and entered into China’s system, you are entering illegally and will have a world of trouble to face, especially if your employer takes away your passport, making you almost like a slave. This usually doesn’t apply to people coming here to work for higher-end jobs that require college degrees, but often applies to those coming to be maids or “ayis,” as is the case for many women from the Philippines. They are often taken advantage of in many ways due to their lack of legal status and their fear of seeking legal protection when they are cheated or abused. Don’t enter China illegally!
  • Will my health insurance actually help if I need surgery? And will it help my family or just me? Health care is fairly inexpensive in China, unless you want care provided by Western-style clinics or hospitals. Even if you rely on less expensive local hospitals (I love Shanghai East and it’s inexpensive VIP clinic, for example), you may be disappointed with how little your corporate health insurance covers. And insurance packages usually just apply to the employee, but may offer an option to purchase a plan for your spouse or children. Learn early what you are getting, if anything.
  • Will I be required to work on Saturday and Sundays? Can you put it into writing that I will have my weekends free? Sometimes corporate leaders launch campaigns to increase productivity, or the appearance of productivity, by requiring employees to start coming in on Saturdays or weekends. That’s really hard on ex-pats who come here hoping to experience China. Hard to experience it when you are trapped in an office all week long. Those coming here to teach also often find that there are school shows and performances held on weekends that they are required to be at. Unexpected duties tend to crop up with little notice, after people have purchased plane or train tickets, or even during holidays. Keep your weekends free and try to get something in writing to that effect. Even then, you will see that big national holidays often involve turning a Saturday or Sunday into work days to add more vacation days to a holiday. This can be frustrating.
  • Will critical corporate announcements all be in Chinese? Will there be any translation help for me? Even large multinational companies will tend to have at least some important email and documents sent to employees in Chinese only, and many won’t take any pains to provide translation. If you are not a Chinese speaker, this can make life difficult. Learn Chinese, make friends with Chinese speakers who can help you, and find ways to cope.
  • What documents do I need to bring to get my work permit? The rules have evolved on this critical issue, but have long been surprising. For example, when I came in 2011, I learned that I needed to bring my ORIGINAL diploma from BYU. In the US, people often don’t care about the diploma. It’s just a pretty document that we don’t really care about, but it’s a big deal here. You may need to contact your school to get a notarized physical copy of your diploma to work in China. And there may be a number of other original documents you need: your wedding license, your birth certificate, a letter from your former employer, etc. One friend of mine is unable to get the promotion he has long deserved because the small college that issued his diploma long ago has failed and is no longer, making it impossible to get a physical diploma now. A disaster for him, I’m afraid.
  • Jeff Lindsay holding two mops

    Reporting for duty!

    Do I need to bring my own mop or broom? OK, joking, of course, but there’s a point here: sometimes wonderful sounding jobs with lofty titles turn out to be painful and rather menial. You might think you are in charge of something major, and find out that in reality you are just mopping up after someone else. The best way to prepare is to talk to people in the company or who once worked for the company to understand what the job is really likely to involve. I talked with several former and current employees before making my decision, and that was really helpful, though I still had some surprises. But many pleasant surprises as well. I’ve had a wonderful 8 years here without too much mopping, and a lot of excitement that has swept me away at times.

No matter how much you try to pin things down, understand that things tend to change rapidly in China, so be prepared to be flexible. (Also be prepared to walk away if things turn out to be really shady.) In my case, for example, I was supposed to work here for one year, and then I would be brought back to the US to be part of a US expansion team. That sounded perfect. About one year later, as I wondered why I wasn’t hearing anything about the US expansion team, I asked around and learned through the grapevine that the U.S. expansion team had been fired and no longer existed, and all plans for my return to the US had been dropped. It was a surprise, but a very fortunate one in my case because one year would not have been long enough. Whew! I’m so grateful for that unexpected change. But in Asian companies, as many ex-pats have found, you may have to ask and inquire persistently to learn of these big changes or upcoming problems because communication to employees might not be a strong point of your particular company, nor will it be one of the KPIs for HR.

“What Foreigner?” An Exercise Useful for Some English Teachers

Now, for those coming here as English teachers, one of the jobs with a relatively high risk of trouble, here’s a physical exercise that may prepare you for your day-to-day work, especially if your company is not going to arrange for a legal work visa for you before you arrive. (If they tell you that all you need is a “student visa” and that you will be a student just doing “volunteer work” as a teachers, you might need this exercise, especially if you are being paid anything and especially if you are in a more developed city like Shanghai.) It’s a fun exercise, even a game, called “What Foreigner?” It’s something you should play a lot to be prepared so when you play it here for real, you’ll be ready. It takes 3 people to play, but you can get by with only two players if one does double duty.

You are the foreigner, and you need to begin by standing in a room in your home, school, church, or other facility with multiple rooms. We’ll call that facility “the school.” That room will be “the classroom.” You will hold a textbook or other objects that help you feel like you are in the middle of teaching a class. Act like you are teaching.

Have Friend #1 and Friend #2 go to the front door of the building. Friend #1 will step outside the door and pretend to be the police while Friend #2 will stay inside and pretend to be a school administrator. Have them wait a few minutes. When Friend #1 feels ready, he or she knocks on the door. Friend #2 looks through a window, peephole, or crack to see who it is, then turns and shouts toward you, “Police!” Friend #1 comes in and then begins walking to the classroom. As soon as you hear the shout, your job is to drop everything and escape out a back door or side door before you are spotted, and then to run as fast as you can until you are far from “the school.” Meanwhile, when Friend #1 arrives in the “classroom,” he or she asks, “Where is the foreigner?” Friend #2 then tries very hard not to laugh and says, with a sense of indignation, “What foreigner?”

Did you get out in time? Whew! Congratulations! Now do it again. Best to practice now so you’ll be ready. And yes, for those who don’t get US-style humor, I am making a joke here. I do not support violation of law in China, and recommend that you do not accept illegal work in China! Those who end up teaching in questionable English programs, working illegally as teachers, end up in lots of difficult situations where they have to run or pretend to be students. If you are teaching a class for pay, you are working and need a work visa. China is increasingly rooting out these illegal operations. I suggest you don’t take risks and strive to diligently adhere to Chinese law.

Even if you do all you can to be legal and everything looks good, you may find that your company or agency has done something illegal that may affect you. For example, a couple of teachers we knew thought they were completely legal, teaching for pay with a legal work permit in Shanghai, but it turns out that a local agency had falsified their application for a work permit in order to meet Shanghai’s strict requirements and claimed that they had advanced degrees and more years of experience than they really had, which is a serious crime that can get you deported. When the US company that brought them here as teachers learned of this, they realized that the couple was in grave danger and had to rush them out of the country without even a chance to say good-bye to their students. If you can, look at the documents being submitted for your work permit and visa and make sure that nothing has been falsified.

If you are coming to China, congratulations! It’s the most exciting and wonderful place I’ve ever been. Working here has been the most exciting (though occasionally the most painful and frustrating) part of my career so far. But ask lots of questions and do all you can to be legal and to respect China’s laws.

By |2019-11-09T17:46:48+00:00April 13th, 2019|Categories: Business, Career, China, Education, Housing, Safety, Society, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , , , , , , , |Comments Off on Accepting a Job in China? Some Questions to Ask (and an Exercise for English Teachers)

Offered a Good Job in China? Congrats! Now, Can You Afford It? (Bring a Wad of Cash!)

So you’ve got a great job offer in China? Way to go! But can you afford it? More specifically, can you afford the large up-front expenses that many foreigners face when they are required to arrange their own housing. That usually doesn’t apply to school teachers living on campus or to many big executives living in palaces (expensive villas), but for many of us, the company or institution we work for requires us to find our own housing (though they may provide a hotel for a couple of weeks to give you time to find a place to rent). Renting an apartment involves enormous expenses. Are you ready?

Rent in China’s large cities is quite high. A small place may still cost you $1,000 a month (6800 RMB) but it can easily be $3,000 a month if it’s in a nice location with, say, three bedrooms. Even if your company reimburses you for rent or for part of your rent, the process of renting involves large up-front costs that you need to pay. Rental agreements usually require a deposit of two months of rent, plus paying up front for your first three months of rent, and then paying 35% of one month as a fee to the real estate agent. You can be broke before you ever move in if you aren’t prepared. Get details and make sure you know what your company will cover and what they won’t.

You may be able to negotiate a reduced deposit of just one month, but even if you do, you need to have a wad of cash of enough funds in your Chinese bank to pay 43,500 RMB for a 10,000/month apartment. That’s over $6,000. Your credit cards won’t be accepted.

Know what you’re up against before you come!

By |2019-01-11T06:42:51+00:00January 11th, 2019|Categories: China, Consumers, Finances, Housing, Shanghai, Surviving|Comments Off on Offered a Good Job in China? Congrats! Now, Can You Afford It? (Bring a Wad of Cash!)

Your Shanghai Apartment and Construction Noise

One of the surprises many foreigners have after moving to Shanghai is how noisy things can be when a big construction project starts. That quiet vacant lot across the street o your building may turn into a volcano of noise that slowly rises one story after another, or the once silent or vacant apartment next to you may become a source of constant pounding and drilling as the owners remodel it over a period of weeks.

Before you select a place, it’s good to look around and see if adjacent lots or buildings look like construction will soon take place. The worse situation is an old vacant building that will be demolished prior to rebuilding. Demolition in China is not a sudden event. It involves endless hours of a giant mechanical woodpecker pounding at stray blocks of cement to break them into tiny chunks. This is one of the most annoying sounds. Much better is the constant grinding sound that occurs when foundations are being dug or poured, for it sort of becomes like white noise that you can sleep through.

Fortunately, Shanghai has strict laws on noise requiring crews to become silent at night, I think by 11 PM, and to stay quiet until about 6:30 AM, giving you a chance to sleep. But these laws apply to ordinary companies and private owners, not to government projects like building a subway. We have a subway site under construction next to our house. Loud grinding and clanking noises will keep going until about midnight and then they are at it again at 3 or 4 in the morning. Pretty much noise all day long. How does one cope?

Make sure you have an apartment where your sleeping quarters will be away from the most likely construction site. That makes a huge difference. Also, consider adding some noise shields over your window at night, like foam board to completely cover the window. Or consider buying a white noise generator to mask the street noise. Ear plugs might also help.

But the real key is knowing what you are in for, as much as you can, before you select your apartment. Then prepare appropriately. Good luck!

By |2018-03-12T16:30:21+00:00March 12th, 2018|Categories: Health, Housing, Shanghai, Society, Surviving|Tags: , , |Comments Off on Your Shanghai Apartment and Construction Noise

The 144-Hour Transit Visa to China: Risky If You Are Staying With Friends or Anywhere Besides a Hotel

The complexities and costs of obtaining a tourist visa to China can be avoided sometimes by taking advantage of the transit visa program that is available in some major cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou and several others. Shanghai offers a 144-hour transit visa, which is great for a brief stay here. Some places may offer 72-hour transit visa or 24-hour transit visas. These visas don’t cost anything as far as I know and are easy to get. You have to show that you have a departing international flight scheduled within the allocated time from your arrival, and you need to stay in the designated area. The Shanghai-Zhejiang-Jiangsu 144-hour visa allows you to travel throughout Shanghai and its neighboring provinces, Zhejiang and Jiangsu while here. Getting the transit visa is easy, at least at the Pudong Airport in Shanghai, where there is a special line at the far left of the customs area called “Transit 144/24” for the 144-hour and 24-hour visas. It’s a great program — but there are some rules that can create trouble if you aren’t prepared.

The biggest problem might be if you are planning on staying with friends or an AirBNB rather than a normal hotel. An important part of the transit visa process is ensuring that you and your place of residence are registered with the police. The work to do this is usually handled by hotel staff who make copies of your passport information and process things with the police.

What if are aren’t staying at a hotel? Relatives of mine who just arrived here yesterday informed me of the process. When you register for the visa, the helpful staff will say no problem and explain that you just need to go to a police station within 24 hours. They will give you a card that also tells you to do this, as shown below:

Instructions on the 144-hour China Transit Visa Card

So in the evening after our friends arrived early on a Friday morning, we walked a few hundred yards to our local police station. Strangely, I felt that I should bring along information to renew my own residence registration with the police in since the one I did recently might need updating after finalizing my recent visa renewal. As a result, I brought the contract for our apartment.

Our Local Hongqiao Road Police Station

To my surprise, when we entered the police station and explained what our friends needed, the woman in charge asked for our contract. Whew! Felt so relieved. Here it is. Then she looked at the address. “Oh, you live in Minhang District. This is Changning District. You are at the wrong station.” We explained that the authorities at the airport and the card simply tell us to go “a local police station,” and this is the local one closest to us. She laughed and said, “No, you need to go to Minhang.” Of course.

Minhang has many police stations, but in our own registration efforts, we learned there is only one that we can use for our address. So the card should explain that. The one we have to go to is quite far away and took over 20 minutes by cab to reach. Time was running out because we knew the key office at the police station would close by 8 pm.

When we got there, the woman explained that we needed our contract — check! — and also a license from the management of our apartment building showing that we were properly authorized to live there. Wow, a second surprise document required. Amazingly, as were packing up to go on this journey, I had grabbed that also. Check!

Or maybe not. The officer explained that the license was for my wife and I, but I also needed to get the same form for our guests. Huh? This would require them to have a contract of some kind, as far as I know, and would require a great deal of time and effort, and might not be possible at all. She shook her head and insisted, but in the end with a gentle smile and a soft request for help, she shook off the hidden rules somehow and gave us a break, but said next time we should get the license. No idea how to do that, honestly, but guess we’ll have to try.

In Chine, there are rules that can be hard to predict and sometimes vary from place to place or person to person. This officer was kind and gave us a break. Others might not have been so gracious. But in any case, if you are coming to China on a transit visa, stay at a hotel and make life simple.

If you are inviting guests to stay with you in China who may come on a transit visa, work with your local police station ahead of time to know just what documents will be needed and make sure you can get them.

 

By |2017-12-08T17:58:13+00:00December 8th, 2017|Categories: China, Housing, Shanghai, Society, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , , |Comments Off on The 144-Hour Transit Visa to China: Risky If You Are Staying With Friends or Anywhere Besides a Hotel

Renting an Apartment in Shanghai: Some Practical Tips

We’ve lived in Shanghai for almost 5 years now and have rented four different places in this time (#4 about to start). Moving is a pain, but it’s given us some valuable experience. Here are some tips based on what we’ve seen.

Looking for apartments in Shanghai usually involves a real estate agent who will help you find an apartment. You’ll be asked to sign a one-year rental agreement. Anything less is difficult, but can be done with special arrangements, but only with a minority of landlords. Those needing an apartment for less than a year might try subletting a place listings at SmartShanghai.com or by personal connections with Shanghai residents willing to let someone use a room for a while.

You will need a lot of cash. In general, apartments are rented out one year at a time with contracts requiring one or two months’ rent as a deposit, and then upfront payment of the first two or sometimes three months of rent. This is a big surprise for many foreigners coming here, for it means that obtaining an apartment in one of the most expensive cities on earth will require at least three and usually four or five months of rent paid before you can even move in. In addition, you will also need to pay 35% of one month’s rent (typically, but be sure to check) as a fee to the real estate agent. (That may seem like a pretty steep fee for the work of signing you up for an apartment, but it’s actually worse than that because the landlord has to pay also, and the going fee now seems to be 100% of a month’s rent as payment from the landlord to the rental agency they signed up with.) Many foreigners coming here are shocked to see how expensive apartments are (e.g., often 2 or frequently even 4 times as much as in many US cities), and are even more shocked to see how much cash they have to provide in their first few weeks.

The company that brought you here typically won’t help with any of that upfront cash you need to pay. If they offer housing assistance, as many do, it comes in the form of a monthly stipend that will start after (maybe a month or even two after) you’ve paid all that cash and moved in. You will need to provide a fapiao (official government tax receipt) for the first month of rent from the landlord to your work and it must be listed with the exact name of your company (generally) in order for you to get reimbursed for one month of rent at a time.

For the process of finding the apartment, here are some tips:

First, if you don’t speak Chinese, bring or hire a Chinese-speaking friend to help you get the information you need. If you rely on rare English-speaking agents, your choices will be much more limited and it will be hard to find multiple agents covering a desired region, which is part of Tip #2 below.

Second, work with more than one real estate agent to find a place to rent. The listings from landlords are not all visible to every agent, so the perfect place for you might not be known to the first agent you work with. The quality and diligence of agents varies greatly. Most recently, for example, we started looking about seven weeks before our current contract ended. We had one agent we really liked who took us to a few places but then told us that we needed to wait a couple of weeks before we came back because landlords were not willing to sign a contract what would start in mid-June when it was only early May. But as we were saying good-bye to that agent, another one approached us on a street corner and said he could do better and that he thought it wasn’t too early too look. He worked hard to come up with some places where the landlord was somewhat flexible, and we soon found an ideal place that we’ll be moving into shortly. But during out search, we worked with three different agents, each with different listings and different strengths.

Third, be very clear about what you want and understand where you can compromise. Some people want to be up high enough to have very few mosquitoes. But if you could save 1000 RMB with a place on the first floor, could you cope by using bug zappers and mosquito netting over your bed? Do you really need two bathrooms? If you have lots of guests, this can be especially valuable. Understand how much space you need for the kitchen. Do you need an oven? Do you need a dryer? These are rare but some places have them. Understanding the difference between “nice to have” and “game over if I don’t have” is vital, because you are probably going to have make some compromises or pay a lot more than you want.

Fourth, generate lists of questions and issue to consider and discuss by visualizing details of your life when you are in an apartment you are considering. Look at the kitchen layout and consider how you would use it. Is the fridge too far away for practical work? Is there inadequate storage space? Obvious dangers? In other rooms, look at the electrical outlets and see if there are enough. See if windows can be closed and sealed off in winter to keep cold air from flowing through your home. See if air conditioners work, hot water flows, etc. Sit calmly and listen: is there lots of honking from street traffic, or are you in an peaceful place where you have a chance of getting decent sleep? Try out the furniture. Designed for someone half your size? Feel the bed. Rock hard? If reading is important to you, is there a comfortable place with decent lighting you can use? Look carefully at the neighborhood and the street you will live on. Is the traffic clogging the road all the time? Are there no taxis? Also, make sure your clearly understand if the quoted rent includes a fapiao (if you need two fapiaos, this could be trouble, and make sure that is clearly and plainly explained, and make sure you explain that you need real fapiaos, not fake ones–no kidding!). Ask if there are any extra fees you are responsible for. Will there be an installation fee to start Internet or TV service? Understand parking rules for you or for visitors.

Fifth, don’t trust everything you see or hear. Many online apartment listings rely on fake information to lure you in, and some agents you meet will feed you fake information to win you as a client. This fake information will be a listing that looks absolutely perfect, such as an ideal apartment in the place you want, in your budget, with loads of cute extras that make it seem like a real steal. When you call the agent to schedule a visit, you’ll find out that it has “just been sold.” That same apartment may end up “just being sold” over and over again. It may not even exist. I suggest not relying on that service or agency if they play that game. Further, real estate agents will often make statements when they don’t really know the answer. Be suspicious and ask how they know. Some agents, especially those working for firms that seem to be trying hard to push market prices higher, will quote you greatly inflated prices. Checking with multiple agents can give you a feel for what the real price should be for a given type of apartment.

Sixth, negotiate. Three times we have offered somewhat less than the asking price and had success, but if you ask for more than, say, a 10% reduction, you might not only get a rejection but find that the landlord is not willing to talk with you any more at all. But do negotiate, respectfully. In one place, we pointed out how terrible the furniture was and got the landlord to agree to lower rent if we scrapped some wasted furniture and bought our own instead of requiring the landlord to buy new items. We got 1000 RMB a month off our rent which quickly paid for the cheap used couches and a used bed we bought from expat friends who were moving back to the US. In another place, we got the landlord to buy an over for us if we would pay 500 RMB a month extra, which was fine with us–but in the end a bad deal for us because we stayed there two years, and an over costs about 5000 RMB. Oh well!

Seventh, allay landlord concerns. The visit to an apartment with a landlord present is a two-way interview. You are trying to find out if the landlord will be reasonable, but the landlord is keenly interested in seeing who you are. They have invested way too much money in this place and don’t want to lose it through a disastrous tenant. Dress nicely. Be on time. Be very pleasant and polite. Compliment the landlord on the things you see that are positives. Act like a considerate guest. The feeling they have about you can play an important role. They want responsible, trustworthy people who aren’t going to trash the apartment or sublet it to a tribe of party animals.

Eighth, once you’ve found the right place, be prepared for the closing. Find out if the landlord wants the upfront payments in cash or via an electronic deposit (credit cards often are not accepted for these kind of things). If you need, say, 40,000 RMB, realize that you can’t get all of that on one day from an ATM machine, but you can get it from a bank if you have an account there with that much in it. Otherwise you may need to have money wired to China from a US bank. Also as part of preparing for closing, ask the agent to get a copy of the contract to you before the closing so you can review it, and make sure it is in English and Chinese (but the Chinese terms will govern if there are any differences). If they have changed the agreed-upon terms or offer new unexpected conditions, be ready to walk. Also have someone who knows China and Chinese be there with you are at least available to help if there are any issues or questions. Inspect the apartment carefully and make sure agreed-upon repairs or changes have been done or are spelled out in the contract.

Ninth, prepare for moving out of your old place.  Be sure to give your previous landlord plenty of notice (usually by 30 days or a month before the last day of your contract, you need to give written notice if you aren’t going to continue) and cooperate fully to help them sell the place. Keep it clean. Do your best to be thoughtful of your old landlord. While that’s just good human behavior, it also has a practical aspect: it may increase the chances of you getting your deposit back, or at least some of it. Sadly, some landlords make excuses and keep the deposit. We’ve had luck so far in getting our deposit back, though we have another deposit quest coming up soon. Wish us luck. Have an inspection meeting with your former landlord to review the apartment and see if there have been any unusual damages. It may be good to have photos of the place when you moved in and photos of the current place to show that you’ve taken good care. If you’ve spent money on repairs or other things, receipts will be helpful. You may need to prove that the furniture you wish to remove from the apartment is actually yours, since the door guards (“menwei”) at apartment complexes are trained to prevent theft from departing tenants and so will require conformation from the landlord for you to remove something you may own. Make sure you move on a day when the landlord is available by phone.

Tenth, when you move, take many precautions and get help. Hire movers to move your stuff if you have a lot, and watch over the process carefully. They may be fly-by-night and can damage many things. Work with them to protect whatever is really valuable or move it yourself. For special items like a piano, go to a piano shop and get their recommendation for skilled piano movers. Work with the agent and landlord to make sure that services like power, Internet, gas, etc. are operating when you move in. Be very careful not to damage walls, flooring, windows, or light fixtures as you move in. Make sure you have keys and understand how to enter the complex and the building (passwords, key tokens, etc.?).

It can be tiring, but with luck, you’ll have avoided major disasters and will find yourself in a pleasant new setting in one of the most delightful and beautiful cities on earth, Shanghai.

By |2016-10-24T05:57:53+00:00May 29th, 2016|Categories: China, Consumers, Housing, Shanghai, Shopping, Surviving|Tags: , , , , , , , , , |Comments Off on Renting an Apartment in Shanghai: Some Practical Tips

Beware Fake Rental Fapiaos (Receipts) in China

Many expatriates living in China receive housing stipends that cover at least part of the monthly cost of rental here. In expensive cities like Shanghai, getting your housing stipend can be essential. Your reimbursement, though, requires that you provide a “fapiao” (official receipt from the government) which shows that taxes have been paid. The tax rate right now is 5%, so your fapiao of, say, 8,000 RMB costs your landlord 400 RMB. Your employer then uses the fapiao for some kind of tax benefits in reimbursing you. If you don’t provide a proper fapiao, you generally won’t get your housing stipend.

A few things can go wrong on this process. Make sure you know exactly what name your company requires to be on the fapiao. For me, it has to be the proper legal name of my company, not my name and not other commonly used versions of my employer’s name. One time my landlord bought several months’ worth of fapiaos all at once, but used the corporate name I pointed to on my business card instead of the official legal name, and I ended up having to pay for new fapiaos out of my pocket. In that process, though, I learned that getting fapiaos involves going to a local tax office, showing your rental agreement and your passport, and then simply paying 5% of your rent to buy the fapiao.

Also make sure you get fapiaos by the month. Your company will generally want one for each month, not one for three months at a time, even if you pay your rent once every three months as I do.

A more troubling problem you may encounter is fake fapiaos. Fake receipts? Yep, it happens, and is an easy way for an unscrupulous person to make some quick money. This may happen when a real estate agent, after closing the deal for your apartment, offers to save the landlord the trouble of getting fapiaos. The agent may have a friend allegedly at the tax bureau who can help you get the fapiaos easily. If the agent doesn’t need a copy of your rental agreement, that’s a clear sign that something is wrong. I don’t know if the seemingly official fapiaos are printed on stolen receipt paper from government offices or are just really good forgeries, but they look like the real thing and businesses may accept them and reimburse you, but if there is an audit or careful investigation, they may discover that the fapiaos are fake and you may then be denied your reimbursement.

For Shanghai folks, you can check to see if your fapiao is real or not using a government website [this is now an archived page — check with Chinese friends for the latest link]. It’s in Chinese, so you may need help doing this.

If you are getting fake fapiaos, let your landlord know. It can hurt their credit and their reputation with the government. It may end up hurting you. The crooks who are stealing your money (and stealing tax money from China) with fake fapiaos need to be stopped. Of course, your agent or whoever gave you the fake fapiaos will be shocked that their friend in the tax office made some kind of error. Maybe they knew, maybe they didn’t, and maybe it was all an innocent mistake, but given the easy money to be made, chances are someone is just pocketing the money, and not pocketing it accidentally.

Unfortunately, one acquaintance of ours says that she got fake fapiaos by going to the fapiao office her business told her to use. I think this was an official fapiao office but I need to confirm that. Whether it was an accident or intentional theft, you need to recognize that there is a possibility that the fapiao you get is fake. Check to make sure they are legit, and try not to get too many months of fapiaos all at once in case there is a problem with them.

By |2017-12-05T06:36:45+00:00May 18th, 2015|Categories: China, Finances, Housing, Products, Scams, Shopping, Surviving|Tags: , , |Comments Off on Beware Fake Rental Fapiaos (Receipts) in China

More Tips on Moving in China: Trucks, Boxes, Etc.

When you are moving in China, there are several things to do to prepare.

First, review your current rental contract and make sure you give adequate notice and comply with other terms needed to ensure you have a good chance of getting your rental deposit back. It’s often two months of rent, so you don’t want to lose this money. Be a good tenant, give adequate notice before the end of the contract so they have time to find a new tenant (if leaving mid-year, you may not be able to get your deposit back at all). Make sure you leave the place clean and handle outstanding bills for utilities (this may include leaving enough money in the hands of the landlord to cover estimated costs, or taking other steps).

Second, prepare well in advance with the supplies you will need such as boxes, tape, bubble wrap, scissors, string, etc. 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.

Third, arrange for help such as a moving service to get you and your stuff to your new place. This often involves using a local moving service. Order a truck that is bigger than what you think you need so you can avoid two trips. A medium truck going across town might cost you 700 RMB if just one or two people are needed. Since we were moving a piano, we had a large truck and a crew of four, which costs us more than we expected: 1700 RMB. But it was a solid half-day of work for four people, and the extra-large truck had a 500 RMB surcharge. But had we negotiated ahead of time as we should have, I think we might have only paid 1300 RMB or maybe 1400. Lesson learned, maybe. While arranging for moving muscle, it’s also wise to hire an ayi or two (maids) to provide cleaning muscle for your new place and your old.

Fourth, pack early. Don’t wait until the night before the move. Your stuff is important and you don’t want to lose it or misplace it through careless packing. Mark boxes so you know what is where. Wrap delicate things carefully and be prepared for rough treatment. Make sure you don’t take things that are part of the apartment, either. Spend a few hours every night for a week to get prepared, if you can.

My experiences in moving in China have been limited to Shanghai, but the principles should apply to other large cities as well.

Related posts:  Tips on Finding an Apartment in Shanghai, Renting in Shanghai

Related pages: Surviving in China

By |2017-10-24T07:21:51+00:00July 1st, 2014|Categories: China, Consumers, Housing, Shanghai|Tags: , , |Comments Off on More Tips on Moving in China: Trucks, Boxes, Etc.

Finding an Apartment or Moving to a New Apartment in Shanghai

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.

Update, June 2015: We would later learn that the help that his office provided in arranging Internet access and managing fapiaos was not quite on the up-and-up. We paid for high-end Internet service but got the lowest end, and the rental fapiaos were fakes. Our agent was surprised and quickly corrected both problems once we detected them. He said were the fault of his staff at the office. This can be a problem with any agency, so if you have them help you with those things, you need to check carefully and ensure that you are getting what you pay for. The temptation for people to pocket extra money is hard to resist.

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.

By |2016-10-24T05:57:55+00:00June 24th, 2014|Categories: Consumers, Housing, Shanghai|Tags: |Comments Off on Finding an Apartment or Moving to a New Apartment in Shanghai