Are you looking at renting an apartment in China in 2020? Renting a Chinese apartment is likely to be a process far different than anything you have experienced before, so my hope here is to provide some insider tips and resources to help you along the way.
Whether you need help searching for an apartment in China, knowing what to look for, or even how to sign a fair rental contract in China, this expat guide to housing in China should answer all the questions you have.
Over the past 10 years I’ve signed multiple Chinese rental agreements and I’ve had both good experiences and bad ones. Each one has taught me a little more about the Chinese rental process and hopefully I can impart that knowledge to you here.
Use the links here in the table of contents to navigate this resource or just scroll down to being reading. If you think that I’ve missed anything, please let me know in the comments section at the end!
Starting Your Search | Apartments in China
There are a number of ways that you can begin your search for an apartment in China. The first step is to decide for yourself what is most important to you: location, budget or apartment quality.
I can tell you from experience that it is nearly impossible to find the perfect balance of all three of these factors!
Step 1: Scout Out Neighborhoods of Interest
Start out by identifying where you would like to live and look for communities within those areas. This could be a place near an international school for your kids or near your place of work.
After finding a community you like, go directly to the community management office where you’ll often find flyers showing the apartments available for rent. While at the community management office, you should also ask the staff if foreigners are allowed to live in the neighborhood.
Many communities, particularly those that are older, are not zoned for foreign occupancy and asking management will prevent any awkward run-ins with police knocking on your door asking you to leave.
Step 2: Find a Local Agency
After scouting out several communities that fit your tastes, you can go directly to an agency, which is the easiest way to rent an apartment in China. Agencies usually specialize in the area where they’re located, so once you find the neighborhoods or specific district you like, look for an agency in that area.
An agency saves you time in having to do all the legwork in finding an available apartment or sifting through all the online listings, many of which are old/fake/redundant. Agencies offer their own contract, although as we’ll mention below, these aren’t always the best contracts to use.
The only catch with using an agency is the fee that you will pay for the service, which is dependent on where you want to live and other circumstances (e.g. how soon you need an apartment, season, etc.).
In many cases, I’ve known the fee to be half of one month’s rent, so if you’re renting an apartment that is 5,000 RMB, the fee for an agent would be 2,500 RMB. The most important thing is to be clear on the agent’s fee before using them.
To find an agency in your area, search online for “zufang zhongjie 租房中介”, or ask a local colleague or friend if they know of any reputable agencies in your area.
Step 3: Look Online for Apartment Listings
If you prefer to go directly through a landlord to avoid any agency fees, looking online for available apartments will show you what is currently available and help narrow down options. The website 58.com is the most common used by landlords across China to advertise properties for rent.
When logging on to 58.com, there are numerous filters you can apply to limit postings based on your needs for an apartment. These filters include screening for area, apartment type, number of bedrooms, and price ranges among several others. While user-friendly, the website may be challenging to navigate for non-Chinese speakers.
If you are unable to read Chinese characters, have a Chinese friend or colleague walk you through how to use the website and you should be able to decipher the most important details on your own after making a couple of searches. Once you have a found a property you are interested in renting, the landlord’s contact info can be found within the post to move on to the next stage in seeing the place.
Step 4: Use an Expat Relocation Service
For those who would like to take a more hands-off approach to finding an apartment in China, many of the larger cities across China (think Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Chengdu, etc.) also have companies that offer relocation services for foreigners. This includes not only finding apartments, but also moving all your stuff internationally.
You connect with them and they will work with you to find a home for you prior to your arrival. It’s quite convenient but also reserved for those willing to pay high dollar for luxury apartments.
What to Look for in a Chinese Apartment
When you’re searching for your next China home, it’s also important to know what to look for. Obviously you’re going to want to do a walk-through of the house to make sure that the toilet works, there isn’t any mold, etc., but what else do you need to really consider in China?
1. Location, Location, Location
As with property anywhere in the world, location plays the biggest role in price and convenience when renting an apartment in China. Is the apartment close to public transportation? Is the area quiet or noisy? Is it close to your place of work/study? This is especially important since more than likely you won’t have a car.
It’s possible to do this research on a map, but the truth is that you really need to walk around the area where you want to live and see which complexes stick out to you. If you want to live near an expat community, ask around to find out where others live. More than anything else, narrowing down your location will do more to help you find an apartment in China quickly.
2. How is the Chinese Landlord?
A perfect Chinese apartment with a terrible Chinese landlord can make your life miserable – trust me. When viewing an apartment, ask the landlord a series of questions to get to know their personality as well as how they would react in hypothetical situations (e.g. what would you do if the pipes break?).
Keep in mind if something minor breaks, you will most likely be on your own, but for big items the landlord should be expected to lend a helping hand. If you have any doubts or concerns about the landlord being reliable or trustworthy, you should look elsewhere.
Does it Come with Good Appliances?
After your initial walkthrough, you should next turn to inspecting all the appliances in the China apartment. Ensure the stove is in good working condition and is connected safely to the gas unit.
Hot water in the shower will either be heated by gas or an electric water heater. If heated by gas, test out the heater to understand how to operate it and ensure it works quickly. Electric water heaters take longer to heat up, so it’s a good idea to inspect the bathroom first and turn on the heater to see how long you can expect to wait when wanting to take a shower.
If anything appears broken, ask if the landlord is willing to replace the old appliances. In many cases, they will. Otherwise it is best to look elsewhere because if an appliance breaks during your contract, you can anticipate paying a large portion of the cost to repair it. The same goes for electrics.
Flip all switches and ensure lights are all working or will be replaced before moving-in.
Does the China Apartment Come with Furniture?
Do you want a furnished apartment? In the past, almost everybody wanted to rent a furnished apartment but that is slowly changing. Personally, I prefer an empty apartment where I can bring all my own furniture.
Regardless of this shift, most apartments you find will come fully furnished. The quality of the furniture in the apartment will also speak to how much the landlord has invested in the place as well as if the apartment is worth the rent. Shop around different apartments to get an idea of what furniture other apartments come with.
It’s also worth noting that you can negotiate the removal of some furniture. Let’s say you have your own bed that you’ve purchased. You can request that the landlord remove the current bed to make room for yours. They may not always comply, but in my experience they’re usually willing.
How is the Community Safety?
Another tip is to get an idea for the level of security in the community. Every community should have a doorman and the best doormen ensure only residents and guests can enter. If while trying to enter a community the doorman is either asleep or too lazy to even ask you what you are doing, chances are the community is an easy target for thieves.
Apart from the doorman, look out for the quality of locks of the building you are looking to live in. If anyone can enter the building of your apartment you run a higher risk of petty theft.
Rents and Deposits | Apartments in China
In China, rent is not paid on the first of every month, but usually in installments of every six months and sometime an entire year. If you are strapped for cash and unable to pay six months up front, it may be possible to negotiate making payments as frequent as every three months. However, under this agreement you can anticipate the landlord to counter with a higher rate in rent.
For your deposit, you can anticipate paying anywhere from 1-3 months in rent. Unfortunately it is also common to hear foreigners losing their deposits after a rental contract expires.
For this reason, do your best to negotiate a lower deposit by paying more rent up front. Also confirm there are clauses in the contract specifying the deposit amount and expectation that it will be returned.
Take detailed notes on the condition of everything and ensure that both parties have documentation and are in agreement of the condition of the apartment.
When paying rent and deposits, try not to pay in cash. Go to the bank and transfer the amount owed to the landlord’s account and have the banker specify what the payment is for in the transfer and receipt (e.g. first six month’s rent, deposit, etc.).
This paper-trail will protect you in the event that the landlord tries to double collect on rent. If you do pay cash, make sure they write out a detailed “receipt” saying how much was paid and what it was for, along with their signature.
Further Resources on TravelChinaCheaper:
Negotiating on Rent | Apartments in China
Before moving forward with a contract, try to see if you can negotiate the rent down to a more favorable level. If the landlord is trying to rent the apartment as quickly as possible, you should be able to negotiate the rent down a bit.
Another tactic, if you have a pile of savings built up, is to pay the majority of the rent up front. Landlords will be more willing to reduce the overall price of rent if they do not have to worry six months down the line on your ability to cover the next installment of rent.
You can also always try to bargain on price by pointing out the flaws of the apartment. Use concrete examples in your negotiation from other apartments you have seen nearby (e.g. There is an apartment in the building next door that has much better furniture and appliances for the same price).
Finally, discussing who pays utilities is another angle to approach in negotiating. If the landlord is not willing to come down on price, see if at that price level they would be willing to pay all utilities including any annual management fees paid to the community. While utilities tend to be cheap, management fees and heat (if you are living in northern China) are large expenses and can even amount to a full month’s rent.
Signing a Contract with your Chinese Landlord
Unless you can read Chinese perfectly, signing your name to a contract with nothing but Chinese characters might raise alarms through your mind…and it should!
There are two ways that you can protect yourself in these situations.
1. Use an Expat Bilingual Contract
One of the best ways to protect yourself as you prepare to sign a rental contract for an apartment in China is to bring along your own bilingual contract. I’ve known expats all over China that have been burned by contracts supplied by the landlord and even the ones from the agencies are geared toward local Chinese people, not expat foreigners.
Spending a few dollars to purchase a Chinese/English Bilingual Rental Contract could save you a ton of headache in the future. These contracts are the kind that have been used by expats for years so all of the potential kinks and risks have been worked out.
You might get pushback from your landlord or agency about using your own contract, but once they understand that it’s a fair contract that allows you to understand exactly what you’re signing, most people don’t mind.
2. Use a Chinese Friend
Another option is to bring along a friend that speaks Chinese to help you review each line of the contract. It’s best of this friend has some sort of legal background, otherwise they might not be much help. Only sign when you fully understand the contract and are confident there are no major loopholes the landlord can use against you.
Conclusion | Renting an Apartment in China
Renting an apartment in China can certainly be a stressful task for the average person, and even more so if you don’t speak any Mandarin Chinese (have you considered trying to learn how to speak Chinese before you arrive?). Thankfully, if you follow the steps in this guide, make sure you find a suitable location and use a bilingual rental contract, you shouldn’t have too many problems.
Have you rented an apartment in China before? Let us know your experience as well as anything important not covered in this guide in the comments below.