Apartment hunting in China can be an intimidating business if you’re doing it without the help of your employer. Especially if you’ve just moved here with limited language skills. From what I’ve heard, cities like Beijing and Shanghai are more accommodating for non-Mandarin speakers, but Tianjin retains its local vibe … in language and in other ways.
When Sam and I first landed in China, we rented an extended-stay room at a hotel in downtown Tianjin for a month. We reasoned that, while the cost was quite expensive, the month-long period would afford us the time to explore rental options at our convenience so that we’d find something to our liking without feeling rushed into things. As a result of this decision, we now live in a cute, crumbly apartment that oozes charm, but to get here, we spent a lot of money on a single-room studio at the extended stay. I believe the discounted rate we paid for one month was over $2000 USD. That included utilities, wifi and breakfast, but still, for us, it seemed like a lot. And getting information as to how best go about apartment hunting proved equally daunting.
So here’s a step by step based on our experience:
1. Apartment hunting in Tianjin is much like house-hunting in the U.S. Unless you have the personal contact of someone who wishes to let their place directly, the business is usually done through a real estate agent.
2. There are many real estate agents in Tianjin. If you are finding the apartment on your own without the support of your company, feel free to use any number of agents until one has shown you the apartment of your choice. If one agent shows an apartment you’ve already viewed, the etiquette is to state you’ve already viewed it with another, but otherwise, it seems more or less a free for all.
3. Vocabulary can be misleading. In China, “house” or “villa” is often used for what a westerner would call an apartment. An “apartment” in turn, is often what we would call a studio or flat. For instance, our two bedroom, two bath apartment that is located in a nine-floor building within a vast complex is referred to by most here as a “house.” Tomato, tomatoe … I guess.
4. Apartments in China tend to be within huge apartment complexes with at least 20 high-rise buildings. At least. This may give the impression that every apartment within this complex is somewhat similar to the next. They aren’t. Apartments are usually owned by an individual (apartment purchasing for rental is a major source of investment for Chinese people as investing outside of China (if you are Chinese) is difficult if not impossible). As a result, apartments are refurbished and renovated to suit the taste of each owner. Some may have wood floors, split levels and even a sauna room. Some have tea-rooms, all tile floors and huge, updated bathrooms. Even apartments on the same floor of a building will most likely be entirely different that its neighbor. One thing that most apartments here don’t have? An oven. We found one thankfully, but it is a rare thing! Also, most apartments do not come with a clothes dryer. As China is not exactly known for it’s fresh air, one’s utility closet or glass-enclosed balcony typically serves as the clothes dryer! (It works pretty well, actually.)
5. Do not pay your agent any money. Once you’ve found your apartment, the agent is paid, on average, one month’s rent worth of your rental fee. This fee will be paid after signing the contract, either directly by you or by your landlord, depending upon your terms of contract.
6. Most apartments come furnished with the basics: table and chairs, couch, beds, etc. Most apartments have a television, too, but satellite is typically a negotiable item. (Items such as linens, dishes, etc., are normally acquired by the renter.)
7. Almost everything is negotiable. So negotiate. For example, our landlord was originally asking about 2000 RMB more per month than what we ended up paying, and the price quoted included satellite and management fees. We bargained down the price, took out the satellite cost as we knew we probably wouldn’t need television, and then requested that certain additional fees be included in our months rent, which brings me to the next point.
8. In China, renting an apartment includes additional fees such as the apartment management fee (grounds keeping, maintenance, etc.), the realtor fee as discussed above, and the monthly tax invoice called the “fapiao.” All of these items can be negotiated to be paid by the renter or paid by the landlord as part of the month’s rent. Also, items such as utilities, internet, satellite and furnishings may be negotiated. Above all however, the fapiao is especially important because, if your landlord does not agree to pay for this, you will be burdened with the duty to make monthly tax payments at cost to the local authorities and all the headaches of bureaucracy that go along with it. If possible, have your landlord agree to pay the fapiao. The fapiao may also have important tax implication for you, depending upon your individual circumstance.
9. Utilities (water, electric, gas and internet) are quite affordable in China, so you may end up saving more money to pay these directly rather than rolling them into the lump-sum rental. Both water and electric are pre-paid here and expend by a meter that is recharged with a pre-pay card. Gas is usually checked by utility personnel who come to your apartment and check the meter every month or two, and then announce the amount owed. In the winter, we are told that the government turns on the heat via steamers which is paid in one lump sum, once a year. Internet may be paid month-by-month or by annual contract. Sam and I are currently paying month-by-month for the “fastest” service available which is supposedly 20M, for 200 RMB a month (about 34 USD).
10. Landlord-tenant contracts in China are serious business. Read yours through and be sure you are okay with the terms. We’ve been told that landlords here are quite strict on “normal wear and tear” as would be perceived by many westerners, and so items such as hanging things on walls, deposits, etc., should be closely examined. Because at least a month’s rent is put up for deposit, if you don’t have acceptable “wear and tear” ironed out ahead of time, you may be paying for it at the end.
11. Upon signing your contract, an apartment walk-through is conducted with your agent, your landlord and you. This is the time to point out any items that are in disrepair, damaged, etc., and pictures to document same are advised.
12. Within 24 hours of signing your contract, you are to register with the police. Your agent and landlord should help you with this. If you do not register with the police within this time frame, you may be subjected to hefty fines of around 500 RMB for each day late. Once you have this registration, it is advised you make photocopies and keep one copy in your wallet/bag at all times in the event you are requested to present it. Another copy – or the original – should be kept in your apartment.
13. As it turns out, your agent will earn his or her fee. He/she helps negotiate the contract. They oversee the execution of said contract and ensure the appropriate, ubiquitous red “chop” is appropriately executed on all copies. They document the state of condition of said apartment upon moving in. And if your water turns off or your electricity goes out, your agent is the guy to call. He/she will contact your management company, he/she will pester your landlord, he/she will help arrange other things as become needed, such as signing up for internet (which we did) or finding a maid (which we did not). I have to say, I’ve been quite impressed with the level of service provided by our agent after move in. In that sense, it is quite a different experience than in the US.
14. After having gone through all of this, I’ve found a huge discrepancy in what people pay for apartment here. Our apartment is quite spacious and costs a little over 1000 USD per month. Locals that my husband works with pay considerably less, but then again, their apartments are probably not quite as nice or as conveniently located. At the other end of the spectrum are the mostly [non-teacher] expats/foreigners we meet who are housed by their employers, and as such live in mind-blowingly expensive places that range anywhere from 5000 USD to 20,000 … per month! In China! Absurd!
15. Finally, after spending a month of apartment/house/villa hunting through multiple agents and online websites, here are the two agencies that impressed:
They both speak English, they are quite professional and all in all, a pleasure to work with. Also, there are also online sites such as www.tianjinexpats.com, which often list classifies for mostly non-locals, and then there are sites such as tj.58.com and www.baidu.com used mostly by locals. These may be helpful in getting an idea of availability and price.
Hope that helps and if anyone has additional insight to share, please do so!