IMG_8820Apartment 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.

View of Meijang Area (Hexi Distric) in Tianjin.  Nearly all of the high rises are apartment complexes
View of Meijang Area (Hexi Distric) in Tianjin. Nearly all of the high rises are apartment complexes

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.

Our "clothes dryer"!
Our “clothes dryer”!

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.

Furnished Living Room (laptop not included!)
Furnished Living Room (laptop not included!)

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 ChinaAbsurd!

View of our apartment complex's interior grounds
View of our apartment complex’s interior grounds

15.  Finally, after spending a month of apartment/house/villa hunting through multiple agents and online websites, here are the two agencies that impressed:

E-Smart

Royal Relocation

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!

8 thoughts on “How to Find an Apartment in Tianjin, China”

    1. Thanks Kerry! Hope you enjoy it! I just found your blog and will be checking it out!

  1. Hi Jesse…am planning to move to Tianjin with my family next month…was looking for a place to stay and came across your website…Would be great if you could help me with how much RMB do you pay as rent and the name of this apartment complex…

    1. Hi Deb,

      Thanks for visiting Tonga Time and welcome to Tianjin! If you would send me an email (jesse [at sign] tongatime [dot] com), I’ll be happy to share more details with you.

  2. thank you so much this has helped us loads. One question please, the websites you refer us too at he end of your blog are all in Chinese, do you know of any English expat sites? many thanks again

    1. Hi Shelly,

      I’m glad you found the post helpful as my husband and I were rather daunted at the prospect of apartment-hunting when we arrived in China! We ended up paying far less than most of the US and Eurpoean expats in Tianjin for our apartment — mostly because we chose a more local housing environment which we both really appreciated. Regarding the two realtor sites in my blog (Esmart and Royal), when I open them in Chrome, they are in English. Have you tried that? I know for a fact that both companies have staff that speak English. If you want direct email addresses, please send me an email and I’ll send their contact info your way. (Jesse (at sign) tongatime (dot) com)

      I don’t know which city you are planning on moving to, but if it is Tianjin, then http://www.tianjinexpats.com would be your starting point for an expat site. If it is another city, just google (or bing!) your city with “expat” included in the search term and you should be able to find resources without trouble. Good luck!

  3. Hi Jess,

    I been reading your blog recently as I’m planning to move to Tianjin with my family next month. Would be great if you could help us with how much RMB to rent a apartment (1br to 2br) around hebei, heping, hexi area and possible within walking distance from subway.

    Thanks, Chin

    1. Hi Chin,

      We had an apartment in Hexi, in the Meijiang area, just behind United Family Hospital. There were some teachers who lived there but mostly the apartments were occupied by locals, so we paid less than pretty much any area we saw that catered to expats. Our rent was 6500 RMB a month for a three bedroom, 2.5 bath (including the apartment fee and realtor fee) but we paid for our own utilities (gas, water and electricty). Utilities are super-cheap, so that worked out well for us. I don’t know the current status of the subway system as Tianjin is still expanding, but when we left in 2013, they were building a line with a stop just a block or so from the hospital area in Meijiang.

      I don’t know where you will be working, but I know from personal experience that if the subway line to Meijiang had been completed while we were there (my husband’s job was in the Meijiang area), I would have much preferred to live downtown as there is a lot more going on. Where we were, it was quiet and safe and so probably great for families, but for a married-no-kids-couple, we felt a bit isolated and shut in at times. Taxis are abundant and the bus system is pretty good, but it still takes forever to get from Meijiang to the downtown area (depending on traffic, anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour). We didn’t have a car, so we relied upon public transport options and our bicycles to get around, so perhaps I noticed this more than others with private transport would.

      All that said, most apartments catering to expats are much more expensive than what we paid. A lot of expats live in the area between Hexi and Nankai, by the water park and south of the TV tower. There are some swanky townhomes there, but people pay crazy money for them: the cheapest one we could find was around 20,000 RMB per month! Most expats, from what I gather, really think this is normal pricing for a home in Tianjin, and as most have their companies pay for the housing instead of paying directly, I suppose the exorbidant amounts are no big deal to them.

      I’d advise that you rent a temporary stay for about a month (that’s what we did) and really look around. Tiajin looks kind of small on the map, but the districts within really have individual character and as the traffic is a pain, where you ultimately choose to live will impact your day-to-day life. If you have any co-workers that could help you negotiate and bargain, then I’d recommend you avail yourself of their help. Prices really vary with negotiation — for example, our apartment was originally listed for around 10,000 RMB a month; we originally offered 5,500 but settled for 6,500. Also, make sure you get the realtor fee and apartment fee included in the rent price!

      Hope this helps!

      Cheers,
      Jesse

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