In his latest post Shenzhen-based English and Drama teacher, Shehan, shares his apartment-hunting experiences, including the process for finding an apartment in China, budgeting and lots of top tips…
When I finally dropped anchor in sunny Shenzhen to begin my adventure (woop woop!) there were things to consider before I began my new job. I was in need of a WeChat account (a versatile, multi-faceted piece of software which you can access on your phone and computer; you’ll use it on a daily basis in many areas of your life during your time in China), a bank account (you probably want to get paid), a card to access the metro system, social insurance and a new contract for my phone.
Firstly, Don’t Settle for a Substandard Apartment!
I arrived later in China than I originally anticipated and my new school expected me to start ASAP. Before I started teaching, I wanted to find somewhere to live as swiftly as possible, so I hastily settled for a flat which was substandard; the room was dark and damp (not quite in the style of a medieval dungeon but close enough) but the location and the presence of other westerners (being surrounded by fellow English speakers will ease the process of settling in your new surroundings) in the same building were redeeming attributes; it was also close to a metro station and had a few handy shops and convenient places to eat. There was a fried rice place just around the corner where I consumed my weight in rice on a daily basis and piled a lot of weight on very quickly. Fortunately, there was a gym close by to help me counteract my rapidly expanding waistline. A faded blue cloth pool table could also be located on the first floor which I used occasionally to wind down after work.
It’s likely that the company or school you work for will help you find a suitable place to stay. It’s also possible you may be expected to do it yourself. Either way, I hope the subsequent advice I am about to provide will assist you when searching for somewhere to live in China.
The Process of Finding an Apartment in China
On arriving in China and staying in a hotel for a few nights, the company or school that employed you will normally assist you. After an extended period of time you will gather friends and your social circle will expand and thus, more people will be available to advise you (“Don’t live in that location! It’s next to an open sewer!”) and point you in the right direction if you decide to move on.
When my contract with my previous flat was approaching its conclusion, I asked friends to send me the WeChat contacts of any reliable landlords and estate agents in Shenzhen. You could also ask the teachers in your school to send you the contacts of estate agents, as one of my friends did.
After adding landlords via WeChat they will often send photos and videos of prospective flats (or post them on their “moments.” WeChat “moments” are synonymous with a Facebook “feed”) for you to deliberate over before you arrange a viewing. Be cautious: Flattering camera angles can make rooms look more spacious and more visually appealing than they actually are.
There are many city-specific sites for you to peruse with contacts for estate agents and landlords, as well as containing listings, events and points of interest. My current city of residence, Shenzhen has a such a site, called Shenzhenparty.com.
It’s most likely you’ll have to find your way to the flat/complex/room you wish to scrutinise. This will mean using whatever public transport system your city has available to get there. Normally an agent will greet you and show you around when you arrive. When searching for accommodation almost six months ago, an agent drove me between viewings on the back of his motorbike. He was even generous enough to buy me tea! (Bubble milk tea to be precise. The “bubbles” are made of tapioca.) To my surprise, he also showed me on his phone, with great pride, a picture of his son.
Top Tip 1: Be Specific About What You’re Looking For
Think about what you want from the place where you’re going to hang your hat. There are many factors to consider. It’s possible you may spend a lot of time there. What are you willing to sacrifice? What sort of lifestyle do you want to lead? Do you want a furnished flat? Do you want a loft or a studio? Do you require a western-style toilet or are you comfortable with a Chinese one? (For those of you who are uninitiated, Chinese toilets require you to squat. You’ll develop strong thigh muscles in no time.) If you live in a hot city you might find it desirable to have a balcony to hang your clothes out to dry.
When searching for a flat I requested rooms that were in close range to a metro station and had direct access to sunlight. Close proximity to a metro station was in particular a priority because I wanted my commute to be as brief as possible. Be sure to ask about internet; It may be prudent to ask if the flat/complex you are inspecting has a single, specific wifi provider.
Costs & Budgeting
This sounds obvious but bear in mind how much money you need to live comfortably. Also bear in mind that you’ll have to pay your bills and a fapiao (a fapiao is a tax receipt) at the end of the month. I pay my bills directly to my landlord via WeChat. Your landlord will tell you how they expect you to pay when you sign your contract. You also need to consider if you will be charged for utilities on a monthly basis or at the end of a six-month period. Typically, utilities bills are a bargain at around RMB300 per month.
As a guide, you can expect to pay the following within Shenzhen’s various districts:
1 Bedroom Apartment: RMB3000- 4900
Studio Apartment between RMB2500- 4500
1 Bedroom Apartment: RMB2300- 4800
Studio Apartment RMB2700- 4500
1 Bedroom Apartment: RMB2700- 4200
Studio Apartment: RMB3200- 4400
1 Bedroom Apartment: RMB1800- 3700
Studio Apartment: RMB1800- 3600
1 Bedroom Apartment: RMB3000-4900
Studio Apartment: RMB2800- 4900
1 Bedroom Apartment: RMB2100- 3200
Studio Apartment: RMB2500- 3500
1 Bedroom Apartment: RMB3000-6000
Studio Apartment: RMB1800- 3600
Contract Duration and Signing
Don’t make snap decisions. Mull your available options over carefully before signing a contract. Most landlords will stipulate that you sign a contract for a standardized period of time. Most people in Shenzhen sign for eight months but as someone who favours short term contracts, I wrangled with my landlord before she eventually relented and agreed to a six-month contract.
My agent wanted me to sign my current contract without delay but I asked that my landlord, who speaks both English and Chinese be present so I could be completely certain what conditions I was agreeing to.
Top Tip 2: Be Authoritative
Some agents will assume that you want to buy the first flat you see. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind. It might be that you like a particular flat but there are certain aspects you’re unhappy with. A door that doesn’t close properly perhaps; maybe something needs repairing. Don’t be afraid to speak up and make reasonable requests. Remember, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Landlords will normally ask for a deposit when you sign; agents who show you around may also ask for a fee. (Some do, some don’t.) You’re going to want your deposit back when your contract ends. Be one step ahead of potentially unscrupulous landlords by taking pictures of the flat in the condition it was in when you initially rented it. That way if the landlord attempts to take a percentage of your deposit because of damage he or she thinks you caused, you can show him or her pictures that prove otherwise. (Unless you caused it with all those raucous house parties you held!) During viewings, check the cupboards, walls and nooks and crannies. The climate is particularly toasty in my neck of the woods (which is why I chose Shenzhen, I’m all about the heat) so I checked for the presence of cockroaches. Also check if the room is damp if you live in a sub-tropical climate because damp, hot conditions attract mosquitos. Test the thinness of the walls and if possible, view a potential room during both day and night. You might view a room in the evening and then discover when you move in that loud building works are going on next door. Is there a hob in your flat? If not, you can buy one from Taobao. (Taobao is the Chinese equivalent of Amazon.)
Make sure your landlord can provide you with a spare key. Give it to someone you trust on the off chance (colleague, friend) that you lose your key. I have a friend who absentmindedly lost his key and thus locked himself out of his flat till the early hours of the morning. Also consider that the room you move into may not be clean; it’s not an obligation here.
If you have a large amount of possessions (i.e. moving from one location to another) it may be advisable to sign a contract early so you can gradually move your possessions over in small amounts. Although bear in mind you’ll only be able to do this if the flat you are moving to is vacant.
That’s it. Good luck!
My Ten Favourite Songs This Month/A Shenzhen Playlist
- Alicia Keys: Piano And I
- Loyle Carner/Tom Misch: Damselfly
- SZA: Broken Clocks
- Frank Ocean: Deathwish (ASR)
- Common: Be
- Frank Ocean: Florida
- The 1975: I Like America And America Likes Me
- Max Richter: Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons
- The Go! Team: Huddle Formation
- M83: Outro
Shehan is an English and Drama teacher living in Shenzhen, China. He studied Drama at Exeter University, followed by Law at Cardiff University. Follow in Shehan’s footsteps and view our latest Teaching Jobs in China.