Standard apartments are the most common housing arrangements for both locals and foreigners alike. “Standard” is in contrast to “serviced,” which are apartments that are run more like hotel rooms complete with services like daily housekeeping and room service. Standard apartments vary greatly in quality, size, and cost. At one end of the spectrum you might find very old (and very cheap) apartments, with rudimentary plumbing and no heating or air-conditioning. Modern luxury apartments, on the other hand, may have large garden tubs, Italian marble and real hardwood floors, central heat and air, and broadband DSL access wired into the walls. Those that are designed with foreigners in mind will have a washer and dryer, a built-in oven, a dishwasher, and lots of kitchen cupboards and storage closets (all at a cost, of course). The nicer the apartment complex, the more amenities will be located within its walls, such as convenience marts, beauty salons, health club facilities, swimming pools, tennis courts, restaurants, pubs, and coffee shops. The bulk of the standard apartments available in China will fall somewhere in between these two extremes, with prices to reflect this. For the most part, you won’t know exactly what a place will be like until you see it, but you can guess by its price tag at which end of the spectrum it may lay.
Serviced apartments are most often found on the premises of high-end hotels and are generally intended for short-term rental which can range from a few weeks to a couple of years. Serviced apartments are quite a bit more expensive than standard apartments for the amenities they offer. Residents can take advantage of all of the hotel’s amenities, from fitness centers, saunas, spas, and swimming pools to room service, breakfast buffets, restaurants, concierge services, daily housekeeping, etc. These places are typically staffed by English speakers who can take care of your requests and needs, which can be quite handy when you are new to the country and don’t yet speak any Chinese.
What most westerners would call a “house” the Chinese call a “villa.” Whether detached with its own yard (always called a “garden” in China), or attached as a duplex or in a row of townhouses with small yards or shared green space, villas are typically the most expensive and most luxurious option in Chinese housing. Villas are always built within walled complexes with guarded gates, with an English-speaking management company that services the community around the clock. The villa market is new to China, having come on the wave of China’s new economic wealth in order to cater to the growing wealthy class and to the growing numbers of foreigners living in China. Whether buying or renting, villas will take a big bite out of your wallet, which is why they are typically only used by executives and diplomats who receive them as part of their compensation packages. Some start as low as $2,000, but others rent as high as $15,000 or more per month.
Real estate agents in China help their clients with both buying and renting. Each agency has its own properties available, and the typical fee you’ll pay for their services will be equivalent to one or two months’ rent for the property you eventually decide on. For that fee you’ll have someone who will take you around to see the properties you are interested in, answer your questions about the place, and help negotiate terms with the landlord. The real estate industry is not as regulated in China as it is in the States, however, so you will need to make sure that you are comfortable with the trustworthiness of the agent you’ll be working with. You won’t be on an exclusivity contract, so feel free to try other agents as well, especially if you see a place you’re interested in buy the listing belongs to someone other than your agent. The fees you pay are a commission on the property you choose, so you technically won’t have to pay an agent that is unsuccessful in finding a home for you.
You can also forego the expense of using an agent and just do the legwork yourself. Expat magazines and websites often have classifieds with places available to rent, but one of the best ways to get information is through the Chinese property-listing websites. Of course if you can’t read Chinese well, you’ll need to enlist the help of a Chinese friend to translate it for you. These online listings will tell you whether or not the home is being offered by an individual or by a company (apartments in China are often owned individually), and will give you the contact information for the landlord. Companies can be more trustworthy than an individual landlord when it comes to maintenance and other issues, although they will have much less flexibility to customize the rental agreement to your specific needs. Price negotiations might be best handled by a Chinese agent before the landlord finds out you’re not a local, as prices tend to rise where foreigners are involved.
Most Chinese landlords are looking for a one- or two-year minimum lease agreement, though there are a few who are willing to do short-term rentals. Apart from the fees of one to two months’ rent you’ll pay your agent, you’ll also have to give your new landlord a security deposit. Some demand a six-month deposit, but you can probably negotiate down to a one- or two-month deposit. Take your rent and multiply it by five to estimate the amount of cash you should have accessible to move into a new place. To pay your monthly rent, since China’s monetary system does not involve personal checks, the typical process is for you to deposit your rent every month directly into your landlord’s bank account.
Most apartments and villas come completely furnished, including electronics. If you would prefer to use your own furnishings, or if you’re interested in an unfurnished location but need it to be furnished, it’s all negotiable.
It is strongly recommended that you do not consider buying a home in China until you have spent a considerable amount of time there and thoroughly researched the risks involved, including legal complexities, the chance of getting scammed, the financial issues of the country’s strict banking laws, and the possibility that the property’s value will drop significantly.
When you buy a home in China, you are only buying the building structure, not the land itself. All residential land is on a 70-year lease from the government, after which time they have the option to reclaim the land and recompense you according to what they think is fair. Homeowners do not have the same kind of rights in China as they do in the West, and it is not uncommon for local residents to get bought out of their homes and forced to move. Beijing cares more about making way for “progress” than about any attachment you may have to your home.
Though the chance that your home will be taken from you is slim, you may face other obstacles such as poor quality. Chinese construction tends to take shortcuts when possible, and items manufactured for domestic purchase are often inferior. Finding a handyman you can trust to do things right – and with the right materials – can be a challenge.
If you are purchasing a brand new apartment or villa, the developer will probably have an exclusive financing agreement with a Chinese mortgage company that you’ll be required to use. More competitive financing terms might have been found elsewhere, but at least you’ll have the convenience of your developer handling the administrative details, which should speed up the process quite a bit.
If you decide to arrange your own financing, you can use a foreign bank such as Wing Hang, Bank of East Asia, Standard Chartered, or HSBC. Chinese banks that grant mortgages to foreigners include Bank of China, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and the Bank of Communications. Some of these banks only offer loans in renminbi, while the international banks offer loans in renminbi or dollars. For the renminbi loans, interest rates are based on a benchmark rate published by the People’s Bank of China; dollar loans are based on the U.S. prime rate. Thirty-year mortgages are available, but more favorable conditions are offered for shorter terms. Few of these banks will finance the entire price of the home; most require a down payment of 20 to 50 percent.
Real estate law changes every year, so you should hire an attorney who has a proven track record helping foreigners purchase homes in China. You’ll need permits for land use, construction, sales, and housing quality, and any error in the paperwork can invalidate your home purchase. Hiring an experienced lawyer should help you negotiate favorable conditions and minimize your chances of getting swindled.
Within the majority of rental agreements, you will be responsible for paying for your utilities directly. Your landlord will probably have all of your utilities turned on before you move in. If not, contact the landlord first to handle it for you, or to find out whether you will need to contact the utility companies. Monthly utility bills will arrive in the mail each month, and can be paid at utility company offices, post offices, and at banks. The apartment complex provides trash receptacles, which are included in the responsibilities and expenses of the property maintenance company.
Common utility expenses are: electricity (80 /$10 per month), gas (60 /$7.50), water (40 /$5), telephone (25 /$3), cable television (25 /$3), and bottled water (10 /$1.25 for each five-gallon bottle, delivered). Of course these figures fluctuate, especially in the north where you will use more gas or electricity to heat your home.