Around this time last year, I wrote a couple of posts detailing our adventures trying to find an apartment in Shunyi. Having now left Beijing for the seaside delights of Ningbo, I have the experience of househunting here as a comparison. Is Beijing’s reputation as a terrible place to rent justified? Or is the problem China-wide?
As will often be the case with expats, we had only a limited time to find somewhere and move in; a week, in our case. So we’d planned ahead. My wife’s school had arranged an agent to help us and we’d been in contact with her, explaining what we were looking for. We’d also found other agents via WeChat so that we would have options.
And everything went smoothly, right? Don’t be silly. This is China.
We met the agent the same afternoon that we arrived in Ningbo, so we were tired, and a little relieved that she only had two apartments to show us that day. The first was clean and modern, but we ran into a problem when we counted the rooms.
“There are only two bedrooms.”
“Here’s the third one,” the agent said brightly.
We looked into a space that might barely qualify as a cupboard.
“This is no good,” we told her. “Haven’t you seen our kids? They’re not babies, they’re enormous great galumphing boys. We need three proper bedrooms.”
The next apartment had three good-size rooms, but was in poor condition with broken work surfaces in the kitchen and a sink that hadn’t been plumbed in. We pondered why anybody would try to let a place in such a state, and whether anybody would rent it. Most of all, we worried that we were once again being shown all the places that had sat on the agent’s books for months because no one else wanted them.
So the next day we cheated on our agent and went to see properties with a different person. Still though, we were shown apartments smaller than the one we had in Shunyi.
“There are no bigger places,” he told us. “Not in this area, and within your price range.”
Another agency didn’t bother to send us any listings at all. I think I offended them when I asked whether they were going to ask us for higher rent than they would from locals. But that’s what happened last time, and I wanted them to know I was not going to be taken for a mug.
The school’s agent appeared at 3pm on day two, and again only had two apartments to show us. To our dismay, both had box rooms instead of proper third bedrooms. She hadn’t even checked the layout of the apartments. What made this even more embarrassing is that every viewing involves a huge gang of people: two from the agency, a few from the estate management office, the landlord, the landlord’s friend… only for us to walk in, see the place and walk out again.
“There are no bigger apartments,” the agent told us. “Not in this area, and within your price range.”
The embarrassment was compounded the next day, when Agent One took us to an apartment we’d already seen with Agent Two. At this point, we had to confess to our infidelity. But we’d already taken matters into our own hands.
Our hotel was on a pleasant little compound, handy for the school, with good restaurants and a community feel. So we found the lettings agents for the compound and got them to look on their books. In seconds they had found a four bedroom duplex apartment, within our budget.
Our “happily ever after” was still a little way off. The apartment was absolutely full of the landlord’s family’s belongings: school certificates and tennis racquets and Hello Kitty tissue boxes. And shoes. So, so many shoes.
“When are you moving out?” we asked him.
“We’ve already moved out,” he answered, looking puzzled.
However, he was a nice guy who spoke good English, so once he had overcome his surprise that we didn’t want to just move in and adopt his family’s lifestyle and interests, he was happy to clear the place out, and got the necessary repairs done quickly and without fuss. And we are delighted with our spacious new home.
What I have taken from this experience is that, in the property market at least, China is still adjusting to the idea of consumer choice. Agent One genuinely seemed to believe that she would show us two apartments and we would choose one of them. She paid no attention at all to what we had told her before we arrived, and after the first viewings; the right home for us was the one that happened to be on her books.
It was also an example of the elastic relationship with the truth that can make Chinese business dealings frustrating for the westerner. Both agents told us there were no larger apartments in the area, whereas in fact, our new home is in an entire thirty-story block of big duplex apartments.
The most important lesson though is that if you’re house hunting in China, you need to take control of the process. Download apps like Anjuke and 58, so you know what’s on the market. Approach the lettings offices of compounds where you want to live. And insist on any changes or repairs you consider necessary. Because few things are as important to quality of life as your family’s home.
Photo: Andrew Killeen