Moving house is always a stressful time. Moving house in a foreign country however can lead you to the brink of insanity, heightening your levels of anxiety, and leaving you with a sense of utter helplessness. Add a baby, a disgruntled landlord, and incompetent agents, and you’ve got yourself a whirlwind of taxing unease.
A constant worry for expats living in Beijing is renting a home, particularly for families trying to negotiate their way through the concrete jungle of real estate. What is the best location? Where can you get value for money? Are there adequate amenities in the vicinity of your apartment or house? What about your landlord’s disposition with foreigners? Who will communicate with you? Will it be possible to communicate directly at all? These and more carry you into an abyss of uncertainty about whether or not you are making the right choices.
When approaching the beautifully laid-out compound of Upper East Side, Lido, I was seven months pregnant and ready to nest. I instantly fell in love with the neighborhood and was even more set on occupying a spacious two-bedroom, with access to a roof terrace, when I waddled into the real estate agency’s office and spoke to English-speaking staff who offered a parched pregnant lady an ice cold paper cup of water.
Both looks and words can be deceiving. The can-do attitude and candid approach of the agent, the sturdy and somewhat staunch proprietor, led me to believe that all was above board. How could anything go wrong? They specialize in “rental and sales of high-end apartments and villas in Lido,” and on their website provide you with glossy assurances, “We aim to win your trust with sincerity and get your recognition with great efforts. We will always be here, ready to serve you.” Surely they would only have the very best properties and even better landlords on their books. I was wrong.
After meeting the landlord, there were signs that not all was well. He seemed disappointed upon arrival when we all turned up for the handover of the apartment, and both my husband and I felt that for one reason or another we weren’t quite what he was expecting. Broken agreements, faulty items in the home, repaired and replaced large purchases, and a tiring back-and-forth WeChat conversation over the course of the first month all ensued, and was the start of disastrous things to come.
The apartment hadn’t been serviced in a while and my husband and I found items dating back to as early as 2008. We agreed to replace the sofa and the fridge, re-grout all the tiles in the home, and replace the pipes under the sink on the condition that those items from the moment of purchase belonged to our family. Inventory amended, agreement made, and we all thought we could now breathe.
Fast-forward one year later. My husband is at work and I’m packing up my home with my 9-month-old baby in tow. The large purchases we’ve made have been successfully sold, and although we decided to leave a year earlier than planned, we gave the required notice, forfeited our deposit, and informed the agency. This was somewhat a challenge as just eight weeks into our signed contract the real estate agent had blocked us on WeChat and refused to deal with the most basic of requirements; which doesn’t really mirror the promises made on their website to “serve” clients with their “expertise” and “sincerity.” Further down the rabbit hole we went.
The landlord refused to grant us a permit to clear our things from the compound, stating that the sofa that had now been sold was his. Our personal intermediary agent and my husband and I explained that this was not legal and we had every right to remove our belongings.
A moving company came, and while bringing down our things, freighting Gestapo-style antics began. With my baby in my arms and my ayi by my side, up to six security men surrounded us, one tried to physically stop me from accessing the gate to leave the compound and the belligerent proprietor from the agency turned up to film the struggle. The offense team of intimidators spoke no English, and what followed was one of the most stressful moments I’ve ever encountered while living in China.
We spent seven hours trying to negotiate our way off the sidewalk. I called the police, who left without helping to resolve the matter, and no one took a statement from me. All our things were packed in the back of a van, my baby’s diaper and clothing had to be changed, and the bottle we had prepared for his trip to our new home was already demolished.The landlord on top of our deposit wanted to extort another RMB 5,000 from us. He got his goons to surround the truck and refused to let us leave. Although having a further two weeks to move out and arrange an official handover, the boss stood by, creating a scene and refusing to acknowledge that what was developing was utterly atrocious.
Our landlord was able to rally a team of bullies made up of members of compound staff I had developed friendships with to literally spy on us and circumvent our attempts to do what we had every right to do. In the end, the needs of our child took precedence, and after much debate, we handed over RMB 1,000 and went on our way. In the end it wasn’t about money but about face. The landlord and his partner-in-crime, were not going to leave without some kind of signifier that they had come out of this situation on top.
This kind of experience raises grave concerns about the reality of the world of tenancy agreements, contracts, and policing of expats in Beijing. The rights of expat tenants is a real area of concern, marginally regulated, with little or no security attached to the signing of any arrangement or settlement. After sharing this experience with friends, I’ve been made aware that this same agency has been the common denominator in other instances of breaches of contract and poorly handled grievances.
If there are telltale signs at the beginning that you’re dealing with charlatans when renting a property, go with your instincts and move on. Understand that when contracts go wrong, little will swing in your favor, so limit the kind of arrangements you make to replace furniture and other items, and refrain from agreeing to the amendment of a contract that already will likely favor the landlord should things go wrong. Also, be wary of real estate agents who market themselves as foreign-friendly; they may not be able to back up their talk with a walk.