Few things will have a bigger impact on your quality of life than the place you and your family live. Unfortunately though renting in Beijing can be a nightmare, particularly if you’re new to the city. It may be your first encounter with guanxi, the network of connections which underpins business and social life in China. As a newcomer you have no guanxi, and as a tenant you have few rights. If your employer offers to find an apartment for you, then that is very often the best solution, at least while you find your feet; if not, a local friend can be a huge help. But if you have to go house hunting on your own, then the tips below might help you avoid the worst traps.
The agent is not your friend
It is near impossible to rent an apartment without going through a letting agent, and you can expect to have to pay them the equivalent of anything from two weeks’ to a month’s rent for their services. There are many who specialize in helping foreign renters, and this can be a valuable aid in navigating the treacherous waters of the Beijing rental market. However don’t believe their more extravagant promises. They may up-sell you into buying a “premium” service, where they offer to help you over a longer period.
Although you are paying them, their ultimate loyalty will be to the landlord; because of guanxi, and because when you move on, you’re likely to be moving elsewhere, and they will want to let the property again. In any dispute, they will probably take the landlord’s side against you. There are plenty of other ways to get help and support in your first year in the city, so let them do their job, pay the minimum possible, and don’t be fooled into thinking they’re going to look after you if there’s a problem.
Control the process as much as possible
Don’t be railroaded into accepting the first place you see. Agents will often start by showing you the apartments which have been on their books longest, in the hope you’ll take one off their hands (a thick layer of dust is the clue here.) They may show you two or three, then ask which you want, as if that’s the only choice available. Don’t believe them if they tell you the sort of place you want isn’t available, and you’ll have to make do. Insist on your minimum requirements.
Feel free to work with more than one agent. They don’t like this, and may try to make you feel guilty about it. But they are in fierce competition with each other, and if they think they’re going to lose a fee they’re likely to work harder to meet your needs.
Check the rent on a property app, and negotiate
As a foreigner you are likely to be asked a higher rent than a local would be charged. You can find out by checking the listing on property apps such as Lianjia, Ziroom, and 58.com (though if your Chinese isn’t good you might need help.) Don’t be afraid of haggling. The Beijing property market is overpriced and overstocked, although premium locations will always command a premium rent. Again, agents and landlords may try to make you feel guilty about this, but don’t be fooled. As you’ll quickly learn if you visit the Pearl Market, the best way to get a good price is to walk away.
Negotiations may be complicated by what’s included and what isn’t. The landlord should be paying the estate management fee, so don’t let them pretend that they’re doing you any favors if they offer to. Don’t forget to check for heating and air conditioning; the government provides free heating in the winter, but you may be shivering waiting for them to turn it on.
If there’s something you want (for example, a modern shower cubicle), you may be able to negotiate to install it yourself in exchange for a reduced rent. However be careful of buying anything for the apartment which you expect to take with you when you leave, as you may find it has suddenly become the landlord’s property.
Don’t expect to get your deposit back
You’ll be expected to pay not only a substantial deposit, but often also three months’ rent in advance. Sadly you’re unlikely to get your deposit back, no matter how careful a tenant you are. Many landlords see this as their right, and will pick on the smallest things as an excuse for keeping it. In fact, many will attempt to get even more money out of you. Sadly the contract means very little when it comes to this sort of dispute. Stay calm, don’t be intimidated, and bear in mind that sometimes a small negotiated payment to save the landlord’s face might be a good investment to avoid complications. Again, a Chinese friend can be a huge help.
Not everyone is a shark
These tips should help you avoid the worst case scenarios. We should point out though that not everyone in the Beijing property market is out to rip you off. There are many ethical, responsible landlords, and many honest, hardworking agents. Sadly if there is one bad experience for every ten good, then it’s the nightmare everybody will talk about, and Beijing landlords on the whole have a terrible reputation. So hope for the best, but plan for the worst, and your home can become a great base for you and your family to enjoy all the amazing experiences that the city has to offer.
- Whether the windows have bars (on a lower-level apartment)
- Whether the front door has a solid lock
- Policy of guards at the community gates (visitors, delivery men)
- Proper functioning of video and sound on door monitor
- Amount of storage space
- Whether your current furniture will fit in the apartment (and through the door)
- Mattress for firmness
- Functionality of all appliances (stove, fridge, hot water heater, air conditioner, washing machine, cable TV, microwave)
- Number of electrical outlets in every room
- Phone/broadband jacks
- Cellphone reception inside the apartment
- Lighting fixtures for brightness (and whether light bulbs can be easily replaced)
- Speed and power of all fans
- Location of fuse box and the electricity meter
- Location of the radiators
- Ceiling for signs of leakage
- Walls for stains or cracks (check by outlets and height from knee-below)
- Flooring for unevenness, cracks, or holes
- Size of the windows and whether there is cross-ventilation
- Screens and locks on all windows (look for rips in the screens)
Bathroom and Kitchen
- Amount of cabinet space
- Location of the main gas valve and water valve
- Location of gas meter, electricity meter, and water meter
- Water pressure and functionality of the shower head
- Sturdiness of the faucets (do they leak? do they need to be replaced?)
- Amount of counter space
- Drainage speed in all sinks and tubs
- How well does the toilet flush?
- Does the toilet seat need to be replaced?
- How much natural light does the apartment get?
- Is the neighborhood noisy?
- How close is the nearest street?
- How soundproof is the apartment?
- Location of garbage cans and recycling bins
- Location of bike racks
Will you clean it before I move in? 我搬进来之前你能清理一下吗？Wǒ bānjìnlái zhīqián nǐ néng qīnglǐ yíxià ma?
Can I hang things on the walls? 墙上可以挂装饰品吗？Qiángshàng kěyǐ guà zhuāngshìpǐn ma?
Can you remove this? 你能把这个拿走吗？Nǐ néng bǎ zhège ná zǒu ma?
Can you buy a ________? 你能买一个________吗？ Nǐ néng mǎi yíge ________ ma?
How much is the rent? 房租多少钱？Fángzū duōshǎo qián?
Who pays the agency fee? 谁交中介费? Shéijiāo zhōngjiè fèi?
Who pays the property management fee? 谁交物业费? Shéijiāo wùyè fèi?
Write it down. Put it in the contract. 写下来吧。在合同上标出。Xiěxiàlái ba. Zài hétóng shàng biāochū.
Where is the property management office? What’s their phone number? 物业办公室在哪? 电话号码是多少？Wùyè bàngōngshì zài nǎr? Diànhuà hàomǎ shì duōshǎo?
This article appeared in the beijingkids June 2019 Home & Relocation Guide issue.