What does it take to find an apartment in Beijing? Three friends found out that while it helps to have steady incomes and jobs, seal the deal by bringing your landlord business. I interviewed and wrote this article on apartment hunting in the heady days before the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Below is the full text of the article.
Homing in on an apartment
Could you find a Beijing apartment in just one week? It’s easy if you know how. Emma Song, a Chinese secretary from Datong, Benny Oyama, a Japanese-American musician from New York, and Peter Walters, an American marketing executive from Utah – are close friends who had a week to find an apartment.
At the end of November 2007, Oyama was about to be evicted and Song didn’t want to pay another month’s rent for the room she was living in near Sanlitun.
Although they had discussed their separate apartment searches with each other for a few weeks, they only made the decision to become roommates two weeks before Oyama’s lease expired.
Each had different reasons for moving. Song was looking for a new living experience.
“I’ve always lived with women and women have their own rules,” she explains.
Her previous roommates had strict rules on everything from turning off the light after leaving a room to forbidding friends and relatives from staying overnight.
She was also spending 500 yuan ($70) a month on taxis to reach the Dongsishitao subway station so she could commute to her job at an investment bank on Financial Street, in Xicheng district.
Oyama had previously lived in a converted courtyard apartment in a hutong. While he initially liked the experience of “living in a village”, it became uncomfortable as other residents took too close an interest in his personal life – especially after a female visitor made a lot of noise looking for the exit late one night.
“It was a great apartment, but I never felt comfortable after that,” he says.
There was too much pressure from other residents to conform to the moral standards of the courtyard.
As a marketing executive at a technology company in Changping, Walters was spending 2,000 yuan a month commuting to downtown Beijing. While he had an apartment near his job, he was also traveling to the city center for work and social reasons once, sometimes twice a week.
Walters was also used to finding apartments quickly. Returning to Beijing in September 2006, he found an apartment a few hours after stepping off the plane.
“I told the taxi driver the name of a building – Hou Xian Dai Cheng – that I remembered and liked, and literally an hour later I had an apartment,” he says.
The Internet was key to their friendship and their hunt. Walters had met Song and Oyama through the English-language websites Craiglist (beijing.craigslist.org) and the Beijinger (thebeijinger.com).
To spearhead the search, Song used Chinese and expatriate real estate websites to find listings in their apartment hunt. However, she quickly discovered the Chinese websites were unsuitable.
“The Chinese websites are controlled by real estate agents who want you to pay a lot of money just to see the listed apartments. It was easier to use the expat websites, where there aren’t so many agents,” Song says.
Eventually, she found two listings through the Beijinger and, with Oyama in tow, looked at two apartments on the same afternoon.
The first apartment they looked at was in Dongsishitao. While it was spacious, it was too old and a 15-minute walk from the nearest subway station.
“It also smelled of the last tenant,” Song says.
Luckily, the second apartment turned out to be just what they were looking for. Located on Nanzhugan Hutong, the apartment was 80 sq m in a building that was only 4 years old.
It was a two-bedroom apartment, but Walters could use the living room on weekends. Only one person had lived there before and the furniture and appliances were new. There were even two balconies – one for each bedroom. The apartment was also conveniently located five minutes from the Chaoyangmen subway stop.
Anxious over rising rents in Beijing, especially with the Olympics around the corner, the trio signed a two-year lease.
According to a January report by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), rents in China have risen 3.1 percent year on year. Housing prices in China overall rose sharply by 10.2 percent, putting pressure on landlords to raise rents across the board.
The rent on the Nanzhuguan Hutong apartment was originally listed as 3,600 yuan a month but they got on well with the landlord.
“He was impressed that we had stable jobs and steady incomes,” Song recalls.
Because the landlord ran a visa business he was amenable to lowering the monthly rent when Song suggested he might be able to earn additional business through his foreign tenants.
He offered two options: paying either 3,400 yuan a month or 3,300 yuan a month.
The difference lay with the agent’s fee, which at 1,800 yuan was half of the listed rent. At 3,400 yuan, the landlord would cover 600 yuan of the fee and they would be able to spread the cost of the agent’s fee over the course of a year.
At 3,300 yuan, the fee was 1,800 yuan up front.
With that in mind, they opted for the higher rent. Once negotiations were finished, the trio signed the lease a day after the first viewing and Walters had seen and approved of the apartment.
Song took the larger room, paying 1,400 yuan for more natural light and a larger balcony. Oyama got the smaller room, paying 1,000 yuan a month.
For 1,000 yuan a month, Walters got the couch in the living room. He didn’t mind.
“I just felt happier knowing there was always a place for me to stay.”
One week later in early December, they moved into the apartment.
Walters says, “It was pretty quick how it happened. Two weeks before the end of November we made the decision to live together. By December, we had moved in.”