The Official WLIB Apartment Rental Guide

Posted by Pete DeMola on 23. Jun 2010

By Jason Sharp

BEIJING, JUNE 23 - I have lived in seven different apartments during my two years in Beijing and have probably come across almost every bad situation imaginable in the rental process, so I feel the need to help those of you out there who are soon-to-be renters.

When renting a unit, the clearer you are with what you want, the easier it will be to find it. Here are some helpful steps to save you time, money and hassle:

1) Understand the City Layout and Pick a Location

The Ring Roads, Good. Beijing has six concentric ring roads that circle the city at different distances from the center. Living next to one of these rings means getting to where you need to go will be easier: taxis will be cheaper and faster and your friends with cars will love you. I live just off the 4th Ring, but also there is a freeway next to me that connects directly to the 3rd Ring.

The Ring Roads, Bad. Traffic can be quite dense at some of the major interchanges, with the intersection of the East 3rd Ring and Gongren Tiyuchang North being a notable nightmare.

Student? Pick a place within 10-15 minute walking distance from both your school and a subway stop -- but always preferably closer to the subway station than school.

Not a student? Live within the 4th Ring. Unless you are a hermit, anything outside of the 4th should be grounds for dismissal. Apartments may be cheaper and larger, but the travel time is going to kill you when you want to do anything -- not to mention the taxi costs when you come home past 11pm when both the Metro and bus lines are closed.

Live next to multiple Beijing Metro lines. This is your first choice, as you can double the places to which you can go. "Oh, but I can transfer can't I?" Sure you can -- but add an extra 20-30 minutes to walk between stations and wait for another train. I live in-between three different subway lines -- Line 10 (from Zhongguancun in the northwest all the way to CBD in the East), Line 13 (that gets me to Line 2, or north out to nowhere), and Line 5 (takes me to Line 1 and the shopping districts). Of course, if you are a student, this might not be a choice for you. If you can't live near multiple lines, try to live 1-2 stops from the next line.

Be comfortable. Live next to ample restaurants, grocery stores, shopping, coffee and nightlife options. If you don't have these near you, it will definitely make life more inconvenient. I personally don't drink coffee, but the cafe environment is good for a change from writing in my apartment -- and I don't want to have to go to the Metro or take a taxi every time I want to step out for a breather. And while I love Chinese food and can eat it all day, everyday, it's nice to have a 7-11, western food outlets, Korean and Japanese food and K-TV all within walking distance -- especially if some of them are open 24/7.

2) Pick a Building

Visit the neighborhoods that you selected in Step 1 and take a look at the different buildings in the area. By picking the buildings that you want to live in advance, you will save yourself lots of time via the avoidance of agencies helping you to pinpoint exactly what you want.

Avoid old buildings. Try to avoid buildings built before 2000, and preferably even 2004. It is not true that apartments are cheaper in the older buildings: all you are getting is a headache from having to deal with bugs, the smell, broken down elevators and very old furniture. I've had to replace and fix all sorts of things in old apartments because the landlord wouldn't do it. In other cases, I have just had to live with some things: This won't happen as often in newer apartments. Did I mention avoiding the bugs and the smell?

Check the elevator. Does it run 24/7 or only until midnight? That is, of course assuming there is an elevator (most complexes 6 stories and under are walk-ups). Don't make the mistake of renting an apartment on the 15th floor in a building whose elevator operater works until midnight and locks it behind her. Good luck walking up the stairs after a night of tequila and dancing.

Select the well-kept. Some buildings, even new ones, are not kept clean, which is a good indicator that the building will have bugs -- particularly cockroaches. Go into each building and check the stairwells for trash buildup and the main elevator area for cleanliness. It's best if there is a worker stationed in front. It's okay if the place isn't spotlessly clean, but some level of cleanliness may foreshadow the condition of the rooms. Besides, who wants to stand next to trash while waiting for the elevator, anyway?

3) Agency Action

If you are proficient in Chinese and have a lot of extra time on your hands, you can try to find apartments that are not rented through agencies. I tried and failed: everyone I called turned out to be an agent. Agents have gotten smarter and pretend to be the landlord online, then when you call them they surprise you with "I'm an agent!"

Explore your options. Don't go to just one agency, but go to all of them in the area. All agencies have the same list of apartments, but what's important is that when you are dealing with different agents you will be told different things. For example, one agent might quote 3000 RMB for an apartment, while the next quotes 2800 RMB. Some agents are more resourceful, understanding and generally nicer than others. Personally, I have had best luck with 链家 (liàn jiā, or "Home Link") and the worst with 我爱我家 (Wǒ ài wǒjiā, or "I love my home.")

Tell them your requirements up front. Call them beforehand and make sure that they write it all down, and emphasize that you won't see apartments that don't match your checklist. If you don't do this, you are guaranteed to be taken to units that don't match your needs. Agencies have this trick of taking you to two apartments that you won't like and then finally taking you to one that is close to what you want to make it seem better. You don't have put up with this.

Multi-task. Make sure to tell them to find more than one apartment at a time to show you -- don't get trapped running across town just to see one unit.

Timing. Keep in mind that landlords usually have jobs, so they won't be around until after 5pm. Schedule meetings with all agencies in one go starting from 5pm all the way until about 9pm. If you schedule ahead of time, they will be able to get the landlords to stay later.

Agents of honesty. You don't need to worry too much about agencies ripping you off -- they are not going to tell you that a 2000 RMB apartment goes for 3000 RMB: they'll instead say 2400 RMB or so. Most agents are quite honest and it comes down to convincing the landlord to lower the prices -- not the agent.

Ask to meet the landlord. 我爱我家 is very bad with this. It gets really ugly if you don't have any connection with the landlord at all, as agencies do a really poor job of offering service after the purchase. If something breaks, if you need to register with the police or have some emergency, the landlord is the person you need. Agencies are known to get in the way and avoid helping you.

4) Make a Checklist of Requirements for the Apartment

You obviously already have an idea of how many bedrooms you want and how many square meters (1 sq foot = .0929 sq. meters), but beyond those, here are some additional things to consider:

Cleanliness. Agents know which apartments have been well-kept and which ones haven't. Hopefully by picking out the right buildings, you should be avoiding most dirty apartments. If you don't stress this, you will still be taken to some units-turned-dumps. Sometimes there are clean rooms in the buildings that you didn't check, so it's good to put this on your list and mention it multiple times to the agent. Note: The concept of "clean" varies from country to country, so go ahead and define what clean means to you: "No bugs, no smell, white walls," for example.

Mobile Phone Reception. How many bars are you getting? It's best to find out about a potential black hole of communication sooner rather than later.

Flooring. Do you want wooden floorboards, parquet or tile? To me, the choice is obvious: floorboards look and feel much better than the ugly-looking tile that many designers in China choose to utilize. Sometimes tile looks nice, I guess, but it's often just a disaster: my last apartment had this really ugly dirty red tile, for example.

Common Room Size. I've found that people here tend to spend most of their time in their bedrooms, so many apartments are built with very small common rooms and larger bedrooms. Westerners are more used to larger common rooms and smaller bedrooms. Determine what you would be more comfortable with. I always prefer a larger common room, so I make sure to stress this to the agent. If you don't mind and are living alone, some apartments don't have a common room but are still very nice. I don't like this, but it is an option.

Windows, Good. Don't let them take you to a dungeon, and if they do, remember to have this on your checklist. If you're looking for apartments at night, you may not notice. By asking for apartments that have larger or more windows, you will save money on electricity and will probably wake up in a better mood every day. I'm writing this from my bedroom, which has a 1.8m x 2.2m south-facing window (about half of the wall). I don't turn the lights on until late-afternoon.

Windows, Bad. If poorly insulated, your heating bills will skyrocket during the winter due to the escaping heat. And those gusty drafts aren't fun, either. If checking a unit during the summer, close the window to determine the insulation quality.

Air Conditioning. An air conditioner in every room, including the living room: Beijing gets as hot as hell during the summer and air conditioning units definitely help to take the edge off.

Water heater quality. Oh boy. I made this mistake with my current unit: Hot water only lasts for four minutes, so now I'm left in a disadvantaged position to bargain with the landlord on getting a replacement (or fixing it). This might not matter to you much, but it's another thing to take into consideration -- again, especially during the winter.

Internet & Cable TV. Make sure these are either set up, or that they can be easily set up without you having to pay set-up fees.

Furniture. You can find apartments that are nicely furnished for cheap, so don't settle -- this is a place that you'll be everyday. Any little annoyance gets multiplied by x-hours per day and y-days that you are renting for.

For me, furniture is a make-or-break requirement. Some things to keep in mind:

  • Does the furniture look like it came from the WWII period?
  • Do the colors make you want to puke? (Dirty red tile with WWII-style brown furniture and green cabinets?)
  • Are they soft? How about the bed? Give them a test-drive!
  • Is the wardrobe large enough? Is there anything missing: sofa, TV, computer desk, chair(s), wardrobe, bed(s), mattress, refrigerator, washing machine, clothesline for hanging washed clothing, mirror, etc.

5) Renting: Price and Bargaining

Don't settle. Don't take the price first quoted to you -- always bargain for something 100-400 RMB cheaper. Even if the landlord won't accept anything lower, this at least gives you stronger bargaining power for other things, although in most cases you will be able to get a cheaper price. In my current apartment, I wasn't able to bargain any lower than the current price, but because I was strong in my conviction that I wasn't getting a deal, the landlord budged on other things.

Step by step:

  • "What's the cheapest price you can give me?"
  • "What? That's it? Can't you go lower?"
    "That's too high. What about [insert something 100-400 RMB lower than what they just said]?"

Go to Step 2 (Don't accept any price yet)

Get more, or better, furniture. This is the most common place for landlords to give ground, so push hard. You can often get them to buy you a new couch, a new TV, or even a new bed and mattress. Previously, I have gotten a brand new (huge) computer desk, new chairs, a new sofa, a new bed and most recently, new air conditioners and a remodeled kitchen.

Step by step:

  • "The [insert item] is really old: there's no way I can use it. Can you replace this?"
  • "There is no [insert item] here. I'm going to need one."
    "These lights are really old. Can you replace them with new ones?"

Make an offer. Make an on-the-spot offer at a lower price than they said, while also throwing in the furniture they promised they could provide. Say that you will take the apartment and will pay the deposit right now if he takes the price. The landlord will be very tempted to rent it right away in fear of missing a month's rental period looking for a renter. Make sure to constantly wear a look of worry and dissatisfaction on your face. Once you have found your ideal apartment, this is a good way to get a slightly-cheaper price.

Year-Long Contract. You can get the rent cheaper if you sign a year long contract, and even cheaper if you pay for a year upfront.

Avoid scams. Avoid any contract that requires two months deposit. This is a scam to steal your money. As many people end up leaving before their contracted time is up, the agency can legally keep your money. Also when you decide to move, they can rack up costs such as "cleaning" or "maintenance" and take away a chunk of your deposit. Keep your risk to a minimum and go for the standard one month deposit plus three months of rent at a time.

Avoid giving away your money. For apartments over 3000 RMB, the agency fee is usually paid by the landlord. This is actually a really stupid policy when you do the math. Say you are renting an apartment for 2800 RMB plus the agency fee. First, break the agency fee into 12 months, or 233 RMB per month. That means you are really paying 3033 RMB for the 2800 RMB apartment, but only 3000 RMB for the other one. Rent only below 2700 (or above 3000) to avoid being an idiot and giving away free money.

Other Stuff

Police Registration. Foreigners must register with the police when they move and must bring along tax receipts from rent. Landlords throughout Beijing seem to have unanimously agreed that foreigners will pay this tax. Convince your landlord to say you are a friend, as friends don't pay rent and thus there is nothing to be taxed, so you get to save 5% on your rent. If you can't, then have the agency write up a dummy contract that sets the rent price much lower than what you are actually paying in order to avoid some tax.

Unfurnished apartments. Consider them. I am renting a non-furnished apartment. The furnished equivalent goes for 700 RMB more per month. After purchasing furniture myself (thus I own it and I picked out what I like), and dividing the price by 13 months (12 months + 1 month agency fee), I end up saving 300RMB per month on rent in addition to whatever money I can get for my used furniture when I move out and sell it.

You can read more of Jason's writing at his blog, Beyond Bounds.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Sarmu through Creative Commons Licensing.

Did you find our guide helpful? If we are missing anything, share your tips and experiences with the rest of the community to make renting an apartment that much easier.

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