Photo by author. Chaoyang District, Beijing. Hongshan Jia Yuan apartment complex circa 2016

Congratulations! You finished Step 1 on finding an apartment! You picked something and agreed to meet up with an agent! And now it’s time to look at some flats! 

If this is your first time living in China, you’re going to learn quick Chinese apartments are nothing like American apartments. There are so many things you need to consider before picking a flat. 

At first, I wanted to talk about my experience looking for a flat in Beijing. Not every person is going to have the same experience as me. Some of my former coworkers had housing horror stories. However, I had a decent experience looking for apartments. 

So I turned to Facebook. I’m part of a group of former Beijingers who reminisce about their time there. Some of the things they said happened to me too! When you find a flat, here are some things to expect:

You’re not going to have the same appliances as you would at home.

You’re going to be disappointed if you expect a dishwasher and dryer while looking for an apartment. In the six years I’d been there, I never saw either one in any flat. Even my coworkers didn’t have these things. 

Sometimes, you could get an oven in your apartment if you’re lucky, but those flats were expensive. Those buildings usually catered to foreigners coming to China to work. 

For your dishes, you’ll need to either get used to washing by hand or going to restaurants to get your food. Whatever it takes to avoid doing too many dishes. 

As for drying your clothes, every Chinese apartment has a sunroom for your wet clothes. They usually have a bar for you to hang your clothes on, but you can buy clothing racks, too. China was where I learned why fabric softener is essential with your laundry. 

Photo by author. Kitchen and sunroom in the apartment. February 2016

My second apartment didn’t come with a washer, but I asked for one before moving in. My landlords were fantastic and made sure I had one the next day. 

You can ask your landlord for different appliances before you move in, too! Just don’t expect any of those appliances to be dishwashers or dryers. A toaster oven? Yes! Microwave? Definitely! All you have to do is ask. 

There is a lot of flexibility in apartment labels.

This one needs some explaining. I never had this experience, for I managed to find one-bedroom flats for cheap. However, this bit of advice is one I got from the Beijingers Abroad Facebook group. 

Sometimes, apartment ads are misleading. An ad can say it’s a two-bedroom flat, but there’s one bedroom and a bed in the living room when you get there. Sometimes, an apartment won’t have a kitchen! 

To avoid surprise, be specific with your agent about what you want in your flat. If you want a kitchen, tell them you want a kitchen. Make sure you get air conditioning in your apartment instead of a fan. Heated floors? Ask for them! 

If you don’t like what you see, don’t agree to it. It’s okay to walk away from an apartment if you have a bad feeling about it. 

Don’t let the building itself fool you.

Most seasoned ex-pats in China have a story about shady buildings. On the outside, many apartment complexes don’t look like much. Some of them look shady. But when you walk inside, these apartments are beautiful. 

I couldn’t tell you how many coworkers would walk into terrible-looking buildings and have fancy flats inside. It’s like China took not judging a book by its cover to heart! 

Having an older building does have some other advantages, too. Newer establishments are more prone to construction. 

Every ex-pat has a story about living in a building under constant construction. That jackhammer stays on the same spot through the whole remodeling!

Older buildings can come back to bite you, though. Smaller apartment buildings don’t need to have elevators if they’re less than 6 floors. So keep that in mind when hunting for housing. 

Don’t worry about a heating bill.

If you live in Northern China, this bit of information is for you. The building controls the heating, and it will turn on around November and turn off around March or April. 

If by Thanksgiving it’s not turned on, talk to your landlord. There could be a problem with your heating. 

The bathrooms are real water closets.

Photo by author. Bathroom in my second apartment. 

Here is what I mean. Nothing separates the shower from the toilet. Your whole bathroom will get wet if your bathroom is small enough. 

In my first apartment, my bathroom was so small; I showered in front of my toilet. In my second apartment, the bathroom was bigger, but the washer was there, too. 

I have seen showers with shower stalls in smaller cities like Chengdu. But I haven’t seen very many. Expect a wet bathroom when you pick your apartment. 

Rent isn’t typically paid monthly.

I’m not going to spend too much time talking about this, for rent and utilities deserve a separate article. However, it’s something you should know before choosing a flat. 

When paying rent, landlords typically expect monthly pay. Instead, they expect you to pay every three months. 

However, when you sign your lease, you’re going to need more than three month’s rent. It could be up to five month’s rent! If you use an agent, you’re going to need to pay the agent. And you’ll need to pay the security deposit too. 

Be careful with this one, though. Make sure you know how much you need to pay in advance before you sign anything. That way, you’re not going to get ripped off. 

When I lived in Beijing, I had a rule about finding an apartment. If three month’s rent is more than my paycheck, I didn’t bother looking at it. It’s a rule that served me well. 

The Takeaway

How can a new person make sure they know what they’re getting into before signing a lease? 

  • Be specific with what you want when talking to an agent. Ask agents particular questions about each flat. And don’t forget to ask them to show you where the police station is. (I’ll talk about the police station in a future article.) 
  • Rent is quarterly. Factor that into your budget. 
  • Check everything in the flat before agreeing to sign a lease. 
  • Make sure you know how to pay your landlord and utilities. (I’ll write a future article about this part.) 

Follow these directions, and you’ll have a smooth transition with moving into your new apartment! 


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Keara Hopkins

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