We're not going to lie—apartment hunting is no more fun here than it is anywhere else in the world. Between grubby bathrooms, odd configurations, window cages, unattractive, oversized furniture, gaudy fixtures ... the list of Westerners' complaints about Chinese apartments is long. And, as usual, the tighter your budget, the further the annoyances are compounded. So, with the shoestringers and the starving artists in mind, we've compiled this guide to a (slightly) less stressful search.
The Initial Search
• Verbalize a rough idea of what you're looking for: how many rooms, how much you're willing to spend, absolute musts (e.g., no squat toilet, must be furnished, etc.) It also helps if you know approximately how many square meters you're looking for.
• If you're on your own looking for an apartment, the most efficient way is to go through a real-estate agent. For high-end clients, Chengdu is overwhelmed with relocation companies that provide pre- and after-sales service in multiple languages. But if you're looking for a rental in the couple-thousand-or-less range, you'll need to battle it out on the streets with local real-estate offices.
• Identify real-estate offices by the blue and red cards with white house shapes on them posted in the windows. You should look for offices in the area you want to live in. Walk in and tell them your specifications. You'll generally be asked:
o Monthly rent budget (most agents will show you places within a few hundred lower and higher)
o How many rooms?
o Furnished or unfurnished?
o In a new building with an elevator, or is an old, walk-up building OK?
o If the agent finds anything meeting these criteria, he or she will usually tell you how many square meters the flat is and what floor it's on and then ask if you want to look at it.
• Don't expect to find something you like right away, especially if you're on a budget. Plan to spend at least a few (disheartening) days looking at places. The first day is generally good for getting a feel for the different options available at each price range and re-evaluating how much you're willing to spend on rent.
• If you like a place enough to consider moving in, it's time to ask more questions of the agent, who can negotiate with the landlord on your behalf:
o Are there any furnishings or appliances not currently in the apartment that you want? Conversely, is there anything that you want removed? (It's usually easier to add than to take away, but it never hurts to ask.)
o What is the length of contract? (One year is most common; half-year contracts, less so.)
o What are payment terms? (Generally, the more you pay up front, the lower per-month rate you can ask for.)
o Is this yard open 24 hours, or is there a closing time? (It's common courtesy to pay guards RMB1 each time they get up at night to open the gate for you after closing time. Other places will frown upon your coming and going at all hours of the night, so ask.)
o If applicable, are pets allowed in the flat? Can the landlord arrange a cleaning before you move in?
• Decisiveness is an asset in this situation: If you're not seriously considering moving in, tell the agent so, and don't bother with hypothetical negotiations. Usually, you'll be pressured to make a decision within a day—apartments move fast in a country with so many people. If you can't make up your mind, you can pay a non-refundable holding fee which will go toward your first month's rent should you ultimately rent it. The amount is negotiable.
• Regardless of the rental cost, the agent's fee is generally half a month's rent, due upon signing a rental contract. (You're not obligated to pay any agency fee unless you actually rent a flat.)
Tip: Bargain Hunters
Just a few years ago, Westerners coming to China would gawk at how cheap everything was—especially flat rentals. With the cost of living in cities like Chengdu skyrocketing, that reality is fading into history. Flats that rented for RMB1,000 per month several years ago are now closer to RMB1,500. If you're still looking for a bargain basement, so to speak, look around the high-rises to the 70s-era seven-story walk-up buildings—some of which do feature nicely renovated interiors. If you're staying longer than a year and looking in older buildings where appliances have seen better days anyway, renting an unfurnished flat and buying secondhand appliances and a few pieces of furniture might actually cost you less than paying for a furnished apartment month after month.
Contract and Move-in
• Standard deposit is one month's rent, to be returned upon satisfactory completion of your contract, minus damages and unpaid utility bills.
• Before signing the contract, tour the flat with the landlord, checking that all appliances, plumbing, light fixtures, etc. work and that any existing damage to furnishings is noted on the contract.
• Ask the landlord to explain which bills you have to pay and when, how, and where to pay them. He or she should show you the gas, water, and electric meters and write down the numbers on the meters when you move in. Ask if there are any cards or other documentation you will need to pay the bills.
• Some apartment complexes charge a management fee—a monthly charge for grounds upkeep, cleaning, trash collection, and other services. Ask how much this is. Other hidden fees include the standard monthly TV-access charge, whether or not you watch TV. You should also ask the landlord how to set up a landline if you need one as well as an Internet connection.
• Ask for a copy of the real-estate agent's license and ID. You will also need a photocopy of your landlord's ID. Make sure to specify that you want a photocopy of the person's ID whose name was used to register for the water, electricity, gas, cable, telephone, Internet, and so on in case you have any problems with setting up accounts or paying bills.
• After you move in, don't forget to register for your temporary residency permit at the local police station. By law, foreigners must do this within 24 hours of arrival. It's free and shouldn't take more than a couple minutes. Bring your passport (with valid visa), rental contract, and your landlord's ID number. You must re-register every time you move.
• Don't get too comfortable: Sooner or later you'll need to move. Usually this happens when either a) You realize your rent's not such a great deal after all; b) You realize you can't stand your roommate; c) Your landlord says his or her family member is moving in—which is landlordhua for "I'm renovating and renting out the unit at a higher price."
• Especially if you're in an older flat, at least some, if not all, of your appliances and furnishings are likely to cease functioning properly before the rental contract is up. On move-out day, costs of repairs (as well as any outstanding appliance bills) will be deducted from your deposit unless you've specified in the contract upon renting the flat that you're not responsible for paying for repairs.
• Unwanted visitors. Roaches and rats seem to plague everyone to some degree, especially in the warmer months. To discourage them from dropping by, use common-sense food-storage practices, keep your windows shut when you're away, and, if necessary, buy traps or sprays.
• Unwanted visitors, part 2. If the riddle of paying bills never resolves itself, and you decide to take a laissez-faire approach, every once in a while you'll hear a loud banging and yelling at your door, usually bright and early in the morning. This is the meter-reader, and you should let him or her in to take a look at your meter, write down some numbers derived from mysterious calculations, and then reprimand you for failing to pay your bill on time (again).
• Hyperconstruction. If you're in a newer building where units are still being renovated, but even in old ones, you'll be subjected to a delightful harmony of hammers, drills, and saws beating out their rhythms starting in the morning and going until evening, seven days a week. Particularly pleasant if you work from home or during Saturday-morning hangovers.
This "article"was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 26 ("how to 3.0"). Illustrations by Christoph Knecht.