Initially, expats are often overwhelmed by the variety of accommodation in China, but soon realise that small apartments in large apartment buildings are their most affordable option. These often feel cramped at first, especially for Westerners from less populated countries with larger properties
Most expats adjust, however, and end up being perfectly comfortable – they even find that everything they need can be stored with a bit of creative organisation.
Renting accommodation in China
Expats should be warned that a “standard apartment” in China could be anything from a tiny, dark room with squat toilets to a spacious flat with Internet facilities and marble floors. Of course, most apartments are somewhere between. As a result, potential tenants should conduct thorough market research when they first arrive to ensure that they find a place they could reasonably occupy for an extended period of time.
The price of accommodation varies widely according to size, amenities and the region of China being considered. Apartments in China are either furnished or unfurnished, which also affects price. Before shipping a large portion of belongings overseas, however, expats should keep in mind that there is an impressive assortment of home accessory and furniture stores in China, including IKEA.
The most expensive real estate is usually found in the big cities – Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Within these, the most expensive rentals include serviced luxury apartments which are usually reserved for short-term rentals, and villa complexes aimed at China’s nouveau rich and foreign executives.
Expats looking to cut costs could resort to house-sharing – a form of accommodation popular with younger foreigners for quite some time. This can be arranged via online couch-surfing portals, Internet forums and word of mouth. It is sometimes easier for a few expats to get together to hire an agent and rent an entire apartment than it is to find a single room for rent.
Aside from the standard roommate arrangement, some adventurous expats choose to rent a room with a Chinese family, known as “homestaying.” This is often done through homestay websites but it can be risky. While some people enjoy the experience, many report problems with agencies and families who expect tenants to tutor their children.
It should be noted, however, that under the vast majority of circumstances, expats are required by law to register their address at the local Public Service Bureau (PSB) as soon as they move in.
Finding accommodation in China
Foreigners who don’t speak Mandarin usually enlist the services of a Chinese real estate agent to help them find a place to stay. Estate agencies are widely available and easily identifiable by the pictures of houses and apartments in their windows.
While some agencies in the larger cities may be able to help customers in English, it is often necessary to hire a translator to help with negotiations.
Commission for real estate agents in China is usually around 35 percent of one month’s rent to be paid by the tenant. It is best, however, to check with the agency upfront. After settling on a property, it isn’t uncommon for an amount to be paid to the landlord so that they will reserve it during the contract negotiation process.
Rental contracts are generally valid for one year and usually require a refundable two-month security deposit. Upon signing the lease, the tenant is expected to pay one month’s rent up front – often in cash.
A contract in both English and Chinese should be signed unless both parties are comfortable with one language. It is, however, advisable to have the contract checked by a Chinese-speaker to make sure that the contracts are the same. While both documents are binding, should a dispute arise it often happens that the Chinese contract is favoured.
Rent is usually paid in Chinese currency, in cash, a month in advance. Expats with a Chinese bank account might be able to set up a direct debit or a standing order to cover their monthly rental expenses.
Buying property in China
The Chinese real estate market is regulated by strict laws, and expats looking to buy property in China are advised to proceed with caution. This is further complicated by the fact that different cities may have different rules.
At the very least, to even be eligible expats need to have lived in the country for work or study purposes for at least a year. By law, only they are able to live in the property, meaning that it cannot be rented out unless the buyer applies to start a foreign company, and registers the property for commercial purposes.
It is highly advised that prospective foreign buyers secure the services of a bilingual Chinese real estate lawyer to guide them through the process. The legal terrain involved in buying a house in China is notoriously treacherous, and having someone familiar with Chinese law is the most pain-free way of going about the process.
Utilities in China
IC card for phone in Beijing, China
The tenant is generally expected to pay utility bills in China. Payment methods can vary between cities and expats should check this with the relevant local authorities.
Electricity payments are regulated by the State and tariffs are the same across the country. Bills have to be paid to the local provider within 10 days of receiving an account, which will be sent after a meter reader visits the property.
Many people use pre-paid electric meters. First-time buyers apply for an IC card at an authorised outlet, such as a branch of the power supply company or certain banks, depending on the city. After receiving their IC card, which simply means that the card is inserted rather than being a PIN-operated IP card, tenants purchase units that are loaded onto the card, which is then inserted into their meter.
Tenants in apartments with access to a natural gas line will generally receive a payment notice shortly after a meter reader visits their property. The bill will indicate a fixed period of time within which to pay, and payments can be made at gas company outlets and certain banks. In some cities, expats may be able to use an IC card for their gas supply as well. Gas is usually billed at a fixed rate per cubic metre.
Much the same as gas and electricity, a meter reader comes to measure the household’s water consumption and the local water company sends a payment notice which generally gives the tenant 15 days in which to pay their bill. Bills are paid at certain banks and water company outlets.
Some services may require proof of certification, such as the Certificate for Residential Power Consumption, especially for first-time purchases. Expats should ask their agent about this in the contract negotiation stage.
As most expats will know, the government closely controls the Internet in China, not just in terms of censorship but also access. If their property doesn’t already have access to the Internet, a connection will have to be applied for via the regional telecom company or China Telecom, the state-owned telecommunications provider. Bills are usually sent on a monthly basis.
These companies also provide phone lines, which can be billed on a monthly basis or charged with a card.
There are WiFi hotspots all over the larger cities, while expats would also be able to purchase a pre-paid 3G card from mobile phone shops.
It is also fairly common for expats to hire a housekeeper in China. Informally called ayi, Chinese for “aunt”, they provide services that many expats would not be able to afford at home.
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