So, you need to find an apartment in China. The ultimate needle in a haystack situation. I have personally just finished my apartment search, and even though it was for less than a week, it was still exhausting. This is thankfully only the second time Ive searched for my own apartment, but I can offer some tips and tricks to make your search as easy as possible, and make you aware of the common obstacles.

Where to look for apartments in China?

1) To find an apartment in China,first try expat-oriented websites, like SmartShanghai (and its new Bejing site, SmartBeijing). The most important benefit here is that the apartments offered are real. The site penalizes realty companies that put up fake pictures. The apartments here are just a fraction of what are available, but this is not a bad place to start.

2) Chinese real estate sites, which are all in Chinese, can offer some direction to help you find an apartment in China. Some examples of these are Soufun.com, Haozu.com, or Baixingwang. In my experience, there is major fishing going on here. Companies will put up an amazing looking apartment with a really cheap price. Im not sure if the apartment never existed in the first place, but they wont be able to show it to you. I use this just to get contacts at realty agencies. I call them up, tell them my requirements, and then see if they get back with me.

3) Chinese realty offices. Shanghai has tons of real estate offices. What you want to look for are the characters 房产, and the offices usually have their outside windows covered with flyers advertising apartments to buy or rent. The nice thing about these offices is that they service the area that the office is located in. So, go to the area you want to live, walk around, and stop in every office you can find, pick up their cards, and hassle them (if they arent hassling you) to find you a place.

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Tips when talking to an agent

When finding an apartment in China, you must be clear about what you want. If you are looking for a 1 bedroom apartment but want a living room, you must be clear that you do not want a studio apartment. If you want to live in a high-rise building, you have to tell them. If you are searching for a 2 bedroom apartment, tell them that the second bedroom must be an actual room with a real door. Ive been to visit apartments where a circular bed in the dining room was classified as a bedroom.

Also, a note about price. The agent will show you apartments just over your budget. This is going to happen, so be clear about what your maximum is, and refuse to see apartments over that price. It may be worth looking at apartments a couple hundred RMB over your budget, because you can always bargain the rent down.

Finally, how about the quality of apartments?

Rarely will you find the perfect apartment in China. You may find one with a great layout, but atrocious furniture. Or an acceptable one with pink walls covered in Hello Kitty stickers (Im serious about this). Or a 3 bedroom without any bedroom furniture for the 3rd room. None of these things should be deal breakers for you. Be sure to talk with the agent about what you can do, and what the landlord can provide. I recently looked at a 2 bedroom apartment that needed bedroom furniture, a new tv, another couch, a dining room table, a new coat of paint, and more. The landlord agreed that if I move in, he would give 7000 RMB toward all these new things. So, if you dont like something, try to communicate with the landlord, and either have him provide it for free, or lower the monthly rent.

For more information about apartment hunting, what to check for in potential apartments, and landlord negotiation, check out China Living: A Practical Guide to Living & Thriving in China

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