Rising rents in Beijing have made finding a great flat on a budget even harder. Hai-Li Kong talks to renters, landlords and estate agents to present eight tips for finding the ideal home.
Don’t rely on the web; it’s the easiest portal of entry for house-searches, but only a fraction of the apartments available in this city are posted online. Usually these properties are there because of a landlord’s over-ambitious pricing, aimed at people who are new in town. As Pamela Yao, an agent from Joanna Real Estate, points out, ‘The rentals online may seem cheaper than those on the market, but often they don’t include fees in the price.’ Instead, find an area you like and scout around. Walk-ins to high-street agents are usually more fruitful, and while not totally risk free, are more soberly priced, too.
Most of the thousands of letting agents in Beijing are from the surrounding provinces. Few earn more than 1,500RMB per month, and all are chasing hard-fought-for commissions. Dealing with them requires patience and caution. Be specific about what you want, because most will give up after showing you five or six places if they think they’ve met your initial criteria. Chunck Feng at Key Solution Realty recommends saying something like ‘Find me a place in Park Avenue,’ rather than ‘Find me a place in the CBD.’ Being direct and clear about what you want will limit the potential for wasted visits to dud apartments. As a minimum, have an idea of street names, subway lines and a specific budget before you speak to an agent.
Some agents will ask questions that sound like small talk: how long have you been in Beijing? Do you have friends here? How many places have you seen already? What’s your deadline for finding a place? This is usually to gauge your hold of the market and try to exploit any naivety. Time-poor newcomers can expect a long tour of less-than-savoury places at bloated prices to make a mediocre apartment seem comparatively liveable. Be assertive and bring pictures of places you’ve seen, if possible.
Yes, we’ve all heard the story about a friend of a friend of a friend who found this amazing 100sqm space by Sanlitun for 2,000RMB last year. Even if it’s true, the market has changed, and rents have soared. Using a friend’s place as a benchmark for what to expect is seriously hazardous. Chunck Feng from Key Realty Solution states the stats: ‘in the past five years, the rent has been increasing by 20 percent to 30 percent every year.’
All landlords have had at least one rogue renter. Most would rather let to a reliable tenant at a small discount than a potential troublemaker for top dollar. At most viewings, the landlord will be present. Dress smart, address them in Chinese if you can and always offer to take off your shoes. If you like a place, be sociable – tell them about yourself, your job, how your party days are behind you, and that work takes up most of your time – but never appear overly keen, or else it can be harder to negotiate prices.
For the most part, landlords here will own just one extra property and are exercising their right to let their family nest egg. Even so, make enquiries about an apartment’s ownership and try and get the gist of the landlord’s character. The landlord gets to interview you, so it’s only fair that you get to gauge the disposition of your landlord as well. Nice owners can give discounts, but a good renter-owner relationship can go beyond monetary issues. Michaela, a nine-year Chaoyang resident, stresses how she looks for owners who are ‘attentive and responsive, because if they don’t care about the building it makes it hard for me to adjust and live comfortably.’
Because competition at the bottom end of the market is so fierce, major climb-downs on rent for cheaper apartments are rarer than, say, mid-range rentals (6,000-10,000RMB) where margins for negotiation are broader. Still, it’s always worth a try. For the most part the agent will do the bidding for you (especially for non-Chinese speakers), but if you like a place, linger as long as possible, be thorough in your checks, ask lots of questions and be personable. Landlords at viewings are much more likely to engage in serious negotiations if they’ve invested an hour or so of time in a viewing.
As noted, sizeable, lifestyle-altering reductions in rent are rare. But if the landlord isn’t budging, there are a number of extras worth asking for: microwaves, convection ovens, new curtains, mattresses and even DVD players and flat-screen TVs are common sweeteners. One Gulou tenant, Yin Kong, told us that her landowner helps laowai renters equip their space with IKEA furniture. Other tenants we’ve spoken to have been given discounts for promises not to cook too much. Not needing a fapiao, or receipt, can lower the rent by up to 15 percent; paying cash can help too.