Home to 12 major cuisines, 55 minority ethnicities and more than 77 million businesses, it’s easy to see why China is so appealing to expats.
Despite its incredible food, diversity and the major business boom that’s been on a steady roll since 2015, China is still significantly more affordable to live in than many western countries, and the reward for moving to Asia is often great. This is served up in the form of beautiful local culture and historic sites, incredible access to the rest of Asia, the ability to serve customers in the APAC region, breathtaking countryside vacations and views, and a first-class education for your children.
In fact, China is so affordable that the rent in major cities averages just ¥3,403.55 per month, or even lower at ¥2,015.81 in the suburbs. The cost of living itself is equally inexpensive. For instance, a three course meal for two people will run you about ¥140.
Whether you’re moving to Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Hangzhou or anywhere in between, the most important step in your move is going to be finding an apartment. This guide will walk you through all the most important information about renting a place to live in China.
Realistically, the real estate market in China can be pretty overwhelming, especially in bigger cities. When you’re surrounded by what feels like a million apartment buildings and have little understanding of the language, using a real estate agent can help you sort through the clutter and understand what you’re looking at.
In bigger cities it’s pretty easy to find a real estate agent who speaks English, however, in smaller towns it can be a good idea to bring your own translator to your appointment. That being said, Chinese real estate agents notoriously try to upsell their foreign clients, assuming you have a larger budget than you originally stated. Because they work on commission, your agent may try to convince you to take an apartment outside of your price range, but remember it’s okay to be inflexible.
When you’re searching for an apartment, trying to make sense of the many Chinese words and phrases can get really confusing, really fast. Here are some important ones to look out for as your start your online search:
- Realtor: 房地產经纪人
- Deposit: 保證金
- Lease: 出租
- Furnished apartment: 带家具的公寓
- Fees: 费用
- Room: 间
- Rent: 出租
It’s extremely common for Chinese apartments to come furnished, both in long and short term rentals. This means that when you’re picking an apartment you not only have to like the space and the neighborhood, but you often have to agree with the decoration. That being said, bargaining is fairly common in the Chinese rental market. If you’re lucky, you may be able to convince the owner to remove the furniture and get a lower monthly payment in the bargain.
Yes. In fact, it’s encouraged. Foreigners are often given preferential treatment by landlords, as expats have a reputation for keeping the apartment neat and paying the rent on time. You can leverage that preference into a lower rate, if you’re shrewd!
Probably not. Most landlords will require you to show your visa or proof that you’re allowed to be living in the country, and those credentials are tough to earn without Chinese employment.
Overall, Chinese tenant law heavily favors the landlord. There are no laws around rental discrimination, price fixing or deposit amounts, and most contracts will call for friendly dispute management instead of legal action. While the laws are complex, there’s an important one for foreign renters to remember: make sure your new apartment is registered as a rental property.
Many Chinese landlords choose not to register their properties, as this incurs a fee. Unfortunately, expats typically have to register where they’re living, which means you and your landlord can both get in trouble. Even if you’re tempted to skip out on registering where you live, the police can (and do) perform random checks, and if you get caught you’ll be facing legal trouble.
The details that go into a rental agreement vary from landlord to landlord and city to city, however, you can plan ahead and check out a sample rental agreement for an apartment in Beijing.
When you’re renting in China, there are two up-front fees you should be aware of. The first is a “blocking” fee, which you’ll be asked to put down once you’ve decided you’re seriously interested in the apartment. This fee can be anywhere from 10-15% of a month’s rent, and essentially “blocks” the landlord from letting the apartment to another tenant while you make your final decision. The blocking fee is usually not refundable.
You’ll also need to put down a deposit on the apartment. This fee is usually one or two months rent, and is refunded to you at the end of your tenancy if you leave your apartment in the same condition in which you rented it.
Most landlords in China will require you to pay for your own electricity, water and gas bills, as well as cable and internet if you elect to have them. That being said, utilities are relatively inexpensive in China, and your bill will typically fall somewhere around ¥400 per month.
You may also need to pay a maintenance fee for your building, which can be another ¥100-200 monthly. Sometimes this is covered by the landlord, but it’s more typical for the building to pass those costs onto the renter.
Renting an apartment shouldn’t require you to sign more than a standard rental contract. There are, however, some additional steps and documents you should have prepared. For example, you’re likely to be required to show your landlord proof of your Chinese visa, and you'll then be required to register your residence with the Chinese government.
If you’re renting an apartment in China, it’s likely that you’ll need to make some concessions in the amenities that make you comfortable at home. For instance, it’s highly unusual for kitchens to be equipped with microwaves, ovens, dishwashers or hot water. Usually refrigerators can be found in the hallway or even the living room. In rural areas, you’ll probably find your shower is part of a wet room, meaning there’s no enclosed shower area. You may also look at some apartments with squat toilets, though this is becoming more rare.
If you’re looking for an apartment in any of the major cities, however, you’ll be able to find an apartment with all the western amenities you’re used to, if you’re willing to pay for it. Overall, some of the most important things to look for are:
- Clean public spaces
- Lack of clutter in the hallways from other tenants
- Space to wash/ hang dry laundry
- Hot water in the bathroom
- Space to add comfort items where necessary
Sometimes you’ll be able to pay your rent online or via a direct bank transfer from your account at home, however more commonly you’ll need to either make a payment from a local Chinese bank account or pay entirely in cash.
As such, it’s a good idea to keep a local bank funded with enough to cover rent, bills and deposits. If you’re transferring money from your international bank account, it’s a good idea to use a service like TransferWise to get the real exchange rate and cut down on hefty international transfer fees.
Finding a rental apartment in China is usually best done through a real estate agent or broker, and finding apartments online can be a challenge. That being said, there are some sites where you can start getting a feel for what’s out there, including:
If you’re looking for a roommate, you’re best off checking out the website of the local newspaper in whatever town or city you’re hoping to move to.
When you’re in the middle of your apartment search, it can feel like a huge relief to find a place you like and you’ll be tempted to fork over any cash you need in order to start moving in, but watch out! There are some common scams that happen in apartments rentals in China, such as the following:
- Mailing keys: A landlord may tell you they’re not living in the city at the moment and will ask you to wire them the deposit and rent, at which time they’ll mail the key. Never send a landlord money without meeting them in person, testing the keys and entering the apartment.
- Fake rooms: If you’re looking to share an apartment, only pay if you’re sure the other tenant is really living there. Some scammers will show you an empty apartment they have access to, take your money and then disappear - leaving you with a fake key and no access to your “new apartment.”
- Unregistered apartments: As an expat, you’ll probably be required to register your residence with the local government. If you rent an apartment that isn’t registered, or that’s zoned for a purpose that isn’t housing (like an office) you could face fines, legal action and even jail if you don’t vacate fast enough.
With that, you’re ready to start your search. Good luck!