Shanghai is the largest city on earth, with some 24 million inhabitants. It’s also home to the world’s busiest container port, and huge numbers of global businesses, especially those connected with financial services. The Shanghai stock exchange is the world’s third largest, and hundreds of banks and financial institutions have their offices in Shanghai, the heart of China’s financial services industry. It can be a wonderful expat destination, too. The sheer scale of the city means there's something here for everyone - but it can also make it a little daunting when it comes to choosing a place to live. Luckily the strong public transportation system means that getting around isn’t as much of a challenge as you might think. Although some areas of the city are congested and people have long commute times in general, with some planning you can find a home that’s near enough to your work or university to make it manageable.
Rental prices in Shanghai are fairly steep for China - coming in on average about 5% higher than in the capital, Beijing. In fact, Shanghai is generally found to be the most expensive city in mainland China. Naturally, though, costs are relative - and rent in Shanghai still averages out at almost 50% cheaper than in London. A one bedroom apartment in the city centre will set you back just under ¥6900 on average a month, excluding utilities. That’s just over $1000 a month.
If you’re just making plans, it’s important to take into account all the costs associated with your move to China. Compare the cost of living in Shanghai with that of your home town using a comparison site such as Numbeo, and check out this quick guide to renting in Shanghai to find the perfect place for you.
Shanghai is a large, busy city, and you’ll find a wide range of housing options. In the centre of the city you can find apartments, including a lot of newly built housing stock. There are also more traditional homes, which tend to be in more atmospheric neighbourhoods. Because these older houses and apartments often have relatively little security, and may not have been renovated for some time, they tend to be less popular with expats.
Choosing a good location for your home is crucial in a city as large as Shanghai. Naturally you’ll want to be close enough to work or your university to make your commute time acceptable, although it’s also worth thinking about the sort of other amenities you want close. Some districts are better than others for bars and restaurants, for example, and not all homes on offer will give you quick access to outdoor areas and parks to enjoy.
It’s often a good idea to have an agent help you in your search for a rental home in Shanghai. The market is busy, and the city is large, so if you don’t have great language skills you might find it tricky to narrow down your options and make practical arrangements. There will, naturally, be a fee to pay for this service, but if you find an agent you trust, who really knows the area of Shanghai you’re interested in, you might have many more options to choose from. This could well justify the additional costs involved.
The rental market in Shanghai is large, and you’ll find a wide range of different types of property. Some homes will come furnished, including everything you need to move right in. Others will be marketed as unfurnished and would typically be cheaper than the furnished options. It’s also possible to find partly furnished properties.
However, it’s well worth clarifying what’s available in the property in some detail before you visit, as landlords might have varying ideas about what can be classified as furnished. Given you might need to see multiple properties before finding the right one for you, you can find you’re wasting a lot of time seeing undesirable options if you’re not very specific with your agent.
If you’re only in Shanghai for a relatively short time, there are fully furnished short term rents available, although these tend to cost a lot more.
Private rentals tend to be fairly expensive, so for students or those looking to find a cheaper deal, a flatshare might be a better option. This is a common arrangement in Shanghai, as younger people especially look to get the best possible combination of accommodation which is in a good location, and still at a reasonable price.
Flat shares are more ‘one off’ individual arrangements. That means looking through your contacts and friends is a good start, and simply asking if anyone has a room to spare and is looking for a new flatmate. Alternatively, you could try a local site like Smart Shanghai which has ads for all sorts of room and flat sharing arrangements.
Facebook is another good place to look. There are flatshare and couch surfing groups operating across the city, but whichever you choose, remember it's a small world. Landlords may post flat share offers in several different groups. Being quick to respond, honest and straightforward in your dealings will reap the best results.
An alternative is to look for room rentals or student flat shares through Bai Xing - the Chinese Craigslist, although you’ll need to speak Chinese to navigate the site.
Naturally, where you choose to rent in Shanghai will be largely dictated by the location of your job or university. Not to mention your budget. As you might expect, the further away from the heart of town you go, the more affordable the rents. So you can get more for your money if you’re prepared to have a bit of a journey into the city. In many areas the public transportation system is good enough that you can live a little further out of the centre of town if you want more space, or are working to a limited budget, and still have a reasonable daily commute.
Pudong is the area east of the river, and home to the city’s financial district. The skyline here is dominated by steel and glass, with impressive buildings such as the Oriental Pearl Tower. Although the area is mainly commercial, with offices, banks and institutions such as the Shanghai stock exchange, there are also compounds and apartment blocks, making it possible to live and work in the same neighbourhood. The transportation connections to the western districts the other side of the river are very good too, for when you need to get away.
The Shanghai Stock Exchange itself is in the Lujiazui Financial Zone, and here you’ll find some residential accommodation which is aimed at professionals and expats. The costs are high, but so is the convenience, and the blocks tend to be well managed and planned.
Another option this side of the river is Kangqiao. This area is less recently developed, but there are international schools here which makes it a popular choice for expats. As a result, there are new shopping malls and other amenities which make it a fairly easy place to live. It’s not too far to the heart of the city if you need to commute, with a 45 minute drive to get you to the iconic Peace Hotel on the Bund, and a slightly shorter journey to the middle of Pudong.
On this side of the river you have the historic Bund, with its colonial era buildings and heavy traffic. This neighbourhood, the Huangpu District, is very busy with tourists, and therefore there’s little residential real estate. Nearby, you have the area known as Xuhui which is the largest inner area of Shanghai, spread out over most of the historic former French Concession area. Most of the historic homes in this area are taken by government officials and embassy families.
Instead you could try Changning district, which has been a popular expat neighbourhood for a long time. With easy access to facilities, offices and commercial areas, and also family friendly activities like the zoo, you’ll find an active expat community with families hailing from from the USA, France, Germany, the UK and Japan. Fairly close to here you have Zhongshan Park, and the neighbourhood surrounding the park is another good choice for expat residents. The whole area is fairly well connected, and feels less densely populated than the heart of downtown.
If you’re looking for the space to have a larger family villa, you can try the district of Minhang. There are lots of different housing types here, and the neighbourhood is developing rapidly, with international schools, malls and amenities which have drawn in an expat crowd.
If you’re looking for student accommodation, then your best bet might be to apply for a dormitory room on campus, rather than on the open market. This way you’ll certainly find convenient and budget-friendly choices. Ask your university for the student accommodation options available to you.
Finding brokers and agents in Shanghai are usually done by looking locally or taking some recommendations from friends. Agents might have preferential contracts with the developers in a particular area, for example, so getting someone with local knowledge can really help. Use common sense and get some testimonials if possible, to cross check an agent you’re thinking of working with. Otherwise you can choose between sites with English translations (targeted at the expat market and typically on the higher end of prices), or a local site if you can find someone to help with the translation,
- If you can, find a translator - or of course, if your language skills are up to it, try a local site for the best deals. Sou Fun or Hao Zu are good places to start your search.
- If you need a site in English, try City Weekend, a local site with housing ads posted alongside all sorts of other services.
- Apartment in Shanghai caters specifically to the expat market, so it covers many of the popular expat areas - prices however, are also aimed at incoming foreigners.
- Smart Shanghai hosts offers for shared rooms to suit all budgets.
- Facebook - groups tend to be closed, so you’ll need to ask to join. A quick search within Facebook will pull up several options. It’s worth getting a feel for how active each group is, and also looking using similar search terms like ‘couch surfing’, where people might also post offers of shared rooms.
- Bai Xing is the Chinese Craigslist - Rooms, apartments and houses are all listed, but as with similar services anywhere, be wary and apply common sense and caution. You’ll need a Chinese speaker to help you make sense of the site.
It can feel daunting if you’re just setting about finding the right place in another country and culture. Here are some of the things that can help you be more prepared.
It can really help to have a few words to hand when you’re trying to find your perfect rental in Shanghai. Otherwise, you might consider asking a local friend or colleague for help to make sure you find the best deal. Many sites have English translations and levels of spoken English are fairly good in Shanghai, but sites and agents working with expats will tend to offer predominantly properties towards the higher end of budgets. If you have limited cash, you’ll need to look in areas that English speaking agents might not cover.
To get you started, here are a few terms you'll see:
- 公寓 (gōng yù) - apartment
- 带(帶)家具的公寓 (dài jiājù de gōngyù) - furnished apartment
- 一室 一厅，带 厨房 (yíshì yìtīng, dài chúfáng) - one bedroom with kitchen
- 出租 合同 (chūzū hétong) - rental contract
- 房租 (fángzū) - rent
It’s always best to ask for a written contract to confirm the deal you strike with the landlord. To protect your interests, you should sign a contract before handing over any money or moving in. Make sure you understand what you’re agreeing to before you sign including details like clauses about terminating your agreement and notice periods. Many landlords and agents will offer you a contract in English to sign - but if you can’t get an English copy, and your Chinese isn’t up to scratch, then you should ask a certified translator to help you. Never sign a document which you don’t understand. It’ll be legally binding regardless.
Good landlords are the majority, but in Shanghai, as in any other city, you’ll also find your share of unethical individuals or agents.
Some agents and landlords might put pressure on you to make a snap decision, which could be because of the stiff competition for their property - or could be because they’re anxious to get someone into their poor value apartment. Be wary, and make sure you’re really comfortable rather than feeling forced into a decision you later regret. Give yourself the best possible chance by taking a short-term place in a hostel or hotel at first to buy some time.
It’s worth trying to impress the landlord when you visit a property you’re interested in. Be punctual and polite, because they’ll likely be inundated by other prospective tenants. A landlord in Shanghai is going to want to know a lot about you before they’ll offer you the place. You can expect to be quizzed on your professional and private life, with very little off limits.
Don’t forget that many Shanghai apartments are rented out by word of mouth. If you're in Shanghai for work, then make sure your colleagues and local friends know you’re looking. You might find that they can hook you up with a place with a friendly landlord without incurring agent fees.
For a deposit, you can expect to be asked for a payment equivalent to a month of rent. You’ll also be liable for any realtor fees agreed, if you chose to go with an agent. Some landlords also ask for a couple of months of normal rent payment upfront, so it’s a good idea to have enough funds to cover this.
Some landlords and agents also ask for other payments such as a deposit to take the apartment off the market. This isn't unusual, but it’s also one way that scammers and unethical agents or landlords profit. Don’t pay without asking a few questions. Get a receipt and make sure you’re very clear on what the money is for - negotiation at every stage of the rental process is perfectly normal in Shanghai, so you can also negotiate on this deposit payment. Finally, if something seems doubtful, walk away.
If you’ve not yet moved to Shanghai, you might find that you need to make a deposit payment or pay for some rent upfront before you have opened a local bank account, or even arrived in the country. If you do, it’s worth remembering that your home bank might not offer the best value when it comes to making an international money transfer. Often banks will add hidden fees by using a poor exchange rate, even with their own account holders.
Be wary of common scams, such as properties offered for rental without proper contracts, or landlords or agents who ask for fees for a service you don’t want nor need. Before you hand over any money for anything, make sure you’re very clear on what it’s for - and get a receipt.
Also remember that everything in the process of landing your perfect rental place in Shanghai, can be negotiated. You can ask for a different rent, some small redecorations, a shorter or longer contract term - or anything else you might need to make the arrangement work for you. If you’re at all worried, get an agent you trust, and have them help in the negotiation with landlords.
The rental market in Shanghai is well stocked, but the sheer size of the city means that properties move quickly. You have to be prepared to cast your net wide, use your contacts well, and make a quick decision when a place you love comes up. Do that, and you can have your dream Shanghai rental in no time. Good luck!