Searching out apartments can be an unforgiving hell on earth. My realtor had me on the back of her electric scooter all day long in the relentless heat and humidity, going up and down elevators all day long. My realtor kept saying, “You should take this one or else you might not find one as good,” as we went from flea pit to flea pit. My realtor kept speaking Shanghainese to me, even after I explained to her I did not speak Shanghainese at all.
The jetlag had not yet worn off. My school had given me what felt like a short window of five days in a hotel before I had to find my own place, or continue paying for a room at my expense. It turned out five days is plenty of time to find an apartment. It just seems short. Once you have done a bit of research and know what you’re after and where you want to live, then it's easier.
Before arriving, do your research.
Read about the districts and see what each one has to offer, and decide whether you want to share or live alone. If you're willing to share, you can find some impressive apartments for otherwise unaffordable prices.
Living alone in Shanghai can be expensive, unless your employer is forking out rent allowance. The rental prices increase each year it seems, and some of the more seasoned expats have told me they have had to move out of their apartments because of this. It may not make much financial sense seeing that owners might not find another expat to fleece for an even higher price, but that’s the logic they follow.
When you have decided what district you want to live in, try to make a list of what features you’re looking for.
Internet was essential. When I first stepped into my current apartment, there was no bed in the bedroom and no sofa in the living room. I asked the landlord to buy these things (which he did) but I have friends who were not so lucky. Because you’re negotiating your contract in Chinese with a realtor who may not have much English, you can easily land yourself in a contractual hell. One friend ended up signing a two-year contract in an apartment that he refers to as "the indoor tent" on account of its sparseness. He had to buy everything himself, which is fine—but when you’re paying close to 7000 RMB, it’s not fine at all.
If your language skills aren't strong, download the Google Translate app. It's free and it can translate text for you. It might take time but if you want to understand the contract beyond the limits of blind trust, then I suggest an app like this.
Don’t be shy with landlords.
I checked everything in the apartment. I left taps running. I flushed the toilet a number of times, I knocked on walls, checked if windows would open, went through cupboards, checked the washing machine, microwave, fridge, meter, and generally left no cushion unturned. Remember, if you’re going to be living there for a year or more, it’s worth doing all this. You don’t want a toilet cistern breaking after three weeks. I also asked about the neighbours. I asked is it quiet or noisy. It’s easy to lie but you can usually tell when someone is being genuine.
You can avoid a lot of the pitfalls if you open up good lines of communication with a realtor before you arrive.
Explain to them that you will need transportation to see some apartments. They arranged a car for me to look around, but only after I told them I did not have a bike.
On shanghaiexpats.com and sharpshanghai.com there are listings where you can contact the landlords directly and this avoids the 35 per cent realtor fee. That is probably the biggest kick in the face. I paid four months rent up front. I paid a month’s deposit, and three months rent along with a realtor fee. It’s hefty and it bites into your savings with one big chomp. So, remember this. If you're teaching English, most schools, I've heard that may schools may be willing to help out initially and give you and advance. But be careful—there is no obligation here.
Alternatively, you can just show up and walk into any number of real estate offices scattered about the city. Jianlian seems to most extensive. I have seen two different offices on the same street sometimes. But there are others, smaller companies. If you’re willing to wander about you can go with what feels. I have spoken to a few and they usually are staffed with an English speaker.
In Shanghai, it never goes fully to plan. There will always be an issue. I’m learning that slowly. But research can help you avoid some of the pitfalls.
My realtor was both nice and dodgy. She drove me to a series of dumps before I got fed up and asked her would she live in the flea pits. After that, I struck gold. It sometimes takes a bit of of hustle to get realtors to do what they are meant to do. Don’t listen to the fly in the ear rhetoric of “you better take this or you will end up with nothing.” They just commission and their instinct to manipulate you into signing along the dotted line outdoes their compassion and empathy every time. That’s why it’s good to show a little aggression when dealing with realtors and landlords.Add this article to your reading list