How to find the right apartment in Shanghai

Fuxing Zhong Lu

Many new expats are put off by the thought of having to find an apartment or house by themselves, often in a very short time frame. Finding an apartment can be fairly easy, as there’s a lot of choice, but you need to decide quickly as new apartments on the market could go within days or even hours. This is my guideline based on personal experience to help you find the right apartment or house in Shanghai –

1. Start by circling in an area that you want to live in. For example…

  • a district close to your workplace
  • Jing’An / Former French Concession for an upmarket European-Asian fusion feel
  • Hongqiao / Gubei if you have children and want to be close to a number of schools, supermarkets/malls and not too far from the downtown
  • Changning, Zhongshan Park or People Square for a more authentic Chinese feel, central location and lower rent

2. Decide whether you want to live in a compound or old lane house

Okay, even between these two categories there are lots of sub-categories. For example, there are many posh expat compounds catering all expats needs (e.g. gym, GP, playground, supermarket etc.) which is also hugely reflected in price, whereas more local compounds with less extra facilities and a more reasonable price. There are many advantages to living in a compound, such as 24h guards, elevators, high furnishing standards… but you could forget you live in China! Old lane houses and similar style Chinese houses in little courtyards will definitely be something you can only experience in China.

3. Start searching online (we searched on SmartShanghai) or ask your colleagues for real estate agents recommendations.

There are many real estate agencies and they all have their pros and cons, depending on the actual agent that you’ll get. You will see the differences between the European and Asian culture when contacting your agent: most of them will respond to you within an hour, no matter what day of the week or what time it is! Be very careful when picking your agent, he/she should seem trustworthy, knowledgeable and not ask you for commission!

4. Set a budget and stick to it

Once you start researching properties online, you will get a feel of how much rent is expected in different areas of Shanghai and how far you can go with your budget. We had to increase our budget to get anything close to what we want in the Former French Concession. In the beginning, you will have to see of how your expectations fit into your budget and what you can realistically get for it. Once you amended your budget after some research, don’t let the real estate agent convince you to show you apartments for a much higher price. Yes, every price is due to negotiation, but there is no point in viewing much more expensive properties. The estate agents often increase the rental price as their own commission (which they would deny of course if you ask them) and it is often surprising how much they can lower the price if you pester them enough and show real interest. Generally, don’t let the estate agent pester you – there are many good ones in Shanghai (apartments and agents) and if they tell you that the apartment might be gone the same day if you don’t go for it, it might well be true, but most of the times it’s just a sales tactic.

Middle Fuxing Road

5. Check, check, and check again your chosen apartment

There are so many dodgy things to look out for, especially here in China. For example…

  • Does the apartment have heating? (What a luxury!)
  • Do the corridors and entrance hall of the building look in good shape? (If not, that means that the property owners don’t take good care about it and would be reluctant to help you with outside/roof maintenance that concerns your flat)
  • Avoid top floor apartments in lane houses due to many reasons, like squirrels and other creatures running on your roof at night, old leaking roof, close to the tree tops and insects,…
  • Check for mold and be suspicious if they just painted the walls, especially in areas that are often and easily affected by mold. Don’t take an apartment with mold, they won’t help you to get rid of it except for offering to paint over it.
  • Check if the apartment has single or double glazed windows and if the glass looks cracked
  • Check the condition of the pipes and your boiler and the location of it!
  • Try and get a feel of what the neighbours are like

6. Find out who the landlord is

Unfortunately, we only found out that our so-called landlord (according to the estate agent and the contract) is only subletting our apartment. The positive side is that he was always quite responsive and tried to fix everything (emphasis on tried)… but when it came to a leak in the apartment, he was unwilling to compensate us anything as he didn’t feel responsible. Hence, you should ask your estate agent who your landlord is, if they have worked together for a long time and if he is very helpful and friendly.

7. The rental contract as a general guideline

Opposed to European law, where contract paragraphs are taken seriously and are non-negotiable; rental contracts (and contracts in general) are more of a guideline in China. Try to read your contract carefully and watch out for vague phrases like ‘in case of damage due to force majeur’ which is open to interpretation. Remember: in China people expect you to negotiate as much as possible!

I hope these guidelines help you to find your perfect place to live in Shanghai!

– Her

P.S.: Other Shanghai bloggers seem to have the same feelings and offer similar guidelines to finding the right apartment in your neighbourhood – if you are on the hunt, you should definitely check out the Skipping Customs blog post.


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