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Apartment Hunting in China: Top Tips You Need to Know


Looking for the perfect place to live is never easy, least of all in China. Many 外国人 (wài guó rén)  – foreigners enjoy expat job packages that come complete with accommodation, or have a Chinese spouse to help out.

Those of us who aren’t so lucky must hunt for apartments.

Although the process is fairly similar to most places (find agent, convince agent that no, you really can’t go over your budget, pay what feels like a mountain of fees…), renting in China does have some unique challenges.

If you’re smart, you’ll take a local Chinese friend to help you.

If you’re not (like me), you’ll move to a new city where you have no local knowledge, zero contacts, and a deadline of two days in which to find somewhere to live!

Crazy, right?

Well, we made it – husband, cat, and I are happily tucked up in our own cozy corner of Shanghai!

And of course, finding an apartment is also a great way to practice Chinese…so here is what I learned along the way.

Searching online just won’t cut it

Looking online is usually the first step for apartment hunters everywhere. Locals in Shanghai use sites like (an apartment listings site) and (a kind of Chinese Craigslist) to search by:

  • 租金 (zū jīn)  – rent 
  • 户型 (hù xíng)  – type or size of apartment (e.g. one bedroom) 
  • 区域 (qū yù)  – area or district 

Here’s the catch—in my experience, many of the apartments on these sites have already been rented out, do not exist, or use fake pictures of another, much nicer, apartment to lure you in.

Photos of a beautifully decorated city-center suite for only 300 dollars per month should be a tip off that it’s a scam.

So, while the Internet may be useful in finding out roughly what rent prices are in your area, they’re not a good way to find real-life apartments that you might actually be able to live in.

Tip: Open our free video-based pinyin chart to check your pronunciation of these words. The chart has video explanations for difficult sounds and audio demonstrations for all 400+ Mandarin sounds!

Getting outside and talking to agents – essential vocabulary

To find your ideal place, you’re going to have to hit the streets.

The best—and fastest—way is to go to the area you want to live in and walk around.

Stop at every 中介 (zhōng jiè)  – real estate agent to ask if they have something that meets your requirements and budget.

Essential words and phrases you’ll need to communicate with the agent

1. 我要租房子 (wǒ yào zū fáng zi) - I want to rent an apartment.

2. 我要一房一厅的 (wǒ yào yì fáng yì tīng de)  – I want an apartment with one bedroom and one living room.

Note: kitchen and bathroom are usually included and go without saying

  • 一房一厅的 (yì fáng yì tīng de) - one bedroom one living room 
  • 两房一厅的 (liǎng fáng yì tīng de)  - two bedrooms one living room  

3. 预算 (yù suàn)  – budget (very important!)

The agent will ask you: 你的预算是多少? (nǐ de yù suàn shì duō shǎo?)  – How much is your budget?

4. 装修 (zhuāng xiū) -décor.

If having a modern, nicely finished place is a must for you, tell the agent: 我要装修很好的 (wǒ yào zhuāng xiū hěn hǎo de)  – I need it well-decorated.

5. 小区 (xiǎo qū)  – gated housing community, usually full of several tall apartment buildings.

As in, 这个小区安静吗? (zhè ge xiǎo qū ān jìng ma?)  – Is this community quiet and peaceful?

I’ve heard many stories about agents taking unsuspecting foreigners to see awful apartments in order to scare them into taking a quick deal at the next (less horrible) place.

But I found the opposite to be true – agents were upfront, honest, and helpful.

Having said that, Shanghai is expensive and our budget was low. By the end of day one, I was starting to think we’d never find somewhere to live.

But, amazingly, the final agent we visited had a reasonably priced 一房一厅的 (yì fáng yì tīng de)  apartment in a nearby 小区 (xiǎo qū) .

The first thing we saw when arriving in the quirky communal courtyard was a gathering of elderly gentlemen wearing pajamas, playing with their dogs (also wearing pajamas).

The building was a little run-down and the apartment had the typical rock-hard Chinese style bed, but it was spacious and had a tiled Western-style bathroom. We had found our place!

Dealing with the details and 签合 (qiān hé tong)  – signing the contract

Most apartments in China come fully furnished, but you can ask the landlord if you want something added or removed.

For example, we asked for the TV to be taken away, and broadband internet be installed (who watches shows on an actual television these days?).

The most important thing you’ll need to sign the contract is an upsettingly large amount of money.

It’s standard practice in Shanghai to 付三押一 (fù sān yā yī)  – pay a whopping three months’ rent up front, plus one month’s rent as a deposit (lit. pay three, deposit one).

There’s also a 中介费 (zhōng jiè fèi)  – agent’s fee (typically 35%).

Our landlord, a chubby and friendly old-school 上海人 (shàng hǎi rén)  – Shanghainese, wanted all of this in cash, which meant withdrawing more money from an ATM than I’ve ever done in my life.

While this may seem weird, don’t forget that debit cards and bank transfers are a recent addition to life in China, and a lot of older people are just more comfortable dealing in cash. Plus, after all this is done, there’s no need to pay rent for 3 months!

Moving in a few days later, I was delighted to see that the entire place had been beautifully cleaned, and (some) of the broken light fittings mended.

终于到家了 (zhōng yú dào jiā le)  – Home at last!

All in all, looking for an apartment in Shanghai is not something I’m keen to repeat soon, but it wasn’t as stressful as I’d anticipated.

Good luck with your own apartment hunting journeys! Tell me in the comments below if you have any questions about apartment hunting in China.

And if you’ve got any great stories – either about China or elsewhere – please share them too!