Accommodation in Seoul
As South Korea's economic powerhouse, Seoul has a wide range of accommodation options available. Very few expats buy housing, however, renting property in South Korea can nonetheless be considerably more complicated than doing so in Western countries. As a result, employers often organise accommodation close to their offices on behalf of their foreign employees.
Most accommodation in Seoul often comes in the form of towering apartment blocks. These tend to consist of four to eight apartment blocks which are clustered together and most will have small communal playgrounds or recreational areas along with parking facilities.
The city is divided into 25 districts known as gu which, in turn, contain a number of neighbourhoods called dong. Each gu has its own legislative council and is afforded a city-like status, which means that many administrative functions are carried out at a district level.
Renting an apartment in Seoul requires a lot of time, energy and usually a helpful Korean-speaking colleague or friend to handle negotiations and lease agreements. Korean landlords often use a "key-money" system which is similar to a deposit, except that key-money usually consists of a huge amount and the more key-money that a tenant pays to their landlord, the lower their monthly rent will be.
Key-money is paid into a separate account and the original amount is returned to the tenant at the end of their lease, while the landlord gets to keep the interest generated over that period. Many Koreans who can afford it choose to pay a large amount in key-money and, in doing so, are not charged monthly rent.
As a result of such an unfamiliar system, many expats insist that their employer either organises their accommodation on their behalf or agrees to pay a set amount of key money for the apartment of their choice. Some landlords do, however, prefer a regular deposit with an accompanying monthly rent, especially when interest rates are low. Most apartments will come furnished with a few basic necessities including a stove, refrigerator and washing machine.
Types of accommodation in Seoul
While the apartment is by far the most common type of housing in Seoul, there are other options for expats to consider.
These are a good option for expats staying in Seoul for a short amount of time. They are usually furnished and offer services like cleaning and a foyer concierge, and amenities such as a swimming pool and gym. These are usually quite expensive compared with non-serviced apartments.
An officetel is a unit within a high-rise building that houses both office and residential space. These apartments are usually furnished and are quite popular with young expats and students.
A private house is ideal for an expat family, but unfortunately these are few and far between in a city like Seoul. Expats living on the outskirts of the city might, however, be lucky enough to find one.
A hanok is a traditional Korean house with a distinctively sloped roof that is either tiled or thatched. These can be found in most towns and cities, and many have been renovated to include modern appliances and heating, although this is often more convenient than it is necessary.
Finding accommodation in Seoul
It might be difficult for expats whose employers have not arranged housing for them to find a place to live in Seoul. There are, however, some useful tools available to assist expats in their search for the perfect accommodation. Local English-language newspapers such as the Korea Times and The Korean Herald usually contain property listings. Property listings can also be found through online property portals and expat social media groups.
Aside from searching online and in the media, it is a good idea to check the advertising boards in apartment buildings for listed vacancies. Visiting estate agents directly is also a good place to start as they will be privy to a wide selection of availabilities. Although many estate agents may not speak English, there are some estate agencies which specialise in the expat market, which minimises language barrier issues.