Initially, expats are often overwhelmed by the variety of accommodation in China, but soon realise that small units in huge apartment buildings are the most affordable option. These often feel cramped at first, especially for Westerners who are accustomed to larger properties. But most expats adjust and end up being perfectly comfortable – they even find that everything they need can be stored with a bit of creative organisation.
Expats should also note that they're required by law to register their address at the local Public Service Bureau (PSB) as soon as they move in.
Renting accommodation in China
Expats should be warned that a “standard apartment” in China could be anything from a tiny, dark room with squat toilets to a spacious apartment with Internet facilities and marble floors. Of course, most apartments are somewhere in between. As a result, potential tenants should conduct thorough market research when they first arrive to ensure that they find a place they could reasonably occupy for an extended period of time.
The price of accommodation varies widely according to size, amenities and location. Apartments in China can be furnished or unfurnished, which also affects price. Before sending a large shipment of belongings overseas, expats should keep in mind that there is an impressive assortment of home accessory and furniture stores in China, including IKEA.
The most expensive real estate is usually found in the big cities – Beijing
. Within these, the priciest rentals include serviced luxury apartments that are often reserved for short-term rentals, and villa complexes aimed at China’s nouveau rich and foreign executives.
Expats looking to cut costs could resort to house-sharing, a form of accommodation that's popular among younger foreigners in particular. This can be arranged via online couch-surfing portals, Internet forums and word of mouth. It is sometimes easier for a few expats to get together to hire an agent and rent an entire apartment than it is to find a single room for rent.
Aside from the standard roommate arrangement, some adventurous expats choose to rent a room with a Chinese family, known as “homestaying". This is often done through specialised websites, but it can be risky. While some people enjoy the experience, many report problems with agencies and families who expect tenants to tutor their children.
Finding accommodation in China
Foreigners who don’t speak Mandarin usually enlist the services of a Chinese real estate agent to help them find a place to stay. Estate agencies are widely available and easily identifiable by the pictures of houses and apartments in their windows. While some agencies in the larger cities may be able to help customers in English, it's often necessary to hire a translator to help with negotiations as well.
Commission for real estate agents in China is usually around 35 percent of a month’s rent and is paid by the tenant. After settling on a property, it's common for a set amount to be paid to the landlord to reserve it during the contract negotiation process.
Rental contracts are generally valid for one year and require a refundable two-month security deposit. Upon signing the lease, the tenant is expected to pay one month’s rent up front, often in cash.
Unless both parties are comfortable with one language, a contract in both English and Chinese should be signed. It's advisable to have the contract checked by a Chinese speaker to make sure that the translations are the same. While both documents are binding, the Chinese contract is favoured when a dispute arises.
Rent is expected to be paid in cash a month in advance. Expats with a Chinese bank account might be able to set up a direct debit or a standing order to cover their monthly rental expenses.
Utilities in China
In most instances, the tenant is expected to pay utility bills in China. Payment methods can vary between cities and expats should check this with their relevant local authorities.
Electricity payments are regulated by the state and tariffs are the same across the country. Bills have to be paid to the local provider within 10 days of receiving an account, which will be sent after a meter reader visits the property.
Many people use pre-paid electric meters. First-time buyers apply for an IC card at an authorised outlet, such as a branch of the power supply company or certain banks, depending on the city. Tenants are then able to buy units that are loaded onto the IC card, which is inserted into their meter.
Tenants in apartments with access to a natural gas lines will usually receive a payment notice shortly after a meter reader visits their property. The bill will indicate a fixed period of time within which to pay, and payments can be made at gas company outlets and certain banks. In some cities, expats may be able to use an IC card for their gas supply as well. Gas is billed at a fixed rate per cubic metre.
Much the same as gas and electricity, a meter reader comes to measure the household’s water consumption and the local water company sends a payment notice that gives the tenant 15 days in which to pay their bill at certain banks and water company outlets.
Some services may require proof of certification, such as the Certificate for Residential Power Consumption, especially for first-time purchases. Expats should ask their estate agent about this in the contract negotiation stage.
As the government still closely controls the Internet in China, not just in terms of censorship but also access, expats without access to the Internet will have to apply for their property to be connected via the regional telecom company or China Telecom, the state-owned telecommunications provider. Bills are usually sent on a monthly basis. These companies also provide phone lines.
It's also fairly common for expats to hire a housekeeper in China. Informally called "ayi", Chinese for “aunt”, they provide services that many expats wouldn't be able to afford at home.