I’m in the hotel. Everything’s been packed away back home, cars buttoned up, job left, loft vacated, long journey made, yearlong work permit process almost complete. But don’t get comfortable. Now it’s time to face the thicket of shit that is getting an apartment in Beijing.
The way it works here is you pay for three months of rent in one go. You do this every three months for the duration of the lease. You probably also will have to pay a security deposit equivalent to one month’s rent, and you might have to pay another month’s worth to a real estate agent as a service fee. This important detail — that I would need to come armed with five months’ worth of rent — hadn’t been mentioned in the communications from human resources. That’s $5000, on top of the many other costs that come with a major transition. The financial pressure was compounded in my case by the timing of my arrival. It fell in such a way that I wouldn’t get my first salary payment until nearly two months after I arrived. Fortunately, I happened to have come with just enough money to cover all this.
The first thing you have to do is find a real estate agent. This is especially important for a newly arriving foreigner who doesn’t know the way around or how to communicate. Some agents specialize in serving foreigners. They speak at least some English and operate in neighborhoods that foreigners gravitate to. They know all the apartment complexes, or “compounds” as people call them here, and have relationships with owners and property management offices. You don’t have to do the legwork of finding places and landlords. The agent knows what’s available and can show you many in one trip. Agents set up utilities and internet service, manage the paperwork with the apartment compound office, and take you to the local police station for the all-important registration. Later, once a lease is signed, the agent is who you call for help with issues such as a burst pipe or lost key.
This sounds easy enough, but the troubles begin right away.
Checking in with the police
Wherever you stay, you have to register at the neighborhood police station. An officer will look at your passport and apartment lease and other relevant documents, and print off a little piece of paper for you to take. This is to be taken seriously; you must always have one of these.
This is true even at hotels. Guests do not have to personally visit a station, but the hotel will have you sign a document and give you a piece of paper that serves as your proof of registration for the duration of your stay there. Also, if you leave the country and come back, you have to visit your local station for a check-in and new piece of paper.
Similar oversight might occur in the workplace. CCTV in 2017 began stricter enforcement of its rules concerning overseas travel. Employees, Chinese or foreign, must notify HR of any planned travels. One anchor, a Chinese citizen married to a well-connected corporate chairman, got fed up with these rules and quit.
Discomfiting as all this sounds, in practice it’s not so intimidating. The officers I’ve dealt with have been kind, warm, and maybe half-asleep. They certainly don’t present the scary face of an invasive authoritarian government. Friends in foreigner-heavy neighborhoods tell me they never bother to check in after international trips and have never gotten in trouble for it. Many don’t even know they’re supposed to, as I didn’t until I moved into a neighborhood with less of a foreign presence. The officer there noted that I’d neglected to check in after my first trip back to China. The punishment is a fine that can run up to 2,000 yuan, or about $300. The officer didn’t care one bit and easily waved it off.
Of course, the concern isn’t about what’s being asked of you now, but what could be done to you later. If you’re believed to have crossed some political line of speech, for example, authorities know exactly where to find you and can use one of the many other half-known bureaucratic technicalities against you.
It’s a given that foreigners will pay more rent than Chinese. Agents and landlords think all foreigners have money, and if we don’t, there’s little else we can do. We’re in a foreign land with few connections and little knowledge of the market. So the starting point for rent negotiations is always higher for a foreigner than a Chinese.
Agents entice you by sending fake pictures of nice places and then show you shabby places. They try to slip in fees for made-up shit. They string you along, assuming you’re under time pressure and that wasting more of your time will ramp up the pressure and force you into a hasty decision. That’s why the first question agents ask is, “How soon do you have to move?” They want to hear “now” or “next week” because that means you’re boxed in. If you say you have a month to look around at your leisure, they’ll be slow to get to work. If you are truly under pressure, it’s best to lie and say you’re not. The ideal scenario is to have an abundance of time ahead of you, tell multiple agents you only have a few days to get them jumping to attention, and then be maddeningly picky about their offerings. Flip the pressure. Take their time, jack up their exasperation, and get them to show their best offerings so they can move on to someone less troublesome.
Their fee of one month’s rent is palatable at first because it’s for a practical service that brings peace of mind. But they might charge you even though they’re already being paid to do it on the other end by the property owner, an arrangement that also dilutes their incentive to negotiate for lower rent on your behalf. The real estate company they work for might manage the apartment on behalf of an owner who isn’t in the city or country — or the company might even be the owner. Many people advise against working with agents who charge that fee.
There’s also the chance you could fall prey to an outright criminal who pretends to be an agent but runs off with the security deposit and first three months of rent.
What a fine introduction. This is the welcome newcomers get. A round of suspicion, gouging, and discrimination.
Now, we’re all adults and should be expected to take responsibility for finding our own food and shelter. And expats are supposed to be adventurous, improvising types who thrive on these challenges. So at the time I didn’t have a problem with this, especially after the thoughtfulness the international HR team had put into getting me here. It wasn’t until later — when I took matters into my own hands and saw that an hour of effort could have saved of us a great deal of stress over many years — that it bothered me.
The stress is double, coming as it does during the very initial phase of entering the stream of life here. Besides learning a new job and culture, you’re expected to become an expert in a Chinese city’s notoriously messed-up real estate market. When asking around for advice, the standard dim-witted response you get from people is: “Get a Chinese friend to help you.” Right. The first thing I’m going to ask of a newfound friend in another country is for them to go around doing intensive chores on my behalf. I’ll buy you a coffee later, thanks.
My own experience wasn’t too awful, or so I thought at first, but I did get a personal view of the ill, and petty, nature of this market in my dealings with “Lily”. She made money by doing next to nothing. She wasn’t trying to screw me over, as far as I could tell, so much as she was trying to get me to help her screw over other real estate agents.
She contacted me first, saying she got my WeChat info from someone I work with. She wouldn’t meet me in person. She would only work through WeChat, where she went by the name “lilyapple”.
Her scheme is to match foreigners with real estate agents and then steal the agents’ business. She sent an agent, some innocent-looking moon-faced fella, to meet me at the subway station and show me his offerings. “Show him the ‘I don’t like it’ face” even if I do like a place, she said. And don’t let him know that she’s another real estate agent. Act like I’m getting advice from a Chinese friend.
I met him at the subway station in Shuangjing, my target neighborhood. It’s a 30-minute walk away from work, or two stops by subway. He had his Lianjia lanyard dangling over his white shirt and tie, the hallmarks of a real estate agent. They’re the only people who wear ties in this city. Young guys and young women in similar office business garb are on every street. When elevator doors open inside apartment buildings, three of them might be standing there in their real estate agent uniforms, prospective tenant in tow. They’re like the Chinese version of Mormons.
This guy shuttled me from place to place on the back of his scooter. We were so heavy that the scooter kept bottoming out on the concrete in the streets and alleys and sidewalks we weaved through. We looked a sight, this chubby guy in his shirt and tie with a sweating foreigner on the back scraping through cars and pedestrians.
He didn’t speak a word of English. He had me type an English word into his phone and his app translated it. We could only manage one word at a time, like “next” to move on to another apartment, or “subway” when I’d had enough and wanted to leave.
Motor Scootin’ with El Dupe
This is thrown together from phone camera video snippets I took while riding back on the scooter of the real estate agent (“The Dupe”) who showed me around the Shuangjing neighborhood of Beijing during my first weeks in China. Not exactly riveting footage but friends and family who have asked questions about what everyday life in China is like might find this ground-level view interesting.
Lily told me to take photos of the buildings and their address markers as we entered, and to mark the location through a geolocation feature in WeChat. Then she figures out who the landlord is and negotiate a better rate for me.
We did this ride on a few occasions. When I finally saw a place I liked, I dutifully showed him my unimpressed face as Lily instructed. For the next few hours Lily would work the case, sending me photos and videos to confirm she’d found the right place — out there trying to match the apartment with my earlier messages and photos, which were not very insightful. Most of my photos only gave partial addresses, maybe the building number but not the compound name or unit number. I didn’t know what I was taking pictures of. Every apartment building looks the same, on streets that all look the same.
Before I went any further, I thought I better check to make sure someone I work with really did give her my contact info. I pressed her on this and she sent me photos of coworkers to show she was in with us, and then my HR manager confirmed he’d sent her my way as well as to many others.
So she checked out, in some fashion. But I wasn’t comfortable doing business with someone who used such a parasitic strategy and wouldn’t meet me face-to-face. Plus, it was so transparent — the dupe agent must have known what I was doing, sending photos and constantly messaging with her — that I had to wonder if they were in cahoots. Maybe there’s something in this for him I’m not seeing. Maybe it’s a ruse to make me think she’s working to get me a lower rate, when they’re really just trying to get me accept the rate they had in mind all along.
“He’s your boyfriend and this is how you work foreigners,” I said, to test her reaction.
“U are toooo careful to everything. U are still on the earth, relax,” she replied.
Then most of the price quotes she produced were no better than what this fella offered, making all her added weirdness unnecessary.
She was just after his one-month’s rent fee. He’d have done all this work for nothing if she swooped in at the end to grab the deal. He probably did know it but felt helpless to do anything about it. I thought about explaining to him ways we could work around her, but my Chinese and his English were too bad to communicate.
I tried to give him a little bit of money for hustling me around. He steadfastly refused. I was touched and saddened. This man of integrity, with that sweet, dupable face. He didn’t seem to have an ounce of meanness in him.
As more foreign staffers cycled into the workplace over the coming months, I compared notes with them on their apartment-hunting experience. Others also had dealt with Lily, courtesy HR, and had the same off-putting experience.
Meanwhile, I was playing her off two other agents, getting rates and photos, making visits, dragging my feet. This went on for about two weeks. Arduous, but it was working. I was getting shown increasingly better places and rates. Some of the apartments were in new, modern buildings and had balconies. Compared to a coworker’s place I’d visited — dingy, and many subway stops plus a transfer away from work — they were pretty good, and only one or two hundred dollars more a month.
The main guy I was working with was “George”. He and an associate named Lifu control almost the entire foreigner business in the expat-laden neighborhood of Shuangjing. They work out of a local branch office of Golden Home, a real estate chain. These chains have offices in every neighborhood, often multiple offices, often on the same block.
George has bowl-cut style hair and a goofy grin. He’s short and has such a boyish face that you feel like you’re dealing with a 12-year-old.
But he hustles. His makes a living by getting foreigners into places in this one Beijing neighborhood. He hails from a southern province and isn’t registered to live in the city himself. He’s learned just enough English to work with customers from the US, Britain, Japan, South Korea, India, whatever. I don’t know how he manages that full range of accents, when his own is barely intelligible. But he does. True hustle. And he does it all with an infectious humor, always laughing. “That couch is so old, maybe it was Mao’s couch,” he says as we scope an apartment and its shoddy furniture.
He doesn’t bother with a scooter like the chubby dupe. It’s all fast walking with George. “You speak Chinese with a South Korean accent,” he laughs as we hurry in the August heat from one place to the next, sweat dripping from our foreheads.
He already has keys to many of the places. If there are tenants inside, he calls them as we walk to the building to give them a heads-up that we’ll be barging in. The tenants never appear bothered by this. They smile, tell us not to worry about taking our shoes off when George asks, and let me take a look while they continue watching TV.
It’s difficult in this awkward situation to do a thorough job of checking out the place. You get a sense of the place’s condition, check the water pressure, see the view. But you’re not going to start tearing apart cupboards and moving furniture when someone is sitting there waiting for you to leave. In some cases, it was two or three pretty women in there, sitting around while George and I sweated around the place.
When I told Lily I was also seeing apartments with George, she tried to get me to pull her trick with him. “I’ll get you a better deal,” she said. But I’d had enough of her games. I managed to search a Chinese-language website of listings for my neighborhood. I could see George’s prices were right in line with the market. If there was a foreigner premium he was applying, it was the equivalent of tens of dollars, not hundreds.
He showed me one for 6,000 yuan a month. That’s about $1000. It’s in a compound called Shidaiguoji (“International Era”). Locals told me later it was built only ten years earlier, though you’d think it’d been around for decades. The building exteriors look run-down, and the hallways and elevators are grimy. The compound must have been originally designed with a high-end look in mind, as the interior grounds have fountains, pools, and little connecting waterways, running alongside the remnants of what must have once been nice looking landscaping. But the fountains are out of commission. The pools contain shallow collections of green rainwater imbued with litter and mosquito larvae.
Still, it had some nice features. Twentieth floor, great view of Beijing spreading out to the west before me, mountains in the distance, all the services and shopping anyone would ever need right within walking distance. There’s a water cooler, and a convenience store downstairs sells the big jugs for it. It’s about three bucks to get one filled. Gas stovetop. The bathroom has a bathtub with whirlpool jets. After running around a smoggy hot day in Beijing, a good soak would be nice.
Setting up utilities
George and I also went to a bank to put money on a prepaid electric card. If the funds run out, the power will automatically shut off. You can take the card to a bank and add money, then put the card in a slot on the electric box at your home, and that will allow you to throw the switch back on, or the switch will just automatically go back into place on its own. No utility worker ever touches it. You can also add money to the account through a pay app like Alipay and in an hour or less, the power is back. You go from lights off to lights on without ever leaving the apartment. Natural gas is done the same way, with a prepaid card and automatic meter.
It’s much cheaper than in the US. I originally threw $50 on there. George said that will cover me for at least three months. Gas is even cheaper. I put 100 yuan on it (about $16), and George said that would cover me for a year.
Water’s about $10 a month, and that’s done more traditionally, with a visit by a neighborhood meter reader or George messaging me to send him a photo of the meter so he can send it along to the reader. Then I pay the bill by Alipay.
For internet service, the service guy had me pay for a whole year and it came to about 1800 yuan, or $300. I was shelling out 100-yuan bills to the guy in the middle of pedestrian traffic near the gate of the apartment compound, catching the attention of onlookers.
Internet is prepaid; water appears to be based by use after the fact, though I really don’t know for sure. I have run out of funding for all my prepaid services at one time or another. Topping up the account resolves the issue within a few hours, and often within a half hour. So for about $600 all my utilities are covered for a year. When I told George that much money would only cover you for a month or two in the states, his jaw dropped. “The only thing that’s expensive in Beijing is rent,” he said.
I went for it. Other places George showed me were sharper looking for a little bit more rent, others were shabbier for a little bit less. A Singaporean coworker who speaks Chinese and lives in my neighborhood said George’s price was right on target for the area.
An American guy at work scoffed, saying I could get a place like his for 3,000 yuan. But his apartment is in terrible condition and lacks a kitchen. Others say it’s in even worse shape than what he admits. He’s full of shit about everything else he says too so I paid him no mind.
I am allowed to paint and “design” if I so desire, George said. He swapped out the old TV for a new digital flat screen, at no charge. He lowered the agency fee by 2400 yuan to offset the price rent price a bit. He helped me set up utilities and internet. We made the police station trip.
And he explained how the heat would work. On November 15, the government turns it on. In March, it turns it off. I don’t pay for it directly; it’s included with rent. In some apartments you can adjust the heat, but in most, including mine, you can’t. The heat is just on.
“What if it’s too hot?”
“Just turn on the air conditioning or open the window,” George said with his usual mirth. So now I had an apartment and thought I could get on with my life. But the thicket of shit had only just begun. It would be many months before I had acceptable living conditions.
This post is part of the Moving to China series, documenting my transition to mainland China in 2015 and 2016, when government-operated broadcaster CCTV flew me over to work as a news editor at its Beijing headquarters. The channel is now known as China Global Television Network. It is a soft-power endeavor of the country’s Communist Party-ruled government.