If your employer doesn’t provide your housing you can either try to find accommodation through a real estate agent or by doing the search on your own.
Real estate agents in China
If you don’t speak any Chinese, you will probably find it easier to use an estate agent for your housing search in China. Most estate agents in China generate the bulk of their business by helping customers find rental accommodation.
Be aware, however, that it can be time consuming to use local Chinese agencies. Indeed, currently there are many vacant apartments, but there seems to be an information gap. Newcomers do not know where the available housing is, and local real estate companies cannot always identify expatriates’ needs. Furthermore, even the larger less-personal agents sometimes use local staffs who do not understand the needs of the foreign community in addition to lacking English or other foreign languages skills to properly communicate.
According to the Chinese Law, tenant and owner have to share the payment of the commission for the real estate agent. Usually, for rent above 8000RMB, it is possibly negotiable that the landlord pays the whole commission fee.
Some agencies arrange for the owners to pay the 70% commission. However, tenants need to know that owners will be more likely to keep a high rent knowing that if they sign the contract they will need to pay the whole commission. As a result, your rent will be higher compared to what you could find and you will not be able to bargain the rental price so much.
Given that fees are a commission on the property you choose, you should not pay an agent that doesn’t find a home for you (though some agents will try to convince you to pay for their time or at least something upfront). You can also contact various agents simultaneously to increase your chances of finding the right place for you.
Note that the estate industry in China is not as well regulated as in many Western states, so you should make sure that you can trust the estate agents that you are working with.
Finding a place on your own
If you don’t want to pay an estate agent, you can also do your housing hunt on your own. Expat magazines and websites for your city often have housing classifieds in English. If you speak Chinese, your best option is probably to search through one of the numerous Chinese property-websites.
On-line classifieds will normally tell you whether a property is offered by an individual or a company. Companies are often more trustworthy concerning maintenance, however they might be less flexible on rental terms. Be aware that when a potential landlord discovers that you are a foreigner, the rental price often immediately increases. A good way to avoid this is to ask a Chinese friend or agent to negotiate the rental price before the landlord discovers that you are foreign.
Furnished or unfurnished?
Most apartments and villas for rent are completely furnished, including electronics. Property that is advertised as unfurnished often doesn’t even have any basic appliances, such as a stove or a fridge. If you find an unfurnished accommodation, you might be able to convince a landlord to furnish it for you, but you should expect the rental price to go up for this. The same is true if you want to get rid of the furniture in a place in order to put your own belongings in.
One important aspect you should consider when renting an apartment in China is the floor level. Apart from the obvious advantage of great views, the quality of Chinese apartments often corresponds with their floor level. Higher floor levels garner higher prices, and most housing classifieds in China mention the floor of the apartment in relation to the total height of the building. At the top-end of the scale (and the buildings), you will find penthouses with terraces.
Direction of the apartment
Most Westerners in China don’t care too much to which direction an apartment faces. For the Chinese, however, the direction is an important factor. For one, feng shui dictates certain blessings that are associated with directions. The second reason is that the direction of your apartment might determine the TV signals that you receive.