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Renting an Apartment in China: An Expat Guide

If you're staying in China for a few months or more and you don't have accommodation provided for you as part of your studies/work, then renting somewhere to live may be one of your first challenges.

Renting an apartment (most China accommodation comes in this form) can be fraught with pitfalls. Maybe that's why you've found this article! It will help you avoid them and inform you of the process.

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Where to Rent

Step 1: Start using as early as possible to survey what accommodation is available in your city. Most of China uses this platform to advertise rented (and purchasable) property. It's in Chinese, but if you can get on a VPN, Google services will translate it acceptably (mostly). It is quite easy to navigate. You may want to improve your vocabulary or have a Chinese friend help you. If you can read Chinese, all the better. You could also use an agent to help you find suitable places (there may even be one who speaks English).

Step 2: Decide what you need from an apartment and what you want to pay. What's your ideal location? How many bedrooms and how much space do you need?

Step 3: Arrange an inspection of the property. If you're happy with it move to sorting out the rental contract. If not, negotiate (often things are negotiable in China).

If there's no way it will be suitable, you could ask for help from the community office, as they may be able to show you to other similar properties in the same residential area to make efficient use of your time. If the whole community is a problem (e.g. security/environment issues), it's back to

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Renting an Apartment in China

Location: Perhaps Most Important

Weigh up and look out for problems with proximity to work/schools/facilities…, access, view, noise, smells, neighbors, cleanliness, environment, light (don't go for anything below floor 4 if trees block the light — the author spent a damp and depressing year in a floor 3 flat below the treeline). Make a thorough inspection (ideally in daylight).

Top floors, though offering great views, get particularly hot in the summer and particularly cold in the winter, not to mention all the going up and down lifts/stairs!

Ground floors, though great for access, offer least privacy and are most prone to noise, burglary, damp (in S. China), etc.

Lucky floor numbers (anything with 6 or 8 in) often have a premium added in due to high demand, whereas less desirable numbers (with e.g. 4 or 7 in) often come as bargains. The same goes for door numbers, block numbers, street numbers…

Cost: What is a good rental fee?

Location/furnishing/interior/quality affects cost. Generally, you get what you pay for, though there are some bargains and some rip-offs. Compare prices on to see roughly what you should be paying in your city.

Always negotiate to get the best deal for you. For example, you might get some rent knocked off for furniture/appliances/parking/services/connections you don't need. It helps if you can compare with other properties on the market.

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Renting an ApartmentRent an apartment in Shanghai

Theft is generally lower where a) there is good community security: diligent gate guards, security cameras, few entrances, etc. and b) if there is a good community atmosphere where residents look out for one another. (The author has experience of one community with none of the above where he lost two bicycles locked together, while multiple other bikes were stolen from the same foyer area, in the first day; and, in the same apartment, an expat friend woke to find a male intruder in her bedroom!)

If you have young children, you may want to install burglar bars/wires around the windows to a) stop burglars, but b) to stop children falling out! Your landlord/lady may pay all/part of the cost.

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Make an Inspection

Check cleanliness, all switches, appliances, extractor fans, gas connections/appliances (have they had their yearly check by a qualified operative?), taps, check for mould/leaks e.g. under sinks, signs of water ingress from outside, particularly in the rainy south/east of China and in top-floor apartments (the author once rented a flat where water would flow into a bedroom from the balcony door if the drain was blocked, and water would drip in around a poorly sealed window).

Try to get anything fixed that is not right before moving in. It may be more difficult once the contract is signed. It will also give you leverage to reduce the rent/deposit.

Ask Questions (to Find Out How Good the Landlord/lady Is)

Ask what would happen in various eventualities (leaking pipe, appliance breakdown, etc.) to get an idea of how "good" the landlord/lady is.

Ideally your landlord/lady will live near enough to help promptly when needed (but not so close they keep bothering you), will deal with matters amicably and efficiently, and will be flexible and willing to help you out. A good landlord/lady can be invaluable. A bad landlord/lady may mean you suffer as things go wrong within their property.

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What's Supplied?

Renting an Apartment in China

This can be negotiated. Often if you already have furniture/appliances that you want to use, the landlord/lady will often take theirs away. If this is not resolvable, you may end up with an extra washing machine, fridge, etc. taking up space in the apartment. If there is too much excess/undesirable furnishing that the landlord/lady won't remove, it may not be the right place for you.

If you only plan to be in China a limited time (a year or two) it would make good economic sense to rent a well-furnished and equipped apartment. Most items depreciate greatly the moment they're purchased.

However, if you're in China for longer, you may well enjoy having your own appliances (which are nicer to use and don't need another's approval to keep in good working condition/repair) and lower rent as a consequence.

Having less property makes moving apartment easier! A full apartment of furnishings may cost a whole month's rent to move (even if nothing's damaged), not to mention a week's worth of your time disassembling/boxing up prior to a move and another week's worth of work setting it up in a new place.

A minimalist approach could be taken care of in a couple of taxi trips, leaving you more free to go rental hopping, if that's what you want to do: it's almost like traveling and would allow you to explore a city.

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Internet Connection

If you already have a contract with a certain provider (China Telecom / China Unicom / China Mobile), check that the community that you rent in allows a connection. Providers will usually establish a new connection once free of charge or for a small fee (sometimes a new router is needed). Broadband/Wi-Fi is usually down to the tenant to organize.

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The Rental Contract

A Chinese rental contract is usually for a year at a time. It is a document with legal standing, with the names, ID, signatures/fingerprints/seals, and contact details of both parties (owner and tenant), period of rental, details of rent, deposit, and other payments, property address, what's included, penalties, and various rules to follow including changing/termination of the contract.

It will probably differ from contracts in your home country, probably with less detail and less protection or generous terms given to the tenant. Don't assume everything is as it should be…

If your Chinese is not great…

DON'T sign the contract if you don't understand it. A Chinese friend who is well up on rental contracts (or law) and who can communicate with you could be invaluable.

You may want to offer your own bilingual contract. Translators are usually readily available (or can certify that your translation is accurate). It's usually acceptable if the landlord/lady is happy with the Chinese.

Here is a Bilingual Rental Contract in PDF document format that you may find useful to use and adapt.

When is Rent Paid?

Rent is usually paid in advance in 3-month, 6-month, or 12-month amounts, NOT monthly, and there's no invoice or warning before penalties apply! MAKE SURE you know when it's due and that it's stated in the contract. Negotiate if penalties seem excessive! Rent reductions are often possible for paying in lump sums.

Paying via WeChat is very convenient, and it's also how many renters/tenants communicate. Keep evidence of payment via screengrabs and backups, and pay via a linked bank account rather than WeChat wallet, to ensure you have records in case you lose your phone/WeChat.

Rent Inclusions/Exclusions:

Your rent contract should say how the following are dealt with, even if just to say that they are to be handled by the occupier. It may be worth visiting the community office to find out about your broader requirements in the gated community where you may be living and what help they can offer.

Maintentance — Community / residential area fees (grounds and communal area maintenance, security guards, waste collection) are paid (via the owner) to the site office.

Heating — There may be a separate fee for heating of communal areas in northern China.

Lift fees — Some blocks require a separate fee for lift maintenance.

Garbage collection fee — This may be separate to the maintenance fee.

Parking — The car parking space fee is usually paid annually at the site office… Sometimes a ground level storage area / car port may be rented separately. Some communities charge for designated e-bike parking spaces with QR code or card/fob activated charging points. This may have already been paid for by the landlord/lady or last occupier, but will usually be left for you to organize.

Bicycles can generally be locked under cover with the e-bikes. Lock it to something immovable with a good lock. If yours is particularly expensive/new, consider where you could store it in your apartment.

Water/electricity — These are almost always paid separately. Sometimes the landlord/lady will receive the bill and then show you a copy of the bill to be reimbursed by yourself, otherwise you will have to pay yourself, usually via the community office. Note rates and readings and keep receipts/screenshots.

Gas — Usually explained and then left to the tenant to take care of, gas is often paid by card at a gas sales office in the city or via QR code and online account. Ensure you know how to do this, and ideally keep it topped up to avoid running out of hot water while the shampoo is still in your hair or chicken is half-coooked. In some more "rural" areas (non-gated communities) gas may still be delivered by the bottle. Then it will definitely be left to the occupier. The contract should state if any bottle was supplied initially and how full it was.

Find out who pays the bills when and where, plus any penalties for late payment.

See that bills are paid on time by making a note in your diary for water/electricity/gas/maintenance/parking (even e-bike parking often has a fee) etc. Often it is down to the occupier to pay these at the community office and penalties may apply for late payment.

Ownership of Items in the Apartment

Renting an Apartment in China

There must be a clear list within the contract of what is supplied by and belongs to the landlord/lady down to the last shoe rack, chair, and TV. The contact should be updated in the event of any changes to the contents, e.g. a new air-con unit or washing machine paid for by the tenant. Or a table of apartment contents should be provided at the end of the contract that can be added to / amended and signed by both parties. Take photos of what's there and any damage when the contract is signed to end any disputes.

Door locks and number of keys: Even these should be on the contract. You may want to change the lock (cylinder) on the main door, particularly if the landlord/lady did not receive all the keys back from the previous occupier or the lock seems cheap or awkward to operate!

Having your own lock will mean added security and better operation. A new lock cylinder is generally easy to fit (make sure you don't lose any of the screws while doing it and keep all of the landlord/lady's lock to put back). Getting a fingerprint/passcode door lock may be a good investment that you can take with you from apartment to apartment — no key worries!

Who Pays If There Are Problems?

Check carefully who pays in the event of problems on the contract, e.g. watch out for any clause that says "the occupier takes full responsibility for all problems"!

Who pays for damages? E.g., the landlord/lady takes full cost for replacement/repair of appliances that fail when in normal use (not damaged by the tenant) in the first month, afterwards costs are split 50/50. KEEP all receipts.

What if the landlord/lady's property damages your property? Does the property have contents insurance? What happens if leaks/drainage problems damage your property? (This is particularly a problem in first-occupancy properties: the author has experience of rising damp caused by a poorly drained shower room — the water seeped under the floor tiles to every corner of the flat causing furniture, clothes, and walls to go moldy!)

Worst case: what happens if there's a fire, carbon monoxide poisoning, etc.? We recommend fitting smoke and CO alarms. They are not a requirement in rentals in China, though there are so many fire/CO tragedies.

The Deposit and Moving Out

The deposit is typically 1–3 months' rent. Try to get it lowered if it's 3 months'.

If you have to move for some non-contractual reason (even if it's the landlord/lady's fault or someone else's), then you may not get the deposit back. The same goes if you have to leave China unexpectedly (if you lose your job, China doesn't renew your visa, family reasons...) or can't get back for pandemic-rule reasons! Ideally, the contract should say that a portion of the prepaid rent and the deposit should be returned in circumstances beyond the occupier's control or all if it's an apartment fault that necessitates the move.

What if the landlord/lady decides to sell their property (or needs to take the apartment back)!? The contract should state an acceptable notice period and compensation to the tenant in terms of rent/deposit returned.

Registering Your Address

This is law and failure to do so can result in 2,000-yuan fines (for not registering promptly over 5 times or registering over 10 days late). It should be done on the day you move in (and definitely within 3 days, after which fines can be 1,000 yuan). Don't forget to do it every time you rent a new address and every time you reenter the Mainland (even if you're at the same address).

You'll need your signed rental contract (and you may need the landlord/lady to accompany you to prove ownership) and passport with valid visa / residence permit. If your Chinese wife, for example, signs the contract, you should bring along your marriage certificate. Always ask for a printout of the registration (住宿登记单) to prove you have done it.

China Highlights Is Here to Help

Are you having trouble with life in China. You may want to seek help from a company who have been serving foreigners/expats traveling in China for over two decades. Contact us.

Want a break from the stress or to discover more of China's highlights? See our tours designed for expats.

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