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Looking For An Apartment In China Is A Good Cultural Exercise

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XIAMEN-APARTMENT-buildings

I had an appointment with a real estate agent to go look at an apartment on the eastern fringe of Xiamen, right by the exhibition center. I was taken there, shown around, found the place adequate, and agreed to rent it. I’d already looked at a half dozen other places around the city and was ready to draw this rather irritating apartment search endeavor to a close — the work of travel is arranging good accommodation, food, and transportation strategies, when that’s done it’s time to play.

So I said “yes” to the apartment and returned to the real estate office to start doing the paperwork and sign the rental agreement. An hour or so of negotiations went by as I worked out the details of the rental. Then right as the deal was set and we were scheduling a time to finalize the contract, the real estate agent turned to me and asked, “What is your backup plan if you can’t have this apartment?”

I’m not sure what happened: A) the landlord suddenly decided that she’d rather sell the place than tie it with renters for the next year, B) the real estate agents showed me a place that was for sale, not for rent and it was a colossal shitshow from the start, C) the agency realized that they could make a bigger profit selling the place rather than renting it, D) I bargained too hard and got the landlord to accept a price she thought better of and decided it easier to tell me to go shit in my hat than go back on our deal, or E) I have no friggin’ idea. It was my impression that the landlord was on the other end of the phone talking with the real estate agent during our negotiations, but you never really know here.

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Whatever was the case, I sat there and had a moment of silence for the two hours of my life that were so brashly wasted, got up, and stormed out of the place. I tried to be angry, but I knew all too well what I was dealing with: China. Deals falling apart, complete and absolute disorganization is the rule, right and left hands rarely ever coordinated, nonsensical procedures standard fare, heads that can’t identify themselves from assholes, and having your time so mercilessly wasted is just part of the game. There is no use complaining, as I know that it always works out in the end — somehow.

Engaging in any sort of endeavor in China is like riding a big wave: you just sit back and hope you’re going to be taken where you want to go. You usually are, but it is all too often inconceivable how it happened. The warning signs and indicators that in my culture scream “bad deal, get away” don’t apply here. Engagements in China generally always seem screwed up from the beginning right until the end, where you proclaim something to the effect of, “I have no idea how it happened, but it worked out.”

The Chinese way is it’s own system. There is no other way to put it. To try to grab a hold of the wheel and make people here do things as they are done in the West is a sure way to crash, burn, and limp out of the country disillusioned and disgruntled. You need to figure out how things are done, adapt, adjust, and develop a new set of standards of what is acceptable and what is not — if you can.

“Westerners can’t do business in China,” a Taiwanese business man once bluntly put it to me, “they just can’t understand how it works.”

This is just about true for almost everything, from organizing a play for four year olds to renting an apartment to actually engaging in business: you just have to ride the wave and have faith that it will take you there.

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The real estate agents apparently felt embarrassed about the error from the day before and invited me back to look at another apartments the following day. We arranged to meet at 10 AM. I showed up on time and found the place empty save for one guy. He told me that the other workers were in a meeting. I waited for 20 minutes for the guy I was supposed to meet to show up. When he finally arrived he acted surprised, “I thought that you were not coming until this afternoon?”

“Then why did you tell me to come here at 10?”

No response.

We walked a few blocks to see the apartment.

“Please wait here for a moment while I go and get the key,” he said as we stood at the complex’s gate.

He returned five minutes later just to announce that he couldn’t get the key.

This boob had me come all the way across the city to look at an apartment that he couldn’t show me.

“I am very sorry.”

He offered to take me to another place. Why not? We took a taxi ride to another part of town and went in to look at another apartment. It was a studio not any bigger than a hotel room when I’d previously made it completely clear that I was looking for a two bedroom place.

“This is a studio apartment. You know I want two bedrooms. Why did you bring me here?”

No response. No face saved. Another two hours vanquished.

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I again found myself on the hunt for an apartment in Xiamen. I screwed up the first time and moved my family into an overpriced dump just because it was the cheapest thing we could find. The move backfired and something in the place ended up making me ill. I was determined to improve on that fiasco this time around. I figured that if I was going to drop a ton of cash anyway, I may as well throw down a little more and set my family up somewhere . . . nice. An as I’m on an island I may as well live on the beach.

The cost of housing in Xiamen is severely out of whack with the trends in the rest of China outside of central Beijing and Shanghai, as this island is historically linked with Taiwan and is still a kinetic hub of cross-straits business activity. Hokkien, the language that is often erroneously called Taiwanese, is also the local language of Xiamen, and the linguistic and cultural bonds between these islands is still incredibly strong. With the reopening of Taiwanese investment in China, Xiamen quickly regained its historic position as a commercial hub — it was one of the first four Special Economic Zones to engage in the international trade “experiment.”

Needless to say, the place is packed full of Taiwanese business people, and rather than staying in hotels on their regular business trips or China-side work sessions, they tend to rent apartments — which drives the prices up beyond the bounds of what is considered normal in this country. Speaking generally, an apartment in Xiamen rents for about twice of what a similar quality one does in Hangzhou, another mid-size, economically vibrant city on the east coast of China.

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Though I discovered during my first round of apartment hunting that the price differential between a truly awful place and a stellar one in Xiamen is rather slim. We’re talking a $100 to $150 difference here — and when you’re paying $450 for a livable two bedroom place minimum, it isn’t a stretch of vagabonding ethics to just toss down the extra cash.

(I’m not selling out here yet and going expat yuppie — a good portion of our rent is subsidized by my wife’s employer.)

There are two main ways to go about renting an apartment in China:
A) Find a landlord that has a place to rent and make a deal directly with them.
B) Use real estate agents.

Though you need to pay them a commission, the advantage of using a real estate agent is that they can provide you with an array of options for a city district that are updated by the minute. They also have access to the higher end, nicer apartments whose owners/ managers are too high class and/ or can’t be bothered with trying to find renters themselves.

So you just go to a neighborhood that you would like to rent in, walk into a real estate agent and they will give you a full run down of all the nearby properties that are available. You tell them what you want and how much you want to pay, and they help find a place that suits you. Though I don’t like to admit it they are a clutch resource in this endeavor.

The advantage of contacting the landlord directly is that you don’t need to deal with the annoyance of real estate agents and there is no commission. But this means walking around calling phone numbers on flyers posted on community billboards and street posts. Their properties also tend to be older, more run down, more Chinese-ified.

Though I used both methods in Xiamen, generally speaking, the real estate agent route proved more effective, as they have more resources available.

Typical Chinese apartment

Typical Chinese apartment

Real estate agents in China tend to be people who can’t get a job doing anything else. They are generally recent university grads doing a temporary gig as they look for other work/ apply to grad school or people with can pull off white collar work but have no advanced education. Likewise, the pay is ferociously low, the hours incredibly long, and the prestige only slightly higher than working at a shop in a mall or slinging chicken at KFC.

Quantity over quality seems to be the rule of this business, and rapidly developing cities will often have hundreds, if not thousands, of real estate agencies packed into every outpost, nook, cranny. If there are new apartment buildings rising to the sky there will be a layer of real estate offices at on the ground. Many big real estate companies actually have multiple offices on the same block in a business strategy that seems akin to fishing: the more lines you have out in the sea the more fish you stand a chance to catch.

This general philosophy seems to have been transferred to the workforce as well, and most offices tend to be packed full of workers — most all of them doing about nothing but staring blankly into computer screens tracking their competitors’ every move, making it look like their company is doing such good business that they need to hire an army of workers. It’s a face game that falls apart the moment a human actually walks in: everybody jumps to attention, workers fall over themselves to give you a cup of water, and it becomes overtly clear that hardly anybody in the place is doing dick. Like so, walking into a realty office in China is like being encircled by a pack of hungry hyenas. Though you are torn limb from limb by service, hospitality, and attention.

You go to look at an apartment with these people and you find yourself on the receiving end of an endless stream of pampering. Invariably, you’re not going to go and look at a property with just one real estate agent; no, you’re going to have 2, 3, or even an entire entourage accompanying you. They seem to be trained by their culture and profession to never leave you alone either. They never stop talking, they never stop pointing things out, they never stop leading you around until you’re clearly out of their care. It’s the same game whether you’re shopping for shoes or apartments, and Chinese people seem to like this attention when being served — though I think it’s safe to say that people from my culture tend to find it a touch overwhelming, irritating, and inhibiting.

Not sure if I want to live here.

Not sure if I want to live here.

At times I found that I had to almost physically move real estate agents out of my way just to look at parts of apartments or pretend to talk on my cellphone just so I could inspect a place without two or three people jabbering and me and making me look at inane things the entire time. Though, generally speaking, besides the usual annoyances, using real estate agents for renting apartments here is not the awful experience it probably could be.

While it is common for these real estate agents to request a commission in the amount of 50% of one month’s rent, this is China, and everything is negotiable. For the apartment that I ended up renting, the real estate agent came down from the standard 50% commission to 850 RMB, less than 25%. Seriously, renting apartments is a buyer’s market in China, and if one real estate agency doesn’t want to decrease the price of their commission to make a sale just go to another one that will invariably be next door — they are all dealing the same places. This move saved me over $150.

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“The door is the nicest part of a Chinese home. Our doors are our faces on to the world,” a Chinese guy once told me.

It’s true.

In the West, a home is not considered nice unless all of the rooms are done up well and have a consistent level of quality throughout. We like our bathrooms and bedrooms to be just as well designed, constructed, beautiful, and clean as any other room in our houses. In China, this is different: the quality of an apartment tends to decline the further you move into it.

It’s all down hill from the front door.

So many times I would go into an apartment, find an immaculate living room, so-so bedrooms, and a bathroom that wouldn’t look out of place a Russian prison. I would sometimes find decent looking apartments that had bathrooms which were just cinder block caves with a bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling, an excrement stain encrusted hole for a toilet, and a bare pipe sticking out of the wall that I was told is a shower. Granted, bathrooms are generally places where people do rather unflattering things, and are therefore rather unflattering places to begin with, but I do not believe it makes me a snob to prefer to conduct such transactions in a locale that doesn’t provoke the fear of an impending buggering.

This is the living room

This is the living room

This is the bathroom

This is the bathroom

Another stark contrast was the difference in upkeep and appearance between the actual apartments themselves and the buildings they’re lodged in. All too often I would find a nice looking, well preserved, and clean apartment at the end of a dark hallway with plaster crumbling off, exposed electrical wires hanging from the ceiling, random holes hammered here and there, black mold spreading spreading unchecked, and countless other flophouse horrors. The logic seems to be ‘you rent the room, not the hallway,’ which makes sense until you take into account that you’re going to be using that hallway multiple times daily. The effect is that of nice middle class homes transplanted into a Latin American slum. Once a building is developed the amount of money for its upkeep decreases by the year, and eventually the place becomes a rat infested dump.

Basically, apartment complexes in China are more or less disposable. When they’re new their the height of interest and people fall all over themselves to buy properties in them. Then after just six or seven years they begin to really degrade and corrode. After 15 years they become virtual slums. After 20 years they’re ready to be demolished and built anew.

It’s truly amazing how quickly these apartments are destroyed, and on many occasions I was sent into shocked disbelief when standing in a completely wasted apartment building while being told that it was under 10 years old. To put it simply, Chinese apartment buildings are generally not kept up, they tend to be made of poor quality materials with incredibly short half-lifes, and they very quickly start falling apart — whereupon the original residents move on to the next trendy new apartment complex in the latest fashionable district of the city.

Though this isn’t necessarily beyond the scope of the plan.

“They don’t care about what their homes look like,” a long term expat once told me. “They care about wearing nice clothes and having a nice car, because this is what people see. Nobody sees their homes but them, so they don’t care what they look like inside.”

After inspecting over 30 apartments around Xiamen I found this statement close to the truth. It’s all a face game — what other people see is made nice, everything else really doesn’t matter.

Really, is this a kitchen?

A kitchen?

The priorities of a Chinese and foreign renters are different.

“In China, two things affect the price of an apartment,” a real estate fixer told me, “location and decoration.”

Add interior surface area to this criteria and little else seems to matter. Cleanliness, livability, and usability all seem to be insignificant concerns to Chinese renters. I was taken to apartments that were pretty much oversize closets with just a door and a couple small windows that looked out upon brick walls, apartments that had “kitchens” that were essentially two foot wide crawl spaces that hardly even had a sink, and bathrooms that were caked with layers of [insert all gross bathroom things here] that had not been cleaned in a very, very long time. Nobody but me seemed to cringe when looking at these places, as there was nothing out of the ordinary about them. Clearly, the problem ended with me.

“Sorry, but having the refrigerator on the other side of the apartment from the kitchen just seems ridiculous to me.”

“Why didn’t the owner finish building this bathroom like they did the rest of the house?”

“Aren’t you embarrassed to show me an apartment that has old shit stains in the toilet?”

I just didn’t get it. I still don’t, and I’ve been renting apartments in China on and off since 2006. In the words of a Dutch tourists I met in Shanghai:

“China is just different.”

(And that’s what makes it interesting.)

In point, there is a reason why some properties in Chinese cities with larger expat communities are deemed “international.” This isn’t necessarily the show of status as it often is in other instances. What this means is that the apartments have qualities which suite foreign tastes — which often means that all the rooms are of similar quality, that there are big windows that have views other that that of the wall of the neighboring building, and they tend to be built in well groomed, newer, quiet parts of a city away from the mania and noise of downtown.

The interesting thing here is that many Chinese people find these “international” apartments unsuitable. While peace and quiet are almost requisites in the Western conception of paradise, this is the exact opposite of what most Chinese people want. The Chinese tend to want to be where the action is, and that’s where the people, traffic, shopping malls, and noise is: downtown.

In Chinese cities with big expat communities foreigners tend to naturally gravitate to the places they find most suitable, and they unintentionally end up living in buildings filled with their own kind.

This is culture at work: value scales, priorities, and what is deemed desirable shifts as you move across the planet.

I found a two bedroom, brand new, well provisioned apartment in a quiet part of town right on the coast for the same price as a worn out, dump of a place juxtaposed over a cacophonous shopping mall. I can walk from my door to the beach in five minutes, there is no traffic, there are no crowds, no crap all over the streets, no sound systems blaring advertisements from the doorways of stores, no hawkers, virtually no annoyances.

The area seems absolutely perfect, but this this was just the American in me. For the Chinese, this place is not the gem I think it is. Most Chinese people don’t want to live out here — I’m 10 minutes from the nearest shopping mall — and this place is mainly a prize for us laowai (and a peculiar type of Chinese that has developed more Western tastes) alone.

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We are now in an incredibly nice apartment (it’s never been lived in before) that’s on the far eastern side of Xiamen island. I’m on the edge of China here: I can walk out of my building and see Taiwan.

The price differential between where I’m at now and the shit hole I left behind: $160. Mitigate for the additional housing stipend that my wife managed to get from her employers and we’re paying a mere $70 more per month than we did to live in a mold covered, termite invaded, gunk blanketed, dank dark cave that was stuck between two shopping malls. Not bad.

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I probably looked at 30+ properties all over Xiamen — from right downtown to small villages on the coast — and through doing so I was provided a deeper glimpse into how people of this country live, what they value, and how they interact with their society. That’s one of the main benefits of this lifestyle: just about any act in travel can be twisted into exploration, into a learning experience.

Filed under: Accommodation, Apartments, China, Travel Stories

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been moving through the world since 1999, visiting 51 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China. has written 2753 posts on Vagabond Journey.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Kuala Lumpur, MalaysiaMap