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Renting An Apartment In Xiamen

Renting an apartment abroad means that you sometimes need to just go along for the ride.

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The place was crap. There was double-sided tape residue permanently embedded on the walls, the paint was caked in perma-grime, chunks were taken out of the plaster, some kid’s shitty attempts at art were everywhere, the furniture was molding and rotting, the toilet was busted, the beds contained unimaginable freights, cockroaches ruled, and the cleanest damn think I could find was an array of shapes on the walls that were bright white only because they’d been covered with stickers for ages. This  place was so crap that the landlord even admitted it and knocked 400 RMB per month off the price if we would just move in and make it livable.

“Don’t worry about him renting it out to someone else,” my wife’s employer reassured us, “Chinese people don’t want to live in places like that.”

If fact, the only reason why this place was up for rent was because the owner couldn’t sell it to anyone.

But the place had a special appeal for me. Beneath the crap it is perfect. It was on the ground floor. I never even imagined living on the ground in China. People in cities here live in the sky. But I was able to lock onto a place with two doors that opened right up to dirt. And some of this dirt would be under my juristiction: there’s a backyard.  Well, there’s a small area surrounded by bushes that I can go out and drink beer in, play with the kid, grow tomatoes, and be at home AND outside.

Beyond this yard is a public grassy area that leads to a fence that nobody except the neighbors really have any business being. We would have a large amount of space here.

That said, when I look at this apartment, when I see the trees and bushes that enclose the yard and block my abode off from view I see a refuge. It’s a quiet, oddly out of the way, and uniquely private place for China.

They talk of “livability” in the new suburbs of Shanghai, but I just landed these attributes in some offhand part of Xiamen.  Though I have to admit that I have the horrible habit of only seeing the positive aspects of just about everything I engage in, which keeps me looking away from all the crap that inevitably will jump into view and become reality.

My poor wife cringes. She wanted the immaculate fourth floor apartment across the street that was uber-modern and fully stocked with brand new everything. But I refused to concede my claim to a yard. Kids Humans should be outside. All too often apartments in China are places where people go to hide.

The cost of rent in Xiamen is like some clown blowing up one of those balloons that just keep growing and growing. That is to say, it seems inflated. I’ve traveled all over China and have had apartments in various provinces, but outside of central Beijing or Shanghai I’ve not yet seen anything like this:

For a two bedroom apartment in an ideally located part of town (Hongwen) we couldn’t find anything lower than $430 per month. I’m sure if we keep searching we could have knocked a hundred bucks off this amount, but the quality we could land for $400 was too appalling to brave looking any cheaper.

Now I’ve had super crap apartments in China before, but I’ve never paid over $150 per month for them, and the ones I was peering into in Xiamen were even worse. There had to be a reason for this, and it was recently pointed out to me: Taiwanese money.

Xiamen used to be known as Amoy, it’s an island off the SE coast of China, a tick from the Taiwanese island of Kinmen and just across the straight from Taiwan proper. These islands have been linked all through history, and now even though they are divided between two different governments this is still the case. Xiamen is a haven for cross straights business, and the prices here reflect the influx of Taiwanese capital.

But we can float $430 here. My wife’s employer subsidies $160 of our rent, so that leaves us dishing out $270 per month. We paid around this much for a place in Sosua, Dominican Republic, and actually dropped about twice this amount when staying in Cartagena, Colombia. Sure, $270 is a lot more per month than free, but that’s part of the trade off for clean air, warm weather, the beach, and some forested hills.

My wife is a Montessori teacher, she’s not an English teacher. But she works in the same schools as English teachers and is pretty much thrown into the same category as all the other foreign educators. When you take a job in some bumfuck city in China the school will generally provide you with an apartment. You just show up and you have a roof over your head free of charge. There’s no lease, no negotiations, your employer and they take care of everything. It’s too easy, you’re treated like a child: you show up in China and responsibility for yourself is transferred to the people who employ you. This seems to be one of the perks of the job.

But when you take a job in an “international” city that has a relatively thriving expat community, where the foreigners are not as exotic and there are many who actually live there, you’re imparted a slightly higher degree of responsibility for yourself. Though this is not to say that you’re generally left to fend for yourself. There is usually someone at the school who will take you by the hand and help you find a place to stay, but you are generally responsible for paying for it and signing your name on the dotted line — though sometimes you will be given an accommodation stipend.

The latter arrangement is more the norm in Xiamen.

We were put up in a hotel for two weeks by my wife’s employer as we looked for a place to live. We now found a place and have been fixing it up over the past week.

Last night we were supposed to meet with the landlord and pass over three months rent and a security deposit. He didn’t show up. It is sometimes difficult here to tell if you are in a sketchy situation or merely a Chinese one. Things work out in this country, but things are rarely straight forward.

Realtors take responsibility for renting apartments here, they do all the hands on work, the landlord just shows up and signs the contract. The realtor’s pay is one month’s rent, paid in half by the people moving in and in half by the landlord. We got our first surprise a couple of nights ago when the realtor — who works closely with my wife’s school –informed us that the landlord wanted us to pay his half of the realty fee as an exchange for the break in rent. Apparently, this was a message that was never piped down to us. We were fixing the place up for this price reduction, and this was the end of the deal.

At first we refused to pay it. Of course. Then it was stated that my wife’s employer was the broken link in this chain of communication. She was sitting right next to us and seemed a little embarrassed. The situation got a little awkward. Other than this, she’s been completely solid so far. We gave them the benefit of doubt, and when the realtor reduced the fee, we agreed.

People devise contracts so they don’t have to bother trusting each other.

When you enter into a situation that involves the transfer of a reasonable amount of money in a foreign country you’re pretty much floating on a sea where there are no bearings of trust in sight. When on this sea locking onto a pillar of trust is a good way to get buried and the waves and screwed over. Though more often than not these situations demand that you either throw up your hands and accept whatever consequences may come or walk away.

Sometimes you just go along for the ride.

Filed under: Accommodation, China

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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  • bob l September 2, 2013, 10:41 pm

    ALWAYS trust your wife’s instincts over your own. You will be wrong either way, but better off in the end.

    Hope all goes well with this endeavor. Sounds like an in-place adventure.

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    • Wade Shepard September 3, 2013, 9:21 pm

      Haha, yes! But the quality of living that my wife now expects is beyond or budget when we actually have to pay for it. I guess I empathize with her though, as some of the other foreigners she works with talk about their nice apartments on the beach and all that. But her coworkers seem to have far more disposable cash than we could ever dream of.

      The apartment we have is nice and better than 80% of the other places we’ve made camp in for a while. I truly don’t know why she doesn’t like it so much.

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