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This Is What A $300,000 House Looks Like In China

It is an understatement to say that apartments are expensive in China. Look at how a $300,000 apartment in Xiamen compares with residential properties of the same price around the world.

For $300,000 you could buy a five bedroom, 2 bathroom, two-family home in Dorchester, just outside of Boston. Or, for $300,000 you could land a 3,670 square foot, two-story, Texas-style mini-mansion in Rowlett, Texas. Or, if living in a big city is more your style, you could purchase a studio apartment in midtown Manhattan for a little over $300,000. Don’t want to live in the USA? For the equivalent of three hundred thousand US dollars you could be the owner of a two story house that’s a part of a renovated monastery in Fivizzano, Tuscany or a two bedroom apartment in a resort community on the French Riviera.

Or, if you want to live in Xiamen, China, for $300,000 you could get this:

This is the apartment that I rent in the Ruijing part of Xiamen. It’s a two bedroom, 82 square meter shit hole on the first floor of a 15 year old building. It’s location isn’t bad, but in no way could it be considered downtown. When I was going through the proceedings to rent the place I found out that the owner was trying to sell it, so I casually asked the real estate agent how much it was on the market for:

$284,000. Nearly 1,800,000 RMB. That’s 22,000 RMB per square meter or $1,055 per square foot.

Though not as expensive as in Beijing or Shanghai, real estate in Xiamen does tend to be more costly than in many other parts of China, but the trend is the same everywhere:

Housing in China is ridiculously expensive.

This is a country were $5 buys you two armfuls of food from the market, a full meal in a restaurant can be had for $3.50, a bunk on a train ticket for a 2,000 kilometer journey costs $70. Add to this the fact that the minimum wage in Xiamen is 1,200 RMB (less than $200) per month, the average wage is under 6,000 RMB (under $1,000) per month, and what’s considered a middle class wage in China is roughly between $1,200 and $5,000 per month, and it becomes evident just how out of proportion the price of property in China truly is.

Over the past 30 years 600 million Chinese people rose out of poverty, and there are now over 300 million people in this country that are considered middle class. Much has been said about how large masses of people in China have grown richer very rapidly, but it seems as if the more money people here earn the more they are gouged by profiteers, a restrictive economic system, a culture where demonstrating status is an expensive necessity, as well as some very unbending traditions that often take precedence over financial common sense or prudence.

In opposition to the cost of buying property, renting apartments in China is relatively cheap. I rent the two bedroom apartment featured in this article for around $400 per month, and that’s pretty expensive when compared with the cost of renting around the country. I’ve previously rented two bedroom apartments in Hangzhou for around $150 per month, and, generally speaking, outside of central Shanghai or Beijing, a nice place can easily be had for well under $250 per month.

Given this, I’ve often asked people here why they choose to buy apartments and potentially face a lifetime of debt rather than renting them, saving a lot of money, and living debt-free. I’m often given responses like, “We Chinese like to feel secure in our homes,” but the main reason is that owning a home is traditionally a prerequisite for marriage.

This is something that’s taken very seriously, and is one of the main reasons why so many Chinese are becoming fang nu (房奴), house slaves: homeowners who are perpetually financially consumed by their mortgages.

I don’t know how many times I’ve made friends with young, single, marriage-age Chinese men in hostels around this country who are in the middle of hopeless seeming searches for homes to buy. Though they often have the financial backing of their families, they still often search for years for a place they can afford with little success. Some actually can’t get married because of it.

The incredibly high cost of housing in China isn’t just an economic issue, it’s a social tragedy.

Meanwhile, developers all through the country are building millions of new apartments every year, but this additional supply doesn’t satisfy the demand and lower the price. In point, in established urban areas or new upper/ middle class developments many — if not most — of these new apartments are not going to people who actually intend to live in them. They are being bought up in droves as investment chips by real estate speculators or just about anyone else with the cash to spare, astronomically inflating the prices.

China provides few secure avenues for investment, the stock market is extremely risky and banks often don’t pay enough interest to keep pace with inflation, so people cache their spare savings in property. This is seen as a safer bet, especially as there is no yearly property tax here. In a country of 1.4 billion people houses will always have value, but until action is taken to adjust investment patterns tens of millions of apartments will sit empty as tens of millions of people search in vain for homes.

$300,000 apartment in a resort on the French Riviera

$300,000 apartment in a resort on the French Riviera

$300,000 house in Boston

$300,000 house in Boston

$300,000 studio apartment in midtown Manhattan.

$300,000 studio apartment in midtown Manhattan.

$300,000 apartment in Xiamen

$300,000 apartment in Xiamen

Filed under: China, Culture and Society, Economics, Housing

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 89 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3465 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

14 comments… add one

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  • Jessica Dawdy September 11, 2013, 9:39 pm

    Wow! This is really surprising! I would have assumed that the cost of buying property in China would be on par with all the other living costs – crazy!

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    • VagabondJourney September 14, 2013, 8:52 pm

      Me too. Generally prices of things are relative to each other. Not here.

      Link Reply
  • Félix Gervais September 14, 2013, 1:01 pm

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    That makes no sense whatsoever…

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    • VagabondJourney September 14, 2013, 8:49 pm

      For real.

      Link Reply
  • Ray September 15, 2013, 11:33 pm

    There are many reasons for extremely high house price in
    China’s cities. One of it is the low ownership cost as you have stated. There
    is no property tax. A $300,000 property in the US or Europe would require a
    property tax of $4,000 to $5,000. This tax acts as a check and balance on house
    price.

    And as you have noticed also, house ownership is pretty much
    a prerequisite for marriage for most Chinese, this put an upward pressure on
    house price. Also most first time buyers would get financial help from parents.

    Basically, there is a cultural and economical reason for
    this phenomena. You can see this pattern repeat itself in Taiwan, HK and where
    there is large Chinese diasporas. For example, in ethnics Chinese enclaves in
    Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines etc where house prices is totally out of whack
    with average income.

    Link Reply
    • VagabondJourney September 16, 2013, 1:21 am

      Inflated costs for housing in other places where large amounts of Chinese people live is a good point and something to look into.

      Link Reply
  • Mike September 22, 2013, 5:18 pm

    Historically money rents for 6.5% per annum. So to justify a $300k price tag your apartment should rent for just over $1600 per month. That would suggest its priced about four times its fair value. Markets always get it right in the long run, but in the short term they can be bat sh&% crazy. If I were chinese I’d much rather marry someone who owned a business with good cash flow rather than a grossly over-priced condo.

    Link Reply
  • Bob September 23, 2013, 2:16 am

    Hi,
    You forgot to mention one very important factor that make real estate in China extremely expensive: Property Tax. In US one has to pay 1 -2% or the values of the house as property tax. This tax keep a lot of real estate speculators away.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard September 23, 2013, 6:14 am

      Thanks for adding this, but I mentioned no yearly taxes briefly in the last paragraph 🙂

      Yes, I agree with your last sentence. The initial property tax is also something which partially keeps the rampant pace of development rolling.

      Link Reply
  • Org September 23, 2013, 9:01 pm

    Looks like their housing bubble burst is at full force somewhere in this decade.

    Link Reply
  • update September 24, 2013, 12:17 pm

    how often does this get updated? i’ve been viewing this for two weeks. on topic: imo, this is better than those paper houses in the suburbs.
    a westerner may live in china to absorb and adore the culture, but a westerner is still a westerner with his born and raised a certain way mentality at the end of the day.

    Link Reply
  • Jack Woods October 2, 2013, 10:08 am

    Ok, how does the men looking for years to find a place to live in jive with all of those ghost cities in China where no one lives? If I take what you say in your article(and I do) then they really aren’t ghost cities…..they just have tower after tower of owned but unoccupied units.

    It might not even be the real estate speculators in the ghost cities……before a unit is built it can be bought at a significant discount from the developer. Once built, the price jumps considerably. A businessman can buy 10 units on borrowed money and then use the “value” jump to borrow even more money. Example, crony buys 50 units at 1.5 million each during the presale on borrowed money(only needs to pay a deposit down to hold the units). When the building is completed, he completes the purchase of the 50 units for 75 million RMB of borrowed money. Since the units are completed, their new price is 2.5 million RMB each. Crony goes out and borrows to a total of 125 RMB pocketing a 50 RMB profit. The developer has sold all of their units and has a profit from it and so does the crony. The value of the property is not a real value, but the bank doesn’t care, the developer doesn’t care and the crony doesn’t care. Crony buys his kid a Ferrari and everyone is happy.

    Just an idea, don’t know if that’s how it’s done, but I’d do it that.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard October 5, 2013, 3:33 am

      Hello Jack,

      Your first statement is right on. “Ghost city” has taken on another meaning in this case — and it’s a meaning that the Chinese government has recognized. None of these places are real ghost cities in the typical sense, many of them are the opposite of that. Ghost cities are places that most all of the people who once lived there moved away, what we see in China are places that people are in the process of moving too. Property speculation is one of the gears that is cranking the urbanization movement but it’s also one of the biggest hurdles when transforming these places into real urban centers. It’s a long term commitment, and far too many foreign journalists have jumped in way to early with ghost city claims, especially as many of these places are not even built yet.

      http://thechinachronicle.com/chinas-ghost-cities/

      As for developers selling properties before they’re built, that used to be done, but it has since been made illegal. The advantage of buying these properties, as you point out, is getting in and buying them as soon as possible, so you can then flip them and sell for a profit or at least paying a cheaper price for somewhere that you or your kids eventually plan to live. Getting in and buying direct from the developer is often still the goal, but they can’t be sold until they are at least somewhat built (I don’t know what the exact criteria is on when a place is considered “built” as they properties are sold as empty cavities, not fully constructed apartments). The scheme that you describe though is pretty right on, and is still done — though it’s vastly more competitive now.

      Link Reply
  • sam October 9, 2013, 4:03 pm

    I have a beautiful condo in Fort Lauderdale I bought a year ago. now the price is about $330 k, substantially higher than what I paid. I am renting it out for a cool $1850 per month. Here comes the cost of holding it:

    1. a monthly condo fee of about $700/month (ouch!)
    2. property taxes of about $500/month
    3. insurance about $100/month
    4. misc. repairs average $30/month
    5. a property manager overseeing it since I live in Canada: $125/month

    my net out of holding this is $395/month, giving me a cap rate of 2%. on top of this comes my Canadian income tax, marginal rate at 50%!

    I have some properties in smaller Chinese cities that are being rented out. I get similar or higher returns. (I am a Chinese by the way, and I can assure you that the Chinese everywhere adores homeownership).

    I am also involved in some residential properties in Atlanta. Some distressed properties are selling for $20,000 per unit on average, that is being rented out for more than $600/month! And yet they are generating negative cash flows before interest expenses!

    My point is investing in property is extremely costly in the west. homeownership is endangered as soon as one becomes unemployed. this causes a lot of volatility in home prices. It is a totally different system in China, as you correctly pointed out. the cost of holding a property is next to nothing in China, which certainly puts a lot of pressure on home prices.

    Chinese home prices are uncomfortably high for sure. A bubble? more complicated than it appears. the argument that CHinese have fewer investment options and interest rates are low is a valid one. But do western people really have more options? The critical difference is that in China there is simply a lot more savings. The fact that you can spend $2 for a decent meal, $250 for an apartment can save you a lot of money for you to invest.

    Really enjoyed your blog. I’ve been reading and your series on ghost cities is extremely interesting and relevant! congratulations!

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