Initially, expats are often overwhelmed by the variety of accommodation in China, but soon realise that small units in huge apartment buildings are the most affordable option. These often feel cramped at first, especially for foreigners who are accustomed to larger properties. But most expats adjust and end up being perfectly comfortable – they even find that everything they need can be stored with a bit of creative organisation.
It's also fairly common for expats to hire a housekeeper in China. Informally called ayi (Chinese for 'aunt'), they provide cleaning and housekeeping services at an affordable rate.
Expats should also note that they're required by law, as per visa requirements, to register their address at the local Public Service Bureau (PSB) as soon as they move in. Hotels normally do this for guests, while those residing elsewhere must do this themselves.
Types of accommodation in China
Expats should be warned that a 'standard apartment' in China could be anything from a tiny, dark room with squat toilets to a spacious apartment with internet facilities and marble floors. Of course, most apartments are somewhere in between. As a result, potential tenants should conduct thorough market research when they first arrive to ensure that they find a place they could reasonably occupy for an extended period.
The price of accommodation varies widely according to size, amenities and location. Apartments in China can be furnished or unfurnished, which also affects their price. Before sending a large shipment of belongings overseas, expats should keep in mind that there is an impressive assortment of home accessory- and furniture stores in China.
Serviced apartments and complexes
The most expensive real estate is usually found in the big cities – Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Within these, the priciest rentals include serviced luxury apartments that are often reserved for short-term rentals, and villa complexes aimed at China’s nouveau rich and foreign executives.
Expats looking to cut costs could consider house sharing, a form of accommodation that's popular among younger foreigners in particular. This can be arranged via online couch-surfing portals, internet forums and word of mouth. It is sometimes easier for a few expats to get together to hire an agent and rent an entire apartment than it is to find a single room for rent.
Aside from the standard roommate arrangement, some adventurous expats choose to rent a room with a Chinese family, known as 'homestaying'. This is often done through specialised websites, but it can be risky. While some people enjoy the experience, many report problems with agencies and families who expect tenants to tutor their children.
Finding accommodation in China
Foreigners who don’t speak Mandarin usually enlist the services of a Chinese real estate agent to help them find a place to stay. Estate agencies are widely available and easily identifiable by the pictures of houses and apartments in their windows. While some agencies in the larger cities may be able to help customers in English, it's often necessary to hire a translator to help with negotiations as well.
Commission for estate agents in China is negotiable but it can be a fair chunk of a month's rent and is paid by the tenant. After settling on a place, it's common for an agreed amount to be paid to the landlord as a security downpayment to reserve the property during the contract negotiation process.
Expats planning their move can also use online portals, such as FlatInChina and Sublet.com, but are highly recommended to visit the property in person or have someone visit on their behalf before signing any rental agreement. House hunters who network and look for properties with the help of friends and colleagues may also be able to secure a great deal on rent.
Renting accommodation in China
Rental contracts are generally valid for one year; some leases may be valid for three or six months. Rent is normally paid monthly, although in some cases it can be negotiated to once every two or three months.
Unless both parties are comfortable with one language, a contract in both English and Chinese should be signed. It's advisable to have the contract checked by a Chinese speaker to make sure that the translations are the same. While both documents are binding, the Chinese contract is often favoured when a dispute arises.
Some landlords may ask for cash payments, although online transactions are more secure. Expats with a Chinese bank account might be able to set up a direct debit or a standing order to cover their monthly rental expenses.
To avoid potential scams, before signing any lease, prospective tenants should ask for documentation proving ownership of the property, which is also needed when registering with the police or PSB. Expats must also ensure the property is registered as a rental property, as opposed to an office space.
Landlords normally require a refundable deposit of at least one month's rent. Upon signing the lease, the tenant is generally expected to pay two or three months' rent upfront in addition to a downpayment to secure the rent.
In most instances, the tenant is expected to pay utility bills in China. Payment methods can vary between cities and expats should check this with their relevant local authorities. Some services may require certain documentation, especially for first-time purchases. Expats should ask their estate agent about this in the contract negotiation stage.
Electricity payments are regulated by the state and tariffs are the same across the country. Many people use prepaid electric meters. First-time buyers should apply for a top-up smart card at an authorised outlet, such as a branch of the power supply company or certain banks, depending on the city. Units can then be loaded onto the card, which is inserted into their meter.
Tenants in apartments with access to a natural gas line will usually receive a payment notice shortly after a meter reader visits their property. The bill will indicate a fixed period within which to pay, and payments can be made at gas company outlets and certain banks, convenience stores and post offices. In some cities, expats may be able to use their top-up card for their gas supply as well.
Much the same as for gas, a meter reader comes to measure the household’s water consumption and the local water company sends a payment notice that gives the tenant a set period in which to pay their bill at certain banks and outlets.
As the government still closely controls the internet in China, not just in terms of censorship but also access, expats without access to the internet will have to apply for their property to be connected via the regional telecom company or China Telecom, the state-owned telecommunications provider. Bills are usually sent every month. These companies also provide phone lines.
►Cost of Living in China provides a breakdown of costs new arrivals are likely to experience
"The housing we are provided with has its perks – we have a gym, tennis and basketball courts, a track and soccer field, and a cafeteria all within the grounds of the expat village. The downside is that the quality of the apartments isn’t great." Read our interview with Rachel to find out about accommodation in Shandong Province.
"When my husband and I were first searching for an apartment, we saw some really old and dirty apartments and some incredibly fancy, well-designed places. In general, you can get a decent place with potential (aka one you’ll have to put some work into but will eventually be great) for an affordable price." Check out this interview with Kara for more on an expat's experience of finding accommodation in China.
Are you an expat living in China?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to China. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
Expat Health Insurance
With 86 million customer relationships in over 200 countries, Cigna Global has unrivalled experience in dealing with varied and unique medical situations and delivering high standards of service wherever you live in the world.
Sirelo has a network of more than 500 international removal companies that can move your furniture and possessions to your new home. By filling in a form, you’ll get up to 5 quotes from recommended movers. This service is free of charge and will help you select an international moving company that suits your needs and budget.