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Living in Shanghai has all the advantages of living in a major Chinese city, including great access to nightlife, restaurants, excitement and a real sense of local culture. The downsides are also familiar: depending on the suburb, it can be polluted, loud, crowded and expensive.
The Huangpu River runs through the city's centre, effectively splitting Shanghai into two regions – Pudong, east of the river, and the older downtown area of Puxi to the west. Exploding outwards, much of Shanghai’s growth has taken place in the last two decades, with developments becoming newer the further one travels from the city centre.
The city’s immense growth has been accompanied by increasingly congested traffic and long commutes. When choosing where to live in Shanghai, expats need to consider the distance to work and school, as well as what their public transport options are.
Types of accommodation in Shanghai
Accommodation in Shanghai is varied, with old and luxurious homes pressing against new high-rise developments and suburban neighbourhoods. Shanghai’s city centre has several decadent and old residential neighbourhoods that act as oases within the storm of the city, but these desirable properties come with their own exorbitant price tags. Often, even small flats in high-rise apartment blocks in the city centre can be more expensive than renting a large house in the nearby suburbs.
Accommodation in Shanghai may be furnished or unfurnished, and the price should reflect that fact. However, be sure to have an inventory of all furniture items in the property.
Expats with flexible budgets can find serviced apartments or compounds, which are a preferred choice by expat families, though these are in high demand. Shanghai's serviced apartments not only come fully furnished but also offer housekeeping and cleaning services, among other amenities.
Alternatively, flatshares are common, particularly among young expats and students on a tight budget.
In general, security is not a big issue for expats in Shanghai and common-sense measures are usually enough to keep residents safe. Locking doors, keeping valuables in a safe and avoiding first-floor apartments for women living alone are all recommended.
Finding accommodation in Shanghai
While many Shanghai properties can be found online, some of the best deals are not found on the internet. Local newspapers or asking friends and colleagues for leads are good ways to find property while potentially avoiding agent fees.
Expats who don’t speak Mandarin usually enlist a real-estate agent. Property agencies can be found all over the city and tend to be recognisable by pictures of apartments and prices on the windows.
Agents often work with specific apartment buildings, meaning that they are usually able to show a few properties at the outset. It is important to be specific about what is being searched for in terms of budget, location and proximity to transport routes from the beginning.
Agents sometimes try to overcharge unsuspecting foreigners or pressure them into moving into properties that they haven’t been able to get off the market, so it's best to stand one's ground and investigate the property and lease agreement first. Expats shouldn’t be discouraged if they don’t find something right away and should make use of several agencies.
Renting accommodation in Shanghai
After finding a suitable property, the tenant, agent and landlord (depending on how it was found) will discuss and agree upon a contract. Sometimes it might be necessary to pay the landlord an amount to reserve the apartment if the contract is to be signed at a later date.
Leases are usually valid for one year. Short-term rentals in Shanghai are generally more expensive, while leases for longer than a year can be negotiated for less. Bargaining is a widely accepted practice in China, and expats with the necessary skills often get between one and 10 percent off of their lease.
When negotiating leases, tenants should also discuss the method of payment of rent and what works best for both parties.
Leases should ideally be drawn up in both Chinese and English, when both tenant and landlord are not comfortable in one language, and tenants should ask for a translator to validate these.
Note that once expats move into their new place of residence, they must register this with the local Public Service Bureau (PSB).
Landlords will generally ask for two or three months' rent right away, and one month’s rent as a deposit, so be prepared to have a lot of cash on hand. Agents will also charge a commission, and this should be budgeted for.
Utilities are most often paid by the tenant, not the landlord. There are normally prepaid electricity meters, while official individuals regularly visit to read meters for gas and water. Be sure to ask the agent or landlord how utilities must be paid.
►For more on where to live in the city, see Areas and Suburbs in Shanghai
►For info on buying property and utilities, see Accommodation in China
"The standard of housing for expats is probably a lot better than it is for locals. The one downfall here is that there is no central heating, so in the cold winter, the best you can do is have hot air blowing from the air conditioning system. It's not ideal." For more advice on housing, read this interview with Georgia.
Are you an expat living in Shanghai?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Shanghai. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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