Considering South Korea's extremely high population density, expats soon find that securing accommodation in South Korea is often more a case of making the best out of a situation as opposed to hunting down the perfect rental unit.
The range of housing options in South Korea is limited, and prices can be exorbitant. On the positive side, most Korean employers, especially those employing English teachers, organise accommodation for their employees as part of their employment contract. This significantly lowers an expat's cost of living.
Types of accommodation in South Korea
The standard of accommodation in South Korea is high, although living spaces are extremely small by Western standards. Rental accommodation in South Korea generally falls into three categories, namely houses, villas or apartments. Houses are difficult to find and are usually expensive. Villas are buildings with up to five storeys that typically contain up to 10 individual units. Apartments are contained in the high-rise buildings that dominate the skyline of every South Korean city.
While house and villa interiors can vary, South Korean apartments often follow the simple formula of a single bedroom, bathroom and kitchenette.
Underfloor heating (ondol) is a great bonus, and most modern apartments have air conditioning in at least one of the rooms. The lack of privacy in apartment buildings due to the closeness of the apartments is probably the one aspect of Korean housing that expats will have the most trouble adjusting to.
Another aspect foreigners will have to wrap their heads around in the fact that Korean bathrooms typically don't have a separate shower. Instead, the tap over the bathroom sink would have a hand shower attached to it. This essentially turns the whole bathroom into a shower. Koreans also have special shoes they leave outside the bathroom to put on when going into the bathroom to avoid getting their socks wet.
Finding accommodation in South Korea
Expats who aren't assigned accommodation by their employer are often shocked at the high rental prices in South Korea. The best way of finding a rental is to search through online property portals, expat discussion groups, and social media groups that list properties. Real estate agencies are also common in most South Korean neighbourhoods, with some agencies specialising in the expat market. Agency rates for securing a lease are typically up to one percent of the annual rent cost.
Renting accommodation in South Korea
The majority of expats won't have to go through the rental process themselves as it's quite standard for employers to supply their foreign employees with an apartment. Though this takes the stress out of the moving process, it takes the choice of where to live out of the expat's hands. Some expats therefore prefer to choose their own accommodation and receive a monthly stipend from their employer instead.
Furnished vs unfurnished
Since many employers supply apartments, there isn’t a standard answer to whether or not an apartment comes furnished. Depending on how kind one’s employer is, an apartment can be fully furnished, even including pots, pans and cutlery. On the other hand, some apartments only come with a fridge, washing machine and bed. This is something expats will need to discuss with their employer beforehand.
Luckily, with the transient nature of expat life in South Korea, good quality furnishings are available at low prices. It shouldn’t be hard for new expats to get the basics.
Jeonse or 'key money' is a uniquely South Korean phenomenon which functions like a deposit – except that the amount of money required is extraordinarily high and generally amounts to 50 or 100 percent of the market value of an apartment. Key money is meant to be returned in its entirety when the lease agreement is concluded, but in some cases it can be difficult to get the money back in a timely manner.
Paying key-money will directly affect monthly rental prices as the larger the amount of key money paid, the smaller the monthly rental payments will be, and vice versa. It's important to note that owners are more forthcoming with jeonse agreements in times of high-interest rates, as they invest the tenant's key money in order to turn a profit on the rental.
New tenants should be sure to take pictures of the apartment when they move in, and to leave it in as good (or better) condition than they found it in – otherwise, they can expect to have to fight with their landlord to get their deposit money refunded.
Standard leases in South Korea typically last for a year. The tenant has to give at least three months' notice if they want to move out of the apartment before their lease ends.
Alternatively, many expats sign a lease on a wolse (monthly rental) basis. Wolse rentals are more similar to Western rental practices, and tenants will usually have to pay a deposit equal to two months' rent, with tenants making fairly high monthly rental payments.
Tenants will almost certainly be responsible for their own monthly gas, electricity and internet bills. Generally, utilities in South Korea are affordable. Gas can be quite expensive – so it's important to monitor heating costs during winter. Bills are easy to pay via bank transfer at the bank, ATM or through a mobile app. It's even possible to pay some bills at convenience stores.
Bins and recycling
South Korea’s waste management system (jongyangje) is highly organised and efficient. Food waste, recyclables, non-recyclables and large objects are all disposed of separately. There are high penalties for those who do not comply with the system.
Though there isn’t a monthly fee for garbage removal, it's important to buy the correct garbage bags from the local grocery store. These garbage bags are colour coded according to the waste category and district. Collectors won’t accept incorrect bags.
Most apartments have a designated disposal area with communal bins. Smaller buildings may not have a designated area. In these cases, garbage bags should be left outside the building between specific hours on designated days.
Buying property in South Korea
Unlike in many of it's neighbouring countries, it's possible for foreigners to buy property in South Korea. It's also a rather easy process, but property prices are staggeringly high and – unless expats plan to move to South Korea permanently – it's difficult to turn a profit on property investments. Mortgages are difficult for most people to obtain, as they will need to be able to put down a large deposit on the property to even be considered for one.
As a foreign resident in South Korea, the following documentation is generally needed in order to purchase property:
Alien registration card
Documents confirming the sale (a sealed, written contract)
Property registration certificate
"Speaking as an American, I think some people might initially be surprised by the size of the housing options here in Ulsan. The most common type of housing is a one-bedroom loft, essentially. The kitchen, bedroom, and living room are all kind of one thing. At first, I was kind of taken aback by this but I ended up loving it. There are other options, of course. Like most things, you pay for what you get. Right now I’m living in a three-bedroom/two-bath apartment with my fiancé, June." Read more about Patrick's expat experience in South Korea in his interview.
Are you an expat living in South Korea?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to South Korea. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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