- Download our Moving to South Korea Guide (PDF)
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 instead of 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
Although living spaces are tiny by Western standards, the standard of accommodation in South Korea is high. Rental accommodation in South Korea generally falls into three categories, namely houses, villas, officetels, goshiwon 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.
Officetels are mixed-use properties that have offices and apartments. These are typically more modern and have sought-after amenities like gyms and the latest appliances. It goes without saying that these facilities often carry a heavier price tag. The alternative, goshiwon, are small rooms with only essential furniture. Students often opt for this type of housing, as it's usually cheaper.
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 is the fact that Korean bathrooms typically don't have separate showers. Instead, the tap over the washbasin 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.
Furnished vs unfurnished
Since many employers supply apartments, there isn’t a standard answer to whether 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.
Expats who do not have their accommodation covered by their employer might consider investing in short-term rentals while investigating the different areas and suburbs they might want to settle in. This is a fantastic option as short lets are often more affordable than hotels and are fully furnished. While this option may be pricier than renting an apartment, utilities and cleaning fees are usually included in the cost. Expats can visit property management sites and companies like Airbnb to find a short-term rental.
Finding accommodation in South Korea
Expats who aren't assigned accommodation by their employers are often shocked at the high rental prices in South Korea. The best way to find a rental is to search online property portals, expat discussion groups and social media groups listing properties.
Real-estate agencies are also common in most South Korean neighbourhoods, with some agencies specialising in the expat market. Estate agencies can also help expats overcome the language barrier when negotiating lease agreements. Agency rates for securing a lease are typically up to 1 percent of the annual rent cost.
- Dabang app is one of the most popular mobile applications for searching for rental properties in South Korea. Expats should note that some ads may be in Korean.
- Naver Real Estate lists apartment rentals throughout South Korea.
- One of the most interactive and detailed rental accommodation websites in South Korea, Zig-Bang partners with accommodation managers and often houses the latest listings.
Renting accommodation in South Korea
Most 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. Although 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.
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 a refund promptly.
Paying the often exorbitant key money usually means tenants do not pay rent during their lease period. 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 to turn a profit on the rental.
The alternative is the wolse system, which allows tenants to pay a smaller deposit and a monthly rental fee. Most expats and students opt for this system as it is typically more affordable and won't require them to get a loan from the bank.
The third rental system in South Korea is the banjeonse, a combination of the jeonse and wolse systems. Tenants who opt for this structure are expected to pay a larger deposit than they would for a wolse lease but smaller than for a jeonse contract. They will then pay a monthly rental fee based on how high the deposit they paid was.
Standard leases in South Korea typically last for a year to three years. Expats can choose to sign a jeonse, wolse or banjeonse lease, which impacts the amount of money they need to fork out for their deposit.
Expats must submit a copy of their rental agreement to their local district or registry office. They will then give tenants a Confirmation Date (Hwak Jeong Il Ja), certifying that the key money paid has been officially recorded. This ensures the property will not be illegally auctioned while a tenant still occupies it.
Most rental properties in South Korea will not allow pets, but expats looking to move with their furry friends are encouraged to check with their landlords. Expats should ensure they thoroughly read through their rental contract and get someone to translate it if it's written in Korean.
Termination of the lease
The tenant has to give at least three months' notice if they want to move out of an apartment before their lease in South Korea ends. Landlords may penalise tenants who choose to terminate their lease without what is deemed a good reason before it reaches the halfway mark.
Tenants should take pictures of the apartment when they move in and leave it in as good (or better) condition as they found it in – otherwise, they can expect to have to fight with their landlord to get their deposit money refunded. If anything is broken or the apartment is left in an undesirable condition, the landlord will typically deduct money for repairs from the deposit.
Tenants will almost certainly be responsible for their own monthly gas, water, 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.
Electricity and gas
Korea Electricity Power Corporation (KEPCO) is the only electricity provider in South Korea, and most expats living in villas or apartments will already have a connection in place. The only thing new arrivals will need to set up their account is proof of identification. Expats can apply online, via email or at their local KEPCO office, and the process should be completed within 24 hours. Parents with three or more children living with them in South Korea are eligible for a 20 percent discount on their monthly electricity bill.
South Korea has several domestic gas suppliers in different regions of the country. Seoul's major gas provider is Seoul City Gas Provider, Daegu is supplied by Daesung Energy, and Busan's main supplier is Busan City Gas. Expats must provide proof of identification and their residence card to register an account.
New arrivals who live in apartments or villas will typically not need to arrange a water connection. The monthly bill will usually be equally divided between all apartments or villas in a building or complex. Expats who need to arrange service connection or change their details can visit their local waterworks office. They will have to bring their bank account details or credit card and passports.
In Seoul, water is supplied by the waterworks of the Seoul Metropolitan Government. Bills are sent out monthly and are also available in English. Expats can pay via direct debit and receive a discount.
South Korea has one of the fastest internet speeds in the world and is one of the most technologically advanced societies. Expats will have plenty of options for landline, television, internet and mobile connection services. They will simply need to provide their residence card and passport to set up an account.
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 rubbish removal, it's important to buy the correct rubbish bags from the local grocery store. These rubbish 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, rubbish bags should be left outside the building between specific hours on designated days.
Buying property in South Korea
Unlike in many of its 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 profit from 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 even to be considered for one.
As a foreign resident in South Korea, the following documentation is generally needed to purchase property:
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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