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Our Guide on Renting or Buying a Home in China

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  • David Thyne

    At the first Shanghai Get-Together I met several American expats. I am very grateful that they shared their experience with me.

From traditional housing to glamorous villas with swimming pools and gyms, there are many different types of houses and apartments for rent in China.

While you decide which one is right for you, there are some short-term rental options available, but most regular apartments have a one-year lease. Remember: you’ll need to start house hunting at least two months before your target move-in date.

As well as property type, our guide covers the most popular areas for expats in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou as well as tips on utility providers, including Chinese phone carriers.

If you’re planning to stay long term and are considering buying a house in China, make sure you read up on the quirks of the Chinese leasing system, and keep in mind that you have to live in the property that you purchase.

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Renting a House or Apartment

As this country is a major destination for expats, the how-to for finding an apartment or house to rent in China is becoming less of a challenge. In fact, landlords and major hotel chains are getting more and more used to welcoming expats, while multilingual real estate agents are offering their assistance. At the same time, however, the competition is huge and the cost of living, particularly in Shanghai and Beijing, is at an all-time high.

Different Types of Accommodation

While there are different types of accommodation for every need, most expats who move to China settle down in the big cities where large apartment blocks are the norm. However, there are different types of accommodation you can rent in China:

  • Regular apartments: a common choice for expats. Regular apartments are usually unfurnished and not always in great shape, but they are perfect if you are on a budget.
  • High-end apartment complexes: These apartments are usually new, furnished, and offer a higher living standard, and more expensive than regular apartments.
  • Serviced apartments: perfect for business people on a longer assignment (i.e. a few weeks or months). They provide the luxury of hotels but with more space that usually is also more expensive.
  • Villa communities: usually the home of those with an expat package. While spacious, well-furnished, and the perfect environment for families with kids, these are hardly affordable for most expats and often located far from the city centers.
  • Traditional Chinese housing: a common choice for travelers. Traditional housing makes for a unique experience. However, these places can be run-down and less secure, considering that they are usually located at street level.

The list above is designed to help you with your apartment search in China. Keep in mind that most places are furnished and that rental prices also largely depend on amenities and location. The rent in China is usually paid a month in advance. The duration of your stay will also determine which type of accommodation is most suitable for you. Depending on that, there are different ways to conduct your housing search.

Most “regular” apartments can be rented for at least one year. Thus, finding a place to rent in China, if you plan on staying for a while, is probably easier than finding a short-term rental. However, here too, you might have to rely on the help of your employer, a friend, or an English-speaking real estate agent.

Because of the large number of expats looking for an apartment to rent in China, there is a lot of competition when it comes to high-quality real estate. Once you see a place that you like, you should pay a deposit to your future landlord to make sure he will hold the apartment for you.

Enlisting a Real Estate Agent

As mentioned above, when renting property as a foreigner, hiring a real estate agent might be inevitable. This is not necessarily a bad thing as they will be able to find just the right place for you to rent in China and to negotiate the contract with your prospective landlord. Keep in mind that prices for places found by real estate agents will not include utility bills.

Unfortunately, English-speaking real estate agents are rather rare in China. If you are not confident that your Mandarin is good enough, you should bring an interpreter when meeting up with your real estate agent.

If you want to be on the safe side when hiring a realtor, ask for some recommendations from other expats. When you do settle on your agent, try to make yourself very clear when explaining what you want in terms of area, size, and rent in China. You will not have to pay any commission until you and your landlord have signed the rental agreement. Then, the commission should be about one month’s rent.

Average Rent in China

Of course, the rent you will pay depends on a lot of factors and some destinations are just way more expensive than others. However, to get an idea of how much you can expect to pay for one month’s rent in China (for a one-bedroom apartment in the city center), here are the common median prices:

  • Beijing: about 6,500 CNY
  • Shanghai: about 7,000 CNY
  • Guangzhou: about 3,500 CNY

Finding a whole house for rent in one of the major cities in China is highly unlikely, however, the minimum rent for a spacious apartment can be about 10,000 CNY in Beijing and Shanghai and 8,000 CNY in Guangzhou.

Most places in China come fully furnished and that will cost you about 10-20% more. Also, utilities are rarely included in the price. When you calculate your budget, don’t forget to factor in the commission (if applicable), deposit, and utility costs.

Rental Process and Rules

Once you have found the apartment of your dreams, you are ready to sign the rental agreement. Most of these contracts are in Chinese. If your Chinese language skills are not up to par yet, you should request to see an English translation from a certified source. After all, it is important for you to understand all the terms and conditions of your rental contract.

Documents Required for Renting in China

In terms documents required for renting in China, you shouldn’t need anything out of the ordinary. A valid passport and a visa showing how long you are allowed to stay in China should be sufficient. When you meet up with a potential landlord as for his ID details as well. That will help you avoid housing scams.

The Rental Contract and Deposit

The rental contract should include details concerning the monthly rent, terms of payment, the length of the lease, the amount of the deposit, restrictions, and services included in the rent.  It should also clearly state whether you are allowed to keep pets.

If you are renting a serviced apartment, you will not have to pay extra for your utilities. However, if you opt for a regular apartment, you have to be the one taking care of the payments for utility bills.

The security deposit usually equals one or two-month’s rent. After moving back out, your deposit should be returned to you within 30 days. If there is a dispute over the rental agreement that you and your landlord fail to settle privately, you can take it to the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission.

Furnished or Unfurnished?

If your new home is furnished, you should also receive an inventory of all furniture and other items included in the lease, stating their general condition. Make sure to check and approve this list beforehand so that you cannot be held accountable for any already existing damage later on.

Short-Term Rentals

Big cities with large expat communities are probably the best place to go if you plan on getting a short-term rental place in China. There are various websites focusing on expats who are ready to move into their home right away and stay only for a short amount of time. Small (sometimes serviced) apartments with daily or weekly rates can be found on Wimdu. Another source is available in Chinese).

Things to Know About Short-Term Rentals

The average price for a monthly rental differs from city to city. In the bigger cities, you can expect to pay around 20,000 CNY per month, which is rather expensive. If you find that you can’t afford a temporary place on your own, another option can be couch surfing or sharing a place with a local Chinese family.

Different websites may also point you to expat accommodation that is available for a few months and includes services such as internet, professional cleaning, and an English-speaking agent. Most of them focus on a specific city and cater to the expat community there, such as GoKunming, or The Beijinger.

If there is no such service for the town or city you are about to move to and if your place of work is not willing to help you with the housing search, you need to enlist the help of a real estate agent (or at least of a good friend who speaks Chinese) to find a place to rent in China.

What Documents You Need to Get a Short-Term Rental Place

One usually doesn’t need any extra documents to sign temporary rental contract. However, it might depend on your future landlord. Also, you should pay special attention to the terms of payment. If you rent an apartment for a few months only, some landlords request the full rent to be paid in advance.

Buying Property as a Foreigner

For a foreigner who is thinking of how to buy a house in China, the length of your stay in the country should be at the top of your checklist. You have to have lived in China for more than 12 months. However, the time frame can vary depending on which municipality you choose to live in. In Shanghai, for instance, you must submit copies of your Chinese tax receipts to provide proof of residence for at least 12 out of the past 24 months.

Once you have bought a house or an apartment, you are required to live in it. Buying property in China as an investment and renting it out is not permitted. Please remember that you can only own one home in China.

Can You Own Property in China as a Foreigner?

“Owning” might not be the right term, as in China, property is simply leased for the duration of 70 years. After this time, the lease is usually renewed. However, the Ministry of Housing and Construction can theoretically nullify your lease at any time if your property is needed for development. The compensation you would then receive might be a lot less than what you originally paid. Newer houses and apartments are usually not affected by this. If you plan on buying an older property in China, then do so on a freehold basis. This category requires a higher buyout payment and is thus less attractive for developers.

Apartments are the most common type of property that you can buy in China. Buying a house is not usual, and not only because of the real estate prices. Houses in city centers are scarce, they are mostly available outside city limits, in more rural areas. Even then a lot of them might be run down and in a poor state.

This guide on how to buy a home in China will cover the basics, however, make sure to contact a professional if you are seriously considering this option.

Is It Possible to Buy a House in China and Get a Permanent Visa?

The short answer is no. The requirements to get permanent residence in China are fairly strict and none of them quote buying a house as a qualifying clause. However, if you do buy a house here, you will need to live in it and if you spend more than five years in the country, you might become eligible for a permanent residence on different merit.

Still, getting citizenship by buying a house in China is completely out of question. The process by itself is too complicated and owning property in China will not be counted as a special advantage.

The Process and Steps of Buying a House in China

For foreigners, hiring a real estate agent is essential when buying property in China. Once you have the proof of your long-time residence in China, they will help you when arranging visits to various properties and, if one of them is suitable, begin the negotiations. The best way to do this is by handing in a preliminary contract with the terms and conditions of the purchase. If the current owner agrees, you have to pay a percentage of the agreed price.

Together with the current owner, you will then draft and sign the official contract. Keep in mind that, as you are a foreigner, this contract has to be notarized and the purchase has to be approved by the government. Finally, you need to visit the Deed and Title Transferring Office to have the title of the property transferred to your name. This may take a few weeks.

Buying Property in China and Finances

Buying property in China is neither easy nor cheap, so you will most likely need to get a mortgage. However, to be eligible for one, you will need to raise at least 30% of the purchasing price yourself. And, depending on the price of the property and the reputation of your employer (how well they pay, how reliable they are when it comes to wages), it might be even more.

It is important to know that some Chinese banks may not be willing to give you a mortgage if you are not married to a Chinese citizen. Others might only support specific housing developments. However, take your signed and notarized contract to the bank, together with other required paperwork (call ahead to find out which documents you need to present), and find out your options.

Aside from the mortgage, there are other costs you need to keep in mind when buying property in China. For example, your real estate agent might charge you a commission and good-faith deposit. On top of that, taxes and insurance also have to be paid. For instance, you will be responsible for 3-6% of the selling price in deed tax, 0.5% in transfer fees, 7% in city maintenance and construction tax, and up to 0.3% in notarization fees. All in all, these taxes and fees can amount to more than 11% of the selling price.

What Are the Average House Prices in China?

Unfortunately, there is a considerable gap between Chinese property prices and the average income in China. Thus, it takes the buyer around 22 years’ worth of wages to pay off their property.

On average, you can expect the following prices (per square meter) when buying property in China’s city centers. Keep in mind that housing prices can fluctuate and that these are more of a general estimate:

  • Shanghai: about 100,000 CNY per square meter
  • Beijing: about 100,000 CNY per square meter
  • Shenzhen: about 90,000 CNY per square meter
  • Guangzhou: about 50,000 CNY per square meter
  • Tianjin: about 45,000 CNY per square meter
  • Suzhou: about 30,000 CNY per square meter

What is the Property Tax in China?

The taxes the Chinese government derives from property are mostly based on title transactions. Unlike most other countries, China does not charge a holding cost for residential property. The largest source is the 3% tax on property value which is paid by the buyer for transferring the property rights. However, recurring property taxes are raised from commercial property owners.

For the upcoming years, major financial reforms are in the planning, including ones affecting the property tax. This is why you should research this matter regularly or get in touch with your financial advisor before buying property in China.

Utility Companies

Centralized, state-owned utility companies that provide electricity, water, and gas to people all over China are a thing of the past. Today, each city has its own set of utility providers which compete with each other and offer different payment models. These companies, however, are still regulated by government bodies to some extent. In any case, you should keep your utility bills in mind when calculating your cost of living.

Things to Know About Electricity

Your landlord or the manager of your property should be able to inform you about the utility provider of the building you live in. If the electricity bill is covered by your rent, then your account should be in your landlord’s name. In most cases, however, you will be responsible for your own account. Simply contact the office of your provider and give them your details. They will then transfer the account to your name and may ask you to pay a deposit. However, this only works if you can take over the old account of your landlord or the previous tenant.

If you have to set up a whole new account (this might be the case when you move into a newly-constructed apartment building), then you have to visit the office of your provider. As for the documents required to set up the account – bring in your ID and a copy of your rental contract, proving your address. Make sure to find out if your utility provider can connect you the same day or if you have to wait several days for a connection.

You will receive your electricity bill in the form of a monthly statement. You can pay your bill at your utilities provider’s office. In some cases, you can even use an ATM-type machine there to scan and pay your bill. Some cities also let you pre-pay your bill by inserting Integrated Circuit (IC) electronic cards directly into the meter.

Electricity supply in China, in general, is 220 volts and both two-pin and three-pin sockets are used throughout the country.

Things to Know About Gas

Depending on where you live in China, you may get your supply of gas from a bottle or a gas pipe. The latter is mostly available in bigger cities and the process of setting up an account or paying your bill is similar to that of your electricity account. If your provider asks you to read your meter, you should be aware that the reading will allow them to make an estimate for your monthly or bi-monthly payments. Every few months a representative of your gas company will come around for an official reading, to adjust your bill.

If this option is not available for you, you can get bottled gas for cooking from local delivery companies. Talk to your building manager they might be able to give you the contact details of the delivery company or put you on a delivery list.

Things to Know About Water

Every city has a regional water company that supplies all households there. Usually, the water account for your new home should be open when you move in so that you will only have to transfer it to your name. Some apartment buildings will also use reclaimed water to flush the toilet for instance.

Either way, please keep in mind that tap water is usually not suitable for drinking. This is why many people have water dispensers in their home. It is relatively easy to have the bottles for the dispenser delivered.

Things to Know About Heating

Most rental agreements include central heating in the rent as one of the additional services. At the same time, however, there is a fixed heating period (usually from mid-November to mid-March) determined by the government. Unfortunately, winter often begins early or simply lasts longer than expected. This is why it makes sense to have an additional heat source to fall back on. Often the AC units also have a heating setting, so make sure to check it out when visiting the apartment or house.

Another thing to remember is that your heating bill isn’t based on the actual energy consumption, but it’s a fixed sum related to the size of your home.

Utility Companies in China

There are various utility companies throughout China. In terms of water supply, every region has its own supplier. However, when it comes to electricity companies you have a lot of suppliers to choose from. At the end of the day, it comes down to five major providers (all of which have independent subsidiaries):

  • China Datang Corporation
  • China Guodian Corporation
  • China Huadian Group
  • China Huaneng Group
  • China Power Investment Corporation

Internet and Mobile Phones

Mobile phone and internet connection are the most expensive, and, for most expats, also the most important items on the list of utilities. There are three state-owned telephone providers in China: China Unicom, China Mobile, and China Telecom.

Unicom and Telecom offer extensive services including landline and mobile phones, as well as internet connections. China Mobile, on the other hand, focuses exclusively on mobile services. All three have different offices throughout the country and, as internet and mobile use have increased in recent years, the service is generally good.

Most apartments in China already have a landline installed so all you need to do is call the service provider to activate the account. The same applies to internet connections: most of the newer apartments are equipped with fiber optic cables for fast connections.

How to Get a Phone Number in China

When it comes to getting a mobile phone number in China, it makes sense to shop around. Each of the providers mentioned above offers a variety of packages, rates, and special deals. If you want to sign up for a monthly subscription, as opposed to a pay-as-you-go prepaid service, a Chinese friend or co-worker may have to sponsor your account.

The Ministry of Information Industry (MII) is the organization that regulates internet and phone usage. Keep in mind that internet usage is restricted by the government and some websites are not accessible.

Television in China

Television is a common pastime in China and if you wish to join in, the most common option is getting cable. Digital TV, that can be included in your internet package, and satellite is also available.

In general, China has an array of local and national TV channels that broadcast in Mandarin or, in some cases, Cantonese as well. The national channels often subtitle their programming, so it can be a good way of practicing listening and reading the language. The channels offer a variety of programs, from Chinese equivalent of The Voice to national news that is shown on all of the channels simultaneously at 19:00.

How to Watch Your Home Country’s TV

Watching English television can also be an option. In that case, you will have to purchase one of the IPTV boxes that are available online and at electronics stores. However, keep in mind that foreign-made programs usually need to be approved by the government prior to broadcasting, so some shows might not be available.

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