Choose your housing carefully. In a city this big, and this sprawling, where you live will dictate your lifestyle. Take the time to check out different areas and living arrangements. The best way to get a feel for Beijing’s varied residential worlds before signing a lease is to thoroughly explore the different neighbourhoods. While you’re at it, give potential daily journeys to work or school a trial run. Collect information and perspectives by speaking to property agents that specialise in expatriate housing and asking colleagues and friends about the advantages and disadvantages of their areas.
Finding appropriate housing in Beijing can be frustrating, as there are pros and cons to every option. The high-rises in the Central Business District may be close to the action, but the area is also noisy and lacks green space. Conversely, the expansive suburban villa in Shunyi may leave you and your family feeling isolated from city life. Even if it seems inconvenient, spend at least a month searching for housing. If possible, send a family member to Beijing early to search out housing before making the move. Otherwise, rent a serviced apartment for the first month or two before committing to a lease. It’s preferable to suffer through this initial inconvenience rather than have to move house after six months or a year, when you’ll want to be settling in.
Many expats with school-age children choose to reside in suburban Shunyi or near Chaoyang Park in order to have green space and be close to the international schools. Younger foreigners tend to prefer vibrant downtown areas near dining and nightlife, such as Dongcheng and the CBD. However, for the price of a one- or two-bedroom apartment in the CBD, you could rent a large villa in Shunyi, where homes are usually in large self-sufficient gated communities. There are costs and benefits to every option, and it’s very important to do the legwork and research to find a home that suits the needs of you and your family. Think everything through – from your work commute to proximity to a nice bakery – before making a decision. Factors to consider carefully include:Space
How much space do you and your family need? Some of the expat villas in the outer areas of Beijing are extremely spacious, while living in the city centre could mean adapting to a different lifestyle to that you were accustomed to back home.Commute
How long does it take to get to work and school? The importance of this cannot be overstated. Long commutes in Beijing traffic are time-killers, not to mention mentally and physically exhausting. Do not attempt to estimate commute time by studying a map – there are too many variables to calculate. The real commute depends on traffic at the time of the commute, access to a freeway and ongoing or upcoming construction projects. Living near a subway stop is a surefire time-saver if your job’s also near one. The only way to truly know your commute is to do a few test runs.Children
re you near the school that your children will attend? Are there other families with children of the same age in your neighbourhood? Are there safe play areas and green spaces?Neighbourhood conveniences
Does the area have supermarkets selling the kind of food or other household items you will need? It’s also nice to have a few restaurants, agreeable cafés and bars, as well as sports facilities, nearby.Safety
Although violent crime is not really an issue anywhere in Beijing, traffic is. If you have children, you may want to consider living away from a busy thoroughfare.Lease agreements
Lease agreements are typically made for a minimum of one year (shorter leases are available for serviced apartments) but longer leases often lower the rent. A security deposit of two months’ rent is generally expected upon signing. Rent is normally paid in cash in RMB, and does not usually include utilities. The lease itself will come in two copies – one in Chinese and one in English. Only the Chinese copy is a legal document so bring a Chinese friend with you for the signing. Alternatively, you could ask your housing agent to make up a bilingual lease.
The power of negotiation in Beijing housing cannot be overstated. Do not hesitate to bargain. The recent juxtaposition of a housing boom and economic downturn has made Beijing a buyer’s market for expats seeking housing. Your first quoted price is likely to include what expats refer to tongue-in-cheek as a ‘foreigner tax’. Always try to bring the price down. Even easier, perhaps, get the landlord to throw some amenities into the deal, such as free parking, fitness club membership and additional furnishings. If you do not require a receipt (fapiao) for your rent, the landlord should offer an additional discount because he / she won’t have to pay income tax on the transaction.Types of housing
Beijing has a full range of housing, from local-style apartments to mansion-sized luxurious villa communities. Most expats live in one of the four housing types listed here.Apartments
One of the most noticeable aspects of Beijing’s booming economy is the surge in new apartment construction. Chinese based overseas, locals and long-term expats have bought them up, subsequently renting them to foreigners with housing allowances. These apartments tend to be in spacious high rises, and look and feel new. They are normally sold ‘raw’ to the buyer, who then designs the interior and adds fixtures according to his or her taste and target renter. Therefore, if you like a particular development or area, view different units within the same building. Some developments offer their own housekeeping, concierge service and fitness facilities.Houses and villas
Typically located northwest of the city near the airport (Shunyi District), villas are normally grouped together in luxury living complexes that appear to be replicas of suburbia in the US or Europe. Fully furnished and equipped with a community centre, children’s facilities, a health club and restaurant, villa compounds are virtually self-sufficient entities. They are normally located in family-oriented locations near large parks and international schools.Courtyard houses and hutongs
The destruction of Beijing’s traditional hutongs and courtyard houses has been well documented. However, it’s still possible to find one to rent. Older courtyards tend to be very basic, with just two rooms on a single floor. Some don’t even have their own bathroom. Those that have been renovated tend to be of a much higher standard and have a wonderful traditional feel – although the rent will be about four times higher than normal.Search tools
A good way to get an idea of current listing prices is to browse the real estate sections of websites with classifieds. However, if you’re moving to Beijing it’s much easier to hire one of the seemingly thousands of real estate agents to do the legwork for you. Typically they do the search for free for you, and then if you decide to rent an apartment they find for you, they will receive one month’s rent (paid by the landlord). Make sure that this arrangement is agreed on before you sign anything or begin accepting their assistance. Dozens of relocation and property agent companies advertise on popular expat websites, newspapers and magazines. If you’re unfamiliar with Beijing, it’s a good idea to employ an agent. Good agents know the market and the players and are patient, taking the time to understand your family’s needs. At the same time, it’s your responsibility to communicate your needs and tastes to the agent. There are plenty of shady agents working in Beijing, so try to get a personal recommendation or use a reputable company.