Rending an apartment or a house in China is the same thing like what we experience in West. In my personal opinion the biggest problem is our language capacity is not enough to handle the issue. There are ways to get an flat or a house by using internet, real estate agency, or asking your colleague or friends for help.
Finding an apartment online. Finding an apartment to rent online is not easy in China. There are thousands of apartments on the Internet and it is hard to tell the quality, even if they look very good in the picture. You will have to spend some time at it. If you see a really good one and it is available, contact the landlord or the agency and visit it as soon as possible. After visiting you can ask them to keep the apartment for you, but the landlord won’t hold it long without a deposit. Once other people decide to give a deposit, the flat is gone. Unless you speak Chinese, looking online for your flat is not a really practical solution, but it can give you a rough idea of the market.
Here you can find apartments offered directly by the landlord, so you do not have to pay any fee for an estate agent.
Rent an apartment by local real estate agencies
If you speak Chinese you can check the local Yellow book to find a real estate agency or call 114 and ask for one. If you are not comfortable enough in Chinese, you can walk around an area you like and see if any of the local estate agents speak a bit of English. Most agents do not speak English, unless they specialize in the foreigners market. Expatriate (expat) websites and forums can also be a good place to find the address of a good English-speaking real estate agent. You can also ask one of your Chinese friends for his or her help. Once you find your estate agent, you can start making appointments to see a few apartments in the following days. Always leave plenty of time between appointments because landlords or estate agents are not always very punctual or fast. Be very clear as to your requirements, such as: 24 hour hot shower availability, internet access, western style toilet etc. If you know in which location you prefer to live, you have to let them know that as well, otherwise they will take you to visit those apartments way below your requirements or far away from where you actually want to be. This would waste your time but local estate agents would not consider or value your time. If you find an apartment you like, the agent will ask for a deposit of perhaps RMB100-500 or so to make sure you will take it. If you decide not to take it after that, the agency will not return your deposit.
Landlords and estate agents are not always honest about problems an apartment may have, so you need to be very careful. Be sure to check the water system; test the hot water and make sure the toilet flushes. Check also the stove and the electrical system (lights and plugs). Once you have signed your lease, it will be very difficult to get the landlord to fix those problems and in most cases they will not even pay to have them fixed.
How to sign an apartment lease
Very few agencies have dual language Chinese-English leases, and only the Chinese version is a legal document. When you sign a Chinese lease, you have to read it carefully in order to protect your rights. The agency usually will not let you take the lease away to have it checked, so it would be good to have someone you trust helping or translating for you. In some places, you may sign a one-year or a three months lease and pay the rent every three months with a one-month deposit as is done in Beijing and Shanghai. In other places, such as Kunming and Chengdu, you will usually have to sign a minimum six-months lease and pay the full six months in advance.
The required deposit for the flat can vary greatly depending on its quality. For an ordinary flat, the landlord will ask you for a one-month deposit, but a luxury flat may demand a full three-months deposit. You should be able to get most of your deposit returned at the end of the lease, if you leave the flat in very good condition.
The agency will usually ask for the equivalent of one months rent as payment for finding you an apartment, so before you hire any agency, be sure to ask how much they charge. In some places, you may be required to pay less than one months rent if you negotiate. With a little luck, they may lower the price in the low season.
The price of renting an apartment
The price of the apartment depends upon the size, the location and the city. Flats in China are usually unfurnished, even if at times the stove and the fridge are included. A regular Chinese two-bedroom apartment usually costs RMB800-1200 per month, while a three-bedroom apartment may cost RMB1400-1800 per month. In a good location, such as downtown, it can cost an additional RMB200-500. In a large city, like Beijing, it will cost even more – an additional RMB200-500 would not be unusual. If the flat is fully furnished, it might cost 10-20% beyond that.
All these prices are what would be charged for a regular Chinese flat. If you want a modern flat, your starting price would be the highest price of a regular flat. Count on paying RMB1200-1800 for a modern two-bedroom flat and RMB1800-3000 for a three-bedroom. If you want higher quality or even a luxury flat, prices vary too much from city to city to give a meaningful price bracket, but you can expect to pay prices equivalent to what you would be paying back home in a similar sized city in western countries.
Other options. The local expat-communities are a great resource for local information. They can provide useful suggestions and good recommendations. There is usually a web site for expats to discuss events and various other things. You will be able to find a lot of useful and needed information there, and usually if you just ask a question, you will receive an answer very quickly. You can also try google search for “expat” + city name should give you some web sites and ideas.
In websites, you might be able to find a flat to share. This can be a fairly flexible and cheaper solution than renting your own flat. Flat sharing is widespread in China, especially among young professionals, university students and foreigners learning Chinese. Check the rental market and expect to find a mid-market or upper flat to share. If you team-up with other people from the start you can expect to split the rent equally, however, if you join an apartment already set-up your share will probably be higher and also include a pro-rata for the furniture. It is still a cheaper solution if you are staying less than one year, as buying furniture can cost the equivalent of several months rent.