Saturday, April 28, 2012

Apartment Hunting in Nanjing

Typical kitchen in China. Small but suitable! This one was recently remodeled.
One of the goals of our trip was to narrow down where we would like to live in Nanjing before we move in August.  Little did we know that we wouldn't only figure out the area of the city we would live in but would actually find an apartment!  It is a huge blessing to know that when we land in August we can go straight to an apartment and not have to live in a hotel for a week. 

How did we find our apartment?  After having realtors take us to look at around 10 different places, we ended up meeting the landlord of a friend who currently lives in the city but is moving back to the States in July.  At first we didn't consider her apartment an option, but as we took up the search and looked around it seemed that her apartment fit all of our needs.  As we sat down with her landlord, it became apparent that it was a win-win for everyone and a verbal agreement was made.  It is unusual in China for her landlord to be so agreeable with us, but I believe it is evidence of what a great relationship our friend has with her landlord - that she was willing to take us at our word and wanted to do all the paperwork and payment after we arrive in August. 

All that said, our story is not normal.  If you are reading this and planning on moving to China, do not assume you will meet a friend who is leaving and has an apartment that will fit your needs.  However, as unusual as our situation was, we did learn a few things along the way about apartment hunting in China that we would like to share.  This is not a complete list, but rather a few tips and "what to expect" scenarios based on what we experienced. 

1) Start your search right.  Many expats think that they have to pay a lot to find a nice place in China.  This is not necessarily true.  It is true that when you go to work for a foreign company in China, many will pay for your housing and already have a house or condo set up for you in a complex where the rent is incredibly high (which is great if you aren't paying for it).  If you are going on your own and start looking for "expat housing in Nanjing" you will find lots of overpriced (but nice) places that are made just for expats.  There are other options.  Instead, go to a Chinese site that doesn't market to expats, such as  Our Chinese friend who helped us used that website to find apartments in our budget with the amenities we requested.  Many of the listings had photos and we were able to "yay" or "nay" options before she contacted the realtors listed for each apartment and worked with them to set up appointments with landlords.  If you are looking for a starting budget, I cannot speak for other cities, but in Nanjing we were looking for a three bedroom, two bath, 100+ sq. meters (1,075+ sq. feet) apartment that was in good condition (clean, no mold, decent kitchen).  Our budget was $700/month (about 4,000RMB).  Not every place we looked at met our needs, but we found plenty of places that would have worked and were within our budget.  Use your Chinese contacts to find affordable housing!  Don't have any?  Make some friends.

2) Find a good translator.  If you do not speak Chinese, you will need to find someone who can translate for you (see last sentence from point 1).  Personally, I would find a Chinese who has experience helping other expats (or an expat who has excellent Chinese); this is helpful because they will better understand what your needs are.

Check for water issues, high humidity can create very wet bathrooms.
3) Using a realtor vs on your own.  There are two ways to find an apartment, either find a realtor and have them help you search or talk to the manager at an apartment complex you are interested in and get landlord's phone numbers from them.  Using a realtor is nice because you (or your translator) don't have to set up all the appointments with landlords, you can just follow the realtor around.  This process takes time and you shouldn't expect to look at ten apartments in one day. In fact, if you can see two or three a day that is a great start.  However most realtors can also be pushy and pressure you to sign a contract when you really don't want to.  This did not happen to us, but some friends of ours had this experience.  Know also that if you are using a realtor and end up finding an apartment you like and sign a contract, you will pay the realtor a fee (usually around one month's rent).

4) Apartments in the same complex are not necessarily equal.  Apartments are individually owned (which is why realtors are used).  Management companies may maintain the complex, but they do not own the individual units.  Thus said, you may look at two units in the same complex and find they look completely different.  That is normal because each landlord makes upgrades or decorates how they see fit.  In China, when the complex is completed all the units are just concrete boxes.  Individuals purchase a unit and install everything themselves.  Very different from apartments in the States.  Therefore, do not discount a complex just because the first apartment you saw there was way below your standards.

5) Maintenance Fees.  Because the complex is sometimes maintained by an outside agency, you will likely pay a fee (similar to a Home Owners Association fee).  Be sure to ask what the fee is when you meet a landlord as typically the renters pay the fee and it is not included in your rent.

6) Use your poker face.  Just like when shopping at the flea market in China, don't get too excited over an apartment.  If you are acting excited and taking pictures planning out which way you will arrange your furniture, they know they have you.  Play it cool and don't get too attached.  A rule of thumb I like to use when buying anything in China is "commit to the price, not the object."  Meaning that if you can't get it for the price you are willing to pay then you have to walk away.  Sticking to your budget will help you to not get hooked into paying more than you should for rent.  Keep in mind as well that a lot of times a landlord will take advantage of the fact you are a foreigner and tell you the rent is more than what they would normally charge.  Be sure to find out the rent BEFORE the landlord meets you. :-)

Most apartments in China come partially or fully furnished.

7) Just keep looking.  If you don't find what you are looking for -- just keep looking!  It also helps to not offend the landlord or realtor when looking.  Upon seeing an apartment that is dirty, has a moldy shower (more often than not that happens) or has counters that barely reach your mid-thigh don't immediately say that you don't like it and point out the reason why it is not up to your standards.  Saving face is a big deal in China and you don't want to tell a landlord who just spent thousands of RMB remodeling that he did a bad job.  Instead, say you are still looking and will let them know.  Of course, it does help to make your realtor aware of why you didn't like that certain apartment, but do so tactfully.  

8) Negotiate.  China is a bartering culture, so when it comes time to talk price use it to your advantage to negotiate.  Landlords are used to this.  Don't expect to get a huge discount on your rent, but if the bathroom needs upgrading ask if the landlord would be willing to put in a new shower if you sign a longer lease.  This is normal and expected.  Don't like the furniture?  Ask if they are able to remove it and then see if you can get a discount on rent (most landlords expect you to pay more for the furniture).  Some will not remove it, but others have multiple apartments and can move furniture around or use it themselves.  Do you want to paint the walls?  You will probably end up paying for this but you better ask first.  Some landlords don't want you to change anything, others are more agreeable. Since we were looking at apartments in April but weren't planning on moving until August, we asked if the landlord was willing to hold the apartment for us if we paid the security deposit plus first month's rent and committed to a two year lease.  Most said yes.  Others wanted us to pay more to cover the "lost rent" for the months we wouldn't be living there (which we couldn't do because we hadn't budgeted for that expense, forcing us to walk away).  Negotiating is normal - you better get used to it if you are planning on living in China.

9) Location, location, location!  Just like house hunting anywhere else in the world location is important.  And you will pay more based on the neighborhood or if it is next to subway line.  Consider what mode of transportation you will be using on a daily basis before deciding what location is best for you.   We are not planning on owning a car in China, so being next to a bus stop and a 15 minute walk from the subway are important.  However, because we will have electric bikes, we didn't need to be right next to the subway - which saved us some money.  If you will be hiring a driver or owning your own car then you can maybe get away with not being close to public transportation (and thus not have as high of rent).  

Overall, my best advice in my limited experience is to know what you want before you start looking.  It makes it much easier on your and your realtor (and your friend who is helping translate) to know what is important to you.  When we first started looking, we wanted three bedrooms and two bathrooms.  After checking out several places, we realized the second bathroom wasn't as important to us as we first thought.  Communicating that to the realtor let us look at some great places that we wouldn't have considered previously.  Be flexible and know that you will spend hours walking or taking a taxi around the city.  And when all else fails, just keep looking!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Our Beijing travel assistant

Our first update from our 17 day trip and we already have several great stories to share. In fact, within 3 hours of arriving we ended up with a great story! Sometimes you just get lucky.

Traveling to China this trip, we flew through Beijing - which we had never done before. If you have ever traveled abroad, you know that when you first land in your country of destination you have to go through customs. Usually this is a painless, but time consuming process. For us, never having flown through Beijing to Shanghai, it would be our first time attempting to go through customs in Beijing, collect our bags, re-check them and go back through security. We flew Hainan Air, which turned out to be great. I was really impressed! However, our flight was delayed leaving Seattle. The awesome flight attendant in Seattle who gave us our boarding passes moved us to the front of the plane so we could get off quickly and not be late for our connecting flight. It was glorious as the result of her moving us was lots and lots of leg room. My feet could barely touch the wall in front of us!

Our flight was uneventful, but long. We landed in Beijing and the attendant's reasoning proved correct as we beat the line to customs! It was really nice. After getting our passports stamped (I always love that part), we went to grab our bags and then transfer to our domestic flight. While waiting for our four giant bags to come around the carousel (we packed three extra bags this trip to leave here for when we move this summer), a Hainan employee came over to check on us. He had on the official Hainan uniform and had his Hainan name badge around his neck. Singling us out as one of the few foreigners on the flight, he asked if we were connecting and how many bags we have. The conversation went something like this,
Hainan Employee: Hello! Are you transferring?
The Hubby: Yes, to Shanghai.
HE: How many bags you have?
Hubby: Four bags.
HE: are only allowed one bag per person on domestic flight. Hainan will charge you for your other bags.
(We look at each other with quizzical looks)
Me: But they are checked all the way through already. See. (showing him our baggage tags)
HE: It doesn't matter. They will still charge you...but don't worry, I can help you. I am a Hainan Transfer Assistant. Let me see your boarding passes.
So, we actually handed him our boarding passes. We must've been tired. He reassured us to wait right where we were and he disappeared for five minutes. I have to say that I immediately regretted giving him our boarding passes, but fortunately he returned soon with them in hand.

While he was gone, the Hubby and I were trying to decide if he was legit or not. We decided that Hainan must have great service to offer transfer assistants to foreigners who might otherwise get lost. This was confirmed by a similar Hainan employee helping two older women close by us.

He retuned, we grabbed our bags and then proceeded to lead us through the airport pushing our cart of luggage. Right outside customs there was conveniently placed an ATM which he insisted we use. This turned out to be wise as we didn't see an ATM readily accessible at the Hongqiao airport in Shanghai later. After what felt like twenty minutes of walking (we had to change terminals), we arrived at the Hainan counter. Instead of us getting in line with everyone else, he wheeled us over to the "special" line which was empty. The sign above said it was for "senior citizen, infant & passengers with reduced mobility". He told us it was his friend. Whatever it was, it was definitely much faster. They got us checked in, issued new boarding passes and rechecked our bags. And we didn't pay a single penny for rechecking our bags (even with one pushing 70 pounds).

It really would have taken us three times as long to figure it all out and in that way it was very helpful as we now had an hour to get through security and find our gate before we boarded for our next flight. He walked us up to the security line, handed us our boarding passes and we thanked him for his help. Then came the kicker...
HE: Ok, so can I have a tip?
Thinking that he said "have a nice trip", I thanked him again. My husband gave me this weird look, "he asked for a tip." I fumbled for my wallet which had some smaller Chinese bills from a previous trip and gave it to the Hubby who started to pull out a ¥20 bill (about $3, but a fair price), when our Hainan travel assistant said, "Can I please have ¥100?"

We did it. We gave him ¥100, feeling totally ripped off. But what were we going to do? If Hainan would have charged us for our extra bags, we could have paid over $100! Did he save us money? We may never know. But now we do know why he insisted on us stopping at the ATM.

After getting through security, we were waiting for our flight and trying to fathom what just happened. We're we scammed? Was he actually helpful? Did Hainan even know he was doing that? Whatever the answer may be, we do know one thing; the whole ordeal said, "Welcome to China! Your future home."

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Caution: big transitions ahead

There are no warning signs in life, but sometimes I feel there should be. Especially caution signs. "Caution: your life is about to get crazy"; "caution: surprise immediately ahead"; and, as stated in the title of this post, "caution: big transitions ahead."

You would think I saw this coming. I knew we were moving out of our house and having renters move in. I knew we were moving in with my parents (and sisters and aunt). I knew we were flying to China for 17 days this month. I really did know all these things, yet, it seems I missed the fact that the next four to six months of our lives will be in perpetual transition. Transition in where we live, our jobs, our belongings - new culture, new lifestyle. You name it, it is probably changing. And all this just started to sink in. It's not that I am adverse to change. I like actually like change. It's the fact that we don't have a permanent "home", a place that just belongs to us. That's hard for me. What am I doing as a conscious effort to stay sane through this whole endeavor? Staying positive for one. But that can only get you so far, you know? And who has the energy to be positive all the time? Not me. So instead, I rest. Rest in knowing that Someone has it all under control. There is a purpose, one greater than our own. And when I rest in the knowledge of that promise I am filled with great peace. My cup overflows and I am cared for.

Friday we fly to China for a little over two weeks to see some friends, start the transition into our new jobs and where we will be living when we move in August, and do a little sight seeing. But until I am on that plane it won't feel real. And when that plane takes off and the realization that the next step in this long transition has occurred, I will stop, take a moment, and rest. Thankful that in the midst of all this chaos and craziness I have an 11 hour plane ride to

How do you prepare for big transitions?