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Travel Tales and Short Stories: Good Apartment Hunting

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by Nicholas Klar

How perilous is it finding a place to live in Shanghai?...

Unless you've been living under a rock, or drinking too much water straight from Suzhou Creek, you may have noticed that there is a housing boom going on in Shanghai. Old neighbourhoods are knocked down with regularity and replaced by shiny new apartment complexes (for the first six months or so until the pollution turns them into grimy apartment complexes). With so many people moving into their own places for the first time and so many investors in the market a glut of rental properties (reportedly high as 30%) has appeared. In June 2002 we were asked by the school to throw ourselves into the teeming shark infested waters of the market, armed with a few pitiful shekels gratuitously thrown at the feet by our 'betters'. This is our story.

Our search began on the internet. Most of the English sites were useful as a starting point but the agents themselves did not seem to be much interested in helping out anyone apart from captains of industry looking at places in excess of US$1500 per month. One exception was Mary Feng of Phoenix Realty who gets a plug here for being pleasant and helpful. Another source of information are the flyers that are thrust in your hand regularly. We saw plenty of hopefuls there but our experience with the agents who hand out these are like the used car salesmen who say, "That one's just sold, but we do have...". You know the story. More on these guys soon.

On the first Friday night we perused the windows of the local agents. Some came out to talk to us and others couldn't be bothered. One thing to strike us in our quest was the attitude of agents which seemed to be absolute harrassment or total apathy, with little in between. This first night brought the viewing of one apartment near the school which took us a fifteen minute walk to get to. The only problem is that it should only be a three minute walk. The agent from Daily Fine (is that what they charge you?) professed to being a new arrival from Hong Kong, so was either, A) lost, or B) trying to give himself enough time to get through his standard 'patter'. The apartment wasn't much good and he promised to get back to us - which he never did. Daily Fine were recommended by friends but didn't seem to be much interested in us.

The next day brought some forms of comic relief, though they did not appear as such at the time. We had requested that anything above the second floor had to have a lift as we are planning a family next year. The first place we were shown was on the sixth floor - without a lift. They (CathKim Real Estate) promised a follow up with others, but like our friends at Daily Fine went M.I.A. After this we went to the Hua Guang apartments in Hong Mei Lu that are favoured by many foreigners. Here it was driven home to us the fact that prices seem to go up as soon as a lo wai steps in the door. We were shown one sixth floor apartment (no lift) and a second floor apartment (with lift). Yeh, good logic there. At the end they put to us a price that was 2,000RMB more than our budget and automatically disqualified themselves from further negotiation. Definitely no plug for Hua Guang from us, although most other teachers have found options there.

We decided to brave asking some of the flyer purveyors. Two passed on their material and one happily walked away with us. The other felt that we were 'owned' by her and followed us up the street shouting at her competitor. One and a half blocks up in the middle of the road the shouting turned to pushing and shoving. Taxis stopped, people pointed and we looked for holes to disappear into. Eventually the aggrieved party was consoled with the suggestion that we would return later (but when we did she wasn't actually there - she must've been off fighting another of her opposition). After a short walk this man took us into the rather salubrious Athena Garden. While we protested that these would be too expensive he just kept on saying that the price was 'negotiable'. Of course once we got inside it was only two bedrooms with a price tag twice our budget. He then offered to show us a place on Hong Mei Lu. We walked out the front and expected him to show us to his car or at least a taxi. No, he simply went over and unlocked his bike! We offered to pay for a taxi but he declined as, "It's only a short walk...". Half an hour later and My wifewas putting his flyers on her head to protect herself from the heat. We eventually found ourselves up past Wu Zhong Lu waiting outside an partment complex that was STILL outside our budget. Not that it mattered - he couldn't get access to the place. We bid him farewell but he proved to be a persistent bugger, even coming to the school and waiting outside the office for long periods. Our recommendation is stay away from these type of people as there are reports of them disappearing with the signed contract and bond money.

That afternoon we met Tom Liang of Shanghai Gubei Real Estate for the first time. Tom reminded us of a muppet in some ways. He spent a long time telling us how helpful and sincere he was, and hence earned the nickname from us of 'Sincere Tom'. It must be admitted that he did do his best for us but we didn't appreciate the 11.15pm phone call one night. No agent needs to be that efficient. We also met Queenie Gao of Shanghai J & J in Vanke Plaza who was very pleasant and informative. Plugs for both of these people. The most friendly and helpful (in a natural way) were the folks at Dong Shen Property in Jade Garden (phone 6275 3961 - though you must be able to speak Chinese). They showed us a huge apartment on Wu Zhong Lu plus another on Song Yuan Lu that had been decorated in a garish British 1960's Tudor style and owned by a pleasant, but quite anorexic young woman. Afterwards they even wanted to take us out for a meal. One of them later came to my office with an interpreter to see if he could still help us. Unfortunately the interpreter wasn't that good so we had to use one of our Chinese staff...

By now the phone began ringing from agents, many of whom we couldn't even remember speaking to. Some would say (if we could understand their English) that they had found suitable properties for us but refused to discuss some basic details, such as how many bedrooms, where it was or how much it cost. One conversation went something like this,

"We have something very suitable for you"
"How much does it cost?"
"It's in your budget"
"Where is it?"
"Around Gubei..."
"What floor is it on?"
"Fourth floor?"
"Does it have a lift?"
"A what?"
"A lift. An elevator."
"Please wait a moment, (mumble to friends), Yes, of course"

Did it have a lift? Of course not...

We had a look at some apartments with some other friends. After inspection we were all chatting with the agent out the front. Our friend John jokingly asked him, "Does the fish and chip truck stop out the front?". The guy did not even blink, "Yes, of course..."

Finally we met Leonard of Legend Real Estate, another muppet like character who just happens to be their top salesman. He surprised us by taking us straight from the office (by taxi!) to two apartments that were actually quite suitable. Of course he used the usual trick of putting on a higher price and then allowing us to beat him down. A series of negotiations followed over several days. Once he chased us down the street to ask us to put in an offer if we didn't like the price. He was at first quite aggressive, but we brought a Taiwanese friend to the second meeting who promptly put him in his place. After that he was always much more flexible, perhaps not wanting to meet our friend Jessica again. We asked to have one more look at our chosen place on Yili Lu before signing any contract and that phone conversation turned into something very Pythonesque. I spent the whole conversation reiterating that we would meet him at 5.00pm at the apartment. He closed the call with, "Okay, see you in my office at five". As you'll read later these warning signs should've been heeded.

Finally negotiations were concluded happily at a meeting with the Leonard and the landlord who turned out to be young woman in her 20's, most likely with a rich husband one would guess. In the end we were able to negotiate a a suitable price, plus she threw in approximately US$1,000 to buy new things that we wanted (though they were really stumped on us wanting a VCR), and two weeks free rent.

However that two weeks began to stretch as we encountered problems. There were still many 'minor' repairs to be done, such as not having most of the electricity working, leaky plumbing and toilets, telephone sockets without lines into them, etc., etc. Leonard the agent appeared to change from a muppet into a 'Mr. Burns'. It took several attempts to procure a key and three for an official receipt. Appointments were rarely kept. Once My wifefound him at the office asleep at his desk when he should've been meeting her at the apartment. It got to the point where I wanted to place him firmly on the ground and kick the s*** out of him. It was not the language barrier. With the assistance of friends and fellow teachers we gave him instructions in Chinese as well as English and yet still he managed not to understand. The initial lease date passed and we refused to pay rent until the problems were fixed - and so it continued. The agent and the landlady played the finger pointing game, but at least we got some free rent I suppose.

In amongst this was negotiating the removalist. We shuttled a lot of stuff ourselves by taxi, and sometimes bike, but left the big stuff to the big guys. In the end it seemed like everyone wanted to move at the same time and we found ourselves paying the lo wai price. At least it all arrived safely.

Later we thought about buying. Whoooee! Is that another story or what?

Till next time....

This article is part of a series relating to our lives abroad. For more articles click here.


© 1992-2006, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA 

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