Step 1: Break out a bottle of 6 RMB baijiu, because this isn’t gonna be easy.
Step 2: Pick the style of building you want to live in. Here are the two most common options (because a mansion out in the middle of Pudong shouldn’t be a choice unless you have 2+ kids, came here on an expat package, or really want to recapture the American Dream in the middle-of-nowhere Shanghai), these are the lane house or the high-rise.
Lane houses are the Old (with a capital O) Shanghai. They’re renovated apartments inside pre-1920s buildings, which having been repainted and remodeled still have all of the mold problems that have crept up after a century. Before choosing to live in a lane house, ask yourself the following:
- Are you a lover of old architecture?
- How comfortable are you seeing your 80-year old first floor neighbor in boxer shorts every morning?
- How bad is black mold really?
- If your neighbor’s kitchen is also your hallway, who is responsible for making the breakfast?
If the answer to at least two of those questions is “me!”, congratulations, a lane house is perfect for you. Just don’t pick an apartment on the first floor – but more on that later.
High rises are the new(-ish) Shanghai. Anywhere from six to forty-eight stories tall, they alternate between the hotel-like and the soviet-industrial-wasteland-like High-rises are often part of a compound – six to seven monstrous-looking building inside of an enclave, with a chain-smoking guard letting cars in and out. They’re not not ideal if you don’t want an extra 150m walk to your apartment from the street.
Some things a high-rise may offer:
- Doormen who pick up packages for you (and only open them 30% of the time)
- Fake walls to create illegal room partitions
- Semi-reliable plumbing
- A pool!
If you’ve just arrived in the city, I highly recommend living in a high-rise, because if anything goes wrong with your apartment, you will be able get out of your contract much easier – but more on that later.
Step 3: Set your budget. If your heart’s desire is to live in the centre of the city – neighborhoods like Jingan, Xuhui, Changning, Huangpu, and anywhere that’s not Pudong, Minhang, or Jiading – you’ll be paying at least 3,500RMB a month for a room with a shared bathroom. Is that all, you say? Yes. It is much cheaper to live in Shanghai than say, densely-populated metropolitan hubs like New York or Tokyo. Are you elated? Good. Hold on to that feeling, because from here, things begin to look bleaker.
A room in an apartment will cost you more if you want your own bathroom (usually referred to as a ‘master bedroom’) or if you want to live by yourself. There will also be many, many agents who will like and set the price of a one-bedroom apartment as high as 18,000RMB. These agents are bad people, do not trust them.
On that note, there are a few compounds where you should avoid living in when you first get to Shanghai. They’re not bad per se, but they are extraordinarily overpriced for what they offer.
- 1 Park Avenue
- 8 Park Avenue
- The Oriental Manhattan
- The Joffre Apartments
If you see a pattern emerging, keep this in mind: if you can afford living on Park Avenue, you should probably go back to NYC and not live on Park Avenue (aka Xinzha lu) in Shanghai. Trust me, your Sherpa’s delivery man won’t judge.
Step 4: Begin your search. You’re ready. If you’re new to Shanghai, it’s best to bypass agents and begin the search online, to rent the room directly from the tenant who was there before you (especially for shared rooms). Here are some of the best resources I used when I first moved here:
- Craigslist – Avoid the casual encounters and head straight for the For Rent section.
- SmartShanghai.com – this is probably your best bet
- WeChat – ask your friends to add you to a housing group. They’ll know what you mean.
Step 5: Don’t believe the BS that people tell you about their apartments. I may be exaggerating, but if people are moving from their apartment, they are moving for a reason. Sometimes that reason is moving back to their home country. Often, it’s not. I left my last apartment because the ceiling had collapsed in one corner and it was covered in black mold. The young couple the landlord brought to examine the apartment had no idea. I didn’t tell them because I was afraid my landlord would withhold my deposit, which brings me to my next point:
Step 6: Contracts do not matter. Or maybe they do, but nothing is set in stone until the deposit is paid. If you’ve found a room you like, run – not walk – to the ATM and withdraw those RMBs because no deal is done until money is exchanged. And yes, there is always the fear of not getting your deposit back. And sure, you can always go to court, but remember, you live in China. A lot of times the rules don’t apply, but in this case they will.
Step 7: You’re in a big city, accept that there will be cockroaches. There will always be (at least a little) black mold, there will be leaks, and for a week in September, there will be an infestation of small flying bugs which will disappear as quickly as they came. Some things will be unavoidable, but before you move into any place, check for the following:
- Any obvious signs of mold.
- The water pressure, especially in lane houses.
- The pitter patter of little mice feet
- The water heater. Is the heater just a giant water tank that will run out of hot water 15 minutes into your shower?
- The location of the circuit breakers.
- Any weird plumbing smells
- How much sunlight the apartment gets during the day. If you’re facing the sun, summers will get real hot.
- That the apartment is not on the first floor – it will be full of bugs year-round
- If it apartment is a loft, the top floor NEEDS to have it’s own AC. That is absolutely crucial come July and August.
Step 8: Celebrate your new apartment with a chilled bottle of wine. Don’t panic. You’ve survived.
Final Step (this is not optional!) register with the police. Technically you need to register with the police 24 hours after you move in. Sometimes they give you some lee-way, but this must be done ASAP. Contracts may not matter, but police registration will.