We work with housing companies and rental apartments on a daily basis for our Housing section. In our office, the SmSh staff have rented apartments for a combined 75+ years. We know the market o-kay and we've made many of the mistakes that can be made. But whether you're a first-time renter in Shanghai or a veteran home-hopper, here's a few tips to help you avoid a few problems and ways to suss out whether your potential new landlord is a cheapskate or not.
1. Avoid The First Floor
Ground floor apartments tend to be damp and humid, which promotes mildew, mold and problems with the plaster on the walls. If your heart is set on a ground floor place, keep in mind you will likely need to buy strong dehumidifiers for the bedroom and living room, and those cost up to 2,000rmb each. Dorosin is a recommended brand.
2. Be Extra Careful With Shared Apartments From Chinese Agencies
This is just experience from SmartShanghai. We get a lot of complaints about shared apartments when the person renting the apartment is not the one living there. This is especially common with Chinese agencies, who lease an apartment from the landlord and then re-lease individual rooms. We cannot stress enough that you should do strong due diligence on the company you are renting from, including a Google search.
3. The Air Conditioners Will Tell You About The Landlord
Want to know if your landlord is a cheapskate or has invested in quality? Look up. The air conditioners will tell you all you need to know. What brand are they? Gree is the best. Midea and Panasonic and Hisense are not bad. How old are they? If they haven’t been changed in the past decade, don’t expect the rest of the house (the parts you can’t see) to be in tip-top condition.
4. Avoid Second Landlords
Second landlords are people, and often entire companies, who rent an apartment (and often dozens or hundreds of them) from the original landlord (the “first landlord”) and then turn around and re-rent them to tenants at an inflated price. Sometimes — sometimes — they justify the price increase by adding some design flourishes or even doing a big renovation. But still. They are inflating the market — we’ve most recently heard of a 15,000rmb place on Yongjia Lu being renovated and put on the market for 35,000rmb. There are even third landlords. They are rarely as responsive or responsible as first landlords, and you’ll always pay more for the pleasure of a second landlord. It’s just asking for trouble. Avoid.
Don’t forget that rents are highly negotiable and that “12,000rmb” apartment might go for as little as 8,000 or 9,000rmb depending on how motivated the landlord is to fill it.
6. Don’t Fall For These Scams
We’ve been over this a million times. The key scam, the bank transfer scam, the empty apartment scam… Read up about them first.
7. Check The Water Pressure Before You Sign
There’s nothing to ruin the start of your day like standing under a shower head and being drip, drip, dripped on. Check the water pressure NOW. Bear in mind that if you need a little boost, you can buy water pressure pumps easily on Taobao or on Yishan Lu from as little as about 150rmb to as much as 1,500rmb, but you’ll need a worker to install them. If your pipes are not easily accessible, this can be a lot of mafan. A water pressure pump is called shui beng in Chinese (水泵).
8. Check The Cabinets For Evidence Of Bugs, Rats Or Damp
Are there four spray bottles of Raid bug spray? Five boxes of baking soda to soak up humidity? Little black rat turds scattered along the back of the cabinet like sprinkles? None of these things may be a dealbreaker for you but checking what’s in the cabinets now can give you a good idea of what problems you might face later.
9. Head Slightly West Or North To Save 20%-30%
Rental prices near Changping Lu, Jiangsu Lu, and even West Yuyuan Lu are 20% to 30% cheaper than apartments in central Jing’an and Xuhui, according to an analysis we published in February 2018.
10. Look In Border Districts
For the best deals, start looking in border districts — areas between Shanghai’s dense central districts and the outer neighborhoods. Often, these are 3-4 subway stops away from downtown, which really is not far at all.
11. Read This Article Immediately And Closely
In early 2018, a data scientist got in touch with us to say he had analyzed all of our Housing listings to find trends in the data. Damn, he did a good job. We published the resulting article, with its specific recommendations on neighborhoods and price ranges, in February of that year, and looking back on it now, it mostly holds up. Read it twice.
12. Try Small Streetside Agencies
Not every apartment in Shanghai is online. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, or you’re looking at the lower end of the price range (5,000rmb and below), consider the small streetside agencies that are scattered all over town. They often have relationships directly with landlords that give them properties outside of “The Database” every other agent uses.
13. But Don’t Believe Any Advertised Apartments In A Shop Window
Those ads are like samples. They are there to draw you in. Nothing more, nothing less. Don’t argue about seeing a property on the blackboard. Chances are it’s “just been rented out.” Instead, be clear about your price, how many rooms or square meters you want and what your boundaries are for a location, and then see what they have that may fit.
14. Check The Landlord’s Property Certificate Closely Before Signing
This is crucial. You need to know that the person claiming to be the landlord is actually the landlord. To do that, they should bring both their ID card (shenfen zheng, 身份证) and the title to the property (fangchan zheng, 房产证). Their information should match. If it doesn’t, don’t sign the contract. Simple.
15. Aim For 150 Rmb Per Sqm Per Month Or Less
Of course, your apartment may be in a desirable historic building or high-end residential compound, and thus cost more, or the furniture may be old and the elevator broken since 1992, and thus cost less, but if you want a general benchmark for how much an apartment should cost in downtown Shanghai at the end of the 2010s, this is it: about 150rmb per square meter per month.
16. Know Your Costs
Commission is 70%, evenly split between renter and landlord. This isn’t law but it is commonly accepted practice in Shanghai.
17. Find Out About The Property Management Company
They’re the ones who are taking care of the grounds and will make repairs. Admittedly, it’s not so easy to find this out but it’s instructive to look at common areas like stairs and elevators to see how the management is. Is there garbage strewn around? Are there burnt-out lightbulbs or just bare bulbs on a wire? Does the intercom system work? Those are all giveaways for what might happen when your toilet backs up at 11pm on a Tuesday and floods your downstairs neighbor's living room.
18. Push For A One-Month Deposit
Agencies will try to push for bigger deposits and make you pay 2-3 months at a time. Try to negotiate for one month deposit and one month rent. In the end, you may have to settle for two months deposit but it doesn’t hurt to try.
19. Check Dianping
Many neighborhoods and buildings have listings and reviews online.
20. Meet The Landlord
A bad landlord is a dealbreaker and can make your life hell. Of course, there’s no way to tell what he or she may really be like until you have your first apartment problem, but if you don’t have a good feeling about them in the beginning, chances are it’s not going to improve over the course of your contract.
21. Push For A Longer Lease
If you’re in an area you think is going to go up in price a lot, push for a longer lease. Three, four, even five years is not unheard of.
22. Consider Renovating
If the apartment hasn’t been renovated in a long time and you don’t mind taking on the project, you can easily secure a discount on the lease. This is not Renting 101 anymore but it’s also not rocket science. One of the SmSh staff recently renovated a 75 square meter one-bedroom apartment, including a gut renovation to the bathroom, re-plastering the walls, painting and electrical work, for under 40,000rmb. Consider that over the course of a four-year lease, that adds less than 1,000rmb per month, and it’s possible to come out ahead, while having a freshly remodeled apartment. But yeah, obviously this is for people who plan to stay for a while, know a good contractor or renovation company, and don’t mind project-managing.
23. Ask How Long It’s Been On The Market
How long has the place been on the market? The longer the vacancy, the more room to negotiate, in general. (There are exceptions, like a really rich landlord who is not motivated to deal with a tenant.)
24. Find Out Where Your Neighborhood Committee Is
Many people are unfamiliar with the neighborhood committee (juweihui, 居委会) system. They are the most local branch of government in China, the one that mobilizes ayis to become trash police or patrol the city for fireworks around Chinese New Year. They are also where you go if you have problems with your neighbors instead of calling the police. They emphatically err on the side of mediation — it’s really all they can do — but they are often long-term neighborhood residents themselves and have some standing in the community. They’ll also tell you practical things like where you throw out the trash, where your neighborhood police station is and when the government workers plan to cut off power for the morning to fix some ghost in the electrical system.
25. Remember It’s Still Cheaper Than Buying
As any Shanghai resident can tell you, house prices in downtown Shanghai are insane. That cute one-bedroom you have on Huashan Lu? Seven to eight million rmb. That two-bedroom family home on Yongjia Lu? 15 million rmb. It’s very common these days for houses to sell at or above 100,000rmb per square meter, and we’re not even talking about modern, new developments. Add a standard 30% down payment on top of that, and you’re talking about a couple of million rmb already for a starter apartment before paying off the mortgage. Landlords might be mafan but when it comes to coughing up the money for the place you’re going to call home for a few years, they don’t have it easy themselves. In Shanghai, it’s still better to rent.
For even more tips, read this important information on renting an apartment in Shanghai.
Ready to dive into the world of real estate? Visit our Housing section here.