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Everything You Need to Know About Renting a Home in Shanghai

Comprehensive, long-winded and fabulous: everything we got.
2019-10-18 09:29:39
Essential Guides: Getting down into the essentials of what you need to know about Dining, Nightlife, Sports, Activities and more in Shanghai.


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You get to Shanghai and you’re thinking, “Geez, I’m going to live like a king here. Food is cheap, transportation costs nothing, there are booze deals everywhere, my phone bill is half of what I pay back home… this is gonna be paradise.”

Then you try and rent an apartment, and suddenly, if you’re from a place like New York or Paris, you have PTRS. (Post-traumatic rent syndrome.) Flashbacks of hovels at exorbitant prices with six-legged roommates. Noise. Scum of all kinds. You plaintively bargain with the real estate deities and consider whether you can live again in an apartment with mystery stains, a leaky toilet and a kitchen the size of a postage stamp.

Or, if you’re from someplace where apartments didn’t cost you your first born and 115% of your income, you’re in shock.

Take a deep breath.

We’re here to walk you through some of the basics of renting your own place. We can’t help do anything about the prices, but we can give you some advice about diving into the Shanghai rental market.

  • Where Do I Start?

    1. Hire an agent.

    2. Get it in writing.

    A bit like New York, almost all real estate goes through agents in Shanghai, and getting a good one is going to be key to your renting experience.

    Why? A good agent will commit to being an intermediary between you and your perhaps erratic landlord for the duration of your lease. And they’re going to have a broader range of apartments for you to look at than you’re likely to find on your own.

    Where do you get an agent? You can find them right here in the listings on SmartShanghai, or on Facebook, where there are agent and real estate groups. If you know people in Shanghai, ask them. They’ve probably used an agent before and have an opinion about them.


  • How Do You Find a Good Agent?

    This is a trickier question and there’s no great answer. In the absence of any site that reviews individual agents, there are a couple of competing theories.

    Buckshot theory”: Use SmartShanghai to find apartments you are interested in, regardless of agency. Then contact the agents by WeChat and go see the apartment. Do this over and over until you’ve met at least 10 agents. Once you hit that number, filter them down to just the two or three who you liked the most, and seemed to understand what you’re after. This is a numbers game.

    Dating theory”: Make appointments with two or three agents and treat the meeting like a date. Do they listen to you carefully and ask questions about what your needs are? Do you communicate well with each other? Are they looking to hit-it-and-quit-it, or do they want to build a relationship with you as a client? It's worth noting that agents despair of clients playing the field, i.e., juggling two or three agents at once. They can tell that you are and they're not as likely to work as hard for you if they see that. Of course, the date analogy only goes so far. It's a business relationship, so ask for a reference.

    Or, combine the two approaches: talk to as many as you can, and then interview the best two or three.

    One note: the agents talk to each other on social media. This is good for you in that they share information about mafan landlords, but it’s bad for you if you’re going to be a mafan tenant.


  • Speaking of Landlords...

    You’re going to meet them when you sign the lease for the apartment. If you get a bad feeling, don’t sign. Even with an agent as an intermediary, a bad landlord is going to make your life miserable. 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.

    When you do meet the landlord, at signing time, ask to check his property certificate (fangchan zheng, 房产证) and ID card (shenfen zheng, 身份证) to make sure he really owns the place. If they don’t have that, DO NOT SIGN.

    The agent will tell you the same thing we just did: get everything in writing. This will help you avoid scams — see here — and generally speaking, having documentation will prevent disputes from becoming intractable or (good luck dude!) ending up in the Chinese legal system. Any good agent in Shanghai will provide you with a contract in Chinese and English. However, be warned that the English version is only for reference, it may not say the same thing as the Chinese, and the Chinese version always, always prevails in case of a dispute.

    There are smaller, streetside agencies in Shanghai that specialize in much cheaper apartments that aren’t in the big agency database. Keep your eyes peeled for them when you’re looking in a neighborhood in which you want to rent. But don’t believe anything you see in the shop window: it’s likely the one you want “just rented”. Don’t get discouraged. Be clear about what you want, either in square meter terms or in how many bedrooms, your budget and what neighborhood you want to be in.


  • Your Landlord May Not Be Your Landlord: Second Landlords

    The Shanghai rental market has an odd little wrinkle: second landlords (er fangdong, 二房东). A landlord or a company will sign a ten-year lease on a dilapidated property, renovate it and then rent it to you. This has improved the number and quality of rental properties in Shanghai, but it also means your rent check is essentially underwriting two landlords. It’s one of the causes of the insane rental prices in the city.

    Having two landlords, who may not agree on who has responsibility for what, can be a recipe for disaster. Honest agents (they exist) will tell you this as well: avoid second landlords.


  • Learn to Love the Subway

    Look for a place near a subway stop, preferably one that’s on the same line as where you work or go to school. You’re going to find that riding your bike, your electric bike or taking taxis and using Didi (a ride-sharing app) is going to run into a problem, something called “rain.”

    It rains a lot in Shanghai, and when it does, the taxis and the Didis, which have an ironic sense of humor, dry up. You’re going to need a way to get around town, and the subway is fast, ridiculously cheap and utterly reliable. And anyway, eventually you’re going to get tired of paying 200rmb every time you go to the airport.


  • The Types of Houses in Shanghai

    Lane Houses (lilong, 里弄)

    Those quaint little apartment buildings you see on postcards or when you peer down an alley in Xuhui are called lane houses.

    Almost everybody who comes to Shanghai thinks about living in one of them rather than one of the interchangeable 30-story apartment buildings that dominate the city, but there are some things you should consider first.

    Lane houses have lane house problems: old buildings with low water pressure, aging pipes, mold, rats and cockroaches. And you’re going to get familiar with your neighbors. The walls tend to be thin. This can lead to issues on both sides. You get tired of hearing your neighbor’s TV, and if you’re a younger person who likes to party, they get tired of hearing your music and boozing. The situation can escalate quickly.

    That’s not to say there aren’t quaint, impossibly charming and well-tended lane houses in Shanghai. There are many. But they are not cheap. It's also not to say that new-ish buildings don't have bad water pressure, mold, rats and vermin, but they tend to be more common in the oldest buildings.

    (Old) Apartment Blocks ((lao) gongyu, (老)公寓)

    Lane houses are from the early 1900s-1930s, and high-rises are from the 1990s and after. In between that time, there was a type of apartment block very common in Shanghai, known as gongyu (公寓). These are unromantic 6-7-floor walk-up (mostly) apartment buildings, built out of concrete with zero concern for aesthetics or details. In architecture terms, they are functional. Many, many Shanghai residents in Puxi live in these style of apartments, which were often assigned to them by their work during the planned economy days. Many, many residents have also moved out of these blocks and now rent their former homes to outside tenants.

    Interiors vary dramatically depending on how much the landlord invested in renovation but the rooms tend to be boxy and the kitchens small. Still, every one is different and if you’re looking for a compromise between a lane house and a high-rise, you might ask your agent to consider the gongyu market.

    The best type of gongyu are the oldest. Not everything built in the 1930s was a garden villa or a lane house. There were also many low-rise apartment buildings from that time, and they often have spectacular (if they are intact) Art Deco flourishes, terrazzo floors in the entryways and corridors, elaborate staircase ironwork and other details that you won’t find anywhere else. These are called, literally, “old apartment blocks” (lao gongyu,老公寓) and are among the most desirable places to live for those who don’t want a high-rise. Lower floors tend to have high ceilings, up to 4m in some buildings, solid floors underpinned by concrete (not bouncy wood) and decorated with old wooden floorboards, and individual entrances.

    In some cases, they may still have a shared kitchen or shared entrance, which means a lot of neighbor contact, and potential for conflict (if it’s a bad neighbor), so beware the layout. They are primarily found in the older downtown districts of Huangpu, Xuhui and Jing’an.


    If you’re looking at one of those apartment behemoths, some things to consider:

    Are there enough elevators? Many residential towers in Shanghai have two elevators for about 30 floors. If your building has four or five units per floor, no problem. If it’s more than that, you may want to consider elevator waiting time and frustration.

    Are you sensitive to mold and mildew? If you are, Shanghai is going to be a pretty rough place to live. The combination of cheap construction (even in “high end” buildings) and the humid climate makes the city a paradise for mold.

    If you’re really sensitive, avoid apartments with a lot of exposure to the exterior of the building, especially corner units and units on the first floor. Make sure you check walls and ceilings for water damage when you’re inspecting prospective apartments.

    After you move in, when you see mold, report it to your agent or landlord. The good news is that they’re obligated to fix it. The bad news is that “fixing it” often means wiping it away with a cloth or a sander and re-painting it.

    Common areas. This is especially true if you have small children or a dog. No matter how nice your apartment is, you’re going to want to go outside sometimes without having to dodge cars, bikes and pedestrians who don’t look up from their phone. You can also tell a lot about how the building management thinks about their property by how generous and well-maintained the outdoor area is.


  • Where Should I Rent?


    The star of the Puxi show. The northern part of Xuhui has those leafy plane-tree dominated blocks, luxury buildings, gorgeous lane houses and eleventy kazillion bars and restaurants. It’s unlikely you’re going to find a deal in this part of town, but if you do rent here — and you avoid the super high-end market — it’s actually a bit cheaper than Jing’an. You’ll feel like you’re in the center of things, but some may feel like they’re in an expat bubble.


    North of Xuhui, Jing’an has tremendous subway service, nice buildings, it’s very close to a lot of bars and restaurants and offices, and if your apartment faces the right direction, million-dollar views down Suzhou Creek to The Bund. In both Xuhui and Jing’an, you’re likely to be paying a bit more than elsewhere.


    Located in the southwest part of the city, it’s one of the places in Puxi you’re going to get more apartment bang for your buck, and it’s an excellent location for a lot of people who come to study at the universities in Minhang or are here to manage factories. (It’s midway between their far-flung workplaces and the center of Shanghai.)


    One of the newest and wealthiest areas in Shanghai, and where a lot of Korean and Japanese expats flock. It’s a bit far from the party scene — one would almost say it’s suburban — but it’s got the newest residential buildings in the city and it’s close to the Hongqiao airport and rail station.

    “Jing’an” (Zhabei)

    Zhabei district, roughly north of the Suzhou Creek, wasn’t developing fast enough to suit the taste of city managers and real estate developers, so the city government simply redefined it as part of fashionable Jing’an a few years ago. The areas near the river have begun to develop with new buildings and a few artistic communities and the views can be hard to beat. Think Brooklyn minus the flourishing culture.


    They’re doing it London-style in Xintiandi. This is where you find your Tesla dealerships and the touristy, expensive Xintiandi bar-and-restaurant mall and high-end, vacant apartments purchased as an alternative to the stock market. That’s not to say there aren’t some deals, but for a lot of places here, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

    Putuo, Changning, Hongkou

    These are Puxi areas on the fringe of downtown. You’re likely looking at cheaper rents, but don’t expect any crazy bargains. The density of both foreign residents and western-style amenities declines as you get into these areas.


    This is an enormous and diverse area that attracts less foreigners, unless you’re talking about the extremely high-end areas of Jinqiao and Lujiazui (that’s where all the really tall buildings are). There are suburban areas that eerily resemble America with standalone houses and cars in the driveway, mostly rented to people who want to be near the international schools out here.

    It’s almost as if the Huangpu River acts as a psychological barrier, but Pudong is not all that far away from the center of town, and the rent values can be much, much better the further away you get from the river and Century Park.


  • What Are Rents Like Here?

    The benchmark for apartments in Shanghai in 2019 is about 150rmb per square meter.

    That means a one-bedroom is around 10,000rmb; for two bedrooms, it’s about 15,000rmb. This is true for all types of housing, no matter lane house, apartment block or high-rise. There’s no cheap type of housing, only cheap landlords and cheaper locations. You’re going to pay more in certain parts of the city and less in others, of course. With some notable exceptions, the further away you are from downtown Xuhui and Jing’an, the less you’ll pay.

    For a detailed explanation of the numbers for rent in Shanghai, check here.


  • What Kind of Lease Should I Sign?

    In terms of lease length, there’s your standard one-year lease, and the even-better one year with an option for a second. In the latter, the landlord agrees to give you an option to rent in the second year at the same rent or for a small, pre-negotiated rent increase. You can move out with two months notice.

    In a city with a superheated real estate market in which sudden, dramatic rent increases are not unknown, this kind of lease can be a boon to tenants.

    Occasionally, a landlord will offer a longer lease, but if you’re new to the city, you won’t want to lock yourself in before you have a real feel for the place.

    In terms of making rent payments, two systems prevail: two-plus-one, or one-plus-three.

    In a two-plus-one, you pay your first month’s rent, and a two-month deposit when you move in. In a one-plus-three, you pay one month’s rent as a deposit and you pay the rent in three-month increments.

    Will you get your deposit back? Assuming you haven’t trashed the place, the agents we talked to said 90% of people get their deposits back.


  • How Much Will I Pay To Move In?

    A lot.

    Let’s say you’re found a place for 10,000rmb/month, and it’s a two-plus-one.

    You’ve got your first month’s rent (10,000rmb), of course, and then the two month’s deposit (20,000rmb). You’re going to have to pay for your first year of internet all at once (around 2,000rmb), and if you want a satellite or internet TV connection that gets western news, sports and arts, you’re going to have to hire a guy and pay for a year in advance too (approximately 2,500rmb).

    And, that agent who helped you find the place: her fee is going to be about 35% of one month’s rent (3,500rmb).

    That’s 38,000rmb to move into your 10,000rmb apartment.

    Utilities will be billed, but you’re going to have to set aside some cash for that, too. The awful insulation in most Shanghai apartments means high heating costs in the winter and high air conditioning costs in the summer.

    (Tragically, Shanghai is south of the Huai River, which is the dividing line for heating in China. North of the river, the government provides excellent, subsidized central heating. South of the river, you’re on your own.)


  • Should I Rent a Room From Someone?

    You’re young, maybe a student, and your idea of rent is less than 5,000rmb a month. Your first option is going to be to have roommates. References from friends are the best way to go, but if you don’t have any here yet or they’ve run dry, SmartShanghai has you covered. See our Housing listings here.

    We strongly recommend that you not get a shared apartment through an agency. The person you rent from, or the people living there, are not always the same ones the agency represents as tenants when you’re trying to find a place.

    You already know how this works. Find someone with a reasonably compatible lifestyle, no handshake agreements — you’re looking for partners, not friends — and have some sort of understanding in advance about boyfriends and/or girlfriends staying over. Make sure the master tenant has a legitimate rental agreement, know when it expires, and find out how long he or she has lived there.


  • What About Furniture?

    They already went to Ikea for you! Most apartments are furnished.

    You can tell a lot about a landlord by the furniture he’s offering. Is it new and/or clean? Is it decent and reliable, or impossibly cheap?

    One “tell” for cheap landlords is the air conditioner: Look for one that’s not too old. The best ones are Gree, Midea, Panasonic and Hisense.

    Don’t sleep on inspecting the bedrooms. Chinese mattresses are much firmer than the standard mattresses used in Europe and North America.

    There are landlords who are willing to cart out pieces of furniture if you like the apartment and don’t like some of the furnishings, but they’ll probably tell you that you’re on your own to replace them.


  • 13 Renting Tips:

    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. 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.

    3. Negotiate

    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.

    4. 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.

    5. 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 (水泵) in Chinese .

    6. 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.

    7. 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.

    8. Know Your Costs

    Commission is 70% of one month's rent, evenly split between renter (35%) and landlord (35%). This isn’t law but it is commonly accepted practice in Shanghai. For apartments above 10,000rmb or in certain areas, the landlord may pay the full commission.

    9. 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.

    10. 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.

    11. Check Dianping

    Many neighborhoods and buildings have listings and reviews online.

    12. 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.)

    13. Watch Out For Signs of Construction

    According to agents we spoke to, the number one complaint after signing the contract is construction noise. This could come from outside infrastructure, like a new Metro station, or be much more personal, like a neighbor renovating their apartment. Pay special attention to signs that these may be in progress, such as construction garbage in the street. If it's too late for that, here are a few tips to soundproof your life.

    For more tips, see the article most of these tips come from, published by SmartShanghai in August 2019.


  • The History

    China has only had a private property market for about 25 years. Going way back, Shanghai had a private housing market until 1949, when the New China government collectivized all property and assigned housing to everyone. As part of their philosophical approach, they moved multiple families into large spaces that were previously occupied by a single family, and often subdivided houses and apartments among ten or even 20 families. There was no rental market. You couldn’t buy a house even if you had the money to, and no one did anyway. Communism. This is how things were until the early 1990s, when the government commoditized property and people began to sell, buy and move around town. Often times they traded up out of their assigned housing and kept leapfrogging as house prices jumped over and over again.

    One consequence of this has been that landlords often aren’t particularly interested in rentals (why you’ll see many apartments sit vacant for years) or dealing with tenants because the income they make from your rent is really just a pittance compared to the amount they’ll make when they finally sell your apartment — maybe while you’re living there.

    There are other social factors at play, of course – they may have given your apartment to their child, who gets to keep the rental income, or, if they’re older, they may have moved in with their own children and use the rental income to live on. It’s hard to say exactly what their relationship to the money may be. Nonetheless, Shanghai’s property sales market is extremely busy, and landlords are constantly assessing when it's the right time to sell. Don’t be surprised if it happens during your residence.

    Ready to jump into Shanghai's rental property market? See our Housing listings here.