That local expat housing (Beijing) thing...

HOUSING:

This section is for the local expat hire looking for cheap housing in Beijng. If you live in a bie shu (villa) or legal foreign housing, then good for you. This is for the rest of us who are used to cranky hot water heaters, classy chandeliers, wood wall paneling and kitchens that have enough counterspace to fit one bowl on when cooking.

Note that everything in this section is our personal opinion, based on first-hand experience. "Local housing" is one of those China grey areas. Nothing is absolute, of course, so it would be wise to, as they say, to "mo shi tou guo he" (feel out the stones as you cross the river). Also, this section is all about mighty, political Beijing. We have no idea of local expat digs in Shanghai or Guangzhou. We're sure, though, that like many other aspects of China, things are more open and flexible the further south one goes.

The market (cost, availability, etc.)
The checklist to make sure that "illegal" house is safe
The checklist of what to include in the contract

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THE MARKET:

A BASIC CHECKLIST to gauging how safe and stable your potential local apartment will be (i.e. if your apartment/you/or your landlord satisfies most of these conditions, the less likely you are to get kicked out). Click for more detailed information:

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OK, so you feel the apartment is a good deal, what are the KEY ITEMS TO WRITE INTO THE CONTRACT:

SOUND CONFUSING? Securing local housing is just one of the fun and annoying elements of living in Beijing. Believe us, you will learn a lot about the way the country operates -- and the ways it is changing. A lot.

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WILL THE LANDLORD REGISTER YOU? If the landlord is willing to register you, this will make you totally legal. Youíll have to handle the necessary procedures with the local police bureau, but youíll end up with a zan zhu zheng, giving you the right to live in the apartment. Obviously this is the best option. However, itís more than likely that your landlord will not opt to go this route, for several potential reasons: a) he/she may not own the property, or have the Ďright?to legally sublease it; b) general fear of dealing with police; c) general ignorance that one can/should even register with the police; d) registering will put on record this sublease activity, which then requires him/her to pay taxes; e) general ma fan (nuisance). In the past, the only way to obtain a temporary residence permit in non-foreign approved housing was to make up some story that you were somehow related to the landlord (his sisterís cousin is in the States and married my brotherís uncle, so weíre really relatives and heís "lending" this apartment as a form of "zhao guíing" me while Iím in China). These days, however, as the concept of private property is becoming more prevalent, this vague connection thing may not be needed. It all depends on the situation, though (yao kan qing kuang).

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DOES YOUR LANDLOD HAVE THE RIGHT TO LEASE TO FOREIGNERS? Technically, foreigners are restricted as to where they can live. Call it a carry over from the days when everyone lived in the wai jiao gong yu. The law clearly states that foreigners must live in foreign-occupancy approved housing, although this is not as strictly enforced anymore. Truly legal apartment complexes have the right to lease to foreigners written into their business license, which translates in human terms to about 1500 USD per month.

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DOES YOUR LANDLORD HAVE THE DEED TO THE PROPERTY (or is it a dan wei apartment)? If your landlord has the deed to the property (chan quan), then chances are much better that he/she can legally sublease. Usually only people who have purchased their apartments on the open market obtain this deed. (Ask to see it). However, even with this deed, there is no law that says they can sublease; nor a law that says they canít sublease, to say nothing of to foreigners. This is a grey area, and grey areas are meant to be exploited. On the other hand, the chances are greater that your landlord will have the legal right to the use of the apartment (shi yong quan), with the deed accruing to them in 3-5 years, or maybe never accruing to them. This situation is most common in chai qian scenarios (government knocked down their ping fang and gave them a new house), or in certain work units which are further ahead in the march towards the market economy and are selling their apartments to their employees. Landlords with shi yong quan walk a murky line, and many factors must be considered when deciding if it is safe to rent. Finally, if the apartment belongs to the landlordís work unit (dan wei), DONíT RENT, unless you can fulfill some of the other criteria in this section. Chances are highest youíll get booted. Many couples have two work unit apartments, live in one, and decided to sublease the other for additional income. If the work unit discovers such subletting, they can (and do) recall apartments and youíll be on the street.

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DOES THE LANDLORD HAVE GUANXI with the local ju wei hui (neighborhood committee) and/or police? Having good relationships and connections (guanxi) is one thing; managing guanxi is even more important. Having and managing guanxi with the local police and the local neighborhood committee (ju wei hui) - the two departments most likely to knock on your door, kick you out, etc. - is critical and can supersede everything else on this page. Maybe your landlord knows the police; heck, maybe he is the police. With a good relationship in hand, more than half of your problems disappear instantly.

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ARE YOU ASIAN? If you look Chinese, you can blend into the neighborhood and not call attention to yourself. If you are white, you stand out like a sore thumb, and it will be more likely the neighbors will talk or the neighborhood committee will find out.

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ARE THERE LOTS OF LAO WAI (foreigners) who have lived in the area for a while without getting booted? If the housing you live in has other foreigners nearby, chances are itís a safe place to live (hua jia di). Neighbors have gotten used to foreigners and the local police know whatís going on and accept it. Before moving in, ask your foreign neighbors what their experience living in the area has been.

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DO YOU HAVE GOOD GUANXI with your landlord? Itís that guanxi thing again. This is a tough call. On the one hand, itís good to have a good relationship with your landlord in case problems arise ?but this can also bring problems when you get stuck in a web of "indebtedness." On the other hand, I know just as many tenants who hardly ever see their landlord save rent payment time, and their lives are just swell.

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DO YOU TRUST THE AGENT who showed your the apartment? Make sure your real estate agent isnít a slime ball. Enough said.

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ARE YOU PAYING RENT 1-3 months at a shot? I like to pay 1-3 months at a time because who knows what way the winds way blow tomorrow. Donít buy a landlordís talk about 6 months being standard, or the fact he/she needs the money in advance for sending he/she daughter to school. Who knows how many interesting and zany li you (reasons) they will come up with. Iíve also known of slimy landlords who take 6 months up front and then work in cahoots with the police to have you booted in a month or so. Try getting your money back now.

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This page authored by:
Michael Wenderoth
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Last updated: April 20, 1998.