How to rent an apartment in Shanghai

Once you have decided to take a job, assignment, or study spot and come to Shanghai, you will likely have many questions. One of these might be how you can find your new home in Shanghai. We hope below information will help you to get an idea about the process of finding a Shanghai apartment.

How can I find an apartment in Shanghai?

Searching and finding an apartment in Shanghai is not difficult. Traditionally being China’s gate to international trade and business, and experiencing rapid development and increasing prosperity during the last 30 years, the city offers plenty of homes that are suitable, and often even tailored to the needs of foreign residents. Some expats will even find that their employer offers housing in one of Shanghai’s many 5-star service apartment projects, and literally have nothing to do but arrive and move in. If you work for a company that has several expats coming and going every year, they might already work with a relocation or housing agency, who will reach out to you before you arrive and guide you through the process. The majority of expats however has to get the ball rolling by themselves, and as the network of friends and colleagues in Shanghai is likely rather small at this stage, searching online is the way to go.
Searching on google for search terms such as “apartments for rent in Shanghai” will give you a list of agencies which are specialized, experienced, and very keen to work with foreigners coming to Shanghai. Searching in Chinese, e.g. “租房上海” will show you results for real estate agencies and platforms focusing on the local market. There are returning rumors among expats that Chinese agencies have better prices, or that Chinese tenants pay less. Generally we would say that expats are better off working with an agency that has had experience with expats. They will have a proper bilingual contract template, can understand you and address issues along the way better, and can also give you better tips about the right neighborhood, navigating the city with limited Chinese skills, etc.
Currently, we see around 100 agencies and a high number of “independent agents” who focus on Shanghai’s housing market for expats. Choosing which agent or agency is a good fit for you can be quite challenging. We have written down some pointers to help you with this decision here.

So, once you have picked one or two agents to work with, and discussed with them what you are looking for, they will start sending you their available properties which they think might be what you like. While a bit on the casual side, many agents prefer sending you their stock through WeChat. If you do not have WeChat yet, it’s a good opportunity to download this multi-featured chat app. Once in China, it’s ubiquitous both in private and professional life.
See anything you like? Let your agent know. Equally, let your agent know when not on the right track, instead of ignoring. Feedback is very important for their work.

When you express your interest in a property, agents can arrange a visit within 24 to 48 hours. Immediate visits are often not possible, because agencies rarely are in possession of the properties’ keys. Other than in many Western countries, in China agencies and landlords do not work with each other on an exclusive basis. The majority of landlords prefer to spread information about their vacant apartments among many agencies and will see who will successfully introduce a tenant. This also explains why just stepping into an agency’s office without appointment will often not result in seeing many properties right there and then, but to be asked to drop by again later.

When should I start looking for an apartment or agent?

Shanghai’s rental housing market moves fast. It has a big influx of Chinese and international professionals, with many feeling the pressure of high rents. As a consequence, apartments in good condition & location, fairly priced, are sometimes taken within 24 hours after becoming vacant. Hence, landlords who have such properties, can feel confident to find a tenant quickly, and do not inform agencies in advance. What does this mean for your house hunting schedule? Starting too early to seriously search is a waste of time. If it is still 4 weeks until you arrive or move, all the nice apartments that agents can show you will be rented out by the time you are in Shanghai. Contacting agents in advance on the other hand is not a waste of time. Talking to them will help you picking the right one (more on choosing the right agent here). During your talk, they should help you finding out how compatible your expectation and the realities of the Shanghai housing market are. As a consequence, you might need to gather information about alternative areas, accept lowering your requirements, or even raise the point of increasing your housing allowance. If your main concern is to find a home, reaching out to agents 2 or 3 weeks before moving should be sufficient. If it’s a bigger relocation, e.g. including school search, immigration paperwork for family members, bringing household goods from another country to China, pet relocation, or other issues, we recommend to get in touch with a service provider 4 to 6 months in advance. This allows to establish a schedule for all necessary preparations and paperwork, as well as coordination with HR.

How can I negotiate a good lease agreement?

It is no secret that China is a country, where bold negotiation can go a long way. Most known for its bargaining potential are so called fake markets, where you can buy replica clothing for extremely low prices. Firm negotiators can achieve final prices 70-80% lower than initial asking prices. This huge difference however stems from the will to exploit unknowing tourists. The housing market is far more transparent, and hence asking prices are much closer to market prices. From experience we can say that after the final round of negotiation, rents are between 0 and 10% lower than asking prices. When trying to work out a good deal for yourself, you can go for a lower rent, for benefits paid out of the landlord’s pocket, or for a mix of both.

Some tenants will ask for coverage of the fees for a compound’s clubhouse and sports facilities, free satellite TV or internet, additional household equipment such as an oven or a new TV, a bigger bed, or simply for the landlord to cover the cost for the tax invoice. If none of these are interesting for you, we recommend to go for a lower rent. To help your cause, try to find out whether the apartment has been vacant for several weeks already. When stuck, you can also try selling your qualities as a foreign tenant who will (hopefully) take excellent care of the property, and who has a stable income and job.

Note: If you are working with an agent, most of the legwork will be done by them. Here, you must understand that an agent’s commission is directly affected by the final price, as it most times is a percentage of 1 month’s rent (usually between 50% and 100%). Sometimes, a landlord might also offer a tiered commission structure to disincentivize the agent’s bargaining efforts. If you suspect such a situation, the best case is to talk openly with the agent, and if it makes sense, to offer compensation for lost commission, effectively pulling the agent fully on your side.

What does the contract look like and which other documents are important?

The standard contract in China is non-surprisingly in Chinese only. However, expat-focused agencies will have a bilingual contract template ready. Please be aware that only the the Chinese text will be legally binding. If in droubt, we strongly advise to let a trusted person with native-like Chinese language skills check the contract before signing it.
Minimum contents of the lease contract are: the names and ID or passport numbers of the involved parties (tenant, landlord, agency), the exact property location and its size, the rental price, security deposit, items already covered by the rental fee (e.g. management fee), rights and obligations of all parties involved, consequences of contract breaches, the lease start and end dates.

Before signing the contract and especially before transferring any significant amount of money, you should demand to see the property ownership certificate and the owner’s ID. If the owner is not the same person as the landlord, there also must be a document that confirms that the landlord entering a contract with the tenant has the legal right to do so. This can be through power of attorney, or through a lease agreement that grants the right to sublease. Making sure that these documents are in order is important to protect yourself from fraud. You will also need copies of the ownership certificate and the landlord’s ID when you register your new home at the police station (find out more about this below).
You yourself will have to show an identification document as well, your passport. Sometimes expats who have special visa situations ask, but no: there are no requirements for the kind of visa to enter a lease contract or to register at the police station. Some police stations will ask for a date for leaving the residence though. This date cannot be after your current visa’s expiration date.
Lastly, if you work with an agency, they will have to chop the contract with the company’s official stamp, which adds legal responsibility for the quality of the transaction, which can only be to your advantage.

Important: Registering your new home after moving in

After moving in, or rather after the contract start date, it is very important to drop by the local police station and let them know that you live now in their precinct. Required documents are: your passport, the rental contract (original and copy), property ownership certificate, owner’s ID (copy), and if the landlord is different from the owner: landlord’s ID (copy), document proving the landlord has the right to rent to you (copy).
You, and if applicable family members or other residents, must go to the police station must do this within 24 hours after your contract has started. The start date as written in the contract matters most for the police officer handling your registration, the actual move-in date is not relevant.
Additional info: If your passport or visa/residence permit number changes, you need to go again to the police station to inform them. If you are registered with a visa, such as a business or travel visa, you also must inform the police station every time you enter and leave the China.

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