Accommodation in Beijing can range from fantastic to abysmal, but there are good options for expats in almost every neighbourhood. The trick for expats is to find a neighbourhood that meets their needs, but this, of course, is easier said than done.
Types of accommodation in Beijing
Almost all of the housing available in the Beijing city centre is in apartment form, and most of these are not particularly spacious. Some expats put high priority on having an apartment with a modern kitchen (with counters, refrigerator and storage, along with the standard sink and a stovetop), and services apartments are a popular option for expats and locals alike. However, old-style Beijing apartments may be less accommodating in this department.
There are houses available further outside of the city, and these have more amenities, including yards, ovens and possibly a swimming pool.
Beijing also offers apartment compounds which offer shared facilities and amenities, such as gyms and playgrounds – which is great for expat families with kids. Young and single expats on a budget in Beijing may alternatively search for house and flat shares to save on money.
Accommodation in Beijing may be furnished or unfurnished, and the price should reflect that fact. It’s not guaranteed either way, however, and even less guaranteed is the style in which a place may be furnished. If needing to add decor and furnishings to one's accommodation, there are various places across Beijing to buy or have furniture made. Expats should take this into consideration before shipping items from home.
In general, safety is not a major issue for expats in Beijing. Common-sense security measures are generally enough to keep residents relatively safe. Locking doors, using a safe for valuables, and avoiding first-floor apartments for women living alone are all recommended; most expats do not take many extra precautions beyond these.
Finding accommodation in Beijing
Most expats use a real-estate agent of some sort, especially if they don’t speak Chinese. In all likelihood, agents will be able to show some apartments right away, but expats should not get discouraged if something isn't found immediately. Note that agency fees can be quite high, and are known to equate to one month's rent in Beijing, while rent itself contributes to the cost of living.
The classifieds sections of local newspapers can also be searched for places to rent, or new arrivals could ask friends and colleagues for leads. In both of these cases, potential tenants may be able to sidestep the agent and get a better price, so either is worth a try.
House hunters who use online platforms, such as FlatInChina and Sublet.com, and conduct their search from outside of Beijing, are urged to have someone visit the property on their behalf before negotiating and signing a lease, and conducting any financial transaction.
Renting accommodation in Beijing
Once a suitable apartment has been found, expats should talk to the landlord (through a translator if need be), and make sure that they are the type of person who can be worked with. Most problems arise from difficulties with landlords, not from the accommodation itself. Some things to look out for when renting in Beijing are ensuring the landlord can provide documents as proof of ownership and that the place is registered as a rental property.
From there, the tenant and the landlord will discuss and agree upon a contract.
Leases in Beijing are normally valid for three or six months or one year. Note that when moving in, expats must register their address at the local Public Service Bureau (PSB) as soon as they move in.
Landlords will generally ask for two to three months' rent up front and one month’s rent as a deposit, so expats should be prepared for this initial sum.
Tenants will, most likely, be responsible for paying utilities in Beijing. This includes water, electricity and gas. Most properties have prepaid electricity meters, and a meter reader may visit and measure water and gas usage. Be sure to check with the real-estate agent and landlord on the method of paying utilities. In most cases, paying bills is done through top-up cards and at banks, post offices and convenience stores.