Accommodation in South Korea

Considering South Korea's extremely high population density, expats soon find that securing accommodation in South Korea is often more a case of making the best out of a situation as opposed to hunting down the perfect rental unit.

The range of housing options in South Korea is very limited, and prices can be exorbitant. On the positive side is that most Korean employers, especially those employing English teachers, organise accommodation for their employees as part of their employment contract.

Types of property in South Korea

The standard of accommodation in South Korea is high, although living spaces are extremely small by Western standards. Rental accommodation in South Korea generally falls into three categories, namely houses, villas or apartments. Houses are difficult to find and are usually very expensive. Villas are buildings with up to five storeys that typically contain up to 10 individual units. Apartments are contained in the high-rise buildings that dominate the skyline of every South Korean city.

While house and villa interiors can vary, South Korean apartments often follow the simple formula of a single bedroom, bathroom and kitchenette. They generally come furnished with basic necessities such as a fridge, a two-plate gas burner, a rice cooker, and sometimes a washing machine.

Underfloor heating (ondol) is a great bonus, and more modern apartments have air conditioning in at least one of the rooms. The lack of privacy in apartment buildings, due to the closeness of the apartments, is probably the one aspect of Korean housing that expats will have the most trouble adjusting to.

Finding property in South Korea

Expats who are not assigned accommodation by their employer are often shocked at the high rental prices in South Korea. The best means of finding a rental are to search through online property portals, expat discussion groups and social media groups that list properties. Real estate agencies are also common in most South Korean neighbourhoods, with some agencies specialising in the expat market. Agency rates for securing a lease are typically between 0.3 and one percent of the annual rent cost. 

Renting property in South Korea

Standard leases in South Korea typically last for two years and rental expenses are highly influenced by whether expats pay their landlords jeonse or 'key money'. Jeonse is a uniquely South Korean phenomenon and it functions like a deposit – except that the amount of money required is extraordinarily high and generally amounts to 50 to 100 percent of the market value of an apartment. Key money is returned in its entirety when the lease agreement is concluded.

Paying key-money will directly affect monthly rental prices as the larger the amount of key money paid, the smaller the monthly rental payments will be, and vice versa. It is important to note that owners are more forthcoming with jeonse agreements in times of high interest rates, as they invest the tenant's key money in order to turn a profit on the rental.

For those who can afford it, paying jeonse might save money in the long-run. Alternatively, many expats usually sign a lease on a wolse (monthly rental) basis. Wolse rentals are more similar to Western rental practices, and tenants will usually have to pay a deposit equal to two months' rent, with expats making fairly high monthly rental payments.

Tenants will almost certainly be responsible for their own monthly gas, electricity and internet bills. Gas can be quite expensive – so it is important to monitor heating costs during winter.

New tenants should be sure to take pictures of the apartment when they move in, and to leave it in as good (or better) condition than they found it in – otherwise, they can expect to have to fight with their landlord to get their deposit money refunded.