First, let me first clarify what I mean when I say “Expat Housing”. I’m referring to the expats who move to China to work with a large company or as business professionals. People who are moving with families and prefer to live in a comfortable home with similar amenities to what they’re used to. Truthfully, an expat can live anywhere they are able to negotiate a lease. You could certainly find a small traditional Chinese apartment anywhere in the city.
Most expats in Shenyang choose to rent an apartment in one of the many gated communities. I say “gated” because, well, they have gates. But I don’t want to mislead you into thinking there are issues with security. That’s not really the case. Most of the time the gates aren’t closed and people come and go pretty easily. China is a very safe place to live. Honestly, I think the gates and security detail are more of a status symbol than a necessity.
There are several different communities and new ones being built all the time. The most common ones are near the Southern end of the city, right along the Hunhe river. Each community has pros and cons and it depends a lot on your personal preferences as to which will work best for your family. It also depends some on the luck of the draw and what is available when you’re looking. Don’t feel like you have to choose right away if you aren’t comfortable with the first few you see. The apartments here are privately owned and can vary a lot between furnishings, maintenance, square footage, and amenities depending on the landlord and previous tenants.
A Few Things to Keep in Mind
Square Footage: Traditional Chinese apartments are obviously much smaller than we’re used to in the United States (unless you live in NYC, I guess). On the other hand, when looking at the newer expat housing you’ll find the sizes are plenty big enough for a family. It’s common for expat apartments to be 200 sq meters (approximately 2100 square feet) and up. One thing to note: when you are being quoted square meters for an apartment in China, realize that isn’t just the living space inside your apartment. It also includes a portion of the public spaces such as the halls, stairs, lobby, and even the elevators. They add up all the common spaces in the building and then divide it up between the number of apartments that share them and then your portion of community space is included in the square footage you’re quoted. Odd, but true.
Negotiate! The biggest thing to remember is that in China everything is negotiable! If you find an apartment that has a great floor plan, but no oven and distasteful furniture, it is perfectly acceptable to negotiate with the landlord to add an oven, change or remove the furniture, and definitely to do a deep clean before you move in. It’s not even unheard of to negotiate a whole kitchen or bath remodel! (If you have the time to wait for it.) That’s not to say they’ll agree to everything you ask for and you’ll have to be reasonable, but it never hurts to ask.
I think it’s a good idea to try to negotiate with your landlord in the beginning in any case, even if you think the apartment is just fine. You’ll want to know how easy he or she is to work with and how willing they are to make things right. There is a good chance you’ll have something break or need to have maintenance done at some point and it’s good to know up front how generous and accomodating your landlord is before you’re stuck with them.
Utilities: You will want to check on a few things when deciding on an apartment. In Shenyang, many complexes have government/radiant heat via radiators or under floor heating while others have central electric heating. Many times the landlord will include heating with your rent if your apartment uses government heat. Electric heat will most likely not be included and can be a big expense during the arctic winters here. You will likely be responsible for gas, hot and cold water, and electricity on your own depending on how much you use.
You will also want to check on the phone/internet and cable/satellite services. This may or may not be included with your rent and you’ll probably want to have the landlord set up these services for you. Whether or not it’s included can be a point of negotiation.
Appliances: You’ll read nearly everywhere that China doesn’t have ovens. While this used to be true, they are becoming much more popular. Most of the newer apartments that cater to westerners will have “some” type of oven. Right now, I’d venture to guess about 50% of expats (that I know) have standard ovens. The others have a counter-top toaster oven version. Most of the built-ins are a little smaller than US ovens, but mine fits a 9×13 casserole just fine. It really just depends on how lucky you get with your apartment. It is certainly possible to negotiate to have one put in if you’re willing to sacrifice the cabinet space.
My apartment also has a dishwasher, which is awesome except for the fact that they are so uncommon it’s really hard (and expensive) to find detergent for it. Sterilizers are much more common and I’d at least make sure your apartment has one of these.
Refrigerators and freezers tend to be on the small side also, but this ends up not being so bad if you do as the locals do and make smaller trips more often. Nearly all complexes will have a small market where you can pick up produce, eggs, and meat within walking distance. It also makes it much easier since you can’t back the trunk up to the front door to unload around here. You’ll probably have to carry your groceries anyway and even if you have a car you won’t want to make multiple trips up to your apartment. It’s just a change of lifestyle that comes with city living; I choose to embrace it.
Washing Clothes: Washing machines are common and you’ll want to make sure yours has one. Unfortunately, dryers are not so common. It’s very unlikely your apartment will have a dryer. You can purchase one here, but they tend to be very expensive. For some people, it’s worth the expense. We choose to pay an ayi to iron instead. (It’s actually much cheaper. And she cleans too!)
Water: You can’t drink the tap water in China. Well, I guess you could, but I’d advise against it. Many apartments will have a faucet for filtered water in the kitchen. Depending on the filter, you may or may not be able to drink this. Some filters are only for filtering the sediment but don’t kill the bacteria that could make you sick. Others do make the water potable. Your landlord should be able to advise you on this. Most people just drink bottled water. We have a water cooler style dispenser like you’d typically see in an office that dispenses hot and cold water. I drink and cook from this (unless I’m going to boil it, then the filtered is fine.) I clean fruit and veggies with the filtered water from the sink.
Tip: White vinegar is your friend! It’s great for sterilizing… everything. I keep a spray bottle in the kitchen for cooking, cleaning, sterilizing hand-washed dishes and washing fruit.
Manage your Expectations
One of the biggest things that make or break a move to China in many ways, but especially with housing is your expectations. China does not equal Western civilization. It’s just different. They are quickly trying to “catch up” with the rest of the world, but they aren’t there yet. The infrastructure is struggling to keep up. Maintenance and quality seem to be foreign concepts as far as I can tell. It’s a big cultural difference that all of us have to come to terms with.
You will have power outages. You will wake up to no water. Your internet will be spotty. And mostly blocked. This is still China.
That said, you still need to be happy with where you live. It will become your home and should be an oasis on the days you need to step away from the “foreignness” around you. Decide what’s most important to you, whether it be a nice outdoor space, plenty of square footage to sprawl in, a prime location, or a fully furnished kitchen, and find a place that’s great for that. Just be willing to give a little on the other things.
If you are flexible and don’t expect a grand mansion (or super high speed internet), then I’m sure you’ll find a comfortable place you can eventually call “home”.