I just recently started renting my own apartment here in Beijing, and while I'm extremely happy with the place I found, the actual 6 day search wasn't the best time I've ever had. It's true, finding a place to live can be difficult no matter where you are, but I tend to think it's a bit more of a hassle when you're abroad (and speaking a different language). To save other students from some of the problems I encountered, I put together this list of 10 things you should consider when finding your first apartment abroad.
1. Transportation: This is a huge factor, especially if you're going to be living in a big city. I've found that for the most part, public transportation in other parts of the world is very reliable, but you do want to take distance into account. How far will you be from your school, your internship or job, and friends you're abroad with? Can you hop right on the subway? Or do you have to walk to a bus stop, ride the bus to the subway station, and then make 3 line changes on the subway before finally reaching your school?
2. Number of rooms: For the most part, it will come down to the number of bedrooms you want in your apartment. Are you anticipating living on your own or with a roommate? If you're going to be living with other people, do you each want your own bedroom? If you plan on living by yourself, don't forget to check out the "studio" option. In real estate terms, a studio is essentially 1 giant living space instead of individually sectioned of rooms. You may find, however, that a studio is more of what you're looking for, and in some cases, the layout can almost resemble a traditional apartment floor plan.
3. Bathroom: This was the most important requirement for any apartment that I would consider renting: it had to have a Western style bathroom. When I say "Western bathroom", what I really mean is a Western style toilet. This is something you genuinely need to think about here in Asia. While most agents will show you apartments with bathrooms that conform more to the Western style, unless you actually specify this, you may be looking at apartments with a urinal-esque looking toilet located in the floor.
4. Laundry: This is something I wanted, but it wasn't a necessity. If you don't have a laundromat (self-service laundry) nearby, how far will you have to walk or ride to wash your clothes? And furthermore, how much are you going to have to pay per load? If you live in a high-rise or development, are there washing machines specifically for members of the community? An apartment that comes with its own washer will have a higher rent, so do a little math and see if the extra money you'll be paying every month is worth avoiding the hassle of using a laundromat.
5. Furniture: What comes with your apartment? Because it's assumed the average renting period is 6 months to a year, in general, apartments should come with basic furniture (i.e. you're not expected to go empty your wallet on furnishings when you're only going to be in a place for a few months): a bed frame, hopefully a mattress, a desk, dresser or closet, and a table with chairs. Can you get by with what's provided? If furniture isn't included, how much is it going to cost you to buy your own?
6. Roommates: Again, do you plan on living by yourself, or with a roommate? If you have friends you'll be going abroad with or are comfortable living with people you don't know, having a roommate is usually the best way to go. Think about this example:
-Living on your own
In Beijing, a nice 1 bedroom apartment close to the major universities will run you about 4,000 to 4,500 kuai a month (as far as I'm concerned), all of which you pay on your own.
-Living with a roommate
Again using Beijing, you can get an extremely nice 2 bedroom apartment (probably relatively new) in a great location for 5,000 - 6,000 kuai. That means you're paying 1,000 - 1,500 kuai less a month, and chances are your apartment is nicer than most other 1 bedrooms.
7. Landlord: If you can, meet the landlord, or if you're using an agent that you trust, get their opinion. You might think that once you pay your rent, you'll never see your landlord again. Not true. Whenever something breaks or goes wrong in your apartment (no hot water, TV doesn’t work, window broke, etc.), you'll have to contact your landlord to get it fixed. Do they seem reliable, and are you comfortable dealing with them if/when something doesn't work?
8. Security: What's the neighborhood like? It doesn’t have to be green lawns and white picket fences - and actually, many times the more culturally developed neighborhoods are lesser economically developed - but you should feel safe walking up and down your own street. If you're living in an apartment building, does it have a security desk? Or if you're in a development/community, is it gated off?
9. Everyday conveniences: How close are you to things like grocery stores (or convenience stores), restaurants, internet cafes, libraries, etc.? If you don't have your own printer, you may need to go to the library on a regular basis to use theirs. If you need something small like a roll of toilet paper or a bottle of water, you don't want to have to walk a mile down the road to buy it. You don't need to be next to the city Mall, but you'll probably want to be within a few minutes walking distance of places that you'll go to on a daily/regular basis.
10. Price: When I first started searching for places here in Beijing, I made the wrong assumption that I would need to pay first and last month’s rent and probably some sort of realtor fee. It turns out that in most situations, you pay 3 months’ rent upfront, as well as a deposit and separate agency fee, both equal to 1 months rent. That means fronting 5 months worth of rent. Here are a few things to think about with regard to price:
- How much can you actually pay up front? If you're paying your own rent, what can you afford? If your rent is being paid by someone else (scholarship, home university) how much are they willing to give you at the current time?
- What are your options for physically paying your rent? If you don't have a bank account in the country you'll be living in, are you comfortable paying in straight cash?
- Can you get a deal? Beware, this can get a little sketchy. If you're comfortable doing it, sometimes landlords will lower the overall monthly rent if you're willing to pay 6 months or a whole year's worth of rent all at once. In my mind, it's an option worth investigating, just make sure everything is spelled out in the contract and you're getting some sort of receipt.
And of course, you'll probably want a place that's clean!
I realize a lot of what I just described relates to first-world apartment searching, i.e. requirements like a flushing Western toilet, or that you may have a security desk in your building. However, I don't assume that every student will have access to these kinds of things. If you're someone who's doing a biological research study abroad program in Kenya, this may not all apply to you, but even if you're not in a big city, you can still use this list, and think of the requirements on a smaller scale. Happy hunting!