My Story of Renting a Place in Beijing

Recently, the weather in Beijing has gradually cooled, but I still get sweaty after getting pushed and shoved back and forth while commuting on the subway. After the hour-long commute, all I want to do the moment I get home is to take a quick shower. But more often than not, I’d find myself greeted by an empty shower hose after jumping in the tub because sadly, the water supply has been cut off again.

“Perhaps we need to pay the water bill again?” my roommate Lin messages me via our WeChat group. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the reason behind the problem.

It’s only been a month since I’ve moved in and already, I’ve lost count of the number of times the water supply has been cut off suddenly with no prior warnings whatsoever. Apparently the endless construction underway in the community is to be blamed for the cut off. The apartment I rented is quite old, with rusted pipes ready to crack and drains that get clogged up every time someone uses the shower. I feel like I’m about to lose my mind. Luckily we were able to contact our landlord and get ourselves a brand new water heater, which was supposed to be there before we moved in.

Just last weekend, the refrigerator broke down and I contacted the property manager again, who told me to download an apartment management app that deals with appliance repairs. In an era where everything can be solved with the help of a smartphone app, although things can look convenient at first glance, they can in fact get quite tricky when it comes to looking for manual labour help.

Renting an apartment is like being in a relationship. The other person has his/her own tantrums and strange quirks that just need to be dealt with patiently. Signing that rental contract is like meeting for the first time between two people. Everything looks utterly flawless on first impression, until deep-rooted problems bubbling underneath begin to surface as time goes by. Of course, I’m exaggerating when I compare the two, but there are some frightening similarities.

Problems such as leaky pipes, creaking floorboards, household appliances with “tantrums” are nuisances that don’t go away easily unless a replacement is made. And for me, I’ve finally come up with a way to deal with all this—all of my apartment problems, fees, noises—in order to achieve inner peace.

For me, the secret to happiness is to just lower your expectations.

Apart from signing the contract, the real estate agent pretty much doesn’t show up ever again when problems arise.

“Damn, it’s broken again.” I reflexively call my dad, who’s always eager to help, but of course couldn’t do much for me this time since we live quite some distance apart. Dealing with broken household appliances has always been one of those abilities which I lacked. I miss my days at home where I never had to worry about broken refrigerators, leaky pipes, or spoiled food.

Of course, even if you live at home, it doesn’t mean everything is going to be perfect. My neighbor, a local man in his late 20’s, once told me that he felt and understood the unbearable lightness of being, as questioned by Milan Kundera in his book, whenever his entertainment after work became “repair the broken pipes at home”. I came to realize that the sense of despondency brought about by daily chores is the same for locals. In other words, one could really use a smoke at times like these.

Regardless, whenever I’m standing on the balcony of my apartment on the 17th floor, I’m left alone in peace from all the chaos, even just temporarily. The balcony itself is a paradise, isolated from the world. My last resort for some peace and quiet.

a night view from the balcony

My apartment is located in the center of Chaoyang District, a highly modern and urban metropolitan area in Beijing where most white-collars work. Naturally, the rent wasn’t cheap; it’s about 2900 yuan (about $500) per month (however, I think the inclusion of a balcony is well worth the price). I share the apartment with three other roommates. It is within walking distance from Joy City Mall (a popular shopping mall chain in Beijing) and public transit. According to neighbors, the housing prices here has now gone up to about 70,000-80,000 yuan per square meter, and owners who bought a place here a decade ago probably don’t need to work any more. I guess it felt good living with a bunch of millionaires. Maybe their wealth would rub off on me sooner or later and I’d be the next rich girl on the block.

According to a 2017 survey by Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics, the average wage in Beijing is around 8467yuan per month, ranking Beijing as having the highest monthly wage in China. Even with an above-average monthly wage like this, most still find it impossibly hard to find a satisfying accommodation in Beijing due to the blazing high rents. A popular topic on Zhihu (the Chinese version of Quora) titled “What it’s like making more than 10,000 a month in Beijing” sparked some heated debates between netizens. Some say they would rather pay less rent in order to save up for traveling instead of freely giving money away to landlords. It’s really a trade-off between having luxurious comfort and leading a nomadic life.

The Price of Living

In Beijing, the price for living varies among different areas of the metropolitan city. China Newsweek summarized the average salary and spending in different districts of Beijing. The results ranked Haidian District first with an average monthly salary of 14,360 yuan, and a rent average of 7379 yuan for a whole apartment, which accounts for 51.4% of a person’s total monthly salary. Meanwhile residents in the remote Tongzhou District earn an average monthly salary of 9456 yuan and pay on average around 3525 yuan for rent. This is a huge difference in rent costs across a city.

Last year, a senior schoolmate of mine rented an apartment with two roommates around the West 5th Ring, which costed her 2500 a month. It’s only been a year since she moved in and already, rent prices within this range are becoming scarce. Although her apartment is well furnished, its location is way too far for her to shorten her commute to work in the downtown area. It usually takes her about one and a half to two hours to make one trip. And this affects her family and friends as well. To even get a game of Friday night Poker going, I need to spend almost two hours on the subway before I can see them. Thus, she always joked about how the depth of friendship is best measured by the distance travelled, which I guess does make some sense.

Back at my previous job, my dorm was located in the middle of nowhere outside the Southeast 6th ring. Even though accommodation was provided by the company, it was still way too far to travel back and forth between work and home. Thus, I grew tired of the Foxconn-style life and chose to resign. I felt relieved afterwards. Life was once again calming and not hectic.

The thing is, dorms always brought along a certain degree of social anxiety for me. There’s an ineffable social tension in the air that makes you feel like you have to nod and greet every acquaintance that passes you by in the hallway. But really, sometimes you would rather just not start a random conversation after work and head home or do anything else. You know, just have that “me time” that everyone needs.

After moving out of the company dormitory, due to time constraints, I immediately resorted to the popular rental service platform Ziroom to look for an apartment. One of the great advantages of using Ziroom is that it is convenient and highly-efficient. The downside is that rent costs may be above market average. But you could still potentially find a large number of subtenants on the platform, who want to get their rooms subleased before their contracts expire.

Ziroom app

The Ziroom app is exceptionally popular among young folks in China looking for lodging options. Users can check out the age and zodiac signs of their fellow tenants before renting a room, just to get a sense of compatibility (Chinese folks are quite interested in zodiac signs). Before I moved in, I was expecting a sort of family-like atmosphere with my roommates. I pictured us cooking and chatting in the kitchen, watching bad movies together, and vent about work together. However, the reality is worlds apart from my expectations.

The couple living in the room next to mine barely appears, unless of course, there’s an earthquake or other life-threatening incidents. Over the course of two months, the girl only spoke to me once about paying the water bill. And when I asked her how the gas bill is paid, I remembered her quietly muttering “no idea” inside her room without having the courtesy to even open her door. The other guy living in the third room of our three-room apartment is a delivery man at Meituan Waimai, who works from noon to midnight. Thus, I barely see him as well. Luckily, I moved out after two months and ended that jobless and lonely period of my life for good.

It was a cool early spring and I spent lots of time wandering about the food market and contemplating about the future.

My current roommates are much more caring and considerate. One of them even prepared for me a bowl of “sugar-salt water” (a popular homemade treatment for stomach-related sicknesses) to cure my stomach flu on a late Saturday night. I thought to myself deep down that, “no matter where you are, the person you are living with matters the most”.

Rising Rent: Rental Platforms as Scapegoats

Rental agencies shouldn’t take the blame for pushing up housing costs.

I asked a friend working as a researcher for a large real estate firm about the root cause behind the rising rent costs, and her answer was, “Rental agencies are never the true culprit. The underlying cause is really just a shortage of supply.” According to her, the interference of rental agencies is only one of numerous contributing factors. The increased liquidity brought along by central bank’s injection of funds into the market and housing demolitions and relocation within first-tier cities play a much bigger role in the problem as opposed to rental agencies.

“Supply-side reform”, “inflation”, these seemingly distant vocabulary on a national policy level is probably the manipulator behind the ongoing tightening of monthly budget.

All in all, we should all throw all of these out the window and move on with the day. Because it’s just as Queen Elizabeth says: The sun will rise tomorrow. It always does”. It’s useless for us to dwell on things that are out of our control. After all, young people living in first-tier cities in China should always be equipped with the mentality to “be ready to pack up and start a new journey”.

It’s 2 o’clock in the morning. I look afar from my balcony. There are dim lights flickering afar amidst the midnight fog, reminding me of the cold, crisp winter back in my hometown.

I think I’ll stay up a bit longer tonight.

Special thanks to David Lee for editing the article.