Beijing is no different to any other city: where you work and how you want to live will dictate your housing choice – as will your budget. This is a huge place, with traffic and transport very much an issue, so it’s worth taking time to investigate the different areas. A fundamental decision will probably be balancing the benefits of living in a small flat in the city, with much of what you need available nearby; or a much bigger home, perhaps on a compound, with a garden and other facilities, in the suburbs.
Speak to other transplants to find out what they think, and work with a range of property agents to help you get an idea of what’s out there. Ideally you can start working on this, with the help of your company, on pre-relocation visits. If you’re thinking about commuting into the city from the suburbs, try it out at rush hour, when traffic is snarled and subways and buses extremely crowded. The transport system, with a massively expanded subway system since the Olympics, gets the job done (though not always comfortably), but there are simply a lot of people in Beijing.
A huge factor is whether you have children. If they’re young, you may want to put them into a local kindergarten – many are very good and, in areas like Lido, are used to foreign children. Be prepared to have your 4-year-old trounce you in Mandarin ability very quickly. However, you’ll want older children, certainly by middle school age when the testing pressure really kicks in for Chinese kids, to attend international schools. This probably means out of town in Shunyi, at one of the Sanlitun campuses, or in Lido. This means deciding whether you want to live near their school or have them use school buses, public transport or a driver.
Children are also a factor in another sense. We all want our children to have a garden to play in, clean air and not too much traffic around the house. This is particularly relevant in a city as polluted as Beijing. However, as expats we also want our children to tune into local life and discover the hidden secrets of a fascinating city. Suburbs and space; city and culture. Of course, it’s not as simple as that, and there are plenty of ways to find culture in the suburbs or space in the city. But it’s a decision you’ll have to make early. Young professionals without children tend to opt for a central lifestyle near one of the city’s nexuses of bars, restaurants and clubs – such as Houhai or Sanlitun – with a sense of vibrant street life.
So what are the other factors involved? Well, happily Beijing is an incredibly safe city in terms of violent crime, and you can be out and about any time of day or night without anything to worry about – a particular boon for women who are used to being careful about walking home alone or taking taxis late at night in a Western city. Kids can also roam freely.
However, there’s another safety issue. Traffic is even heavier than in London, Paris or New York, and thanks to a culture of selfish, ignorant and aggressive driving it’s considerably more dangerous. Cyclists and people on motorbikes routinely cruise down footpaths beeping people out of their way. This is all manageable, and you’ll learn to cultivate sharp elbows and a careful but firm insistence on your right of way, but it’s something to bear in mind in terms of city living. Drivers are no better in the suburbs, but there are fewer of them, on wider streets.
So check your commute; check your neighborhood conveniences; and most importantly, decide what’s important to you. Beijing is a great place to live no matter what you choose.
In terms of logistics, leases are generally for one year (you certainly won’t get shorter). You may be able to get a discount for a longer lease; it’s worth asking if you’re sure that’s what you want. There’s usually a security deposit of two months’ rent. You’ll pay this plus the first month’s rent (plus the agent’s fee, 30 percent of one month’s rent) in cash when you sign the contract, and then you’ll pay either by cash or bank transfer every month. Places are rented furnished including television and all utilities; there’s often a lot of room for negotiation about what’s included, and it’s definitely worth finding out if you can swap a sofa for another of your choice or add a kitchen table.
The most common type of housing here is the apartment – despite rumors of a real estate bubble, massive apartment buildings continue to be flung up at an extraordinary rate. The upscale ones include gyms, spas, concierge service and the life; the older (read: 20 years old) can have character but may be less reliable in terms of electricity and insulation. Beijing winters are extremely cold, but in fact your problem in an older flat will be one of overheating, since once the hot air is turned on centrally in your area it stays on – you can’t modulate it, only turn it off. Thus people often find they have to throw their windows wide open to stop from being slowly steamed!
None of these problems with villas in places like Shunyi, often part of compounds offering everything you could need – playgrounds, tennis courts, restaurants, health clubs, nearby schools. They tend to be family-oriented and attract foreign professionals with children and well-off Beijingers.
Then there’s hutong living, often seen as an idyllic way to experience a traditional Beijing lifestyle in modern times. The real dream is to live in one of the traditional siheyuan courtyards. Options tend to be either good value and run down, or beautifully renovated and much more expensive. If you’re looking for this kind of place, tell your agent from the start and you’ll start to get an idea of what you can get for your money.
You pay for what you get in Beijing – though renting a small, pretty basic apartment in the city is still very affordable. For around RMB5,000 a month you’ll be fine, and if you head up towards RMB10,000 you’ll find somewhere extremely pleasant. Once you start moving into modern luxury buildings the prices go north fast, and villas are going to set you back RMB50,000 and up, though the majority of expats in compounds have their rent paid by their company.