Shanghai 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, 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 French Concession, with much of the city available to you in minutes by foot, bike or Metro; or a much bigger home, perhaps on a compound, with a garden and other facilities, in Hongqiao, Jinqiao or somewhere else less central.
Speak to other transplants to find out what they think to help you get an idea of what’s out there. Ideally you can start working on this, with the help of your relocation company, on your look-see visit. 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. It’s perfectly doable, and the transport system, particularly the Metro, is extensive and pretty efficient, but there are simply a lot of people in Shanghai.
A huge factor is whether you have kids. If they’re extremely young, you may want to put them into a local kindergarten – many are extremely good, and in areas like the French Concession and Hongqiao 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 parts of Hongqiao and Minhang, Jinqiao or other areas with clusters of international schools; and this means deciding whether you want to live near their school or have them use school buses, public transport or a driver.
Children will also play a factor in another sense. We all want our children to have a garden to play in, cleaner air and not too much traffic around the house. 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. For young professionals without children, the French Concession or Jing’an District, with bars, restaurants and clubs, as well as vibrant street life, is the usual decision.
So what are the other factors involved? Well, happily safety in one sense is not an issue. Shanghai 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 in the most built-up areas isn’t heavier than in London, Paris or New York, but 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 for kids or yourself 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 neighbourhood conveniences; and most importantly, decide what’s important to you. Shanghai is a great place to live no matter where you choose to reside.
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 enough. There’s usually a security deposit of two months’ rent. You or your company will pay this plus the first month’s rent in cash when you sign the contract, and then payment is made either by cash or bank transfer every month. Places are generally 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. If you are planning on relocating with your own furniture, your choices may be more limited but some landlords will be willing to remove some or all the furniture at your request. This is something you will need to decide during your look-see.
The most common type of housing here is the apartment – despite rumors of a real estate letdown, massive apartment buildings continue to be flung up at an extraordinary rate. The up-scale ones include gyms, spas, concierge service and the like; the older (read: 20 years old) can have character but may be less reliable in terms of electricity and insulation. Shanghai winters can be cold in an older flat. Duplexes are a more recent addition, attractive multi-level apartments that are often in smaller apartment buildings and offer a sense of space and possibly a more attractive design.
None of these problems with villas in the suburbs, 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 Shanghainese.
Old lane houses, or renovated older houses on pleasant French Concession streets with gardens back off the road, are the dream option, offering space and privacy in the city. They’re also highly expensive and sought after. Lane living can be quite a contrast – you may live in a beautiful and pricy apartment, but your neighbours have been in the tiny surrounding flats their whole lives and it’s their lane. Expect to deal with noise, odours and dodgy electric wiring. It’s worth it if you can afford it though, and you’ll find your lane mates friendly and fascinated by you, especially if you have kids.
You pay for what you get in Shanghai – 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 RMB20,000 you’ll find somewhere extremely pleasant. Once you start moving into modern luxury buildings the prices go north fast, and a converted lane house is going to cost you RMB50,000 and up. Villa prices aren’t that much lower at the low end and at the top end can reach RMB80,000+ – the majority of expats in compounds have their rent paid by their company.
In the Neighbourhood pages, we will take you through the areas of Shanghai that are most popular with expatriates. Keep in mind, however, that our guide by no means covers all the options for living in Shanghai. This is because large swathes of the city in the north, south and in Pudong have very few expatriate residents and virtually no services which cater to their needs. Invariably, those services cluster in areas with the most foreigners and thus continue to be a much more attractive choice for newcomers to the city.