How to rent an apartment in Shanghai
Finding somewhere to live after you arrive in Shanghai can be a daunting prospect if you’re new to the city, but don’t panic. In this article, we’ll give you a step-by-step guide to the whole apartment-hunting process, from working out where to start looking to signing the contract.
1. What is Shanghai’s rental market like?
Let’s start with the basics. How expensive is Shanghai, and how easy is it to find somewhere to rent?
How expensive is it to rent in Shanghai?
As you’d expect, Shanghai is one of the most expensive cities in the Chinese mainland to rent a property. Possibly only Beijing is pricier.
It’s also getting more expensive every year, as demand for rental apartments increases from young Chinese professionals priced out of the city’s real estate market.
But Shanghai is still significantly cheaper than other global cities like London, New York or Hong Kong.
Prices depend on a lot of factors—size, neighborhood, facilities, etc. But to give you a very rough idea, renting a nice one-bedroom apartment in Jing’an district, the most popular part of Shanghai among expats, will currently cost the equivalent of around $1,400-1,900 per month.
This also varies significantly depending on which part of Shanghai you choose to live in. In Hongkou district, just a 15-minute taxi ride north of Jing’an, rent tends to be at least a third cheaper, and sometimes even lower still.
Check out our guide to property rental prices in Shanghai to find out more about how expensive rent tends to be in each part of the city.
How difficult is it to find a property to rent in Shanghai?
As demand for rented apartments increases, Shanghai’s rental market is becoming more fast-moving.
There are plenty of apartments on the market. In fact, if you walk down a typical Shanghai street, you’ll notice that there are real estate agents everywhere.
However, the demand for high quality living space is increasing each year as income levels rise and more and more expats move to the city.
Our experience is that these days the best apartments will rarely be on the market for more than one or two days. This is why we do not generally post listings: Any ads we post would be out of date before most people got to see it. (This is also the case with regular listings sites that cover Shanghai. A high percentage of the listings are either fake or out-of-date.)
What kinds of property are available in Shanghai?
Shanghai is a city of high-rises—in fact, the city is so densely packed with tall buildings that it is sinking an average of 2 cm into the ground each year. So especially in downtown Shanghai, you’ll mainly find apartments in high-rise blocks.
But there is huge diversity among these developments—from luxury gated communities with onsite swimming pools and gyms to Communist-era concrete blocks with extremely dubious electrics.
If you prefer to avoid high-rise living, there are other options.
Though many of them have now been demolished, there are still many lilongs in central Shanghai. These are rows of terraced two- or three-storey houses built during the pre-Communist era when most of downtown Shanghai was still governed by Western powers.
The lilongs tend to be tightly packed and have small windows, but they are very charming and have become extremely fashionable in recent years, with many renovated to high standards.
At the very highest end of the market, you will also find some luxury houses downtown, many of which are also left over from the pre-Communist era.
If you venture toward the edges of the city, there are many luxury developments filled with villas and large low-rise apartment buildings.
For more detail on what kind of properties are available, take a look at our guide to property types in Shanghai.
How safe is Shanghai’s rental market?
Shanghai is generally an extremely safe city—violent crime rates in particular are tiny compared to most large Western cities—but sadly there are still cases of fraud and scams in the city’s property market.
If you are careful and insist that whoever you deal with follows the correct procedures, you should be fine.
But it is important to be aware before you start looking for a property that expats can and have been conned out of large sums of money by unscrupulous people—both locals and foreigners—posing as landlords and agents.
In this guide, we will give you advice on how to minimize the risk of encountering any dodgy practices.
For a full breakdown of the most common types of scams in Shanghai’s property market, see our list of rental scams.
2. Getting started: Decide what you’re looking for
Before you start setting up viewings, it’s very important that you do your research and decide exactly what type of property you’re looking to rent. If you use our service, our agents can help you with this, as all of them have years of experience helping expats find the perfect property in Shanghai.
Having a clear idea of what you’re looking for is a good idea wherever you’re renting, but it’s even more critical in Shanghai.
There are several reasons for this:
Luckily, the agents that work with Nest all have a huge amount of experience working with expats and make sure to put your needs first. They’re also good at finding those apartments with the creature comforts that our clients expect but that a typical agent may not think about, such as dishwashers, ovens and central heating.
There are several different things you should think about before contacting an agent. Here are the most important, in descending order:
Location: Before you start doing viewings, it’s a good idea to have a clear idea not only in which district you want to live, but also which neighborhood.
If you’re trying to work out which neighborhood would suit you best, you might want to take a look at our handy Shanghai area guides.
The reason it’s so critical to have a clear idea where in Shanghai you want to live is that estate agents here usually have very local portfolios.
(In the case of Nest, we will only pair you with agents based on the location preferences you select, so there will be no problems of this kind.)
It’s also a good idea to take into consideration things like how close you want to be to a metro station, or whether you need to have amenities like convenience stores and restaurants close by (some new developments are quite isolated).
Letting your agent know these priorities can help you save time when you start doing viewings.
Type of building: One of the first things most agents will ask you in Shanghai is what type of building you’re looking for. What they’re really asking is whether you care more about how modern the building is, or how large the apartment is.
Apartments in older buildings are significantly cheaper, but often come with a host of other problems, which range from leaky plumbing and faulty electrics, to noise pollution through the paper-thin walls, safety hazards due to a lack of fire escapes, and no elevators.
Size: In China, homes are measured in meters squared, so it’s a good idea to get familiar with how large a 50/100/150-sq-m apartment really is.
Having said this, be aware that the figure stated sometimes includes yard, balcony and courtyard space, so the real floor space may be significantly lower. In general, we recommend not paying too much attention to this figure when deciding which properties to view, but it’s worth being aware of roughly how large a 100 sq m apartment is, for example.
Others: Do you have any other requirements the agent needs to know about? Do you need at least 3 bedrooms, an en-suite bathroom, or access to community facilities? If any of these things are deal-breakers for you, make sure you’re clear about that from the beginning.
If you’re unsure about what kind of requirements to mention to an agent, be sure to check the list of options in our client survey. Even if you decide not to use our service, it can be a useful way to decide what kind of apartment to look for.
3. What’s the best way to find a property for rent in Shanghai?
Now that you’ve decided what exactly you’re looking for, you’re ready to start setting up viewings. But what’s the best way to go about doing this?
For newcomers, especially those who don’t speak Chinese, we highly recommend using a specialized service like East by Nest because it will give you extra security and will save you a huge amount of time and stress.
But if you decide you want to go it alone, there are other options to consider.
Like most cities, the two main options are using property listings websites or estate agents. But both these channels work quite differently in China compared to in other countries.
Here are the main advantages and disadvantages of using each one in Shanghai.
- Even if a landlord isn’t consciously trying to scam a tenant, many of them do not use proper contracts. This not only gives tenants less security, it is also illegal and could create problems for you if you go to register at the police station (which all residents—both foreign and local—in Shanghai are required to do within two weeks of arrival).
- The vast majority of landlords on Chinese listings sites only speak Chinese, so be sure to get help if you don’t speak Chinese before trying to rent an apartment using this method.
Estate agents in Shanghai work quickly. You can often walk into a branch, state your requirements, and be viewing your first apartment within 10 minutes. If you are lucky and find a really good agent, you can find a good property, meet the landlord and sign the contract in just a few hours.
- Using an estate agent offers more security. They will draft the contract, so there is much less chance that you will unwittingly sign a fake contract. You can also rest assured that you’re not handing over a huge sum of cash for a fake apartment.
- Some really good agents will even offer some support after you sign the contract, such as being on hand the day you move into the property to help deal with any issues and helping to deal with the gas, electric and water providers.
- With a few exceptions, the vast majority of agents in Shanghai do not speak English. Unless you are looking somewhere with a very high concentration of expats, such as Jing’an, the chances of you being able to walk into a branch and find an agent who speaks good English are low. If you don’t speak Chinese, it’s a good idea to get someone who does to accompany you.
- Some branches actually have quite limited portfolios of rental properties. But sometimes, instead of admitting this, they may simply take you on viewings to apartments that do not meet your requirements in the hope that you’ll compromise and sign for something you don’t really want. If this happens, politely make an excuse and leave to find another agent.
4. What should you look out for when viewing a property in Shanghai?
One you’ve decided on your approach, it’s time to start going on some viewings. Here are a few pieces of advice to help make things go as smoothly as possible:
When you arrive at the estate agent
If you decide to use an estate agent, the best way to start arranging viewings is simply to go to the neighborhood where you want to live, and walk into the nearest branch. In Shanghai, there’s never one far away.
Traveling to a viewing
Another point worth mentioning here is that most agents will be keen for you to travel to apartments by scooter or bike to save time, as most apartments will be at least a 10 minute walk from the agent’s office.
If you are not comfortable with this, make sure to explain this to them at the beginning.
East By Nest’s agents will always arrange a car to pick you up from your hotel or any other meeting point, and will drive you to each viewing.
The first viewing
The first apartment an agent will take you to see will probably be awful and/or way over your budget.
If this happens, don’t worry: This is normal in Shanghai. It’s a way of softening you up, so that you’re more likely to sign for the first decent apartment they take you to.
Things to check during a viewing
When you’re at the property, it’s a good idea to check as many things as possible to make sure there are no big problems. Don’t be shy about doing this—Chinese tenants and landlords are often extremely cautious and check things meticulously, so the agent won’t be offended.
Here are a few things to watch out for:
- Check the white goods, especially the air conditioning. Apartments in Shanghai get very hot in summer and very cold in winter. The air conditioning is the main source of heating, as well as cooling, in many apartments. So if the A/C is not very effective, or if there is no unit in the living room or one of the bedrooms, that could make a real difference to your quality of life.
- Make sure that the boiler works correctly, and that the water pressure in the shower is acceptable, especially if the apartment is on a high floor. Also be sure to check that the bathroom does not smell of damp, as this is a sure sign that the apartment is not well maintained.
- Check the electrics and other fittings. Especially if the apartment is in an old building, the quality of the electrics and plumbing can vary hugely. Taking a look at the electric sockets may give you an idea of how well the property has been maintained. If there are bare wires or sockets hanging loosely on the walls (this is very common in Shanghai), this may be a sign that there are other problems too.
- Find out how high the community fees are. Many developments in China charge a fee to pay for maintenance work, security guards, access to communal facilities, etc. The size of the fee can vary a lot, so it’s a good idea to check how high the fee is and whether you or the landlord will be responsible for paying it.
- Ask how much you’ll need to pay upfront. In Shanghai, tenants typically have to pay three months’ rent upfront, plus an extra month’s rent as a deposit, plus a small admin fee and sometimes an agent’s fee. But this can vary depending on the property and agent, so it’s worth checking. If you’re dealing with a landlord directly and they ask you to pay more than that upfront, that’s a big red flag.
- If you’re not familiar with the neighborhood, do a quick “around me” search on your phone to check whether there are convenience stores, supermarkets, restaurants, bars etc. nearby. You can do this using Apple Maps or Chinese apps such as Dianping or Baidu Maps.
5. What to do when you’re ready to sign the contract
Reserve the property
When you find a property you like and you’re sure you’re ready to move forward, you can reserve the apartment by paying the agent a small fee (usually just a couple of hundred yuan).
The agent will then take the apartment off the market, meaning that no one else will be able to come in and rent the apartment unless you decide to pull out.
Meet the landlord
Before you go ahead and sign the contract, it’s a good idea to meet with the landlord face-to-face, if you haven’t already. Trust levels between tenants and landlords tend to be low in Shanghai, so meeting in person will help you establish a rapport and discuss any issues directly.
When you meet up, you can also bring up any issues that could create problems later. For example, if you have pets, you should check with the landlord about whether it’s OK to keep pets in the property at this point.
Other issues that may be worth discussing is whether you want the landlord to remove any furniture from the property, make any repairs, or have the apartment professionally cleaned. However, be aware that any demands you make may have a bearing on your negotiations when you start bargaining over the rent.
Negotiate the terms of the contract
Then you can move on to discussing the terms of the contract. Bargaining down the rent by 10 percent is common in Shanghai, but will not always be possible. You will have to use your own judgement on this.
Check the contract
If everything goes well, you can go ahead and start looking at the contract.
If you’re dealing with the landlord directly, it’s very important that you go over the contract with a fine-tooth comb and make sure it’s totally legitimate. If the contract is fake, there’s nothing to stop the landlord from kicking you out or disappearing with your money.
There’s no fail-safe way to spot a fake contract—many tenants only find out they’ve been duped when they take the contract to the police station to register.
But there are obvious things to look out for:
- The landlord’s name should be stated in the contract. Make sure that you check their ID card to ensure it is correctly stated in the contract.
- The property’s address should be included in the contract.
- The rent, the date each month/quarter you are due to pay the rent, and the deposit should all be stated.
- The length of the contract should be stated.
- There should be a break clause in the contract: This will give details of whether it’s possible for either of you to end the contract prematurely. In Shanghai, most contracts will state that the landlord has to pay compensation of one month’s rent or more and give you a notice period if they want to break the contract.
If everything looks in order, it’s time to sign the contract!
You may need to bring your passport when you sign the contract, as the agent and/or landlord may want to take a photo of it and include you passport number in the contract.
You will also need to ensure you have plenty of money: As mentioned earlier, depending on the terms of payment you negotiated with the landlord, you may need to pay three month’s rent upfront, plus a month’s rent as deposit, a small admin fee plus potentially an agent’s fee.
These days, you can usually pay this by Alipay. (Check out our Chinese app guide for more information about how to set up Alipay). But if your landlord insists, you may need to bring a very large wad of cash with you. Don’t be too worried; this is quite normal in China.
If you’re dealing with a landlord directly, make sure that they hand over the keys on the spot. And if possible, try to make sure that you sign the contract in the apartment, so that you can immediately check that the keys work properly.
Otherwise, there is a chance your new landlord may promise to give you the keys later, and then vanish into thin air, taking your money with them.
What to do after you sign the contract
On the day you move into the property, you will need to sort out the utilities to make sure that you don’t end up paying gas, electricity and water charges from before the contract came into effect.
You will need to take meter readings on the day you move in, and then call the utility providers to give them the updated reading. Your landlord will then be responsible for paying any outstanding balance.
If you use Nest, our agents will of course do all of this for you.