How I ventured into the depths of the low-cost real-estate market of Beijing. And survived.
“Keyi nong yi nong.”
“It can be fixed a bit.” So said the real-estate agent, as she finally managed to pull the front door open — in the little courtyard, the dead leaves had accumulated into a blanket of near-geological proportions. A moment of silence followed, as I stared speechlessly ahead of me.
It was described in the online ad as “a cosy little nest far from the noise of the city“; the photos showed a bedroom with colorful wallpaper and a king-size bed, a kitchenette, a well-furnished living-room, and sparkling-new bathroom equipment. But while I peered through the front door, more unpleasant images crossed my mind — mostly memories of old photos I had seen, as a kid, of Nazi extermination chambers in Poland; the ceiling here, however, did lack the ominous shower-heads. No, it really looked like a storage room in a cement factory — a small storage room, of about twelve square-meters, windowless, absolutely empty if not for the thick layer of white dust covering the tiled floor. Its one and only concession to the industrial revolution was an electric plug in a corner.
“We can fix the furniture,” the woman hastily added. She was squat, pale, in her mid-forties, and had the dejected and downtrodden look of an abandoned canine. From the moment we had met in the hutong, five minutes before, she had kept shooting nervous glances at me sideways, as if the chances were high that I would suddenly kick her, or start beating her with a stick. I now understood why she had that concern.
In a daze, I enquired about the bathroom. “Oh it’s right here, take a look.” After another half-minute of struggle, she succeeded in prying open the door to another building in the tiny courtyard. “Ye keyi nong yi nong,” she admitted. It was the sister room of the previous one, except that it was smaller, and equipped with two extra features: a water tap protruding from the wall, and an evacuation hole in the floor. And there was no electric plug.
I nodded silently. My hope of finding a nice place to rent in Beijing just by looking around for a few days was melting away faster than the Greenland ice cap. “How much is the rent, again?” She confirmed it was 3,000 RMB per month. As I started to shake in a fit of nervous laughter, she did her best to pretend it was a reasonable price. “Keyi tan yi tan.” But I didn’t feel like negotiating. I was curious, however, about the few discrepancies I could not help but notice between the photos on the ad, and the actual house. She eyed me with a mixture of disbelief and suspicion. “We didn’t write that the photos were real on the ad, did we? So why would they be real?”
The Reality Check
Old China hands, have mercy on me: it was my first house-hunting experience on the Chinese internet, and I was blissfully unaware there was such a thing as the “bait-and-switch” method — namely, fake ads compelling one to contact an agent, who then guides his unsuspecting prey to locations that look nothing like what was advertised. Most of the time, the agent will pretend that the flat has already been rented out, or that the person who posted the ad made a mistake in the address.
Naturally, the pale and frightened woman assured me that she had many other “beautiful” places to show me in the area; still in a state of shock, I followed her to her office, nearby. Contrary to the overwhelming majority of its counterparts around town, the agency wasn’t teeming with thirty uncouth and greedy-looking young men crowded behind an equivalent number of flat computer screens, in a tiny room reeking of tobacco and instant noodles, sizing up the customer like a pack of starving wolves; there were only two computer screens, and a voluminous altar to the god of wealth jutting out of the wall, complete with the usual red electric candles and pilea of fruit. Below hung a rather dull piece of calligraphy where I read the traditional blessing — “May Your Business Prosper.” I, for one, was in no mood to assist the divine powers in this regard, and decided to try my luck elsewhere.
The moment had come for me to leave the flat I was renting in the trendy neighborhood of Sanlitun. Having basked in the peace and security of a cordial relationship with my landlord for a fair amount of time, I started off my search with a ridiculously low level of mistrust and cautiousness with respect to the Beijing real-estate industry. I had all but forgotten my desire to detonate an explosive device in one particular agency two years earlier, after having been defrauded of a few thousand yuan in a move so unscrupulous and common, by local standards, that I won’t even bother to recount it here.
My lease was due to expire on March 21st. I gave myself three weeks to find my next address, and move into it.
I was about to start working near the National Art Museum, so the main criterion in my search, aside from the price range, was for the place not to be too far from that area. Given it is a very central part of Beijing, the loufang (multi-story buildings) were more expensive, so most of the flats I could afford were of the so-called pingfang (flat-house) style, meaning one-story houses in the hutong, and therefore quite old-fashioned. I quickly came to understand why so many of the online ads for such places boasted “Can cook, can shower!” — as it happens, these old buildings have not all evolved at the same pace in pursuit of the modern Western lifestyle, much like Chinese society itself. Those within my price range would generally have tap water and electricity, but there were seldom any kitchens, fewer bathrooms, and as for toilets, they were a rare commodity.
Any first-time visitor to those ancient neighborhoods will notice the profusion of public toilets around, and reach certain conclusions regarding their importance in the everyday lives of people. But I had thought that these lao Beijing (old Beijing) gramps and uncles I met in the morning, waddling out of the facilities in their pajamas and slippers, surely lived in homes worth a much cheaper rent than what I was looking for; I was wrong. Whenever I told a real-estate agent that I needed a pingfang with an “independent toilet,” they would bite their lips, stare into space dreamily and ponder this like a challenging and interesting puzzle.
Another factor which made my search trickier than expected was the difficulty of bypassing the go-betweens. All the real-estate agencies of Beijing seem to have rallied to the principle that the middleman fees — generally worth one month of rent — must be paid by the tenant, instead of the landlord, except in the case of certain high-end apartments and office spaces. The majority of landlords are therefore content with entrusting one (or several) agencies to find tenants for them, since they don’t even have to pay for this service; and finding reliable “personal” ads, posted by householders themselves, is very difficult — the agents have no more qualms about posing as landlords as they have about posting fake photos.
In brief, the Beijing real-estate market could be summed up in these terms: the information gap is huge; no one is to be trusted except for anyone having proven their honesty conclusively; and aside from a lucky draw or word-of-mouth information — through expat websites or contacts — it is almost impossible to avoid agencies and paying a broker fee.
I didn’t know any trustworthy agent for that part of town, so I was bound to experiment with a number of thoroughly unreliable individuals. There was Little Wang, a young and bitter-looking woman with too much makeup who insisted on calling me “older brother,” even though she was patently older than me; Little Chen, who spoke with an accent from the Henan countryside, and who was either very shy or very sly, or both; Mr. Chen, who had the small glistening eyes and blotchy nose of an alcoholic; and a whole bunch of other fascinating characters. They whizzed me through the traffic on the back of their electric mopeds, and introduced me to depressingly decrepit pingfang in neighborhoods so rotten and abject they are probably the closest thing to a slum in Beijing. There were doors that barely hung on their hinges, and rooms that had all the grottiness of budget hotels in Qinghai province — without the sceneries.
I started to grow tired.
The “Little Mafan” Flat
It felt like reaching an oasis, therefore, when Mr. Chen eventually showed me a place where I could picture myself living.
The first of its qualities was to be located in a part of Beijing I knew nothing about: the area of Donghuamen, bordering the eastern wall of the Forbidden City. Historical buildings, including a few temples (or remnants thereof), narrow streets planted with trees, plenty of little shops and restaurants, a relaxed and friendly atmosphere… It felt like the best of what Beijing could offer. But I was also struck by the luminous and elegant feel I got from the flat. It had a high ceiling, a beautiful Chinese painting in one of the two rooms, a partition wall made out of dark, shiny and delicately sculpted wood, as well as a few sofas, bookshelves and two working desks. Large windows open to the south let in plenty of sunlight. Finally, there was a shower and a toilet, which both looked like high-end equipment. They were located in the middle of the kitchen, but I didn’t mind.
It looked like a solitary writer’s retreat, or the den of a scholar who could bear to feel a little cold in the winter and to consider his kitchen a bathroom — and vice-versa, as long as more spiritual delights were at hand. Thus it was that after another exhausting week of house-hunting, when Mr. Chen called me to say that someone else seemed to be interested in the Donghuamen flat, I had to make a decision. On the one hand, I liked the place very much, and I was fed up of dealing with cheats and ramshackle storage rooms; on the other hand, I had only been searching for ten days, so I could afford to spend at least another week looking for somewhere better.
I decided to flip a coin. The coin told me to take the flat.
The following day, I waited for the owner to show up at the agency for about an hour. Eventually, Mr. Chen succeeded in placing a call, and discovered she was waiting for us at the house, so someone jumped on his moped and zoomed off to bring her back. She was a lady in her sixties, who quickly relaxed when I told her I had studied Chinese at Qinghua University: her daughter, holder of a post-doctorate degree in biology from the University of California and now a professor in the United States, had also studied at Qinghua, as well as a few other members of their family. “You’re almost classmates!”
Mrs. Zhao was cheerful and kindly, but often seemed distracted; she would forget what she was saying in the middle of a sentence, what she was supposed to sign, and certain bits of information about the house. However, she did succeed in bringing the required documents, which enabled Mr. Yu, whom everyone at the agency respectfully referred to as Old Yu, to hand each of us a copy of the contract to sign.
Old Yu was merely one level above Mr. Chen, who had accompanied me during my visits, and he looked hardly more than 50. However, he was Vice-Chairman of the Dongcheng District Calligraphy Committee, as Mr. Chen obsequiously notified me in the meeting room, while Old Yu assumed an appropriate, humble expression. Old Yu, the lackey continued, was even the author of one of the two pieces of calligraphy hanging from the walls around us. The small one written in cursive style bore the signature of a former state minister, so I deduced his work was the large one done in “mad grass” style, which could have been executed with the tip of a flowing beard dipped into a bowl of ink, on a drunken evening. The contrast with Old Yu, who was grumpy, sober and well-shaven, was striking.
On that day, I paid my deposit, as well as the agency fee, and we agreed I could move into the place the following weekend. I was to pay the first three months of my rent on the day I moved in.
When I got to the flat, on the agreed date, I met Mr. Zhou, Mrs. Zhao’s husband. He was one of these short and stocky old Chinese men who take great survivor’s pride in their physical fitness; they tend to have plenty of stories about their time in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, and view old age as some sort of foreign oppressor that should be forcefully kept at bay through the practice of Taijiquan, bodybuilding, and swimming in frozen lakes in the middle of winter. Dressed in fashionable jeans and a leather jacket, Mr. Zhou was quick in seizing the heaviest crate of books I had brought with me at the back of the car, and carried it vigorously into the flat. “I don’t look like I’m 65 years old, do I?” he asked me point-blank as I thanked him for his help.
After everything had been moved, we sat down with Mr. Chen, and I asked questions about the use of various appliances around the flat. Then Mr. Zhou showed me his certificate of ownership and his ID card. “Don’t look at the photo, it was not taken properly. I can’t possibly be that ugly, can I?” He was referring to the formal pictures of himself displayed on each document. Ordinarily, he would keep his right eye almost closed, so his strabismus would not be so apparent; but he presumably was told to open both eyes wide for the photos, which made him look very much like Jean-Paul Sartre. He spoke jokingly, yet he was obviously uncomfortable acknowledging such a physical flaw.
Apart from Mr. Zhou’s eye, everything seemed in order. I took out the cash for the rent and started counting it, when suddenly Mr. Zhou seemed to have an afterthought, and asked Mr. Chen: “By the way, did you tell him about the toilet? No? Oh. Now that’s a little mafan.” I stopped counting the cash. That did not sound good at all. What was so mafan about the toilet? “Well, see this is an old house, the plumbing is rustic, and, erm… Have you been to the public toilet we have nearby? It’s very clean, let me show you.”
The expensive-looking toilet in the kitchen was only suitable for peeing. Instantly, vivid memories of my quarrel with the real-estate agency I had almost bombed, two years ago, flashed through my mind. “Sorry, it is not written on the contract that this building has a 24-hour elevator, we won’t refund you, go away.” I had been had — again. There was of course not the slightest mention of the toilet in the contract, so I would not get any money back if I decided not to rent the place; yet I could not bring myself to consider a public toilet, no matter how clean, as an extension of my home for a whole year.
I was saved by the power of globalization: Mr. Zhou’s daughter was married to an American. “My son-in-law stayed here for some time, during a visit to China, and he told us his, erm, sentiments about this toilet. Thanks to that, I came to understand that you foreigners are fussy — I mean, different, so I explicitly told Mr. Chen to warn you about this. He didn’t do it, so it’s my duty to have the agency refund you all the money you’ve paid already. I will return your deposit immediately, of course.”
And Mr. Zhou was a man of his word. The following day, he accompanied me to the agency. Old Yu made a belligerent effort to try and shift the blame; I had actually asked the agent, during our visit, whether the toilet was functional, but Old Yu accused me of not having asked the question specifically enough. “We Chinese don’t mind visiting the public toilet once in a while! You just lack cultural sensitivity!” Until the manager appeared, and ordered that I be reimbursed.
Outside, Mr. Zhou told me: “Old Yu was just ‘playing face’, as we say in Beijing. He was going to refund you anyway.” I wasn’t so sure. Without Mr. Zhou’s help, and the open-mindedness of the agency boss, I would never have gotten a single penny back.
I decided to view it as a lesson. Just like any other merchants, real-estate agents, when unprincipled, will of course extol the real or supposed virtues of their product, and “forget” to mention any negative aspects; not so many of them, however, will have the nerve to say a bold-faced lie when pressed for details about these particular features. Therefore, one effective way of narrowing the information gap would be to prepare in advance a detailed list of questions to ask about every place I would visit, to be supplemented with other enquiries on the spot. I started preparing my questionnaire right away.
The “Mafia Peril” Flat
My situation was a bit embarrassing: on the same day I had moved all my things to Mr. Zhou’s flat, the next tenant had started to move into my old place in Sanlitun, where I could not return. And for all his helpfulness, Mr. Zhou still wanted me to clear my stuff out of his house as soon as possible. I could, of course, remain for a while at a friend’s with all my possessions, but it would have been awkward, and since I didn’t own a car, I would have had to pay a removal man twice. In brief, I was in a state of housing limbo, and desperate to put a steady roof over my head.
I quickly got back in touch with the agents I trusted most from the other companies, and told them I needed their services once more, urgently. Two of them, in particular, didn’t look as sly, calculating or desperate as the others. One was Mr. Liu, from Centaline, a large Hong-Kongese real-estate company operating in Beijing. The other was Cheng Yi, a lad from Shanxi in his early twenties who had barely been in town for a few months, and who worked for Home Link, another important agency.
The previous time I had moved, the Home Link agents had been professional and dependable. Cheng Yi was very much a greenhorn, but he was hard-working, and by far the most candid person I had met on my quest.
I discovered belatedly that the official Home Link website offered a large selection of properties to visit, including very detailed information, such as the layout map of each apartment, the total number of customer visits, and helpful comments from individual agents — the website even prided itself on showing “100% Real Photos!” Wishing I had found it earlier, I picked a few places, and asked Cheng Yi to take me there.
One flat in particular caught my eye thanks to its location, in the Donghuamen neighborhood, not far from Mr. Zhou’s flat. I was eager to visit it, but Cheng Yi seemed strangely reluctant. I assumed it was because the location was further away than the others, since Cheng Yi did not have an electric motorcycle; but I insisted, and we eventually cycled there together.
I was stunned. It was the only place I saw that looked so much better than on the “100% Real Photos!” online. It was perfectly maintained, the heating and insulation were top-notch, the appliances looked reasonably modern, and, what conquered my heart immediately, there was a large bedroom, facing south and very bright, as well as a balcony sufficiently spacious for one to hang a hammock. Moreover, the view from this fourth floor was the loveliest I had ever seen from anywhere in Beijing: it was one of the very few areas in town where there were no high-rises in sight, but only small tree-lined streets, and the shapes of traditional rooftops as far as the eye could see — even on a “blue sky day”; right below the building was the elegant and solemn profile of one of Beijing’s best-preserved Buddhist temples, now turned into a museum.
This was The One. I could not imagine finding anything better that this place, and I was ready to pay slightly more than my budget for it, feeling it could have been marketed at a much higher rent.
The owner, Mr. Yin, showed us the flat in person. He was fifty-something, tall and very thin, with gray crew-cut hair, and dressed like a computer geek — baggy trousers, old sports shoes, a long dark winter coat, a ski cap and a camo shoulder bag with a laptop. His outfit was peculiar, but nothing really alerted me about him, even though I did notice an unsettling glint in his eyes, hard and suspicious.
The first bad news came when he told me that I should pay my entire rent one year in advance, or half a year at the least, in cash; this was non-negotiable. I was far from enchanted by the prospect of having to gather such a large sum of money at short notice, especially since it was not a common way to pay rent in Beijing. But the sunlight was gushing through the windows into the room, and the Buddhist temple below winked at me suggestively, so I surrendered.
Maybe I should have asked Cheng Yi why the flat was so cheap, and why Mr. Yin was so adamant to have his tenants pay so much rent up front; I just can’t help being Panglossian at times. The deal looked too good to be true, of course, but gems can sometimes be found lying in the silty chaos of Beijing.
Anyway, when we met again two days later at the agency, everything went well at first. Mr. Yin and I chatted pleasantly; he confided, as if we were part of a same conspiracy, that he, too, was in China “on a passport”: he had become a New Zealand citizen a few years earlier, for some reason — even though he could barely speak a word of English, and still lived in China.
However, as soon as we broached the topic of our contract, the atmosphere changed dramatically. Mr. Yin flatly rejected the document provided by the real-estate agency, and produced a sheet of paper from his bag. “This is my contract. Either we sign it, or I walk out this door.”
It was a one-pager, very different from the lengthy generic contracts provided by agencies. Taken aback, I asked him whether I could make a copy of it to bring it home, and compare it to previous agreements I had signed before. Mr. Yin’s eyes bulged in anger. “I can’t let you do this. Do you know how many people would like to get their hands on my contract, and use it to attack me? The mafia, especially! If you want to study this contract, you must do it here and now! We can stay as long as necessary.”
The mafia? Attack? I couldn’t believe my ears, but Cheng Yi and his colleagues meekly assured me they didn’t see anything wrong. As for Mr. Yin, he was unshakeable. Gritting my teeth, I started to decipher the cursed piece of paper.
Overall, I found the terms mostly acceptable; but even I, an ignoramus in legal matters, could see that they guaranteed Mr. Yin’s rights much better than mine, so I asked that three extra clauses be added. At the first clause, Mr. Yin grumbled and shrugged. At the second clause, his face became a mask of bitter resentment. At the third clause, he cried out: “But look, if you keep adding stuff the text won’t fit on a single page, and we’ll have to print the end of it on a second page, it doesn’t make sense!”
By that time, I was seriously considering whether the sunny bedroom and the view on the temple were worth having someone like Mr. Yin for a landlord. But the final straw fell when, after I had finished reviewing the contract, he declared, in the purest Shakespearean fashion: “Well, since you took so much care to protect yourself in this document, now it’s my turn! Let’s see, I require that your deposit be raised to 200% of the rent, and also…” I could not take it any longer. I said good-bye, and left.
Later on, Cheng Yi confessed that Mr. Yin had always been a “difficult customer,” which is why he had felt reluctant to show me his flat at first: the agency had been trying to find him a tenant for many months, but Mr. Yin was so inflexible and wary of anyone that all deals had eventually fallen apart.
The “Missing Question” Flat
While I was touring the area with Cheng Yi, I had also tried to contact Mr. Liu, the other agent I trusted; but I must have made a mistake in saving his number, because it was someone else who picked up the phone — Zhang Huan, a young woman who had also shown me a house; I thought she worked for the same company, which proved to be a near-fatal mistake. She represented Zhongheng, a different kettle of fish altogether.
On that day, she told me we could visit a pingfang in the vicinity of Nanluoguxiang, another lively and traditional part of town. Hearing the word hutong, my first question was, “Can one dabian in the toilet over there?” According to her, one certainly could.
It was an old house renovated with care to include most modern trappings, including fiber-optic internet access. The furniture was quite new, in dark and light shades of wood. It included Japanese-style translucent sliding doors, which I’ve always found deeply enticing, and the living-room wall was embedded with a bookshelf of impressive proportions — though it appeared, from its bizarre shape, more suited to carry the engine parts of an alien spacecraft than ordinary books. The place did lack a little sunlight, and the bathroom was minute, but its overall proportions and atmosphere were pleasant.
Nonetheless, I meticulously ran through my list of prepared questions. Toilet? Fridge? Heating? Air conditioning? Stove? Internet? Gas? Washing machine? Hot water? I turned knobs, flipped switches, moved things around, went hunting for mysterious smells or holes in the walls; but nothing aroused my suspicions. I enquired about the landlord, and Zhang Huan promised me he wasn’t a paranoid freak, and that all the legal hassles would be processed upon signing the contract.
In over ten days of house-hunting, this was one of the only places I had found that seemed not only liveable, but also included the major assets of being nicely located, furnished with taste, with a kitchen and even — cherry on the cake! — a functional toilet. And while it didn’t overlook any quaint Buddhist temples, it was rather cheap — and I was in dire need of somewhere to live. So after pondering the matter for a minute, I thought “to hell with it,” and paid a deposit on the spot.
On contract-signing day, I discovered that I would not be meeting the landlord, since the agency was managing the property: an agent would be signing the contract with me. As I was reading the terms and conditions, I reminded them that as a foreigner, I needed a copy of the landlord’s ID card and certificate of ownership, in order to register at the local Public Security Bureau. The agent told me these documents would be provided shortly. I could think of no reason why they wouldn’t give this to me eventually, so I shrugged, signed the contract and paid the first instalment of my rent.
Light-hearted at the certainty that my ordeal was coming to an end, I moved my belongings from Mr. Zhou’s flat to my new place. But up in the Heavenly Palace, the god of Beijing real-estate was sniggering at my naiveté.
Foolishly, I thought my list of Questions To Ask during my visit was clever and comprehensive; I was sure I had inspected the flat in such a way as to be protected from yet another unpleasant surprise. I was wrong. There was a crucial question missing from my list, a question only the god of Beijing real-estate could have thought of: “Is this a state-owned flat?”
When I went back to the agency to pick up the documents I needed, I was told that the landlord actually didn’t hold ownership of the apartment, and thus wasn’t allowed to lease it to foreigners. As a consequence, the police would never accept to register me as a tenant, and I would be in an illegal situation, which would prevent me from renewing my visa — among other possible headaches.
Of course, the agents refused to acknowledge any responsibility for this situation. “When you signed the contract with us, you never told us you wanted to go and register at the police station! That’s your private business.” The fact that I was only trying to obey the law appeared to them as a kind of whim, something only foreigners would do. Old Yu was right, I really did lack “cultural sensitivity”…
As a solution, they handed me a fake contract, which I could sign and show the PSB, to fool the police into believing I was living in a privately-owned flat somewhere else. But I didn’t think too much of that, and suggested that they either find me a new place I could legally rent, or refund me entirely. They reluctantly agreed to the first option, but after a few days gave no sign of having done anything; the possibility of refunding me, however, looked decidedly foul and revolting to their tender souls.
I talked to some friends, and gathered information. If I could not stay in that place and the agency would not provide any kind of help, I would have to move again elsewhere, and then either file an official complaint at the Municipal Construction Committee — but the procedure would take about a year to succeed, and would entail certain legal fees — or, for quicker results, I could rely on the help of a well-connected businessman friend, who surprised me by offering to exert “some other forms of pressure,” outside of the legal system… From what I understood, this involved large men wielding baseball bats. “It’s what most people do here to solve their problems, you know.”
While the martial option was tempting, I wanted to give one last shot at diplomacy. I finally managed to corner the head of the agency, who had always been shielded by an army of underlings, and sit down alone with him for a chat — while conspicuously recording our conversation on my mobile phone, in case I should need this kind of evidence. He lacked the cockiness of his minions, and kept shooting nervous glances at the recording device.
Eventually, he came up with another way to solve the issue: he would send someone with me to the PSB, to pretend I was being hosted as a friend by the landlord, with no lease involved. Apparently, this would work as long as no official financial transaction was acknowledged. I agreed to give it a try, but warned him I would not put on an act: if the police asked me personally about the situation, I would tell the truth — and the agency would be in trouble. Through clenched teeth, he pretended to be hurt by my callousness. “But we’re friends, aren’t we?”
At the police station, the suspense was Hitchcockian. Well no, not exactly, but I was eager to see whether the sleepy-looking woman behind her desk would suddenly look up at me with piercing eyes, and grill me mercilessly; she did not. Bored and unconcerned, she took the documents they gave her, and morosely registered the information. I got my registration card without having signed anything.
I parted with my “friends” from the real-estate agency — hoping I would not have to deal with them too often over the course of this year — and walked back home to my hutong. I finally had my “cosy little nest far from the noise of the city.”
I still live there to this day.