House Hunters International

I took a deep breath late this morning and ventured into the unknown world of Shanghai real estate. An acquaintance had given me the names of several real estate agencies that she had dealt with while searching for a place recently, and I took the subway over to the French Concession to check out her recommendations. As I was wandering down Fumin Lu looking for the “Shanghai Old Villa Investment Consultancy Co.,” photos in the front window of an agency called “Care House” caught my eye. One, in particular, looked like a beautiful old lane house apartment for 5500RMB per month—perfectly within my 6000RMB budget. I continued down the street, thinking I could always come back to Care House. I couldn’t, however, find the other agency, and eventually turned around and opened the door to Care House. A tall young guy sitting at a desk near the front looked surprised to see me, but he seemed to relax a lot when he realized (and I realized, with enormous relief) that my Chinese was more than sufficient to deal with this kind of transaction. I told him initially that I wanted to spend 5000RMB/month, hoping that there might be a hidden gem in that price range, but to no avail. And the beautiful lane house apartment in the front window is no longer available (my cynical side wonders how many years it’s been off the market …?). But he had two places to show me right away: one, unfurnished (“You can go to Ikea!” he told me) for 4000RMB/month; the other, furnished, for 6000. I asked to see them both.

When we began walking over to the cheaper apartment, I asked the agent his name and he introduced himself as Jacky—the very same agent, it turned out, that my acquaintance had told me to track down! The agency had a different name on its front window, but Jacky’s name card did in fact identify him as an employee of the Shanghai Old Villa Investment Consultancy Co. Once I was able to say that I knew someone else who had been his client, he brightened up and began chattering away about Shanghai, the United States, and how long I had been studying Chinese.

I knew pretty much immediately that I wasn’t going to rent the cheaper apartment, which was more or less a first-floor studio, badly in need of a paint job and mold remediation. Electrical outlets hung out of the wall sockets and the kitchen stove, which was in a closet outside, looked like it had decades of cooking grease welded to its surface.

Jacky must have seen the “No” on my face, because he quickly asked, “It’s too old, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said, happy that he’d given me an easy out. “Too old.”

We walked back to Fumin Lu and down to Changle Lu to see the other, more expensive, apartment. The sun had been going in and out of the clouds all day, and for fifteen minutes or so while we were walking, really shone through and made the French Concession look exactly as it should: a rabbit warren of narrow, gently golden, tree-lined streets. Jacky began asking me the English names of various apparel items, and we must have sounded a little strange as we walked along the sidewalk, both carefully pronouncing “pantS,” “shoeS,” and “baG.”

The second apartment didn’t look like much from the outside, but I’ve been in China long enough to know that stairwells and entry hallways are usually not well cared for. I didn’t realize, though, that there would be a twenty-something guy living in the apartment until he opened the door, wearing a black terry-cloth bathrobe and smoking a cigarette! It turned out that he’s watching the place for the landlord (his parents, I think?) but could move out “this afternoon” if I wanted the place.

I wanted it. I didn’t want to give that away too quickly, but I wanted it. One bedroom and a decent-sized living room, a narrow kitchen next to the front door, and an all-in-one bathroom (there’s no shower stall, just a shower head in the same space as the toilet) across from the kitchen; it isn’t terribly large, but it’s more than spacious enough and everything has been recently renovated. Plus, it’s on the third floor and gets wonderful breezes, which I could feel from the large windows in each of the main rooms. The compound in which the apartment is situated was probably built in the 1950s—it looks like it’s all concrete—and I didn’t see a single other foreigner as we walked around. Since Bathrobe Guy has been living in the apartment, all of the utilities are already set up, which is something I didn’t want to deal with. All in all, it’s not bad, and probably the best I’m going to do for my comparatively tight budget in a city as expensive as Shanghai.

Jacky, I could tell, wanted me to say yes right then and there, and he gravely told me that there would be another prospective tenant coming to see the place at 2:00 (it was about 12:30). Of course. I asked for an hour to think about it and walked back toward Fumin Lu to get a drink at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf while I collected my thoughts. I fought with myself: I hadn’t shopped around for another Realtor (but Jacky had come recommended! I argued). I had only seen two apartments (but why drag this out?). It was at the very edge of my budget (but still within!). Maybe I was deciding too quickly (being decisive isn’t necessarily bad!). I could probably find something cheaper if I were willing to be farther away from the library and archives (but do I want to spend all my time on the subway?). By 1:30, I had arrived at what was probably a foregone conclusion anyway: I’d take it.

I walked up the street to Jacky’s office and told him. He practically jumped out of his chair with excitement and immediately called Bathrobe Guy to see if he could call off the 2 p.m. viewing appointment. Turned out, though, that the appointment had already started: the woman seeing the apartment had shown up early. She wanted the apartment too. Maybe Jacky and I could come back and the four of us could talk this through?

Uh, I guess so. But was I going to have to make a case—in Chinese—for why I should get the apartment? I was not keen on that idea.

Jacky and I hurried back down Changle Lu to the apartment compound and returned to the third floor, where Bathrobe Guy (still in the bathrobe, still smoking) was seated on one couch and a woman about my age was sitting on the other. She put down her iPhone and immediately launched into why I should leave and surrender the apartment to her. As it turned out, she had seen it first: Bathrobe Guy had shown the place to her and her boyfriend yesterday and they had (she argued) a verbal agreement to rent it on a month-to-month basis for a few hundred more RMB per month than I would be paying. At the most, though, they would only stay six months. Bathrobe Guy liked the idea of locking a tenant in for longer. He had decided to rent the apartment to me.

I didn’t really say anything, just sat on the couch and let the jet lag drag me down as Jacky and Bathrobe Guy tried to get the woman to leave. She wouldn’t go. I wasn’t especially worried that I would lose the place—I was prepared to give them some money right then and there to secure it—but I wondered how long she would stay and harangue them.

Forty minutes, it turned out.

Finally, she was gone and the three of us got down to business. We agreed on the rent, but haggled over how much I would pay to get a receipt every month (an extra fee, but a necessary one or the people who administer my research grant will be very unhappy). Bathrobe Guy offered to replace the washing machine before I moved in; I decided that in return, I wouldn’t ask him to immediately stop smoking in the apartment (at least he has the windows open). I offered 500RMB of good faith money to make sure he wouldn’t show the apartment to anyone else between now and Tuesday, when I get the keys. And then we were done.

All in all, the whole thing was as painless as shopping for real estate can possibly be. God only knows if I’ll come to regret a hasty decision, but for the moment, I’m feeling pretty good about it.

Maybe that’s just the jet lag, though.

8 thoughts on “House Hunters International

  1. Is it common for folks in Shanghai to introduce themselves in English names now (at least towards foreigners)?

    1. I think it’s pretty common, especially for someone like Jacky, whose office is in the heart of the French Concession and who therefore might have foreign clients. But while he introduced himself to me using an English name, I’ve simply been 马丽娜 to him—easier than Maura for most Chinese, I’ve found.

    1. Absolutely! I was too discombobulated by jet lag the other day to think of pulling out my camera (and it would have been weird to take photos with another person’s stuff all over the apartment), but I will snap some shots soon.

  2. Hey Maura. Great writing, and great to hear that you are there, safe and sound. Bathrobe guy is a great character, BTW. I hope you can get the cigarette stench out of the apartment soon enough. Looking forward to pictures!

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