Let's talk about housing.
More to the point, house hunting. The time when you frantically search through dozens of bullshit ads for a cheap place to put all your shit before your friend kicks you off their couch.
In America, I lucked out, living with friends throughout college. Post-graduation, it got harder. To a poor journalist, Boulder rent prices read as, "$870/month, plus the required donation of your kidney and two fingers of your choice." So I looked outward to the nearby towns. Turns out, my best option would have been a 40-minute commute, with a creaky old van permanently parked outside the master bedroom's window.
It worked out, though, and all was well (and van-free) for years.
Then I moved to Beijing, a city with something like 20 million people, sprawling over 6,000 square miles.
My first year here, I had a bunch of stitches in my left knee and was walking with a cane. The sooner I got moved in, the better. So I opted for an apartment in a very foreigner-heavy neighborhood, close to work and a subway station. Sure, it wasn't the coolest place to live, but it was easy. Everything about Beijing had me flummoxed — the language, the culture, the constant spitting on the sidewalk. It was nice to have something familiar-ish to call home.
But as I entered Round Two this year, I didn't want to settle. My Chinese was good enough to get the most basic things done. My friends lived in the "cool" neighborhoods, and I decided it was worth the longer commute to have a social life and new experience.
The problem is, Beijing's rental market is notoriously difficult.
In a nutshell:
• Most landlords aren't bilingual, and most foreigners don't know nearly enough Chinese to navigate detailed leasing contracts.
• Beijing's rents give Boulder a run for its money.
• Most landlords are experts at hiding an apartment's flaws, making it hard to ever know if you're getting what you think you are.
• Agents control most available apartments and charge outrageous fees should you sign a lease.
So I hit the classifieds, writing anyone with an affordable place. My (lofty) goal: Skip the agents and go straight to a hopefully patient, semi-bilingual landlord who would give me a killer deal in a cool neighborhood.
One after another, things weren't looking great. I started to lean toward settling again, in yet another foreigner-heavy neighborhood across town.
And then, there it was. A courtyard compound with an empty room. Newly remodeled, it combined traditional Chinese architecture with Western furnishings and style. It was smack in the middle of a historic neighborhood, just minutes away from some of the city's big tourist sites. Best of all, it had a two-level rooftop terrace that overlooked the winding alleyways.
"Let's do this," I told my English-fluent landlady. She drew up a deposit receipt, and I handed over a hefty sum of yuan. Soon I had keys and a promise I could move in the next day.
Ten minutes later, another girl came in, begging for the room. Talk about good timing on my part.
Cheers (with $1 beer on my snazzy new rooftop) to a new year, and to this now-seasoned expat taking on the Beijing housing market — and winning.