An Expat’s Guide to Finding an Apartment Abroad

Posted on October 28, 2016 at 12:10 AM

No matter what city an expat relocates to, it is becoming increasingly simple to find living accommodations which cater to a foreigner’s needs and there are people at each step of the process to make the relocation as easy and comfortable as possible.


Once moving to Tokyo, apartments are usually acquired through a real estate agent rather than directly with the landlord because of the uncertainty that landlords have renting their apartments to people who don’t speak Japanese and are not familiar with the legalities of the Japanese rental system. However once contact with a real estate agent has been established it is simple to find an apartment that caters to an expat’s needs since Tokyo offers accommodations specifically for foreigners. For example, expat apartments generally cost over $5,000USD but are equipped with all the major appliances (washer, dryer, dishwasher, phone, phone-line, and refrigerator) while typical Japanese apartments do not come with these appliances. And while Japanese apartments require the renter to pay “key money” or reiken, which is a non-refundable payment worth about two months of rent, and a renewal fee or koushinryou, which is worth one month’s rent, a foreigner renting an expat apartment can forgo these fees and just pay the four to six months security deposit. Most of the US and UK law firms with which we work will make this payment on your behalf and already have a select group of agents that will guide you.

After an apartment has been chosen, the real estate agent will send an application on behalf of the renter to the owner, which will be signed by the human resources department of the renter’s employer and contain the bid for rent, desired move-in date and any other requests. After negotiations and an agreement for the rent has been reached a contract will be drawn up for usually a two year period. While moving in, damage inspection should be done so the owner can be notified and fees could be deducted from the deposit.


In Beijing, apartments are also found through real estate agents usually because of the language barrier; however, it is quite simple to search for apartments through newspapers such as The Beijinger or the City Weekend and this way one can dodge paying a real estate agent. Prices for apartments can vary due to the area but usually one bedroom apartments cost around $850USD per month, two bedroom apartments will be $1150USD per month, three bedroom apartments $1,600USD or more per month and villas or private housing can start from $2,600USD. A great rule of thumb to remember is that prices increase significantly within each Ring Road as you approach the city center. Costs go up inside the Fourth Ring Road, then again inside Third Ring Road. If costs become too expensive, try moving out another Ring in any direction.

Shunyi, Sanlitun, Wudaokou, Lido, Wangjing, and Chaoyang Park are all well-established foreign and expat neighborhoods. They have import food stores which satisfy foreign needs and many local hotspots which have predominantly foreign crowds. However, a caveat regarding these neighborhoods is that prices will most definitely increase because of their popularity and proximity to the city center and its amenities.

Once an apartment is found, a contract must be drawn up with the landlord and renters should make sure that the landlord is someone they are able to do business with because most of the time difficulties arise from the landlord and not the apartment itself. But once the contract has been agreed upon, the landlord will typically ask for three months’ rent upfront and one month’s rent as a deposit so cash should be on hand. Again, many law firms will reimburse you or make this payment on your behalf and have agents to recommend to you.


Similar to Beijing, finding an apartment in Shanghai can be done through a real estate agency or through the classifieds section in a newspaper. Generally there are four types of housing in Shanghai: high rise apartments, old lane houses, villas and serviced apartments. High rise apartments are modern and resemble apartments in the West, they often come with swimming pools, gyms and tennis court facilities (although they may or may not be included in the rent). Each apartment building has security guards and a receptionist to manage the building. Old lane houses are not typically rented by expats because they are more “Chinese” than Western and often come with shared kitchens which don’t suit foreigners. But old lane houses have become more modern with trendy interiors, modern necessities, and rooftop gardens. Villas are best suited for expats with families or growing families and are usually found in gated communities, but as imagined villas come with the most expensive price tag. Lastly, the serviced apartments are most commonly rented by expats because they have been designed for the workingman or woman; they accommodate the needs of people with heavy workloads and busy travel schedules, offering hotel-like services including regular shuttle buses with transfers available to the airport or office.

The monthly rates for these can range from $1070USD to more than $18,000USD. Expat associates tend to live in city areas such as Hongqiao, Gubei, Jing’an, Luwan, and Jinqiao, which offer a wide variety of supermarkets, restaurants and bars/clubs. Contracts are usually for 12 months, though in some cases negotiations for a shorter lease can be made. Deposits are often one month’s rent and landlords will ask for the first two months’ rent upfront. Once these negotiations and payments are done typically by the law firm, residents must register with the local police which is a normal procedure in Shanghai.

Hong Kong

Apartments in Hong Kong are often found through real estate agents because rents are negotiable and a real estate agent has the experience to get a renter the best price. This is a key point to remember. Like Shanghai, the most common types of housing in Hong Kong are apartments, serviced apartments and houses (though houses are very rare on Hong Kong island).  Apartments are very small in Hong Kong, since space is a hot and limited commodity; they are typically located in a high rise building and consist of a bedroom and kitchen/lounge area. Serviced apartments offer hotel services while also offering apartment essentials, such as a hotplate, and can be rented on a weekly or monthly basis. Houses are very rare in Hong Kong and those that do exist do so in an enclave demanding high prices, cheaper houses can be found further from the city center in rural areas with the commute being less than an hour.

The rental accommodations in Hong Kong can be categorized as “old” and “new”: older accommodations are more affordable, situated in a central location and give more square footage per dollar, but have the typical Chinese style, walk up with no elevator, less amenities included, and no high end finish. Newer accommodations are smaller but modern with high spec finishes, newer air conditioning units, access to a clubhouse, pool and gym, and all are well maintained.  Prices can range from about $1,800USD per month for a tiny (50m²) apartment to $12,000 USD or more per month for a luxurious home in an up market area. However, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment is about $3,000 USD. Leases are usually valid for two years and require a month’s rent as deposit, although some landlords ask for up to three month’s rent as a deposit. Expats must make sure they are permitted to break the lease contract if they are relocated by their company. It is also the responsibility of tenants to arrange the connection of utilities. There are shorter term serviced apartments available, but these are more expensive to rent.


Expatriates who move to Singapore generally rent either a private apartment or house. Although an increasing number choose to live in HDB flats, a flat rented from the Housing and Development Board which are considerably cheaper than apartments and found through a real estate agency. HDB flats don’t offer the amenities that apartments or condominiums do, such as swimming pools, gyms, tennis courts, and children’s playgrounds and aren’t located in gated compounds but, they are modern and contain the necessities that are found in western apartments. The Central Area (District 1 to 9 and 11) is the most expensive and luxurious living area in Singapore, being the main shopping district in Singapore and containing many restaurants, pubs and bars. The East Coast (Districts 14-16) is located near the Central Business District, towards Changi Airport, and contains many condominiums. This area is popular with expats as it offers a variety of leisure activities, eateries and also the privilege of living by the seaside.

The rental rates differ from location to location and can vary depending on the availability of the apartments or houses. Based on location, the closer one is to the CBD, the more expensive the rental. The number of rooms and size of the apartment, house or bungalow will also affect the rental rates of the place. Rentals located in the central areas can range from $2,800USD to $6,000USD for a 1- bedroom apartment. Terraced houses in this area start from $5,500USD while rental rates for bungalows range from $13,000USD to $52,000USD.  Apartments, terraced houses and bungalows located in the East Coast are slightly more affordable with rental rates ranging from $2,500USD for a 1-bedroom apartment at the minimum and a starting rental rate of $10,900USD for bungalows. Rental rates for terraced houses in the East Coast area range from $6,200USD to $9,200USD. Leases last from a year to two years, and a booking deposit of one month’s rent as well as a security deposit must be made.

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