Our newbie’s guide to renting an apartment or villa in Shanghai
This city has no shortage of property types as well as markedly differing districts, each one with its own unique selling points. But the language barrier, the work culture and often opaque practices and regulations that characterize the Chinese rental industry can test even the most hard-nosed house hunters.
If you’ve been transferred by your employer, lucky you. The odds are a management company will find an apartment in Shanghai for you and cover all the essentials, like drawing up contracts, property upkeep and utility payments. But the rest of you will probably have to fend for yourselves, and vigilance and persistence are key. It also helps to find an English-speaking property agent who is prepared to act as a sympathetic conduit between you and your prospective landlord.
Be warned, however. Agents in China are not like property managers in the West. There is no certification process, and they are largely unaccountable if things go south after you move in. No one wants to be the next victim of an unscrupulous—and unseen—slumlord, so goodwill and openness will help keep an agent on your side.
It also helps that they will usually be responsible for rent collection so it’s in their interest to make sure everything runs smoothly. The standard agent fee for finding a property is 35 percent of one month’s rent, although this is often waived for rentals above 15k a month, where the agent will happily settle for the fee they receive from the landlord.
We’ve looked at six of the most popular districts and neighborhoods in Shanghai—four in Puxi and two in Pudong—and have laid out the average size of property and number of bedrooms that you can expect to pay within five price brackets. We’re not pretending this is an exact science. Market prices fluctuate. Nearby attractions and conveniences may also have an impact on what you pay. Nevertheless, this guide should serve as a rough road map to finding an apartment in Shanghai.
Let’s start with a basic rundown of the kinds of accommodations available in town…
Most apartments in Shanghai are located in high-rises that have been built in the past 20 years. They’re usually larger living spaces in otherwise densely populated areas like Jing’an, Xuhui and Huangpu in Puxi, and Lujiazui in Pudong. So if you want to be at the heart of the city and all its attendant excitement—and, more importantly, can afford a premium rent—this is the way to go. For a cheaper option take a look at “walk-ups.” These are usually older five-to-six-story buildings.
Serviced apartments are an increasingly flexible option, especially if you’re on a shorter-term employment contract. Typically managed by major hotel groups and property companies, these operations take care of most of the living arrangements for tenants such as housekeeping, laundry and sometimes even daily breakfast. This market has expanded rapidly in recent years to the point where there is currently an oversupply: bargains can be had from as low as ¥18,000 a month in some of the city’s less in-demand areas.
Shanghai’s unique lanehouses, or nongtangs, provide a singularly authentic way to live out your time in the city. Most can be found in the former French Concession (straddling both Huangpu and Xuhui Districts). Formerly ramshackle flats with shared kitchens and bathrooms for several households, an increasing number of lanehouses have been transformed into self-contained units featuring all the amenities of modern living to the highest design and material specifications. As a result, they’re becoming increasingly more popular with hip, well-heeled locals and foreigners alike. Some agents, however, may still try and sell you a bill of goods, so renter beware. This wholesale gentrification of certain parts of the city has triggered spiraling rent increases around town. And while a renovated lanehouse can offer stunning features and architecture in the most historically important parts of the city, you will get at least 30 percent more space in a similarly priced purpose-built apartment in the same area.
If you have a growing family, are addicted to home comforts or simply can’t stand the thought of overbearing congestion and noise, Shanghai also has an abundance of gated compounds full of spacious, free-standing villas. Naturally, this option doesn’t come cheap. So if you fancy a garden to call your own, prepare to drop at least ¥30,000 a month for the privilege. That said, the onsite services and facilities are the major selling point for villa compounds and usually include gymnasiums, games rooms and meeting centers as well as other recreational amenities. Another major attraction for families is that the bulk of the city’s international schools are located in these outlying districts, allowing for a much shorter school commute for busy parents. One obvious drawback, however, is the distance from the city center, meaning fewer options for dining and nightlife. Nevertheless, many of these larger compounds are able to exert a pull factor for such businesses. So don’t worry. You probably won’t be completely out in the boonies.
A glimmering skyline of glass and steel towers is the Shanghai newbie’s introduction to Lujiazui, a sight all the more spectacular given this side of the Huangpu River was a rural backwater until 25 years ago. The city’s economic powerhouse district, Lujiazui may now look to be bursting at the seams, but its more considered urban planning history means there is generally less congestion and traffic pollution than across the river. And while residents of Puxi have long mocked Pudong’s shortage of lifestyle and recreational opportunities, but this is gradually changing with a wealth of parks, restaurants, international hospitals and malls springing up in recent years.
Huangpu District represents Shanghai to much of the world based on its iconic landmarks—be it the riverside Bund, Old Town lanes, tree-lined boulevards of the former French Concession or the exclusive shopping thoroughfares of Nanjing and Huaihai Lu. Bounded by the Huangpu River to the west, and Suzhou Creek to the north, Huangpu’s appeal lies in its diversity, embodying the ideal place for cultural activities, architectural and historical interests, and a huge array of dining options. Of course, there are some things money can’t buy, and, apart from a tiny number of exceptional properties, a private outdoor space in Huangpu—as in Jing’an and Xuhui—is going to be a balcony, patio decking or a shared roof garden. And that’s only if you’re lucky. Not surprisingly, there is also a lack of larger green spaces in this densely constructed area.
Xuhui District might not have the cache of its northern neighbors, but it still offers a wealth of residential opportunities and at more competitive prices than in more centrally located districts. Plus, Xuhui has the lion’s share of Shanghai’s lanehouses.
Named after the temple at the heart of the district, Jing’an tripled in size in 2015 after swallowing up Zhabei District to its north. Widely seen as a ruse to keep property prices buoyant outside the core metropolitan area, it also pushed rental prices up as a consequence. Jing’an was the first part of the city to cater to the burgeoning overseas influx back in the 1990s, and the sheer number of high-end hotels and expat-oriented developments (The Shanghai Centre, Jing’an Kerry Centre) as well as a seemingly revolving door of new eateries and bars means you’ll never want for new experiences in Jing’an —even if it means saying goodbye to your favorite watering holes and hangouts on a regular basis.
Xuhui District might not have the cache of its northern neighbors, but it still offers a wealth of residential opportunities and at more competitive prices than in more centrally located districts. Plus, Xuhui has the lion’s share of Shanghai’s lanehouses. Rental hotspots are centered around the retail hub of Xujiahui, but there are plenty of cheaper options even further south. This is worth noting, because, as Shanghai’s metro system continues to expand (it’s now the world’s largest in terms of track length), the work commute factor is increasingly less relevant when choosing where to live. Xuhui is also easily accessible to Minhang District, where many of the city’s international schools are located. Again, green spaces are in short supply, but check out Longhua Martyrs Cemetery, Shanghai Botanical Gardens, and Xu Guangqi’s burial grounds.
Jinqiao in Pudong is a great choice for families… This is largely thanks to its disproportionate amount of villa compounds and large serviced apartments as well as international schools.
In many respects Hongqiao enjoys the best of all worlds. It’s close enough to reach the city center quickly, but far enough afield that there are plenty of high-end villa compounds. The area is popular with the Korean and Japanese expat communities, and there is a vibrant restaurant scene serving them. Hongqiao Airport, the city hub for domestic flights, and Hongqiao Railway Station, the largest train station in Asia, make this an ideal base for frequent business travelers, too. But while there’s plenty to keep the kids busy (Shanghai Zoo, numerous parks) there’s far less in terms of nightlife and bars, save for the perennial favorite “Laowai Jie” (Foreigners’ Street), where you’ll find well-known Shanghai-based restaurant and bar chains.
Jinqiao in Pudong is a great choice for families as well. This is largely thanks to its disproportionate amount of villa compounds and large serviced apartments as well as
international schools like Dulwich College Shanghai and Concordia International School Shanghai. The district has also benefited from free trade and development zones, which have attracted many international companies, and have further widened Jinqiao’s expat footprint. On the downside, you’re a long way from the downtown action—should you want it—and metro stations are thin on the ground (as of now Line 6 only services the area). In this regard, Jinqiao is best suited to those who can stump for their own transportation arrangements.