On the Move
By Francisco Little  ·  2017-03-27  ·   Source: | NO. 13 MARCH 30, 2017


A customer consults agents at an outlet of the 5i5j real estate agency in Beijing (XINHUA)

Moving house is traumatic at the best of times. I recently decided to look for a new apartment on the eastern side of Beijing and seek greener pastures compared with my present abode in the back of beyond.

Previously, colleagues had always helped me to hunt down that elusive place to hang my hat. With little time at my disposal to physically hunt down apartments on my own, I searched for that most persuasive of creatures—the real estate agent.

Browsing through the endless expat website adverts chock-full of agents ready to move heaven and earth to get people settled, I made contact. My requirements were simple—a one-bedroom apartment, with an enclosed shower, close to a subway line and within my specified price range.

How hard could that be?

My first agent, Amber, whipped me off to three possible apartments. Her service was good. She picked me up from my digs in her white Volkswagen and dropped me off afterward. Amber tried—she really did—but she just wasn't hearing me. The more I said one bedroom, the more she showed me studio apartments.

"Just think—you can see your kitchen from your bed," she said excitedly. Yeah, I could see what a thrill that would be.

As time went on, that was to become a common problem—the agents just weren't listening to me.

Next up was Coco: small, cute and with a voice like a metal file rasping over rusty pipes. After listening to my requirements, I got the customary: "No problem, I know what foreigners want."

I was hauled all over east Beijing. She showed me plenty of apartments way out of my price range, urging me on with a saccharine "it's not much money for a foreigner!"

Coco also had problems calculating distance. A promised five-minute walk to Chaoyangmen subway stop on the phone became a 20-minute taxi drive to the same station in reality. She seemed utterly gob-smacked when I said I would continue to look for an agent who could actually show me what I asked for.

Adam followed. He had dealt with plenty of foreigners, he assured me. His experience showed when he dragged me, kicking and screaming, to three apartments in a row, all with bathrooms the size of postage stamps and showers of the bucket and hole-in-the-floor variety. In two of the bathrooms, I literally couldn't turn around and had to do my best impression of a hunchback.

The third one was hidden away at the end of a long alley lined with desperate hawkers, a scene resembling a clowder of feral cats and creaking symphonic floorboards. Billed as being in Jianguomen (an area favored by foreigners), what Adam meant was that from the apartment, you could see Jianguomen, in the distance. I fled into the night and into the waiting arms of Lily.

We looked at some nice apartments. Some were in good locations, but poorly furnished. We bargained with hard-nosed landlords to change odd items of furniture. I found a place I liked in the Central Business District, but the skeptical landlady asked for 12 months' rent in advance, plus a month's deposit.

When I asked why and pointed out it was unethical, not to mention illegal, she said that as I was single, I could up and leave at any time. Despite assurances of work contracts, references and agreeing to pay a month's deposit, she wasn't convinced. Perhaps I look like a flight risk.

Lily and I then played my trump card. I'm a vegetarian, non-smoking, non-drinking Buddhist, she said proudly. How much better could a tenant be? The landlady wasn't convinced—perhaps it sounded too far-fetched. I left thinking maybe being a carnivorous, alcoholic, dope-headed, metal freak would have got me in.

In the process, I learned to check water pressure—if the tap in the kitchen worked, it didn't mean the one in the bathroom also worked. I flushed toilets, checked gas connections, checked out neighbors and investigated mains connections. I traversed Beijing a dozen times looking for a home, trailing in the shadows of an endless stream of well-meaning agents. Finally, they all ditched me, deciding I was too picky. Perhaps I am.

The right apartment with my name on it must be out there. Meanwhile, my current landlord has said he'll upgrade my sofa and TV. Perhaps I'll bite the bullet and settle for somewhere less than ideal, or maybe I'll just wait until the cows come home.

The author is a South African living in Beijing

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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