I howled with laughter as I read NPR’s recent story about Shanghai-based reporter Frank Langfitt shopping for used cars. With a title like “Would You Buy a Used Car from a Guy Named Beer Horse?,” you would too. Any expat who has lived in China can surely relate to Langfitt’s experience. One that involved signing a contract before seeing any cars and putting down a 3,000 RMB ($500 USD) deposit for test drives. A deposit that Langfitt would forgo if he chose not to buy a car within three days.
Such preposterous stipulations are nothing more than business as usual in China, no matter how perplexing they might be to expats. What can we do? We’re forced into negotiations of this arbitrary variety on a regular basis. One day after reading Langfitt’s story, I tagged along as a friend shopped for rental apartments in Qingdao. The city is considered one of China’s most livable, but also small with fewer than six million inhabitants.
My friend, an expat mother of two, had straightforward needs: three bedrooms, decent bathrooms, an A/C unit, and a safe environment. In other words, cracked walls, ceilings, or floors wouldn’t be tolerated. Nor would mold. (Our apartments here in Haiyang never would have made the cut.) Basic appliances and some furniture were considered added bonuses. Pretty standard stuff for the average American renter. Doesn’t seem too complicated to wrap one’s head around. Am I right? But, of course, TIC! This. Is. China. A country where something so simple can quickly turn into something so very, very complicated.
The process of renting an apartment is like many things in China: a mostly no-win situation. For anyone involved. It’s a miracle we even got to take a quick peak at any apartment. Rental contracts surprisingly favor renters, who aren’t obligated to allow anyone (including owners) in before their contract expires. This makes it hard for a potential renter like my friend, who lives two hours away from Qingdao, to line up viewing appointments. Another problem is that apartments get snatched up within a few short days of being relisted. Well, listed isn’t really the word I should use. There is no Craigslist here or free real estate mag you can pick up at your local 7-11 to flip through. A broker is most definitely required.
We expats are always using middle (wo)men for our business dealings in China. These folks add another painful dimension to any transaction we undertake. Many see their role as that of translator, not as advocate, for us, their clients, who happen to be paying them to — you guessed it! — work for us. Like NPR’s Langfitt, my friend used a broker who turned out to be lackadaisical and slightly shifty. Actually, there were two brokers. A fellow expat recommended a woman named Cristal. That’s right — she didn’t recommend a rental agency and she couldn’t even provide a website address since there was none. Instead, my friend cold called Cristal who spoke perfect English and promised to send photos of available apartments. Two weeks later, and with no follow-up, my friend realized that the only way she was going to see apartments was to make the trek to Qingdao. And so we did.
As we neared the city limits, we learned from Cristal that she couldn’t meet with us and was sending her colleague Danny, who was, at times, endearing and thoughtful. At others, amazingly dense. By the end of our relationship, he was a little creepy, before turning entirely pathetic. This was a guy who carried two cell phones and wore an over-the-shoulder leather murse. A guy who didn’t feel the need to properly introduce himself or his sidekicks but felt compelled to show us photos of his infant daughter. A guy who seemed more worried about when he could light up his next cigarette than whether or not the apartments he was showing us were suitable. Frustratingly, a guy who understood and spoke a little English, yet somehow couldn’t count in English. When you’re in sales, you’d think one, two, three, etc. would be some of the first words you learn. Guess not.
On our first day with Danny, we were able to overlook his obvious flaws. The glaring one being his inability to understand my friend’s clear-cut needs. We looked at some real duds. At Elite Plaza, laundry hung on trees throughout the communal space. Functional, you could argue, but not tasteful. The apartment we saw there was dark and dank. Its walls nicked, its window ledges cracked. It smelled like someone’s great-grandmother’s house. Old.
Who wouldn’t want to see someone’s raggedy undies hanging outside their apartment every day?
At Lubang Helen Garden, we got into it with a security guard. He didn’t want us waiting by his post. But there was nowhere else to go. There were five of us: me, my friend, Danny and his sidekick (whose name we never got), and another real estate broker who we picked up on the side of the road. Another real estate person was on his way with the apartment key. It was an uncomfortable ten-minute wait.
Danny (wearing jeans and sandals) and his entourage arguing with one curmudgeon of a security guard.
Like most of our time with Danny, it turned out to be a complete waste. The apartment was crumbling from the outside. Though big, it was dirty, with trash littering the living room and bedroom floors. The apartment across the hall was undergoing a total gut, which would be done in one week. One of the brokers told us this and somehow with a straight face.
A view into the neighboring apartment being gutted. Notice the crumbling exterior, too.
After the better part of the day, it was clear that only one apartment complex was a viable option. The forty plus high-rise buildings that make up the Golden Coast sit on a pristine piece of real estate. Paved pathways weave throughout the meticulously landscaped grounds, complete with sculptures and ponds. There were two new outdoor playgrounds for bigger kids and an inside one with a sliding board, swing set, and sand box for little tots. The perimeter of a sizable square piece of turf where kids might kick a soccer ball around was lined with exercise equipment ideal for hovering Chinese parents and grandparents. Then there was that 11th floor apartment. It was clean. There was no funky smell. It was a spacious three bedroom and well within budget. It had modern bathrooms and a kick-ass view of the Yellow Sea. It was perfect. My friend was sold.
The luxurious grounds of the Golden Coast apartment complex.
A week later we were back in Qingdao, anxious to see a few more apartments in the Golden Coast, but mostly set on the 11th floor digs. My friend was ready to put a deposit down and start contract negotiations. That never happened. Again, we were blown off by Cristal, who was out of town, though when we met up with Danny he didn’t seem to know this. After an hour or so of looking at other places that were too small, dirty, and used, our patience with Danny had worn thin. It was at this point that he fessed up and admitted to the fact that the 11th floor apartment was no longer on the market. Someone else put a deposit down on it. The day before. Or, so we were sheepishly told. It took a minute for the bad news to sink in. And then my friend let the questions fly: “Why didn’t you tell me this yesterday?,” “Why didn’t you call and give me a chance to counter offer?,” “Why hadn’t you told the owner I was interested LAST WEEK?,” “Is it too late? Can I counter offer now?” Radio silence was what she got from Danny. She lost the apartment and he in turn “lost face” (面子). He had no other apartments to show us in the complex. There were none to be shown, he swore. So we ditched him — just like Langfitt ditched Beer Horse.
Within minutes of giving Danny the brush off, we walked into a Century 21 that just happened to be across the street from the Golden Coast complex. I don’t know if it was a legit Century 21 or if it was a Chinese knockoff, but it sure felt professional, if not corporate. The brokers wore uniforms and were customer-oriented. They didn’t speak a lick of English, but they were patient with my friend’s Mandarin. By the end of the afternoon, we found ourselves in a car being whisked down the block to an ATM to pull out a load of cash. After being shown three different apartments, my friend had found one that met most of her criteria. She forked over the cash and then signed her name and stamped a red-inked thumbprint on an official looking document.
A professional real estate office. Danny may have had one, but we never saw it, so there’s no way to know. He preferred to conduct business over cellphone and every Chinese person’s favorite app, WeChat.
Of course, This. Is. (Still.) China. Our friends at Century 21 weren’t miracle workers. We waited a long time for renters and owners to be contacted so we could see the available apartments. Two days later, when my friend was back in Qingdao (this time with a translator), she spent five hours negotiating the rental contract with a member of the owner’s family (the owner was apparently in the U.S.). They argued over everything from the move in date, to the color the walls could be painted, to the provided furnishings. It was tense. It was frustrating. It didn’t help that when the owner’s rep went back on his word about providing an oven, the broker took his side and not my friend’s. In the end, it was just another arbitrary negotiation she had to endure as part of expat life in China.
And Danny? What happened to him? He never gave up. He must have watched as my friend and I walked into Century 21, and then later into the coffee shop next door where we ate lunch. How do we know? He sent us two free orange juices and texted my friend to let her know they were a gift from him. Over the next week, he kept texting her, telling her he had other apartments to show her. When she eventually broke the news that she no longer needed his help, he moved on to his next hustle: “Let me know if you need a flat screen T.V.” What could she do but roll her eyes, laugh, and ignore his text? This. Is. China.