What a month it’s been.
Have you ever been going so hard that you forget to eat?
This month I’ve been running around Seoul on a quest to find a great apartment. You know the one – right by a nice green belt, clean, new, large, quiet enough to have a peaceful night’s rest, but close enough to everything so you don’t have to commute forever.
Just even finding an apartment can be a trying experience. There is a lot of junk out there in Apartment Land. There are a lot of shady realtors out there as well, and trying to nail down an apartment in a foreign country, a country that uses a rental system and language that is completely alien to you …that is a whole other level of frustration.
But after a month, I finally succeeded. My place is right in the heart of Sinchon, 3 minutes from the subway, and one stop away from Korea’s busiest college district, Hongdae. Even better, it’s big and clean, low cost and quiet. Sounds great, right?
How to Look and Who to Avoid
The rental system in Korea works a little bit differently from that of the West. In the West you pay a deposit equivalent to one or two months rent and then pay rent every month. A lot of the time there is also a lease agreement. In Korea, though, landlords expect you to pay between $4 500 and $9 000 USD as a deposit, and then still pay a meaty monthly rent. Usually if you chose to pay a higher deposit then the rent is reduced. As a general rule, an increase of $900 will get you a reduction of $9/month. That’s close to a 12% yield, which is a pretty decent return for the renter.
There are a number of ways you can look for apartments. If you’re outside the country, you should really take a look at my How To Find Accommodation in Seoul article, since that’s quite a different animal. I began looking for places on Craigslist, but found out that, because the apartment rental market is so active in Seoul, the apartments listed on Craigslist are usually places that couldn’t be rented out to Koreans for some reason or are being marketed to foreigners at an inflated price. Unless you are looking to rent a room in a shared accommodation from another expat, Craigslist is best avoided.
So are the realtors who offer services for foreigners. These crooks take advantage of your lack of knowledge by showing you lower quality places in out of the way areas and quote you inflated rental prices. I went down this route but, thankfully, became frustrated when the first few realtors were blatantly rude or failed to show up to scheduled appointments. Realtors who make a point of highlighting their English language ability are best avoided.
The situation does get better when the Realtor knows little to no English. After becoming frustrated with Realtors who target foreigners I started walking down the street and popping into real estate offices to talk to local Realtors. I do know a little Korean, and the translator app on my smartphone knows even more. Dealing with these Realtors proved a lot easier than I thought it would, but if you are a foreigner doing business with the local population you have to be very careful of scams. A few of the Realtors I dealt with turned out to be fairly shady. Once when I was looking at an older apartment I could hear the landlord and the Realtor talking. The Realtor asked her how much she wanted to charge. The woman said $600 per month. The Realtor told her that she should up the price to $750. I assume he gets more money if I pay more in rent. At any rate, the dude was shady.
If I had to Do it Over Again
Here is what I would do if I were to shop for another apartment to rent:
1. Select a place you want to live. Google Maps is decent for this. You should have the area, or a couple areas, nailed down before you start hunting.
2. Decide on the rental cost and on the deposit that you are willing to pay. I set mine low, around $900 for deposit and $700 per month for rent. The realtors and my friends all kept telling me that there weren’t a lot of places at that price, that almost nobody would rent to me at that rate. There were a lot fewer places to look at, but I still found a good number available, and there were even a few landlords who would settle for a lower deposit amount. Older Koreans like to have a large deposit because they get your money for a year and can do what they want with it until they have to give it back. Like I wrote before, you can reduce the monthly rent by increasing the deposit – the rate is usually $9 less in rent for $900 more in deposit. That’s better than you would do in the stock market on average.
3. Go to the area you would like to live in and get a sense of which specific locations would be ideal, and which sections you would rather avoid. I didn’t want to be far away from the main street, the subway station, or up a big hill.
4. Walk into a Realtor’s office and him or her them if he or she speaks English. Most don’t but some can grunt out a few words. Have your smartphone, or a pen and paper, handy. Tell them you are looking for a place and jot down the figures on the paper you provided. Koreans tend to knock off the last 3 zeros from their numbers for some reason when dealing with apartments. If you want to pay ~$900 in deposit and $500 in rent, you’ll have to write it like this:
1 000/550 (This is roughly the same value represented in Korean Won.)
For some reason, even after I asked the realtors a few times if they understood the amount that I had written down they would still screw up the dollar amounts and show me places that were 10x the price I was looking for. This even happened when I included the extra zeros like so:
1 000 000/ 550 000
But never happened when I added the Korean money symbol, or a “W”:
1 000 000W / 550 000W
5. Shop. Don’t be pushed into renting the first few places you’re shown. A few of the realtors got frustrated with me when I told them that I wasn’t going to sign the contract the same day I saw the apartment. They seemed quietly outraged. You don’t have to give in, though. Bide your time.
6. When it comes to signing the contract, bring along a Korean speaker. You don’t want anything silly slipped into the contract, so the (fluent) Korean speaker is there as your safety net. I brought one of my Korean friends and she did a decent job of explaining everything to me.
Things to Keep in Mind
- Koreans use different words to refer to different kinds of apartments, and no… I’m not talking about Korean language. The differences are important to know, since a Realtor might tell you that he has no apartments available, even though he has units that you could rent. Here’s the breakdown: Apartments are usually the most expensive option, and come with security guard, but no front desk. This is typically what you would think of when you hear “apartment” in the west – the buildings are huge and only have space for residents, and the whole complex is protected from the harsh outside world by a large gate. Officetels have smaller units than apartment buildings, and mix residential with commercial spaces. In Yatap, I lived next to a currency trading firm, and there was a bank on the second floor. Officetels have a front desk in the lobby, and the staff at the front desk act as security, as well as building management. Villas, on the other hand, are housed in much smaller buildings and don’t have a front desk or a security guard, but this can vary depending on how expensive the place is. The buildings are a mix of residential and commercial units, and are usually the least expensive option.
- You can always try to bargain down.
- Shop, shop, shop. I looked at about 50 places in just over a month. Just imagine how many disappointed Realtors there were.
- Ask what is included in the rental price. Often furniture, building fees, and some utilities can be included. Always push for more.
- There are a lot of bugs in Korea.
- You will have to pay a Realtor fee and a contract fee. I’m paying 260 000W and 300 000W. This was not factored into my budget. As it turned out, the Realtor included the 300 000W in my deposit. I’m not sure if I’ll get that back but it was an interesting twist.
- You can get out of your contract if they can find another person to rent it. I think I have to pay another commission if I choose this route.
- Stepping up the price ladder often gets you a disproportionately bigger jump in quality.
- The most expensive areas to rent an apartment in Seoul are Hongdae, Gangnam, Sinchon, and Apujung. Everywhere else is probably cheaper, while Itaewon seems to have the best value for money when you take into account the benefits of living in Itaewon.
- A Realtor will actually help you move.
- There are moving guys on Craigslist who will move your stuff for under $100. Maybe even under $50.
- Take a look at the opening picture. That’s how they write Realtor in Korean.
Well, that’s it for me. Finding an apartment in Korea is both easier and harder than you might think, but if you remember what I wrote in this article then you should come out alright. If you have any questions or you need any clarification, leave a comment bellow.