Home never seemed so sweet as a Puxi concrete box
THREE MONTHS, TWO property agents and 16 flats later, I have finally found a home in Shanghai that I can call my own.
New arrivals to Shanghai will find a market peppered with conniving agents, greedy landlords and alluring sirens hired by property developers to show their flats.
That's the good part.
Admittedly - if you insist - there are a few bright spots. Shanghai generally offers more choice and lower prices than in the mid-1990s, the last time I was flat-hunting in China's financial capital.
Even people who work in property are reluctant to recommend an agent. Asked for help, neither a former agent in Shanghai nor an agent in Beijing would recommend colleagues at their own companies. In Shanghai, the agent takes his commission from the landlord. This looks like a money-saver, but it takes away any incentive for the agent to bargain for a lower price, since the rent determines the commission.
I finally settled for X, a local agent at Y. (Name and company deleted on legal advice. I would be happy to provide a character assassination for any interested parties at another time.)
This crafty comrade had a full bag of tricks, such as overstating prices, calling run down buildings 'luxury' dwellings, using the good old bait-and-switch routine and high-pressure tactics.
One trick is to call urgently, usually late in the day, to say a landlord is on the verge of renting to someone else - but he might reconsider with a sizeable deposit. A letter of intent is conveniently ready for signing.
Another ploy is to suddenly withdraw a seemingly solid deal and say a costlier or less desirable flat is still available.
After I fired one agent for such shenanigans, the agent's boss helpfully called to offer his own services. I switched to a reputable, international property firm. My new agent was pleasant and professional, just not too quick with numbers. More experience will change that.
Location was an easy decision. Despite the efforts of Shanghai to promote Pudong - the new part of the city east of the Huangpu River - as a glorious residential district, the old maxim still applies: 'Better a bed in Puxi than a house in Pudong.'
My office is in Puxi, the old part of the city west of the river. The main tunnel link to Pudong is closed to taxis during rush hour. Ignore the Pudong hype, live in Puxi.
With the Pudong-Puxi decision out of the way, next came the old house-new house question. Some of the older homes, built before the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, are beautiful. Many foreigners have rented these historic landmarks for the ultimate 'Shanghai experience'.
This experience turns sour when fuses blow, drains back up and nosy neighbours living cheek by jowl in a traditional Shanghai alley take a keen interest in the activities of the new arrivals.
Ironically, many Shanghai residents are fleeing this old lifestyle for the anonymity of living in what is basically a concrete box with air holes. I chose the concrete box, too.
Some developers have given their new properties sniffy French names, such as La Residence, Chevalier and Versailles. Residents can hark back to the days of old Shanghai and its French quarter. Judging from some of the scams in this town, developers might be well advised to try out Les Miserables as a name.
Fond memories from brief encounters with the property hucksters include:
Straight-faced assurances that the occupant would never be disturbed by noise from a football field-sized construction site, an elevated highway and a school where students sing the national anthem at 7.30am.
Snooty managers who insist that only the chosen few are permitted to call their building home.
Fake fireplaces and tacky reproductions of United States colonial-era furniture cited as 'major' attractions.
Developers have also hired some slinky Shanghai ladies to show their wares.
The boldest statement from one was that a flat was on the fifth floor, even though it was on the fourth. As in Hong Kong, builders had skipped a floor to avoid that horrible number four because of its resemblance to the Chinese word for death.
I insisted I deserved a 'fourth-floor' price.
Another common pitfall is the gross area-net area confusion, something that agents are loath to clear up.
In some cases, the developer is also the landlord but a growing number of Chinese returning from overseas have bought flats for investment, pushing up prices in a wave of speculation.
One newly returned landlord had created such a perfect pad that he had second thoughts about renting it out. And he was in no mood to consider renting to a fellow Chinese, fearing that too much stir-frying would soil his immaculate kitchen.
After weeks of doing battle with Shanghai's property sharks, I finally triumphed and a flat at last was mine. The lock on the door was broken, the gas leaked and the phone did not work. But it was home sweet home.