Make yourself at home! Housing agent offers first city impressions for expats

Lu Feiran
Jason Zhang from northwest Gansu Province has been helping expats find a home in Shanghai for 20 years and he concedes that they probably give expats the city's first impression.
Lu Feiran

Editor's note:

A welcome mat has been rolled out to make Shanghai one of the best entry points for expats into China. In this series, we explore how local small business owners help expats integrate better into local communities.

Imagine being all new in a foreign city where you will spend the next few years. As an expat, you're anxious to find an apartment that you can call home, but you don't have any family or friends here to help. Property agents are probably the only ones you can turn to.

For the past 15 years, Jason Zhang and the Shirui Realty Agency he oversees has helped many such newcomers, especially foreigners, to the city.

"We probably give expats the first impression of Shanghai people," he noted. "So I believe our job is vital to make people love the city and trust its people."

Zhang is familiar with almost all the communities in Shanghai: Their locations, apartment types, prices and surrounding environment. When a client comes to him, he can quickly pick several resources from his pool according to the client's requirements and budget.

If a client takes a fancy to a certain home, he arranges a room or apartment tour.

"We found that foreign clients are often different from Chinese ones," Zhang pointed out. "Maybe because they're far from home, they are more eager to make the new place feel like home. So they may want to have some of their own design in the house – increasing or removing some furniture, or modifying some layout, and this gets to the part when we negotiate with the landlords."

Zhang said that usually three types of homes are available to expats: Relatively luxurious mansion apartments that are for clients with high budgets; common apartments that have convenient traffic and supporting facilities; and lane houses that represent old Shanghai culture.

Make yourself at home! Housing agent offers first city impressions for expats
Yu Wenhao / SHINE

Property agent Jason Zhang (left) shows an apartment in an old compound in downtown Shanghai to a client.

Maria Volkova from Russia said it was not easy for her to find an ideal home before she got to know the agent.

"When I arrived in Shanghai in 2017 I lived on campus but a year later when I became a master's student I had to find accommodation," she recalled.

"Initially I was looking for places on a lifestyle website for expats, but every time I went on room tours the reality differed from the photos. But after a fellow student shared Jason's contact with me I found a home very soon."

Now, five years later, Volkova is living in an apartment in Xuhui District, which is quite close to her workplace. It's a one-bedroom apartment in a high-rise, with a neat interior décor and nice view.

"I would say I live in the perfect place for me," she said. "And when I need to get something fixed, the landlord always sends technicians quickly."

Volkova observed that she didn't have many demands when looking for an apartment – clean, spacious and a nice neighborhood were adequate for her, but that's not always the case for Zhang, who deals with all kinds of requests.

A woman from the United States, who defined herself as "Georsyus," is an example. Since first arriving in Shanghai in 2019, she has switched apartments every year, failing to find an ideal home that meets all her needs. Now living in Changning District, she finds that although the apartment is conveniently located, it still has its downside.

"It's right next to the Metro so it's always noisy, and it's an old apartment building so there is no elevator," she explained. "And the interior isn't the best either."

Zhang understands the situation fully.

"Many newcomers to the city would underestimate the housing prices and room rates in Shanghai. Some people put pets before themselves so they want both spacious homes and a large meadow in the compound so they can walk their dog, but their budget might be limited," he said.

"And some people may bring a long electric fireplace with them and ask for a home that has a large, blank wall to fit the fireplace, and again, their budgets are limited. So we have to try our best to find matching resources for them and through negotiations let them understand the real estate market in the city. Sometimes the process may take a few months, even half a year."

But Zhang did not aim to be a property agent.

Make yourself at home! Housing agent offers first city impressions for expats
Yu Wenhao / SHINE

It's common for Zhang to spend months, even half a year, before his clients finally find a home that fully meets their needs.

Born in northwest China's Gansu Province and majoring in engineering sciences at university, he came to Shanghai in 2003 because one of his friends told him that "opportunities are hidden in the city."

Zhang believed it. He began working as a property agent and in 2012, he started his own real estate agency, Shirui Realty Agency, targeting mainly expats in Shanghai. In the beginning the business involved mostly Japanese and South Koreans, and later more Westerners and other Asians became his clients.

"Being sincere and honest is key to success," Zhang noted.

"When a foreigner comes to China for the first time, it is natural that they want to know about the life and culture here, such as the customs of contacting Chinese people; social poise and grace and much more. Although this basically isn't part of our work, we still help them integrate into the city so that they can be more at ease and thus trust you."

Being diligent is vital as well. When a contract is signed, the service is not done, or rather it has just begun.

"There might be all kinds of problems after the clients move into the apartment and then it's left to us to negotiate with the landlords to solve the problems," Zhang suggested.

"Once I received a call in the middle of the night as the client was locked outside his home and finally I managed to find him a locksmith at the most inconvenient hour."

The client involved in this incident was happy to corroborate Zhang's contribution and diligence. Peter Thomas, from India, recalled: "It was a really bad night, since I seemed to have lost my bunch of keys while driving my e-bike back home.

"And I realized this on reaching home. It was well past midnight and I did not know what to do. So, I simply called Jason. Poor guy had to wake up and, as was his wont, he promptly managed to get hold of a locksmith and told him to go to my address.

"I was so relieved and cannot thank Jason enough. Since then we have been very good friends and every time I move house, it is Jason I turn to and he always finds the best home for me."

Volkova also believed that communication is vital for finding a good home.

"Don't hesitate to ask your network to help you when you look for a home," she said. "A good friend or a colleague would lend a hand and offer good resources, probably a reliable agent."

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