Shanghai Real Estate Agents – Things to Know!

Shanghai Living

Trying to find a new home in China can be frustrating. Property agents work differently than in the West. Having worked in the expatriate property agency industry for many years and being an expat myself, I thought I would to try to help people understand what goes on inside the industry and what they can do to make their move to China a lot smoother and more enjoyable. So, if you are a bit bewildered by the choice of agents, here is some advice for you that I hope helps. You can also view rental listings on our website by clicking HOUSING in the main menu.

Real Estate Agencies

Real estate agents are a new concept in modern China. Property used to provided by the government until just over ten years ago so the real estate industry is new with limited enforceable regulations and virtually no one to turn to if the deal goes wrong. A reliable and trustworthy agent with your interests at heart will not only help you easily find the right home but provide added protection should things go wrong

Expat Agents VS Local Agents 

If I were asked the biggest difference between a local agency and an expat agency it is that the local agent prefers quantity over quality and will typically show the client many, many properties irrespective of whether they suit the client’s requirements. An experienced expat agent on the other hand will spend more time researching the properties and only select ones that match their client’s criteria thus ensuring you find the right home faster and with less hassle. Also, during the negotiating process, the local agent tends to just translate what the landlord says rather than providing creative problem solving solutions to getting the best deal for their client.

Agency referral

Ensure that you get a referral before using an agent. Many agents are inexperienced and do not fully understand the housing needs of foreigners. Sadly, the whole experience can end up very time consuming, frustrating and disappointing and you could end up paying a lot more than you should.

Agency choice

You are free to choose as many agents as you want but it is worthwhile letting agents know of any properties you have seen so they don’t show you a property another agent has shown you. Also, let agents know of any developments that you have seen that you have liked. They may have a property there that suits you. If you are consistently shown properties that don’t suit your needs, it is a warning you are hands of an in-experienced agent. It would be best to change them immediately.

Good Agent 

A good agent will show you properties that match closely the criteria that you give them at a price that is close to your budget in an area that you prefer. They will let you know if your requirements/budget are difficult and advise you accordingly. If you have a good pro-active agent there is no need to see more than 10-15 properties.

  • A good agent should be able to answer most of these questions:
  • *property’s décor/style and furnishings
  • *any renovations
  • *past tenants
  • *the landlord’s background
  • *landlord’s location
  • *compound’s management & facilities
  • *estimated number of expats
  • *distances to shops, bars, restaurants, subway and major roads.

If you have a good agent then stick with them and let them find you the right property. Using too many agencies can ruin your chances of finding a good home quickly. A good agent will feel less likely to work hard for someone who is using five or six different agencies. So, if you find a good agent then treat them with the respect that they deserve and give them a chance.

Types of Agencies

Don’t be bewildered by the choice of agents. Here is a brief rundown on them.

Company-Assigned Agencies 

Whilst it’s common for corporations and companies to have agreements with a few agencies to keep consistency and cut costs, if you find yours isn’t up to scratch, ask first if you can change to another agent within the agency or see if your company deals with anyone else. Most MNCs or SMEs will have two or three agencies they have agreements with and some will allow their employees to choose their own agent. If you are stuck with this kind of agency and have no way out, read our article on how to deal with a bad CAA.

Global Agencies

These are the ones found all over the world and have a designated Residential Leasing Dept. with generally well experienced agents. As a rule, they only deal with clients that have medium to high budgets. The downside to using them is they only tend to show clients developer owned properties and generally don’t like to deal with private landlords. Make sure you get them to show you privately owned properties so you can get a good overall picture.

Expatriate Agencies 

There is a broad selection of expatriate agencies that cater specifically for the needs of expatriates. These range from small one man/woman agencies to large 200+ staff establishments. Experienced agents within these agencies also vary greatly so it is worthwhile to get a recommendation of the agent rather than the agency. When dealing with expatriate agencies you can tell quite quickly what kind of agency they are from their level of service and attention to your requirements. Most of the smaller run agencies with many years experience can be better to deal with as the owner is often more “hands on” and aware of each client’s requirements. It is also good to know that there are NO sole agency agreements or multi listing properties. If you find a property you like with one agent but are concerned they are not able to get a good deal on your behalf, you can switch to another agent. Landlords and developers generally don’t care who does the deal as long as it done well.

Local Agencies

These are the ones with the shop fronts on the streets and are the least experienced. Most agents in these agencies rely heavily on sales and don’t know much about the properties on their books for lease because they get such a small return on these deals. In general, they aren’t so familiar with expatriates standards and expectations and know little about negotiating residential leases so be careful when using them as you can end up paying a packet more than you should. Lastly, it is a good idea to get the General Manager’s mail and mobile number in case you need some help in the future because these agents move around a lot. If you do choose a local agent, it helps that you speak Chinese and be more proactive in the home search.


Be careful about signing ANY documents presented to you by any agency as they are not necessary and may lock you into an agency that you do not want to deal with but are stuck with. We have heard of schemes where the agent tells the client the document is “for her boss to show she was not out shopping with her boyfriend.”

The easiest way to overcome the problems of finding a nice home in China is to use the services of a trusted and recommended agent that is experienced in dealing with expatriates. They will understand your needs and can quickly source the best home for you at the right price.

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