Horror of horrors. When I got my new job in Seoul this spring my new boss said to me, “so where will you live?” At that moment I was between apartments, crashing on a friend’s floor about 45 minutes away from the school. Typically workplaces will have suggested accommodations (which you are free to refuse for something else) or will help you deal with real estate agents.
Not my new school. Most of the teacher at my new school are more established. They’ve been in Korea for several years or they are married and already settled into an apartment with their partner. I’ve been in Korea a while too, but this was the first time I’ve had to go through the hunting on my own. Well, on my own is a strong word. I had a few supportive friends and a lovely fiance to help with the actually visiting places and talking to estate agents.
Ultimately it was overwhelming, but also somewhat satisfying to be in control, making deals and negotiating. I had some agents who were amazing, some who were super pushy. Some spoke great English. Some spoke zero English. The whole process felt like some final exam for how adapted to Korean life I’ve become.
Getting an apartment in Seoul can be an ordeal for many reasons. Things get snapped up quickly in a metropolitan area of more than 20 million. Many newcomers to Korea are also shocked at the cost of a deposit. For a basic studio apartment, it can be almost ten thousand dollars for your deposit– more than a year of monthly rent in many cases. Fortunately, most employers will sponsor your deposit (they’ll get it back once you move out).
I was daunted, but decided that this was my chance. I could finally have an apartment that wasn’t crap. My first apartment was a studio that was so small, it was bursting at the seams with a bed and a desk as the only furniture. My second apartment was more spacious, but suffered from mold and was two subway stops away from a decent supermarket. The third apartment (which I shared with my friend from New Zealand) also had a severe mold problem and neighbors who were always experiencing some form of screaming, dish breaking, death threatening domestic upset. Perhaps that’s a story for another time.
So there were a variety of tools I used for my search:
Zikbang App: This a Korea real estate app. You can narrow your app by area, price, and other factors. You can also star your favorite properties. Through the app you can contact agents. The downsides are that it’s pretty much entirely in Korean. After a couple years here, that’s not a problem for me. My Korean’s not great, but I can read it well. I had Korean friends call the estate agents for me because I’m not that confident.
Craigslist: Many listing for smaller, less expensive properties can be found on Craigslist. A lot of English-friendly agents will post shorter term, low deposit places there specifically looking for foreign workers and students who might be staying in Korea for less than a year
Seoul Homes: This site had a great variety of listings throughout the city. Some agents were English friendly on that site as well. I highly recommend that site.
Over the course of two weeks, I saw about 40 apartments. I was completely exhausted by the end of it. My work is in Gangnam district, but typically living in the Gangnam area means paying for the neighborhood more than the tiny apartment, so I widened my search to Yongsan, even as far west as Guro.
I realized a couple of things. Many loft apartments are not worth in. Having a loft was something I really wanted to create a bedroom space separate from the rest of the house. Nearly every loft I saw was about three feet from floor to ceiling. That means you could only sleep on a floor mat. When we get married, my fiance is bringing his plush queen size bed with him. That’s about a foot thick. So if the cat knocks something over and we bolt upright in the night, our foreheads would be at real risk for concussion. Lofts tend to bulk up the price tag one to two hundred thousand won a month as well.
If a building is less than five years old, that also adds expense. Elevators in the building are great, especially if it’s over five stories, but that usually comes with a maintenance fee slapped on top of your rent. Living on a lower floor will often be slightly cheaper because in a high rise building, higher floors are more desirable.
The neighborhood is extremely important too. Having markets in walking district, as well as close access to train and bus stations is extremely important to your comfort and time. Sometimes you will have to pay a bit more for prime spots.
After a couple of overpriced high rises, and a few cheap, but scary places in the middle of a slum that looked like the perfect spot for a murder, I finally settled on a villa about a 20 minute walk or ten minute bus ride from my work. Yep, I ended up in Gangnam. The price is about the same as my apartment in the north of the city, but it’s about a third of the size. Villas are nice though because they are studios plus. Mine has a little patio room where my washer is so I don’t have to have it in the kitchen or bathroom like most Korean apartments.
It’s about ten years old, but the landlord is super nice. And it’s on a fourth floor with no elevator, which is very livable. Not a hint of mold. So, it’s pricey for the size, but overall, it is the nicest place I’ve lived in Seoul. I guess I passed the test.
Are you on the apartment hunt? What have your experiences been?