Brokers, brokers' brokers, and termites

A foreigner hunting for a home in Guangzhou inevitably relies on brokers. The street that runs along Sun Yat-sen University’s North gate has more housing brokers than restaurants, many of them located right next door to each other. I entered three such shops, drank the glasses of lukewarm water placed in my hand, and added them on WeChat.

Offers soon started flowing into my WeChat account. Duplicates of blurry photos taken in dimly lit rooms proved that each house owner worked with several brokers. The broker charges a month’s worth of rent, half form the owner and half from the tenant. They work for a small number of companies, and offices within the same company compete to close deals. In order not to lose their spirit in the face of tough competition, they start the day with a half-hour session of loud upbeat music, pep talks, and slogan chants. Sometimes hundreds of employees gather to hear the company founder or regional manager give an inspirational speech.

Sitting across from a lovely couple in their 30s to sign the lease contract with them, I was felt relief that the intense interaction with housing brokers soon would come to an end. I thought.

When we moved into the apartment, it looked nothing like the slick place we’d viewed two days earlier. It reeked of cigarettes and alcohol, and it turned out it had been rented out through AirBnB. I started doubting that the couple were the real owners — who would turn their own apartment into a party space? My suspicion was confirmed when we needed to register with the police. The real owner, a middle aged woman who lived in another city, had to be with us. The agents did their best to keep us apart, and to hide information about what we actually paid in rent from the actual owner. We had to play along to get the papers we needed to legally live in the apartment: Our down payment was already in the no-longer-so-lovely couple’s bank account.

My Chinese vocabulary related to plumbing and electricity was already quite advanced after having rented apartments in China twice before. In our new apartment, the housing brokers addressed water and power-related emergencies effectively. However, when we informed them that termites (白蚁 has been added to my vocabulary) were eating up the apartment from the inside, they were completely uninterested. Eventually, the apartment will be completely gutted by the termites, but by then the brokers are long gone. And so will we.

Heidi Østbø Haugen. GUangzhou 9 November 2018.

Enjoying the view from our temporary home.

Enjoying the view from our temporary home.


Banner photo by Dustin Lee on Unsplash.