There are numerous options when it comes to finding an apartment to rent in China, but with a portfolio of more than 850,000 homes and counting, Ziroom, known as zìrú (自如) in Chinese, is now a popular choice. It is perhaps most comparable to Air BnB in the West, although it’s targeted more towards long-term renters. Through the Ziroom App, users can do everything from signing a contract and paying rent, to contacting maintenance services and arranging a cleaner. Ziroom is without doubt a convenient way to rent in China, although, as will be discussed, it has some shortcomings for those who can’t read Chinese. Even so, here I bring you our guide on how to use Ziroom to rent in China.
Start by downloading the Ziroom App (available on iOS and Android phones). You will need to search for the Chinese characters “自如” in your app store. On opening the App you’ll see the homepage in Chinese. This, along with much of the rest of the app, is unfortunately not yet available in English. But don’t worry, I’ll talk you through it.
If you’re already in the city in which you’re looking for accommodation, just enable location access when using the App. Otherwise you’ll need to select the city in Chinese characters from the drop-down menu in the top left-hand corner. You’ll be able to choose from Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Tianjin and Wuhan. Other cities on the app appear to be limited to luxury properties which charge by the night rather than per month. In other words, if you’re looking to rent long-term (a year or more) at a reasonable price and do not live in any of the cities listed above, Ziroom is unfortunately not an option.
Next, click on the rectangular icon marked “Language EN” to the right of the screen. This will take you to the rooms and properties in your city listed for rent in English. You can filter by type (shared apartment or entire apartment), location (by district or subway line), price, and other factors such as private bathroom, private balcony, elevator and so on.
All properties should have a comprehensive array of photos, while some will also come with videos and a commentary provided by the ZO (Ziroom agent). The latter always appears to be in Chinese, however, so just watch for the pictures or brush up on your Chinese listening skills.
The next part is pretty self-explanatory. Just hit the “Request A Tour” icon in the bottom right corner of the screen. Each time I tried this, a message appeared that read, “Sorry, the domain of this form has been changed”. If this happens to you, just click on a link provided, which will bring you to an electronic form. It requests your name, the district in which you want to rent and your contact information. The latter part gives you the option of being contacted by phone, WeChat or email.
A telephone number will appear if you click the “Contact Your ZO” button, giving you the option of speaking directly to the agent. How easy it will actually be to communicate with your Ziroom agent, however, is probably variable. The App boasts of an “English service” and a Ziroom representative recently told the media they have trained new English-speaking agents to help expats find accommodation. My acquaintances in Beijing, however, gave varying on-the-ground reports, with one friend stating that she had to “use a lot of gestures” when speaking face-to-face with the agent on an apartment tour. This, of course, may be an anomaly and not necessarily representative of all “English speaking” agents. At the very least, non-Chinese speakers can employ translation software to message their agent or even assist in face-to-face conversations.
Once you’ve found your dream apartment (or, you know, one that meets your needs for the year or two you’re in China), next comes the fun part. Ziroom contracts are all signed via the App; no paperwork is required, with the exception of an inventory of items in your apartment.
You’ll be charged one month’s rent as a deposit and a service fee on top of your first rent payment. The latter cost me 2,748 RMB, which covers the work of the Ziroom ZO and a twice-monthly cleaning service of the common areas in my property, i.e. the bathroom, kitchen and living room will be cleaned 24 times during a one-year contract. (A text message will alert you prior to the cleaning of your property and will give you the option of paying extra to have your bedroom cleaned.)
When signing your contract, you’ll be given the option of paying your rent monthly, quarterly or yearly. The more you pay upfront, the less you pay overall, i.e. monthly is the most expensive, then quarterly is slightly cheaper and yearly cheaper still (if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford the last option).
Like the contract, Ziroom payments are also entirely electronic. When you click on the icon to make a payment, you’ll be given two options: “网通银行卡” (wǎngtōng yínháng kǎ — a form of mobile payment compatible with numerous Chinese bank cards) and WeChat Pay. In other, words you need a Chinese bank account to make payments. Complete newcomers to China who have not yet setup a bank account will, therefore, need to consider other ways to rent.
You’ll also see the deadline by which you are required to make your next rent payment on the app. Actually paying your rent is as easy as clicking a button.
Water, electricity and heating bills are also payable through the app. These functions are also entirely in Chinese, however, so without the ability to read Chinese characters, you’ll need the help of your agent, an app that can translate Chinese text from screenshots (such as Google or Baidu Translate) or a long-suffering Chinese friend.
Scroll down to the bottom half of the Ziroom homepage and you’ll see icons in Chinese for cleaning services, assistance with moving to a new property and maintenance. Once again, these services do not appear in English, so you may need help from your agent should they be required.
There are also services beyond accommodation, including “Meeta” (a friend-making and dating service for Ziroom tenants similar to Tinder or China’s Tantan), “Z-SPACE” (social events for Ziroom tenants), and “Z-Lovi”, which features gigs, dance sessions, household items available for purchase and more. Again, these services are not currently available in English (you can probably sense a theme here), so you’ll need to be able to read Chinese to take part. “Meeta” even requires users to upload a Chinese ID card. I suppose as an expat, you’ll just have to find other ways to make friends in China.
So there it is, your brief guide on how to use Ziroom to rent in China. Honestly, if you’re even half familiar with using a smart phone (who isn’t these days?), it’s not exactly rocket science. For Chinese speakers who can make mobile payments, Ziroom is incredibly convenient. In my four and a half years in China, it is unquestionably the easiest experience I’ve had of finding and renting an apartment. Those without the ability to make mobile payments, however, will have to consider other options.
It is perhaps not unfair to say that, convenient as it is, Ziroom has some way to go before it can cater to all expats living long-term in China. But who knows? Perhaps in the future, even the friend-making service will be open to all.
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