Last week I signed a new contract at Young Hoon Elementary School (along with 3 other coworkers)and we decided to find our own apartment in Seoul instead of taking school housing. The school will provide us each with ₩600,000 ($600) a month for rent and we get to pick our location instead of being 4 stops further out of the city from our school.
Before we even meet with a realtor we decide on a few things, if you are in the same position I recommend doing the same.
1) Type of rental
Apartments, Officetels , studios and all the other lingo have different meanings here in Korea than back home. An apartment usually refers to a mutli-room shindig that is better suited for a family and usually has a front desk/security guard included. They are expensive and definitely out of our reach. An Officetel would be nice since we’d have easy access to plenty of stores in our own building but we know they are pricey and decide to stick with the studio/1bedroom option.
Since our school provides us with ₩600,000 ($600) we all agree that is our goal for rent. We tell our first realtor ₩500,000 ($500) and know that we will be willing to go as high as ₩700,000 ($700). Within each type of rental there are further subdivisions based on how you pay for them with everything from zero rent each month but an exuberantly high Key Money (similar to security deposit). These can be anywhere from ₩40 million to ₩100 million ($40,000-$100,000). Remember this option provides you with ZERO rent and in Korea Key Money is always returned at the end of your contract (I hope).
Most rentals fall under a second category which we decide on. Key money is much lower at about ₩10,000,000 ($10,000) and there is a nominal rent fee of about ₩500,000 ($500) for a small room. This option usually allows room for negotiating a higher rent for lower key money or vice versa.
I have heard of other situations where you can use the traditional western standard but they are quite limited to specific international areas like Itaewon where we don’t want to live. For those on an even tighter budget I’ve read about tiny rooms that are more like a converted closet where you can pay as little as ₩200,000 ($200) a month with little or no key money.
This one is obvious. Where do you want to live? How far from the subway/bus do you want to be? We want to be a 10 minute walk or less to the subway and ideally in the Hyewha area. We’ve heard good things about it as a fun area to go out in with a college and international hospital nearby. It also happens to be 4 subway stops away from our new job at Miasamgeori and a quick ride to a number of other attractions like Hongdae and for me Ichon, where I fence.
3) Which Korean will you bring with you?
I read all over the internet to steer clear of any realtors advertising in English and to foreigners. They all try to scam you and rip you off. We enlisted Vicky (coworker Brian’s girlfriend) and Haley (former coworker who lives at Miasamgeori) to join us. They were both eager to help and prove to be our most valuable asset in this hunt. I reiterate, If you are looking for an apartment in Seoul you MUST bring a fluent Korean speaker with you, preferably a native speaker!
4) What do you want in your apartment?
Can you handle a single hot plate in your kitchen? Do you need to have a washing machine built in? What about furniture and storage. How spacious does your room need to be? Are there any other special considerations like an elevator or security? Some apartments in Seoul come fully furnished but we are told many don’t even have a refrigerator and we’ll be lucky to have closet space.
We all agree that we want a minimum of 2 hotplates in our kitchens, a washer, space for a double if not queen bed and definitely a washing machine! An elevator would be nice but not necessary and we agree that anywhere with a security guard is going to be out of our price range.
With all of these details worked out we meet at Hyewha station at 10am on Saturday morning. Vicky has already contacted a few realtors but it turns out there are tons all over the street. The first one has us wait around for 10 minutes while showing another couple an apartment before coming back and letting us know she doesn’t have what we are looking for.
Frustrated we leave. Vicky already has another realtor in mind. In less than 5 minutes we are inside their doors; at least they don’t make us wait 10 minutes to tell us they can’t accommodate us so we quickly leave again. I guess it is kinda tough to find 3-4 vacant apartments in the same building.
Time to get some coffee and rethink our strategy.
Vicky doesn’t have any other realtors in mind so we agree to just walk down the street and pop in any that we see. Along our stroll we begin to fall in love with this quaint corner of Seoul. Red bricks of the nearby university are a unique sight as the wide street fills with pedestrians. Artwork we saw in the subway station was just a sneak peak at the sculptures and murals along the main road. We cross the sidewalk to find countless shops and mom and pop restaurants.
By now I can read 부동산 (realtor) and have spotted one across the street. We are about to cross when Vicky sees two more down a side street on our side. Jackpot!
We enter the first 부동산 (realtor) and are immediately impressed with their 3rd floor office. They have a seating area big enough for all of us with a few massive maps of the area. Vicky goes to work telling them what we are looking for as Haley translates it back to us. The same spiel she gave the first two realtors works this time. Within moments they make a quick phone call and we don our jackets to get our first look at the options!
A quick walk brings us to a 4th floor walk up with a massive mirror in the stairwell. I joke about fixing my bedhead every morning but the girls take serious note of this strategic tool. Unfortunately the rooms are, well, shit. They are too small with minimal amenities. One of them smells of mold and I can’t imagine how cramped it will be once we put a bed down.
The realtor lets us know there are other rooms in this building so we check them out. The next one is almost identical with the 3rd one only slightly larger. Vicky lets the realtor know our disappointment. She’s got another building in mind.
Hiking through the neighborhood Haley points out some great restaurants and we get a little giddy inside while sauntering past some beautiful houses. We are far enough from the main street to keep the noise down when our realtor steers us into a building with construction going on inside.
A brand new building? That is certainly a bonus when she pushes the up button and we realize there’s an elevator too! Is this place going to be too pricey? On the fourth floor we walk into the corner room. The sun beams in through massive windows as we walk past shelf after closet after shelf. There is a built in desk with more storage, counter space, and two hot plates. Wait! Is that a balcony? I’ve got a good feeling about this place and glance around to see Sara and Susan grinning from ear to ear.
Exploring the studio a little more we realize not only does it have a fridge but a separate freezer built into the wardrobe and a marble counter slides out next to it. Susan enters the bathroom and lets out a shriek quickly followed by a cry of joy! There is a separate stall for the shower with an overhead raindrop shower head in addition to the hosed one. None of us have seen anything but our combined shower/sink in the bathroom since we arrived in Asia.
We all agree that these apartments are exactly what we are looking for. No, they are MORE than we are looking for and we are happy to find 2 other rooms on the same floor vacant. I’m hesitant but the girls want to sign right away! I agree these are probably the best we’ll find when Vicky tells us they are ₩700,000 ($700) with ₩50,000 for maintenance fees and a steal at that price. We all agree its more than we wanted but think it could be worth the price.
I walk down to the other corner to find a less obstructed view off the balcony but a nearly identical setup otherwise. On my way out I am sold by the view! Just outside the door I see Bukhansan (Bukan Mountain) with a cityscape beneath it. I really want to wait and see other options but am feeling really good about this place when we reconvene with Vicky. She convinced MC (the landlord) to lower the rent to ₩650,000 ($650) bringing the total with utilities to ₩700,000 ($700). Then she mentions it includes TV and internet!
I still want to wait and see more apartments before making a final decision. He isn’t budging on the key money and that’s a lot to front. I was hoping for something closer to ₩5,000,000 ($5,000) but both Haley and Vicky tell me the only way I’ll find one less than this is in Itaewon.
Suddenly MC introduces himself as our future landlord. His English is pretty good and someone asks if there are any larger units. He immediately says yes and shows us one on the same floor with a stunning view for ₩800,000 ($800), we all like it but no one wants to spend the money for a few extra feet. He takes us downstairs and lets us know there might not be any units available and they don’t have a balcony; instead there’s extra floorspace. There is only one room! Susan calls dibs and Sara and I both decide we’d prefer the balcony anyway.
Back upstairs we take a moment to discuss. We all agree that these are likely to be the best apartments we’ll find. I still want to look to have a comparison but Sara and Susan are ready to sign even if I’m not.
I think it over talking myself through the decision.
“I know I’ll love the apartment, its bigger than my current setup and has everything I wanted. There are the bonus items of a balcony and a REAL shower. Its more than I was hoping to pay but within my budget and in a perfect location. I honestly don’t think we’ll find another comparable room but especially with 3 apartments available.”
Suddenly I realize that living in the same building as Sara and Susan will make all the difference. Sure I could find another place that might be marginally better but these are two of my best friends in Seoul.
“Lets do it!” I exclaim.
“Yeah, its gonna be great. I mean, it has everything we wanted right?”
Before I even thought we’d really started, our apartment hunt was over. The rest is boring, I guess except for where Vicky further reduced our ₩400,000 ($400) realtor fee to ₩230,000 ($230). We each put ₩1,000,000 ($1,000) to reserve it and sign some papers before realizing its going to be a tough 3 months itching to move in!