How To Find An Apartment in South Korea & How Our Search Went
by Jason -- March 28, 2011
Upon arriving in Seoul a few weeks ago, the first question I asked Sharon was, “how is our apartment?” Her response, “small – I almost cried when I first saw it”. I knew from her response that we were going to be on our own finding a new apartment in a country where we didn’t speak the language. This was a process I wasn’t looking forward to.Having lived in South Korea previously, both in Seoul and Busan, Sharon and I knew there was a very good possibility we would end up in a small box Koreans call an apartment.
Our first time in Seoul, last year, we were lucky to find an amazing apartment. Two bedrooms plus a kitchen/dining room – it was a wonderful place. Our second apartment in Busan though was very small. It was the size of an average American bedroom but also included a kitchen and bathroom in that space.
Continuing our conversation when I first arrived I asked, “is it smaller than our Busan apartment?” Her response, “yes, much smaller”. At the time I wasn’t even sure how that was possible, but upon seeing it, she was right. There was hardly room to walk.
In this post I’ll explain how the apartment system in Korea differs from that of the United States, how our search went, and then I’ll end with my advice for anyone searching for an apartment in Korea.
The 3 Primary Differences Between the Korean & U.S. Apartment Systems
- The deposit money (called “key money” in South Korea) is significantly higher. It’s usually 10-20x times one month of rent (yes, that’s not a typo).
- Apartments are typically empty – and I mean empty! No refrigerator, no gas range, no microwave, no air conditioner. In Korea these are called “options” and typically need to be asked about and negotiated separately – if they’re provided at all.
- In America, the most common method to find an apartment is via Craigslist. In Korea, from what we found, the most common method is working through an agent called a 부동산 (boo-dong-san) who charges a pretty hefty fee to the apartment hunter.
The Deposit (Key Money)
In the previous homes and apartments I’ve rented in the states, the deposit was typically equal to one month of rent and legally was not allowed to be more than one-and-half times one month of rent. That is not the case in Korea. Here, you typically pay up to 10-20x one month of rent for an apartment and this number can be even higher. Most of the apartments we looked at had a 10,000,000Won deposit ($8,930) and 600,000Won monthly rent ($535) – over 16 times one month of rent!
In the final apartment we chose, we were given a choice of 10,000,000Won deposit ($8,930) and 600,000Won ($535) in rent or 20,000,000Won deposit ($17,860) and 500,000Won ($447) in rent. Doing the math, if we put down an extra 10,000,000Won, we save 1,200,000Won over the year – that’s a 12% return. There’s no way we’re going to beat that return in the market or anywhere else that’s available for me to invest. So, it’s a no-brainer, we put the higher deposit down. The question I keep wondering though, why would the landlord want that deal? What do they do with the extra 10,000,000Won that they can miss out on 1,200,000Won in rent money per year? (By the way, if you see a flaw in my math or logic, let me know quickly!)
The 부동산 (boo-dong-san) Fees
Another key difference between Korea and the U.S. is the apartment search process. In the states, I’ve always found my apartment online, dealing directly with the landlord. Here it seems more standard that you work through an apartment agent called a 부동산 (boo-dong-san). These agents deal directly with the landlord and also help apartment hunters look at the different options and facilitate the contract. For this however, the apartment hunters (us) are charged a hefty fee. The fee depends on how much your deposit is and the amount of monthly rent. Our fee ended up being 280,000Won ($250).
If you’re wondering, here’s how these fees are calculated.
How Our Search Went
Our search started online with HiExpat.com & Craigslist.org. We found apartment listings, but none were in areas that were near us. If you’re looking for an apartment in the “foreigner” district known as Itaewon, these sites are great. If you’re looking elsewhere, they’re not.
Our next step was trying to find and communicate with a부동산 (boo-dong-san). This typically failed. Ultimately, our search led us to a Korean woman who was listing apartments in Itaewon. I asked if she was aware of apartments in our area and she countered that for a fee she was willing help us find an apartment and communicate with the landlord. We said yes and have never regretted the decision.
Our helper was able to connect us to a few different realtors in the area. We ended up seeing about 10 different apartments. Normally, I would say that we aren’t very picky, but Korean apartments are much different than American apartments.
Many of the apartments were older and more run down. The bathrooms…well, let’s just say they were weird. We never ran into a squat toilet thankfully, but almost all of the bathrooms lacked sinks (where do you brush your teeth??), didn’t have separate shower areas (yes, everything gets wet) and had washing machines inside of them (in hindsight, perhaps logical). To put it lightly, it was a difficult process.
Advice for Korean Apartment Searchers
- If something in the apartment is not to your liking, be vocal and honest about it. The apartment we ended up going with had no refrigerator, gas range, washing machine, air conditioner, or sink in the bathroom. We told our realtor that we loved the apartment but not having those things was a deal breaker. She spoke to the landlord, and the landlord decided to buy and install all of them for no extra fee!
- When we first walked into the apartment agencies (부동산 boo-dong-san), the first question we asked was if they spoke English –no one said yes. We should have not even bothered asking this question. I recommend telling them how many rooms you want (“room” is also the word Koreans use) and then write down your budget on a piece of paper– they’ll figure out the rest.
- Once you get into negotiations, however, you’ll absolutely need someone to translate. If you have a close Korean-speaking friend you feel comfortable bothering multiple times, go with them. If not, I highly recommend the woman that we used. She was an absolute life-saver. Her fee was very reasonable. She can help you, and she’s worth every penny.
- Make sure your expectations are properly set when looking for an apartment. Apartments will be smaller with strange bathroom setups – accept that before you start searching.
Our search ended with a very nice remodeled 2-bedroom, 1-bathroom apartment. Yes, the shower has no separate stall and gets the entire bathroom wet, but we’re used to that by now. The deposit was 20,000,000Won and rent, 500,000Won per month – which is a fair amount and will be covered by Sharon’s school (the rent, not the key money). We move in this week and are really excited to have a place to call home for the next year. It’s a welcome change from the nomadic lives we’ve led the past 18 months.
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