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 & 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.

Be awesome and help us share:

21 Responses to “How To Find An Apartment in South Korea & How Our Search Went”

  1. How exciting!! are you guys able to post some pics of typical places?

  2. post lacked pictures. I’ll try to add some to it!

  3. Jason,
    I feel the need to offer a couple details. For the majority of teachers, that apartment should be free. It’s typically included in your contract as such; other schools will offer X million won towards your key money and/or a stipend to cover your monthly rent. If your school is NOT offering at least one of the three, this is a serious red flag. Housing in Korea has never been cheap, but it’s traditionally been offered to foreign English teachers.

    I’ll also note that appliances (gas stoves, washing machine, fridge) are almost always supplied - in the handful of apartments I’ve lived in, none of them have lacked these things. Never a microwave, sometimes a TV, most of the time an A/C. In some cases these are left over from the previous teacher (who may have inherited it from the person before them!), and other stuff that has been left behind by them. Consider it fair game to keep or throw away - they won’t be asking about it again.

    Since most expats prefer being close to their schools, the schools often have a place they’ve used for teachers in the past. If you like your independence and/or going your own route, then this is a perfectly good process.

  4. Thanks for clarifying that Chris.

    In hindsight, you bring up a good point that I may have not made too clear. This was all about looking for an apartment outside of what your school gives you — which for us was frankly not a live-able situation.

  5. Not every apartment give an option to raise their deposit in exchange of lower monthly rent, but almost all of them would give that option, because:

    1) Every landlord does not just saving their cash, they invest it. Either on the bank, or stock market
    2) Sometimes they need that deposit immediately to build another building or another use

    Like Chris was stated before, most of English teacher- visa holder here get their apartment, but that also depends on the contract.
    If I’m in your shoes, do not have anywhere to invest the money, I’d better pay more deposit and save 100,000 Won every month

  6. Hi Daniel,

    It’s still amazing to me that landlords would be able to make enough money by putting the money in a bank or the stock market. But hey…if it works out for them, then it definitely worked out for us. (Assuming we get the money back at the end of the year!)


  7. Hello:
    Just came upon your website.

    I’ve just accepted a position at Sejong University. They say they have nothing but studio units available for new professors. A faculty member suggested I stay at the schools “hotel” for the first 4 weeks and look around for a rental unit. Who is the woman who represented you in your apartment search? I may need her.


  8. Hi Jin,

    Thanks for the comment and congratulations on your new position! The lady that helped us is named Jiyoung. Here’s her website (it only lists apartments in Itaewon though) — I’d recommend sending her an Email, here’s her address — [email protected].

    Good luck and let us know how your search goes!


  9. Seems like you went through some trouble getting a place in Seoul. Next time if you can get access to Yongsan Garrison you could hit up one of four housing office for expat approved apartments as well as approved realtors that will not cheat you, speak near fluent English as well as work with you so the deposit money is only equal to monthly rent.

  10. Hi, just chanced upon your website; the info you have provided is really helpful. My daughter and her friends will be going on a uni exchange program to busan next year for abt 5-6 months and they would like to stay in a rented apartment instead of the school dorm. Would you be able to advise how we can go about getting reasonably priced accommodation?

  11. Hi Jeanette — Thanks for leaving a comment and the compliments! I would recommend checking out When we lived in Busan, that was the most popular classifieds site. It’s been a couple years, but I still think that’s a good resource to start with. Good luck!

  12. I resided in Korea, for several years. I also lost over $60,000.00 of lease money (Key Money) I paid on a home in South Korea. Beleive me, if a Korean National decides to keep your lease Money (Key Money) you have no chance of getting it back. The Korean landlord takes your money by claiming Bankruptcy. Sure, it’s an intentioanl bankruptcy scheme, but no Korean prosecuter, or the Korean Police will make any effort to help you. Another scheme these thugs use is to take your money and go to Canada. The Canadian authorities won’t prosecute a korean who tkaes your stolen money and flees to Canada, because these Korean thugs open a business in Canada, such as a dry cleaning shop and it helps support the Canadian economy. NEVER, I mean NEVER….trust a South Korean person who offers to rent you a house, or apartment by accepting lease money/key-money. These South Korean crooks evade the United States, because in the states we have a Magistrate system where crooks either pay you back, ot they rot in jail.

  13. Hi, I am moving to Seoul in January to attend school. I have enough money to pay up to 700 dollars/month which I suppose is going to be higher than i end up paying. my girlfriend speaks korean and will be assisting in the process. I wanted to ask you: is there any way to avoid such high key deposits? I wanted to pay at the most $5000 for the deposit. I am guessing this is too low? I was wondering how they can charge such high deposits? And how would I know if I would definitely get this money returned? Especially if they declare bankruptcy or use another evasion tactic. Thank you.

    Jeff from NYC

  14. Hi Jeff — Thanks for the comment and good luck on the move to Seoul! We’re not experts and it’s been a while since we looked for an apartment in Seoul. But there are officetel buildings that typically don’t require as much of a key deposit (if at all). You may want to look into those. As for how they can charge such high amounts — not something I can really answer, just the way it works there I guess. Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful, hopefully your school can help you out further. Good luck and enjoy Seoul!


  15. Hi Jason,

    Great advice on finding a place in Korea. Don’t know if you’re still in Korea. I am moving up to Seoul in two months. Do you know if the person who helped you, Jiyoung, is still offering her services as a real estate negotiator?


  16. Hi Hugh — I’m glad you found it helpful. Unfortunately I’m no longer in Korea and I don’t know if Jiyoung is still helping people. Good luck and enjoy Seoul!

  17. 20,000,000 won as a deposit? is that a typical price? I was thinking 2 million was reasonable but 20 million won… maybe I’ll stick with my shoe-box apartment

  18. This post is a couple years old, so tough to say if things are exactly the same, but traditionally, yeah — key money deposits are ridiculous!

  19. In Busan, retired, not working or teaching. Key deposits can be very high. We have a small apt now and have been looking for long term. The Key deposit is invested, and returned, sometime with rent = ZERO. We found several like that. We’re looking for “two room” pronounced in Korean just like it is in English. We have found some real showers … look south of China Town near Busan station. Walk the back street. Our one advantage, we read and speak Korean.

  20. And a note about showers. It’s easy to find the springy extendable shower rods and shower curtains. We also found a suction cup shower head holder at HomePlus. We created a shower space in the otherwise open bathroom. It is about one meter square … not too shabby.

  21. Thanks for the comments Gene. I’d definitely heard of the zero rent, all key money apartments — those were out of our range though :-).

    Nice recommendation on the shower as well, thanks!

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