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Finding An Apartment in Korea

March 3, 2015

Apartment

view from our soon-to-be master bedroom

Before I launch into my Korean apartment drama story — and it seems like everyone we meet has some story involving their apartment — a bit of background: the housing market in Daegu skyrocketed at some point last year. Most expats that live out here were given a housing budget that was more than enough to allow them to live very comfortably in the nicest/most desirable apartments/neighborhoods in the city. After the housing boom a lot of landlords sold their places and/or raised rents considerably, kicking out many of the expats that previously occupied their apts. This, combined with it being off-season — summer being the time of year when there’s a lot of turnover — has made housing nearly impossible to find.

Of course we knew none of this prior to arriving here. We just assumed we had a pretty healthy housing budget that, according to Sly who once lived in Korea, would afford us a pretty nice set up. Unfortunately that scenario only worked if there were apartments available to rent.

We met with a real estate agent our first weekend in Daegu. We came with a laundry list of things we wanted: modern kitchen with an oven (not that common here) and dishwasher, in-unit washer/dryer, open floor plan, close to the subway, walking distance to coffee shops (or just ‘cute’ shops and restauarants), view of the mountains, pet-friendly, and a nice gym. Thankfully our real estate agent kept a straight face because knowing what I know now it must have sounded like we were describing a mythical world.

I should clarify what I mean when I say there aren’t many apartments available — our frame of reference was based on something comparable to American standards in terms of space (at least 1500 sq ft) and modern amenities (oven, dishwasher, dryer, heat, AC, etc).  Our agent showed us three larger apartments that were move-in ready. One was really big but in a major need of a renovation. The other was okay, an older building with dark, tiny rooms and dated wallpaper. Nothing to write home about, but livable. The third was a tiny, somewhat dingy, place downtown with a tiny kitchen that lacked a dishwasher but had an automatic fruit washer. None of these were terrible options but our expectations had been tainted by people who had come here before the market boom and were living in significantly nicer places. We both agreed we would rather wait for the ‘right place’ instead of taking the first thing that we saw.

After calling around and begging all her friends to give her listings for all the “secret places,” two more apartments magically became available. One was in a part of town referred to as “Beverly Hills.” An apartment that was not technically on the market as it was in the process of being sold. We were only able to see a similar apartment — one with the same layout — by posing as a couple interested in buying said apartment. It was a nice place, but no patio area for the kitties and the complex itself was massive — tower after tower of concrete all with windows that stared out at one another.

The other was a place that the landlord only wanted to rent to someone with a Korean wife. Our agent kept pushing, explaining Sly was Korean, that I was half-Asian, etc. Finally a different real estate agency handling this apartment agreed to meet us for a strange little ‘interview.”

I guess we passed the test because after that we were allowed to view the place.

We met the current tenants when we went to view the place. The Korean wife had become a good friend of the landlord so this sort of became a second interview, after which the Korean wife called up the landlord and put in a good word for us. At this point we still had not yet made up our mind. We simply had not seen enough places to know for certain and we weren’t familiar enough with the neighborhoods to really know what area we wanted to live. We even went to another real estate agency thinking that maybe they would have different/more options. They didn’t. They basically told us, “yeah you should just stick with what you have.” There was not a lot of time to decide — a couple days later our real estate agent asked if we wanted to go for the Korean Wife apartment since people had been calling her nonstop wanting to view the place. We agreed to go with the Korean Wife apartment with a move-in time frame of early March. In the meantime we kept our options open in case anything else popped up.

That was the second week of January. Since that time only two apartments popped up — neither of the options were better. Apparently during this time frame 4-5 couples “with Korean wives” had somehow found out about the place — even though it was not on the market — and called the landlord to offer him even MORE money, even if it meant that they had to pay out of pocket. Thankfully the landlord said he had already made a deal and wanted to keep his word with us. That is usually not the case and many of the apartment horror stories we’ve heard have involved the landlord backing out of a lease because they wanted more money or because “someone” offered him/her more money.

Which brings us to this week. Yesterday we met with a bunch of people, landlord included, to do a walk-through of the place and get all the keys.  Everything went smoothly. The place looked a lot nicer than we recalled mostly because when we saw the place the tenants were in the middle of a move and had stuff everywhere.  Now, clear from all the clutter and in broad daylight, we felt really lucky to have found this place.

Today, Sly went to sign the lease annnnnndddddd….more drama.

I kind of had a feeling something would happen regarding the lease. It’s kind of common for a lot of negotiations to happen around the time of lease signing — supposedly a Korean thing. In this case, the landlord — who acquired the apartment during the previous tenant’s lease — had never been through an actual lease signing. It’s somewhat complicated to explain but basically he claimed to be surprised “last minute” by all the fine print of signing an expat lease. Then, because he was agitated and frustrated he kept saying that he didn’t want to rent the place, that it would be easier to just sell it.

There were like eight people in that room, for well over an hour and a half, going back and forth, back and forth like some small UN conference. Thank God I was not there (sorry, Sly!) because talk about uncomfortable. Ultimately he agreed to let us sign a one-year lease and, if things go smoothly, *maybe* we’ll be able to sign for the next couple of years while we’re here. This kind of made me nervous on many levels — if the housing market continues to rise but our budget doesn’t, if he decides to sell, etc. But what could we do? We’re pretty sick of hotel life.

After signing the lease Sly and I went to lunch where, coincidentally, we ran into the previous tenant — aka the original Korean Wife. She told us that the landlord called her late last night because he wasn’t sure of what to do regarding the apartment. The KW told him that we were good friends of hers (we’ve only met her once) and that we would be good tenants and we had come all this way and had been living in a hotel for so long. I love that one of the selling points was that he could tell Sly “was a good guy based on how he looks,” which is such a Korean thing to say.

Again, we feel really lucky to have even found a decent place, and, after going through all the interviews, drama, and Korean wife stuff, to actually have signed a lease. We finally move in with our kitties this Friday. Our stuff — already here and sitting in storage while we found a place — will probably be moved in a week later. I’m looking forward to finally settling into our new country; our new home.

TL;DR: The housing market sucks. There are very few apartments available. After lots of politicking, politics, red tape, drama, and Korean Wives later, we finally signed a lease. 

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  • jj March 3, 2015 at 12:31 am

    The entire ordeal sounded so frustrating, but when I got to the TLDR at the end, it made me lol.

    • veronika March 3, 2015 at 1:56 am

      I’m just glad it ended well (for now). I was getting anxious thinking that if this didn’t work we would have to wait even longer for something much less desirable or way outside of town which is where most of the peeps in hotel housing triage ended up living.

    • rebecca March 16, 2015 at 8:24 am

      Best TLDR EVER.

      • veronika March 18, 2015 at 4:45 pm

        I might need to TLDR every post.

  • Karen March 3, 2015 at 1:41 am

    At first this sounded like an episode of International House Hunters! I am glad it turned out ok!

    • veronika March 3, 2015 at 1:59 am

      Hahaha your comment literally made me laugh out loud. I totally love House Hunters – the entire time we were going through this I thought the exact same thing. Except we didn’t have the fake overly rehearsed phone call from the realtor at the end: “Hello? Yes? We got the place? That’s so great!”

  • funnelcloud rachel March 3, 2015 at 1:32 pm

    Dear Veronika, I’m glad you got the apartment and I’m sure you’ll make a very good Korean Wife. 😉

    • veronika March 3, 2015 at 8:28 pm

      Ha! I’m not sure if I want to be a “Korean wife!” As our real estate agent said, “Let’s break the Korean wife cycle with a Korean husband!”

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