Sunday, March 9, 2014

Cat Under A Hot Tin Roof: Looking for a living space as a long-term Taipei expat

As I wrote in a previous post...we have to move. And we're not happy about it. Thinking about it even 3 weeks after hearing the news still creates a sucking feeling somewhere around where my guts are supposed to be.

That post was more general - aimed, I suppose, at a wider audience. This one is more specific to trying to find a place to live in Taipei.

I prayed to Tu Di Gong (the Earth God, who's in charge of these things) once already and my fortune - after throwing fortune blocks - said that we'd have a successful move. It's about time I went back and thanked him for his continued help, although I'm waiting for a breakthrough that would justify doing so. So far that breakthrough has not come.

Side note: one thing I like about Chinese folk gods like Tu Di Gong is that they don't care if you're an atheist. They care that your issue or question is sincere, and that you show up to pray. Even if you don't pray, they may help you. If you do, they may or may not, it depends on their mood or whatever heavenly politics they're involved in at the moment. The idea that an atheist could go to an Earth God shrine in Taipei and pray, despite not believing, is not irreconcilable in this culture. To me this is realistic (either a god will help you or he won't, and praying may help your case, or you may get lucky), echoing how things work in the real world (either you get lucky or you don't). It's a way to make myself feel better, and feel more connected to life in Taiwan. I can do that, and be an atheist. Thanks, Earth God. You're cool.


A lot of the advice out there on renting an apartment in Taiwan is aimed at new arrivals, Fresh Off The Plane folks who don't know how things work. And that's great - they probably need the advice. I want to talk more to long-termers in this post, though. Not necessarily to give advice - I don't have any - but to open up about my own experiences so far.

My own renting history wasn't that great until our most recent apartment, which is basically the best non-luxury apartment in all of Taipei. No traffic noise, a courtyard "view", a good window that gives the living room natural sunlight, attractive faux-wood floors, a bathtub, a dryer, in one of the best possible locations (Da'an district, well behind Technology Building station and near the southern terminus of Da'an Road). First, I lived in a horrible foreigner flophouse where new hires at Kojen English are housed until they can find something better, or at least marginally less disgusting. Kojen never bothered to clean it, and it housed a rotating crew of mostly twentysomething men who never bothered to clean (not necessarily because they were men; more likely it was also because they saw their residence there as temporary, and they were immatu....I mean young). The kitchen was so filthy I wouldn't cook in it, the roaches were horribly brave, the balcony had a Coke can full of rainwater and cigarette buts on the tumbledown old table, the glass panes on the shelving were covered in old Taiwan Beer labels that had been applied while still wet, and the most memorable feature of the place was a dartboard attached to a stolen traffic cone - one of the darts still stuck in the board had a pair of women's underwear on it. Nobody knew where they'd come from.

Then I moved into the Japanese room of an otherwise nice first-floor apartment near Liuzhangli. It wasn't bad, but it was tiny, not terribly private, and had no natural light. I wasn't allowed to have overnight guests but the apartment's owner (at least I presume she was the owner) sometimes did. I couldn't get the Internet there to work on my laptop and after a few cursory attempts, she gave up trying to help me. I wasn't allowed to sign an official lease, which made it impossible to follow the law and have my residence address updated on my ARC.

Then I moved in with my then-boyfriend-now-husband, Brendan, after his roommates in Nanshijiao agreed to it (I was spending so much time there anyway that we figured I may as well pay rent). It was a 6th floor illegal walk-up, and I hated it. The other "couple" had broken up but were still sharing a room for a variety of complicated reasons. I tried to help the girlfriend get her life in order as best I was able to support her, but in the end they kept fighting (as broken-up couples sharing a bedroom are wont to do), neither was able/willing to move out, and we all decided it was best if Brendan and I moved out so she could live in the other room (well, I'm not sure it was "best" but I really wanted out, so it didn't really matter). I don't miss that apartment - hot as hell in summer, ugly white tile, ugly fake blue leather couches, white walls, cheap construction, fighting roommates - or that neighborhood (Zhonghe...kind of sucks. I felt like an ant in an overcrowded colony), but I do miss the female ex-roommate's friendly Labrador. I still think about him. What a great dog.

We felt pushed ou---I mean had to move right as I was changing jobs - I really could not stay at Kojen, I was deeply unhappy there - and we'd planned a visit home and after a year of being Kojen's butt-monkey, I had basically no money. So we took the first acceptable, affordable place we could find which was another illegal 6th floor walkup with an ugly floor, bad construction, a roach problem, a kitchen that didn't even qualify as Third World and a tiny bedroom. The only natural light was in the kitchen - little reached the living room.

At least we were back in Taipei and liked the neighborhood - Jingmei - and the rent was very cheap. We decorated the living room, even with the landlord's dilapidated old furniture (it didn't even qualify as "vintage"), to be as homey as we could make it, painting the walls a warm creamy yellow and the bedroom in shades of blue. It was so cheap, and we liked the area so much, that we stayed for four years. We got married. We planned a trip to Turkey. We went to Egypt and India. Rent was so cheap that we had lots of disposable income.

But our formerly friendly landlady was starting to get weird, refusing to fix an obviously broken air conditioner (she blamed it on cat hair, but cleaning out the filter didn't fix anything). We baked all summer in 2011 under the corrugated tin roof, kept the faulty air conditioner at 19C, and our electricity bills skyrocketed. We couldn't turn it off - we'd come home to baked cat. I still harbor a suspicion that the bills, which went to the landlady, were artificially inflated but I can't prove it.

In Turkey we rented the first floor of a lovely old townhouse during our month-long course in Istanbul. We had an adorable living-bedroom combo, a sunny and inviting kitchen, and even a little back garden with a pear tree and friendly neighborhood cats. We also had slugs that would come out from a drain in the kitchen, but for one month we could live with that. When we came back, I huffed up the six flights of stairs to our ugly old place and my shoulders sank. I was glad to be back in Taiwan, but not glad to be home. I hated that place - I suspect now that the lack of sunlight and general uncomfortableness of it was affecting my mood to the point of near - but not clinical - depression.

And that was what it was like as expats renting apartments in Taipei. Your choices seemed to be old white-tile monstrosities with bubbling walls and no light, or apartments out in Taipei County (Xinbei - whatever) in ugly cities, or far from the MRT, or cat-under-a-hot-tin-roof illegal 6th floor apartments with no elevator, or tiny rooms in shared places with kitchens that were falling apart and furnishings on the wrong side of a bonfire (in that they hadn't been rightfully thrown in one yet).

No! I thought, three years ago. No no no no no NO! I WILL NOT DO THIS. "We have to move," I told Brendan. "" We decided to start preliminary searches, but decided we couldn't afford to move so soon after coming back from Turkey until 2012 at the latest. I was depressed, just thinking about a few more months in an apartment I'd previously liked for its location and cheapness, but had come to loathe.

It turns out we didn't have to look at all. I put a "yeah, right" ad on TEALIT describing my dream apartment - attractive floors, natural light, a goddamn elevator for chrissakes, I mean really - a kitchen that I wasn't afraid to use, air conditioning that worked. A dryer would be nice. How about a Chinese-style circular window, or one shaped like a bottle or peach or something? Why the hell not? A Japanese room! I want to be allowed to paint! A second bedroom, sure! In Taipei City! Near the MRT!

I didn't think for a moment that we'd find such a place, and in fact most of the replies I got were from people who had clearly not read the ad. "We have a great studio near Taipei Main" - nope, I want at least one bedroom. "We have lovely apartments for rent in Banqiao" - heh. Xinbei can suck it. I will not live in Banqiao.

Then I got an ad saying "I need to leave Taipei and I have basically exactly what you want. Come take a look." I thought, "probably not, but okay." We took a look. It was exactly what we wanted. Wood (well, fake wood) floors, natural light, a Japanese-style tea nook, a dryer (!!), three bedrooms, near the MRT, no weird architectural details or in-built shelving that we hated. Just a nice floor, good light and four walls that we could decorate as we wished.

Although we really couldn't afford it after such a long trip, we made ourselves broke for awhile and moved in just 2 months later. And we stayed happily for years, thinking that we'd make that place our home until someday, maybe, we either left Taiwan or bought our own place (which was not going to happen with the over-valuation of Taipei properties thanks to a massive real estate bubble that has not burst, but probably will).

Then, as you know, we were told we'd have to leave.

The first thing I noticed when we began searching for a new place is that people take really bad photos of the apartments that are available (something one of my Facebook friends also noted). A lot of photos are blurry, or don't show important features (a bathroom shot with no inclusion of the bathing area, so you have no idea whether you're going to get an Asian-style washroom with no separation between shower area and toilet/sink, a shower stall or a tub? Really?) or make places out to be darker or smaller than they actually are. Why would you do that if you want people to rent your space? Sometimes you get photos of what is basically just a corner of the room! What good is that? Sometimes the photos are even blurry - they couldn't take an extra 2 seconds to take a non-blurry photo? And sometimes the photos are oddly stretched or obviously manipulated, which I feel should be, if not illegal, at least considered so unprofessional that nobody does it.

The second is that people, even local friends, gave really bad advice. "Some apartments have flaws that don't become apparent until later," they might say. "So you should avoid that." Yeah, um, I don't see how that can be avoided if the flaws are not something you could know about when looking at a place. "You shouldn't pay any agent fees, the landlord should pay all of it" - well, when every single agent says otherwise, that the fee is paid half-half, there's not much I can do about it. "It's hard to find an apartment with nice floors, you can just get a tile floor apartment and cover it with a rug." Which is exactly what I don't want to do. First of all, it's still ugly. Secondly, especially with a cat but even without, rugs are a pain to clean.

"You can find newer places in Banqiao or Xindian." Except I don't want to live in Banqiao or Xindian. I really, really, really don't like Taipei County. Like, really. If it's not old and crowded - and ugly, and depressing - it's overpriced (Yonghe #4 Park), too far from anything interesting (places like Danshui) which would mean a race we don't want to run to catch the MRT home every night. '"Banqiao is actually an easy commute to work" - except I only teach one class at that place, and I don't intend to structure my life around work. I structure work around my life. Yonghe and Zhonghe are too crowded, with even worse pedestrian infrastructure than Taipei, and are deeply unattractive and inconvenient to get around. Linkou is too far away and horribly boring. I will not live somewhere that requires me to have a scooter to get around. And Xindian, I'm sorry, is just fucking ugly (for the parts that are not ugly, you need a scooter). No, no, no, no and no.

The third thing we've noticed is that while any numpty with a camera and an Internet connection can post an apartment for rent on 591, the majority of postings are from agents. We'd prefer to just deal with a landlord, but have come to accept that we may have to pay someone half a month's rent when they haven't really done anything to deserve it (an agent who can proactively look for us and introduce us to properties not online yet and keep our wishes in mind, however, would be worth the money).

We've also been looking on agent websites -, kijiji, House Fun,, and on the foreigner sites (Taiwanease, Forumosa, TEALIT and Craigslist). The local sites tend to have more affordable listings, although they're often quite ugly. The nicer places are furnished - with furniture we neither need, nor like, nor want. The foreigner-friendly sites have better properties, but tend to be overpriced. I don't know what kind of money they think expats who need to rent their own places are made of, but an 18-ping non-luxury property is not worth over $1,000 USD a month no matter where it is in Taipei. It's just not.

What's more, we've realized how picky we truly are. I have a thing about floors - I'm *thisclose* to saying I have a floor fetish. Now that I've lived with floors I actually like, I'm not willing to go back to cold white tile. Now that I know what it's like not to fight wall cancer, I can't accept wall cancer. Now that I have lived in a place where, after showering, I can use the toilet without my feet getting wet, I won't go back to an Asian-style washroom. Now that I have furniture I like, I'm not willing to live with furniture I don't like. Now that I've lived in a great apartment near the MRT, I'm not willing to move far from the MRT and take the bus. Now that I've lived in a nice corner of Taipei City, I refuse to live in an ugly or distant corner of Xinbei. Now that I've had natural light I won't give it up. Now that we own a Whirlpool dryer, I won't get rid of it because it won't fit in a prospective apartment's new back room. Now that I have a real kitchen without having to put a refrigerator in the living room, and not had to fear that I'd walk in to find a rat in front of the sink, I won't go back to a dilapidated old kitchen with no refrigerator. Now that I've had an elevator, I won't walk up 5, or even 3, flights of stairs. Now that I've had good natural light, I won't accept a dark living room or frosted windows (in fact, I don't even want textured glass, nor do I want a window partly taken up by an air conditioner, making it hard to hang nice curtains). Now that we have had the chance to paint and decorate to our specifications, I can't accept ugly in-built shelving that I don't want, or light fixtures I don't like (I am, however, willing to paint any wall back to its original color whenever we move out of any given place, and make sure all lights are functional). I just want four plain walls, good light and a nice floor. A kitchen and bathroom that are not horrifying. I can tolerate a little traffic noise. I can tolerate a dark bedroom - it's for sleeping, anyway.

I know I can get all this, and about 30 ping of space, for $25,000-$30,000NT in Taipei City, in Da'an District even, because that's what we pay now. And now that I know that I can have that, I will not be the poor wand'ring expat living in some hot, leaky rooftop. And that's what I want. I will not let the sub-par rental market push me into a place I don't love.

And that's just it: locals, for the most part, either own an apartment and rent it out, living in a rental that they like (owning an apartment in Xinbei and renting one in Taipei to live is common), or rent apartments only when they're young and are willing to live somewhere that's not "home" because they're young and broke and see the arrangement as temporary, or do so because their ultimate goal is to buy real estate. Foreigners seem to be shunted into the worst properties by an apathetic market - it's easy to unload those shit-acular tin roof shacks to foreigners, or those privacy-lacking Japanese rooms, or those windowless spaces. I just won't let that be me. And you shouldn't let it be you. I've become accustomed to a more settled, prosperous life in a comfortable living space, and I am not willing to give that up.

We've considered starting a fund to buy a place (we don't have the necessary deposit money right now) so we could be as picky as we wanted and do what we wanted with the space once we owned it. And that's a great goal that we're going to start working toward - but for now, we're stuck in the rental market. And we will be until the real estate bubble bursts, because if I won't rent an apartment in an area where I don't want to live, I certainly won't buy one there.

So far, we've only found two places we could imagine living in. One was just a bit above our budget, which would have been fine if it hadn't been for a grand piano in the living room. Take out the piano, or lower the rent to account for the loss of space, and we'd be signing the lease right now. The other came with a pushy agent who wanted one month's rent as a fee (that's double the market rate - nope. Not gonna happen) and wanted us in by March 15 (one week from now). Not possible. I made a counter-offer - the market rate agent's fee and an April move-in, but haven't gotten a call back.

Which is yet another thing I hate about this whole process: it's deeply difficult, culturally speaking I guess, to deliver bad news directly. And so when the phone call must deliver a "no", people seem to prefer to not make the call. I was told, for the grand piano apartment, that the agent would try to get the landlord to lower the rent and she'd let me know. She never did. I asked one landlord of a Chenggong Apartments place we liked if we could put in our own faux-wood floor on top of the tile. He said he'd talk to his wife and call me back, but hasn't. The agent who wanted a preposterous fee said he'd "check" about my offer, and hasn't called me back.

I know this is the American in me talking - and is probably horribly culturally imperialist of me - but baby Jesus on a stick! Is it really so hard to pick up the phone, send an e-mail, even drop a text message - to let you know that something's not happening?

Finally, not long after we began the hunt, I was loitering outside of a rental agency - there was no agent present at the small branch office at that moment - and I got to talking to an older woman who was also there. She asked me what I was looking for - I told her my wish list. She said her kid had just such an apartment - same complex that we live in now, wood floors, a view of Far Eastern Hotel (meaning good light - I don't care about the view so much),  3 bedrooms, same rent, nice kitchen, bathtub. Sounds perfect. Available at the end of April. Great. We exchanged numbers.

Except...we can't see the place yet. We have to wait until April because the departing tenants don't want strangers barging in on their personal space. I find this odd - but maybe it's a cultural thing. Maybe the Earth God is helping me out and it'll all work out. Maybe not. Maybe the woman I talked to has dementia and she doesn't even have a kid, let alone a kid with an apartment to rent.

I don't know. We'll see. Come on, Earth God.

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