It's a question as old as the Beijing's first high-rise. It keeps us up at night. It suddenly sneaks up on us while we are out eating, when we're in the middle of a meeting, and when we're even at the gym, sending us down a rabbit hole of the unanswered. Of course, that question is:
"Who has it better: hutong-dwellers or high-rise hermits?"
Yet when it comes to finding answers, who can we trust? As someone who has lived in several different locations in Beijing, including two high-rises and two hutong houses, here I will attempt to put the question to bed, and reveal the advantages and pitfalls of both.
The blazing heat of summer and freezing cold of winter is a topic that just keeps on giving. Giving material for complaining that is. Protecting your gentle self from the outside elements is definitely easier in an apartment building where you're much more likely to have double glazing or windows that have not outlived Mao himself. Hutong apartments are infamous for their lack of insulation, so it's likely in winter that if your spot hasn't been recently renovated that you'll need to buy a heater, throw on an extra layer (or ten), and opt to have your windows insulated with plastic, which goes a little way to keeping out the frigid cold. In summer, however, expect to crank up the air conditioner until the sound keeps your neighbors awake, which takes us to...
While it certainly depends on the building, high-rises tend to have better sound insulation. Many hutong houses are split into smaller studio-type apartments that utilize a notoriously thin (and largely illegal) partition walls, which means that you hear your neighbors – a lot. On the other hand, if your house is nestled deep in a courtyard and far from a car-clogged street, it might be well protected from the buzz of the city, with only the sweet warble of your neighbor's birds or the whistle of pigeons overhead to wake you up in the morning. Nevertheless, it's definitely worth asking your realtor about noise levels on the viewing day as well as keeping an ear out yourself.
There is virtually nothing to be said about high-rise apartment neighbors. They magically disappear from view the second you leave the elevator or staircase, and you could easily live in an apartment building for five years and never even meet them once. Scientists have long debated the societal downsides to not being connected to your community on a personal level but in China's growing need for privacy, it seems like apartments are here to stay.
Hutong neighbors, on the other hand, are a completely different story. If you live in a hutong, it's very likely that you will live next to some OG elder Beijingers who will spend no time in asking just how much you're paying for your new house. Between their charmingly incomprehensible accents and penchant for stacking corn, cabbages, and sweet potatoes outside their rooms to dry during the year, the daily human contact provides an idyllic backdrop for your Beijing life, or for choosing characters for your soon-to-be-penned Beijing memoir. Keep your neighbors close, expect to learn the art of stating the obvious ("您回来了！"), and you're sure to have a fantastic, community-based living arrangement.
Bad news for green thumbs who like to live close to the ground: hutong apartments rarely provide enough light to keep regular plants happy (though you may be lucky enough to have your own century-old tree in the courtyard), and expect it to be a little dark for you too. If you are in fact bathing in light, you're probably on the second or even third floor, in which case you should contact your landlord as soon as possible to make sure that your happy little home is not about to get demolished for violating building codes.
High-rises, on the other hand, offer plenty of light, especially if you have a nice, big balcony so both your plant friends and your soul can flourish. Being woken up by the rays of sunlight is still considered a blessing, isn't it?
When ogling a subway map in Beijing's basement or avoiding being hit by the constant stream of buses overground, the capital certainly appears well connected. That is until you have to get anywhere yourself. We're big proponents of getting around town via bike (or scooter), and living in a hutong can save you time simply because you don't lose ten minutes hiking up to your apartment from street level. Saying that, if you prefer walking, making your way to a main street from the city's warren-like alleys can take a little time. This can also pose a problem when moving house.
On top of that, the pot-holes and sand mounds, wild hutong dogs, and even small children scattered throughout the hutongs can be a real troublemaker for those lacking night vision or quick reflexes. Only those lao Beijingers who have walked the same path in and out of their courtyard their entire lives are able to know each bump and rut like the back of their hands. The rest of us risk sore elbows and twisted ankles as we stumble about in the dark.
High-rise apartments will certainly protect you from these trip-and-fall situations thanks to noise-activated staircase lights, tarmacked pathways, and in some cases, closer subway access. Other pluses often include large elevators and underground parking for both bikes and cars.
Old hutong courtyards are disappearing at an alarming rate, and those that remain are more often than not being renovated into luxurious palaces (think 12k and up), putting them way out of our reach. The WeChat feed of hutong-focused realtors is crammed with cozy (A.K.A. tiny) lofts for RMB 6,000-7,000 and more spacious ones for around RMB 8,000. If you dive into Lianjia Mini Program on WeChat, you can find similar hutongs for a few hundred yuan less though be prepared to look through hundreds of ominous-looking pictures of the apartments.
Location also plays a role since the hutongs are clustered around the (comparatively expensive and central) greater Forbidden City area. Nowadays, if you're still determined to live on the cheap, you could probably score a nice two bedroom in Tongzhou for RMB 3,000 per month... but you'll have to enjoy it alone because none of your city-center friends will come to visit. Like, ever.
High-rise prices will rarely surprise you, except by constantly reminding you of just how damn expensive it is to live in Beijing. On the whole, high-rises tend to offer more space for your buck and you can snatch a decent 60sqm hut for around RMB 7,000. The bathroom is a whole separate issue though, with most of them being so outrageously repulsive, you can smell them by just looking at the picture.
This is where hutong houses win hands-down, every single time. No white-tiled bedrooms and flowery wallpaper in the high-rises will ever be able to compete with heavy wooden doors, open courtyard spaces, and quirky design solutions to optimize space in the hutongs. And that's not to mention your adorable granny Beijinger neighbors and their tiny shoe-wearing dogs. Got someone to impress? Take them to your rustic-chic-boho-minimal-vintage hutong apartment where your design skills get to shine. Plants? Yes. Lights? Yes. Arty posters? Absolutely yes. It all goes well with the hutong houses and even the chipping paint just adds charm to the whole brew. Trust me, your self-esteem will thank you.
Still can't decide? At the end of the day, it comes down to whether you can tolerate a leaking roof or exploding toilet in exchange for convenience and comfort. Or, have it both ways and keep the hutong home of your dreams inside your high-rise apartment, with this handy kit! Win-win.
Other things to keep in mind when hunting for a new home in Beijing
- Apartments posted online are often snapped up quickly, so give yourself plenty of time and expect to do a fair amount of trawling.
- If an apartment's price looks too good to be true, it probably is.
- Regardless of both of the above, it is often worth contacting the agent directly as they are likely to have similar apartments located in the same neighborhood.
- Check whether you must pay an agency fee on top of your deposit (both usually equivalent to one month's rent) as well as how often you'll need to cough up rent (once every three months is usual) and how far in advance. You can often secure cheaper rent if you're willing to pay more upfront (think six months to a year's worth of rent in bulk).
- If you have a specific neighborhood you want to live in, visit the real estate agents around there too. Dropping in can really yield different results when scouting the latest offers according to the location, price, or size as compared to searching online or using Lianjia, 58.com, etc.
- Finally, be patient and keep your wits about you. House hunting in Beijing has the potential to fracture relationships and permanently alter sleep patterns if you let it. Best thing to do is take deep breaths and remember that all will be forgotten in a couple of months, well, until the next time you need to move.
Making a move? Here's everything you should be asking before you rent.
Images: Giphy, Access China Travel