I think I found a home!
I've looked at several more apartments with my wonderful Chinese broker who speaks almost no English. Yesterday afternoon he took me to view two apartments on the back of his electric bicycle. Neither of them were anywhere near as welcoming to me as the first place he had shown me, which was fabulous but overpriced. I loved it, but don't want to knowingly overpay.
Last night I was on my way to meet my friend S, a Beijing-born Chinese-American woman, when she called and asked if I'd mind looking at an apartment with her. We're both home hunting, both plan to live alone, and have gone to look at some apartments together then shared our opinions of the buildings, apartments, furnishing, and decor - or lack thereof. If she didn't like the apartment last night she was going to renew the lease on her current apartment. I was just along as a prelude to our dinner and to give another opinion.
We met close to where we had previously planned to meet, in the Sanlitun embassy area, a few minutes walk from an English-language bookstore, a good local grocery store, the yoga studio where I like to go, and lots of good restaurants. We met the broker on a street corner opposite from Beijing's Worker Stadium, a central landmark and the location of the Olympic soccor semi-finals and finals. Only a few minutes walk away we turned into the courtyard of a Chinese apartment complex where only three weeks ago S and I had both commented we would love to get in but the rents would probably be insane if any Chinese retirees were willing to sublet.
At the entry to the building we met the landlady, a Chinese woman in her thirties, then walked up four flights of stairs and waited while she opened a heavy metal door right off to the landing. The heavy metal door led to a private outdoor patio and another metal door, behind which was an indoor patio and a hallway into a place we never would have expected in a building that is over thirty years old. Spanish tiles in the entryway. High ceilings. Modern light fixtures. A bathtub. An oven (small, but still large enough for a brownie pan, cookie sheet or lasagna dish). Built-in bookcases. Generous storage space. Crown molding. Front and back patios. Southern and norther exposure. Views of green courtyard areas. Over 120 square meters of floor space. Two large bedrooms. The complex was built by the Soviet Union for senior communist party officials working in China in the late 1960s and it was made to last. Its location in the embassy area means that heat and power are reliable. All at a price well under market, maybe one third less, because the landlord wants someone they trust who won't be a problem.
The rent on the apartment is at the cap of what I was willing to pay, but for this apartment, the location and the space I would be quite happy to pay it. So would S. Such places are almost impossible for outsiders or foreigners to get into (no, we're supposed to want to live in overpriced, modern luxury monstrosities with all the character of an overcooked potato and filled with other foreigners), but S has local origins and guanxi (a network of relationships and connections) that are hard for a newcomer to access, and a friend connected her with this broker. As we looked through the apartment we kept commenting on the same things, or exclaiming for the other to look at some detail (crown molding!). We've decided that we'll share.
We're going back on Friday afternoon to take a look at the apartment during the day, check the water pressure and sign the lease. Last night over dinner in a nearby cafe we started to discuss decor and house rules; today we discussed them further and agreed to have a written agreement that clearly states financial responsibilities and some other information. Our next step will be to get a housekeeper in do a deep clean. If all goes well I'll be living there in under two weeks. I already know the area and have friends nearby, and will have easy access to most of the places where I go regularly.
Wish us luck!