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Living in Shanghai Guide

Shanghai's Housing Options

"Where should I live?" This is one of the major questions expats face when coming to Shanghai. Luckily, Shanghai provides a range of options for incoming expats, whether you're looking for a chic studio apartment or a traditional old Shanghainese home:

Independent Villas

Usually called houses in the West these may take the form of standalone (independent units) or semi-detached.

  •   Often townhouses or row houses can be found in many of the same developments, offering access to the same facilities but without the size or cost of an independent villa.
  •   There is limited supply downtown, usually on the small side and aging. One or two newer redeveloped older housing developments are beginning to appear on the market.

Villas in Local Compounds

Expats who choose to live in local compounds usually select high-end local enclaves, usually in the western suburbs. These are also standalone or semi-detached houses with gardens, but facilities are not usually provided and English may not be spoken.

Historic Housing

You may be tempted to live downtown in traditional lane houses or older independent villas (usually from the 1920’s or later). These are commonly called ‘Lao Yang Fang’ (‘Old Houses’ in local expat parlance)

Some are outstandingly beautiful places. However we advise caution and having a year of two living in Shanghai before being tempted by the romance of this style of living. Although the villas may be beautiful on the outside, beauty is very often only skin deep (new plumbing, electrics and waterproofing are only relevant to the boundaries of the property – off your land and probably the electrics and plumbing are decades old)

And, without management to fix your problems (arrangements must be made with the landlord directly), security to protect your family, and friends for your children they can be difficult and lonely places to live and the neighbors rarely speak English.

But romance lives on and there are some excellent renovations out there! Garden villas are standalone houses with gardens; lane houses are attached on both sides (except for corner houses) to their neighbours, and usually have a small garden; and apartments are in historic buildings.

Your Choice: House or Apartment?

You might think you know the pros and cons of living in a house or an apartment, but in Shanghai these reasons will probably be very different from those of your home country:

Pros Cons
  •   More space
  •   Easy Socializing (in gated communities)
  •   24 hour Security
  •   Leisure facilities provided - no need to join the gym
  •   Architecturally interesting homes in local lanes (historic houses)
  •   Authentic Shanghai experience - living in a local neighborhood (historic houses)
  •   Private gardens maintained by compound staff
  •   Ease of communication in English
  •   Pet's Choice
  •   Not so central
  •   Loss of privacy; unsupervised play of children
  •   "Cookie-cutter" houses - less character
  •   Quality of facilities and classes may not be up to standard - so you may need to join the gym after all!
  •   Dealing directly with landlords (historic houses)
  •   Isolation from expat community and communication difficulties with neighbors who don't speak English (historic houses)
  •   Garden muddy and unusable during rainy season; mosquitoes
  •   Isolation from Shanghai locals
  •   Compound regulations regarding times that dogs can be walked and types of pets owned.

Pros Cons
  •   24 hour security
  •   Leisure and sports facilities
  •   Easy socializing
  •   Better location (more central)
  •   Lots of choice of styles (old, new, big, small, characterful)
  •   Shared outdoor space
  •   Usually less space
  •   Unsupervised play of children
  •   Dangerous windows and balconies (altitude)
  •   Can get noise from neighbours' renovations

To help make your decision its worth bearing in mind the following:

International Schools

  •   Commute time
  •   Kindergarten/junior school/high school
  •   Future needs
  •   Shuttle buses (especially for after school activities)

Office Location

  •   Commute time
  •   Working hours flexibility


  •   Will you have a car and driver?
  •   Will you be driving yourself? (due to the differing driving standards and behavior, many multinational companies forbid employees to personally drive in China)
  •   Will your spouse or children need access to a car and driver during the day?
  •   Will you be using public transport? (air-conditioned buses, subway or taxis)
  •   What are your working hours?


  •   Local convenience stores offer the basics, like milk, snacks and groceries
  •   Locally-made foreign food: Many large Western food manufacturers produce well-known name brands locally which can easily be found in larger supermarkets like Carrefour or Tesco's
  •   For imported food and groceries, Shanghai has several international supermarkets like City Shop and Pines.
  •   Opening hours are generally longer than in the west -- local stores will often close around 9-10pm and there are many 24/7 convenience stores around town.


Of course you may not know them yet, but even if you don’t know anyone here, find out where your future work colleagues live. If you already have friends here you may wish to live close to them - but perhaps not right next door...

Generally, families tend to live closer to international schools, while singles and couples live downtown or close to subway stations.

Parks and Green Space

Many compounds offer their own gardens and surrounding environment for tenants looking to get away from the crowded streets. Alternatively, Shanghai has plenty of large parks where you can go for a walk, watch the locals do Tai Chi or just relax.

Hospitals and Clinics

Western clinics may offer advanced services and quality assurance, but some local hospitals also offer high quality medical services, especially in certain disciplines where some of Shanghai’s training hospitals are world leaders. If you are unlucky enough to require an emergency service then you will need to know the time it takes to get there and if they are easily accessible 24/7. If a family member has a medical condition you should live close to a clinic with a 24/7 emergency service available.

Restaurants and Entertainment

  •   How often do you eat out? (You will eat out far more in Shanghai than you ever did at home)
  •   Is this an important consideration for you? Remember that it is far easier to get around the city in the late evening or early morning


  •   How often do you need to travel?
  •   Domestic (Hongqiao and Pudong airports) or international travel (Pudong airport)?
  •   Is a longer trip time to the airport a consideration?
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