The first step in finding housing is to determine what your budget is and how that fits in with the local housing market; your school should have some basic knowledge of the local housing market to assist with this. In larger cities, like Shanghai and Beijing, you can start your search by using a variety of English language websites and agents that cater to the expatriate community. These can be a good choice because they are accustomed to dealing with ESL teachers in China and the kinds of things that they are looking for in an apartment. However, you will pay a premium for those English language services in the form of potentially inflated rent and high agency fees (up to 35% of one month’s rent).
An alternative option to this is to use a Chinese speaking agent or Chinese language website and have a staff member from the school, student or friend translate it for you. This will give you access to a larger variety of housing options at more affordable prices. You probably won’t find an amazing deal working with an English speaking agent, but you may have a much better chance of finding a steal with a Chinese one. But be prepared to visit lots of apartments and be aware that many times the pictures online do not reflect what the apartment actually looks like.
After you find the right apartment at the right price it is time to sign the lease. Dates can be flexible but are typically for one year. Other important things to note about your lease are the dates that rent must be paid and for how many months (many Chinese leases include provisions for payments of three months at a time). It will also be necessary to pay a deposit to your landlord (usually one or two months’ rent) and to pay your agency fee (between 25—35% of one month’s rent) upon signing the lease. You will probably be responsible for utilities (water, gas, electric) and internet. Apartments are usually furnished, but you will need to purchase your own pots, pans, dishes, etc.
Teaching English in China is an adventure and every great adventure needs a base to start from. Establishing a comfortable home for yourself will help you get the best out of your experience teaching abroad in China, so use all available resources to find the right place for you; and happy (apartment) hunting!