So you have gotten yourself a visa, you’ve come on over to Taiwan, and you’ve found a job.
The time has come to find a place to hang your hat, to put your feet up and to call home. Now, if you’re like me, your home is your castle, your refuge from all the stupidities and distractions of the world outside. There are four options that are going to be available to you. (Note that these options are going to vary in size and price and quality depending on which city you land up in.)
Things to consider about location. Taiwan is an exceptionally busy place. Especially in the big cities. Where I live in Kaohsiung, it is possible to step out onto the road at 4am and flag down a passing cab in under 5 minutes. Traffic is a ceaseless monster prowling about the city, and noise and air pollution are factors in housing. Beware of living on main roads and near highways. It may be convenient, but you are going to hear everything. Taiwanese houses are built with excessive summer heat in mind. Windows are not double-glazed. Construction is light, and surfaces are normally hard. (I have yet to see a carpeted room in Taiwan) Unlike houses in the UK and Europe that are pretty sound-proofed, Taiwanese houses are as noisy as their area.
1) The School-provided Accommodation:
Sometimes, your school is going to provide your housing. This can vary from a room in a commune through to your very own cushy pad. Read your contract carefully with regards to your contributions to the housing. Are you responsible for the bills, the internet, the phone? How is the payment going to be made?
There are a few factors to consider when accepting school accommodation:
Firstly, the location of your accommodation is likely to be super close to the school. This is going to save you money on transport and transportation in the beginning, and there is always going to be a source of help on hand for any problems you may have. This proximity is a two-edged sword however, and just as easily as you can get to the school, they can get to you. (I once lived in a school house that was literally next door to the school. One of my housemates called in sick, only to have the boss dropping by to “see how sick he was”. The same boss also dropped round unexpectedly during a barbecue party we were holding.)
Secondly, it is not YOUR place. It is the school’s house. You’re not going to have too much sway with stating who stays there, who shares what and who gets the comfy chair. Because it is not your place, and wasn’t the previous occupants’ place either… it is likely not too well taken care of. The school owner/manager has likely never spent more than a few hours in the place, and that to oversee the installation of someone’s second hand furniture. Cram schools are, after all, a profit-driven company, not a government sponsored school. A lot depends on your housemates. I have lived with some really decent souls, and I have lived with some amazingly dirty and disorganised people. Being the school’s house, it is likely that you are going to be sharing it with your foreign colleagues. This is a good thing if you all get along, but sometimes (as we all know) you DON’T get along with your colleagues. Given the sheer variety of foreign cultures that are likely to be thrown together, some sparks will fly. Bear in mind that good or bad, you will be living with the people you work with.
Thirdly, if something goes wrong… your boss is likely to be your go-to guy. You are not likely to have mastered the local language before arriving, and believe it or not, air-conditioner mechanics are not overly qualified in English studies. Which means that you’re going to have to get someone at your school to phone someone in… and then explain what you want done. (Later in this series, I will cover home repair and technicians, but suffice it to say that they are a LOT faster in arriving than their Western counterparts, and do a MUCH sloppier job. As an ex-IT tech, I was horrified by the slack job done by our internet guy.) The idea of going to your boss with a problem is daunting to some people, and there can be a bit of tension regarding who gets to tell the boss that the washing machine is broken.
On the whole… I think that school-based accommodation is a good option for a first-timer to Taiwan. It is normally a decent place, with basic furnishings. You are protected from having to deal with bills and landlords by your school, and you are likely to be close by. That said, you pay the price in privacy and autonomy.
2) The Commune:
Just on the outset, let me tell you that I am not a commune kind of guy. I have lived with my wife and another couple very successfully, but we were all good friends that knew one another well. Moving in with friends is not the sort of commune I am talking about. I am speaking of the kind of place that has four bedrooms that are let independently to one another. Housemates come and go, and the arrangements are pretty casual. The dangers and pitfalls of living in a commune are basically the same as in the west.
The only differences here are that you are living in a country that doesn’t really speak your language. Paying bills is easy enough, but paying LATE bills is another story. If one of your housemates forgets or steals the money or something, you’re in for a lot of hassle. Likewise, trust between housemates can be a little tricky. Because everyone is basically transient and temporary, they will get up to many things that they wouldn’t ordinarily consider in their home town. They may steal, meaning that you need to lock your door… or it could be as bad as bringing drugs into the house. Remember at all times that you are a guest in the country, and if you get involved with something illegal, it may be easier for them to deport you than to deal with the problem.
Just as in the west, I recommend the Commune for younger single people. As in anything, check the place out to your satisfaction before signing anything.
3) The Apartment:
The apartment would seem to be the best option for the Taiwanese newbie and veteran alike. The trick is to get an apartment that is close enough to your schools to make the commute easy, but far away enough from the city that rent is cheaper and it isn’t so busy outside.
There are a few things to be aware of in the renting of apartments. You are just as likely to know your landlord as you are to deal with an agent. In either case, make sure that you can contact them when needed, and that you go through the contract carefully. It is normal in Taiwan to pay a rental fee to your agent or landlord, and then a separate “Guard or Management fee” (Guanli fei – 管理费) to the guards that work in your building. This fee covers cleaning of the building (Not your apartment), the security, mail sorting and sometimes parking. The biggest thing that it may cover is the garbage collection. Many apartments have their own private skip downstairs, enabling you to dispose of your trash whenever you want to. The Guanli Fei is likely to be about NT$2000 to NT$2500 per month. This is dependent on the services provided and the size of your apartment.
Apartment size is measured in “Ping”, and the apartment size INCLUDES the outside area of your apartment and the elevator. When you are looking for an apartment, it is always a good idea to go on the number of rooms, and then to GO AND LOOK AT THE PLACE. Do not rent sight unseen. You really must look at your locale. You do not want to be tied into a one year lease in an apartment that overlooks a Stinky Tofu store. (Stinky Tofu, Chou Doufu – 臭豆腐 is a SERIOUSLY smelly delicacy in Taiwan. The smell of it has been likened to “hot garbage” and “rewarmed beer puke”. Describe it as you want, it is uniformly gross smelling.) If you are using an agent, feel free to haggle or bargain with the rental price. Agents take a slice of your monthly rent, so there is some leeway. Also feel free to keep looking. In my experience in Taiwan, there are two kinds of housing agent. The first charges a flat fee before showing you anything. The second is only paid when you find a place, and is then paid a half-month’s rent. The latter agent is more expensive, but also will not get paid until you find a home. As someone who has paid a flat fee and was then shown an absolute shower of crap, well… the second agent gets my vote.
Check with your agent when you rent… there may be building-wide special deals on gas and internet and cable. Worth investigating for savings.
4) The House:
Virtually without exception, a “house” in Taiwan is a terraced home, far longer than it is wide. With space being at a premium, houses are often 4 or 5 floors. Houses tend to run a wide range of prices. Unlike apartments, you will not have a communal garbage skip. This means dashing out at the assigned times with your trash bags, and jostling with your neighbours to get the bags tossed in the truck. This can actually be a very good social situation, as you will meet the people that live in your area. A smile and some Chinese will go a long way to making friends.
Houses are varied in terms of age and quality. Generally speaking, newer houses are more expensive than older ones, and with good reason. When you move in, make sure that you have tested the airconditioners and furniture in the house. I have a number of friends that landed up repairing airconditioners and putting up with crappy furniture when they moved into their houses. (The same goes for apartments, although they do tend to be better maintained.) Houses will give you privacy and off-street parking. That said, your bills can be very high, especially if you try and cool the entire place down in summer. (The higher floors in houses are always quite hot.)
There… I hope that this sees you settled and comfortable.
Next time – Taiwan 004 – The Utilities… phone, internet, gas, water and power. (And paying your bills.)
If you have any questions, please leave me a comment, and I will get back to you.