across the Chaobai River

November 15th, 2009

It’s nice to be told straight up I’ll never get a mortgage because I’m a foreigner. And for my wife to be told she’ll never get a mortgage because she married a foreigner.

On Friday after work lzh met up with a friend. Her friend said, “Hey, there’s this real estate development out in Yanjiao (燕郊) that’s selling apartments cheap! You should come along and have a look!” And so they agreed to meet at the 930 bus stop at Dabeiyao (Guomao) at 11am.

Yesterday morning dawned with me feeling tired and headachy and generally not wanting to do much more than sleep. But I was kicked out of bed, thrown in the shower, dressed, and dragged out the door. Well, it wasn’t that bad, and it would be nice to see if these apartments were any good and if they were affordable.

The norwester had finally come and cleared out that ridiculous damp, snowy weather we’ve been plagued with for the first half of November. A clear, clean, blue sky, but a bitterly cold breeze. We got to Dabeiyao, met our friends, found the stop for the bus we needed (the 930, like apparently all the 900-series buses, seems to come in a wide variety of mutations, so we had to find one particular 930 that would drop us right outside this development), and eventually managed to get on one. There was quite a crowd of people looking to catch the exact same bus, so we watched three load up and leave before we made it to the front of the queue.

The bus was pretty good, taking off down the Jingtong Expressway then the Jingha Expressway, making a couple of stops along the northern edge of Tongzhou town before getting back on the Jingha, zipping past Songzhuang and across the Chaobai River, over the border into Hebei, then straight down the G102 through Yanjiao. It took us a little under an hour to get out there, and that was largely thanks to the lack of traffic restrictions on the weekends causing backups at the toll gates. Lack of traffic restrictions and the large number of real estate developments being built in Yanjiao. Although we were in Hebei, it seems most of the cars had Beijing licence plates, and the sales office of the development we visited was packed.

The Chaobai River wasn’t much of a river. More like a long, narrow, shallow ditch with a couple of tiny streams winding their way through, but otherwise mostly grass. It would be nice to think it turns into a proper river with the summer rains, but that grass was a bit too long for me to believe it had suddenly sprung up in that brief gap between summer and November when it was still warm enough for things to grow.

It seems that Yanjiao is taking advantage of its proximity to Beijing- especially the CBD- to drive its development. “40 minutes to the CBD” they told us, and considering it took us 50-odd minutes to get there through weekend unrestricted traffic, I can believe that’s true of a weekday morning. The most common kind of advertising along the G102 in Yanjiao was for real estate, and where Yanjiao was expanding at its western and eastern edges, there was no shortage of sales offices. Especially along its northwestern edge, apartment blocks seemed to be the most important cash crop of Yanjiao’s fields. Every bus stop- including Dabeiyao- seemed to have a huddle of real estate touts hawking apartments. I can’t understand why anybody would buy an apartment from somebody standing at a bus stop clutching a well-worn brochure, but I guess they must be able to make a living this way, otherwise they wouldn’t be standing out in that cold, cold wind. And glancing at the map, Yanjiao seems to be no further from Beijing’s CBD than Shijingshan, and closer than Shunyi or Changping.

Our destination was on the eastern edge of the town. The western edge was all fancy, new real estate, then the bus took us through the centre of town, which was considerably older and betrayed Yanjiao’s real status as a township of Sanhe City (三河市), and a small one at that, with a population of 104800 in 2002. The dusty streets were lined with weathered buildings from the white-tile period of modern Chinese architecture, other buildings with very-faux-Classical European facades. It felt very much like a small county town, but not as far along in its development as any of Beijing’s equivalent outlying towns. Nevertheless, it seemed like quite a pleasant place, and certainly had all the amenities one would need in order to persuade people to buy apartments out there, plenty of restaurants, supermarkets, markets, hospitals and schools.

We arrived at our destination on the eastern edge of the town. The first thing I noticed when we got off the bus was the cooling towers of a powerstation just fifty-odd metres northeast of this development. Steam from the towers conveniently obscured the chimney and its smoke, but I’d noticed this powerstation in the distance when we were driving through the town. I was told it would soon be closed down. I have no way to confirm that. Anyway, right in front of us was a fancy new towerblock, obviously yet to be completed. Well, the structure was all there and people had moved in to their apartments, but the lower levels that were supposed to house a shopping mall were still in use as the sales office. So, finsihed, but not quite. Immediately to the west was Phase 2 of the development, where are friends are planning to buy a small apartment. On the eastern side was an old, 1950s-looking estate of long, low-rise brick apartment blocks that would soon have to make way for Phase 3. To the south was an area of low-level industrial buildings, little more than a shanty town.

Inside the soon-to-be-mall/sales office, the walls of the lobby were covered in posters showing the various kinds of apartments on offer and sofas arranged around coffee tables at which multitudes were doing their deals. Under the escalator was a large model showing the finished project, a model that showed the effects of the myriad people with an urgent need to touch it in order to figure out what it will be like when it’s finished. This place was beyond crowded, and the thousands of small groups of apartment hunters and buyers acted with such urgency you’d think they were running late and in danger of missing their train. Our friends found their agent we had a look around. Our friends were there to book an apartment, that is, to put down a 10 thousand yuan non-refundable booking fee which would get them an apartment set aside for a week, a week in which they had to find the deposit and get a mortgage. We were there to have a look and see if it was worth booking an apartment for my brother-in-law, and perhaps, if possible, ourselves, something I was not overly happy about- apartments are not the kind of thing one buys on impulse- but that’s what we were there for.

The apartments seemed fine. Indeed, we did get to look at two in the completed Phase 1, and we certainly could not see anything wrong with them. We would, of course, have trouble getting a mortgage, but we were told there were ways and means around that. My brother-in-law doesn’t have that mortgage problem, though. What was frustrating is that we could put the deposit down, we certainly do have the money, but a large portion of that money can not be touched until lzh has a visa for New Zealand in her hands. If we so much as glance at it before then, NZ Immigration will deny her the visa. A couple of quick calls, and no, we can’t make up that shortfall that isn’t a shortfall but is borrowing money from friends. We’d be able to get some, but not enough. In any case, now is not a good time for us to be buying an apartment, we have other plans. But we did pay the booking fee on a small apartment for my brother-in-law, and I hope he comes up with the deposit by Friday, I don’t want to lose that 10 thousand yuan.

We arrived at midday, and the process of discussions, looking around, urgent phonecalls  to various people, more discussions, more phonecalls, paperwork, and handing over money took quite some time. It was almost 5 when we got back to Beijing, starving. Yoshinoya rescued us, and then I snuck off to O’Farrells to wind down while lzh phoned her father and her brother to discuss the rapid rounding up of money for the deposit on her brothers’ apartment that now needs to be done.

And the norwester continues to blow, keeping the sky clean, clear and blue. lzh is sitting a translation exam. I’m starting to think about lunch.

6 Responses to “across the Chaobai River”

  1. Richard Says:

    What an extraordinary experience. From that description, house-hunting in China sounds like a potential nightmare. At least it seems you guys don’t have to rush into a decision…

  2. wangbo Says:

    I assume house-hunting anywhere is a nightmare. Certainly not something I would ever want to rush, anyways. And yet the urgency I saw out there was incredible.

  3. Nick Says:

    Stay on it. I hear through an unreliable but usually correct grapevine that Xi’erqi has apartments in the 3,000/m2 range. You’ll be a much happier man living in the city…

    Also, before you buy, ask around about house trading. I know, it sounds silly, but my parents-in-law traded their way up from a 50m2 1-bedroom in Tuanjiehu in the 1990’s to 2, then 4 homes around the city, including the duplex a 20-minute bike ride from Guomao that I live in. They did it through a combination of “gifting”, which is tax-free, and assisting state employees without kids cash in on their housing benefits in return for intelligently bought small apartments. Those housing benefits are, if you didn’t know, incredibly discounted (50%+) but quite habitable homes in government-mandated “low-income housing” communities that justify their existence in government budgets through functioning half as employment/retirement benefits to mid-level state-sector employees. A recent example I’ve heard of – Qingnian Lu, 160m2, 4,500/m2.

    Check with wife’s parents and older neighbors to ask about the phenomenon. It’s pretty universal.

  4. wangbo Says:

    3,000/m2 sounds too good to be true! Especially in Xierqi- surely the Line 13 would’ve sent prices through the roof, as new subway lines generally do? In any case, that wouldn’t necessarily be any better than Yanjiao, commute-wise (assuming we kept our current jobs), as it would necessitate a Line 13 – Line 10 commute of a couple of hours.

    But yes, the plan is to spend a lot more time looking and researching and waiting for prices to drop to something more reasonable. And definitely to cash in on the wife’s benefits. And of course, as you point out, once you have one house, it’s suddenly a lot easier to trade up and/or buy more….

  5. Jamieson Says:

    Dunno mate.

    …” And for my wife to be told she’ll never get a mortgage because she married a foreigner.”

    Mrs. (Chinese, Anhui) Jamieson got an immediate mortgage on a 300,000 kuai apartment here in Suzhou (80 km west of Shanghai) @ 7,000/sqm (100sq), Dec 08. Plus loans from extended family and friends for the DP. Now it’s valued @ 8,500, and we haven’t seen even a window frame, nor a front door. Her gig as a Junior project manager offers 5.5 K/month so the bank were excited to offer her a loan. I’m on about 15,000 so glad to help out, pay it off in 2-3 years vs 30.

    De-facto for 3 years, signed for 2+ years now.
    Can’t see the problem myself.

    But, I’d avoid the lingering nearby power station.

  6. wangbo Says:

    Jamieson, you’re right, and other friends have since confirmed that my wife can certainly get a mortgage.

    We’re going to take our time, save our money, and do our homework. There’s plenty of other developments in that area and nearby. For one thing, power stations are good, but they’re not good neighbours.