In February 2012 The Economist reported: China’s economy is so huge, and its significance to the world so great, that it is easy to forget the country’s property market is still in its adolescence. Two decades ago most city folk were consigned to dilapidated quarters provided by their state-owned employer. In the years since then house building has boomed and the cult of home ownership has taken a hold on the Chinese psyche. But the market has seen epic swings, and prices are now falling in many big cities. [Source: The Economist, Feb 4, 2012]

Housing styles vary from region to region. From the 1950s to the late 1970s, newer but basic housing replaced many older dwellings. Over time many traditional houses were replaced by Soviet-style apartment complexes and then older apartment buildings were replaced by modern homes and highrise apartments. Housing shortages are a problem in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Guangzhou. [Source: Stevan Harrell, “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures”, Gale Group, Inc., 1999]

In remaining century-old communal homes the grandparents sleep in one area, aunts and uncles in another. Sometimes children sleep in a converted barn above the pig pens and the parents sleep over the open pit that serves as a communal toilet. On his experiences entering houses in Shanghai’s oldest neighborhoods, Howard French wrote: “Typically, I enter their world by climbing up a rickety, twisting wooden staircase, ducking to avoid bumping my head in the near-total darkness.” [Source: Howard W. French, New York Times, August 28, 2009]

In the Mao era, families were moved into concrete apartment blocks or were jammed into courtyard dwelling — built for a single family — with several other families. The central courtyard was filled with crude brick compounds. In some cases courtyard houses was razed and replaced with "work compounds," where housing and factories were combined within walled enclaves. Most of the concrete apartment buildings built in the 1950s and 60s were four to six stories tall. Ones built today are much higher.

As Chinese becomes wealthier and can afford better housing the way they live is changing. In the old days Chinese families lived in crowded apartments. Often they worked, ate, worked, socialized and relaxed around a single table and slept in the space next to it. Walls were covered with pots, utensils, clocks, books, clothes. Bags and tools were hung from the ceiling. As living spaces have gotten bigger, people have gotten their own rooms and more space but have also become more isolated. One young Chinese architecture professor told the Washington Post, “When we got a living room, I thought what is the use of a living room? I thought it was crazy to have two bathrooms. Now bedrooms are just for sleep.”

Websites and Sources: Yin Yu Tang pem.org ; House Architecture washington.edu ; House Interiors washington.edu; Tulou are Hakka Clan Homes in Fujian Province. They have been declared a World Heritage Site.Hakka Houses flickr.com/photos ; UNESCO World Heritage Site : UNESCO Books: "Houses of China" by Bonne Shemie ; “Yin Yu Tang: The Architecture and Daily Life of a Chinese House” by Nancy Berliner (Tuttle, 2003) is about the reconstruction of a Qing dynasty courtyard house in the United States. Yun Yu Tamg means shade-shelter, abundance and hall.

Property and Real Estate Laws in China

Individuals cannot privately own land in China but may obtain transferrable land-use rights for a number of years for a fee. Currently, the maximum term for urban land-use rights granted for residential purposes is seventy years. In addition, individuals can privately own residential houses and apartments on the land (“home ownership”), although not the land on which the buildings are situated. [Source: Laney Zhang, Foreign Law Specialist, U.S. Library of Congress Law Library, October 2014; Updated July 2015,|*|]

Real estate may be transferred through sale, gift, or other legal means. When real estate is transferred, the land-use rights and home ownership are transferred simultaneously. Restrictions that may apply to the transfer of real estate include prohibiting transfer when the land-use rights are reclaimed by the state in accordance with law, or when the property has not been properly registered and certificates of ownership have not been obtained. |*|

Under the current rules prescribed by the State Council, land may be used for residential purposes for up to seventy years. According to the 2007 Property Rights Law, when the term for the right to use land for residential purposes expires, the term will be automatically renewed. The law does not make it clear, however, whether the state would charge another granting fee at the time of renewal or how the fee would be determined. |*|

Both urban land-use rights and home ownership are subject to registration. The registration is performed by local authorities at or above the county level; certificates are issued to confirm the rights and ownership. In urban areas, the state grants (churang, sometimes also translated as “assigns”) or allocates (huabo) land-use rights to land users. For granted land-use rights, land users pay the state granting fees for a certain number of years. The State Council is authorized by law to formulate the maximum periods for which land-use rights may be granted. Land-use rights may also be allocated for such purposes as government or military use, and urban infrastructure or public utilities use, for which the land users pay no fee or only compensation or resettlement expenses. There are normally no limitations on the length of time for which land-use rights can be allocated. |*|

Housing Shortage in China

China has a housing shortage, attributed to its large population, migration patterns, increasing wealth and development and longstanding policy of directing investment funds into heavy industry rather than into housing and other social amenities. During the 1990s, the government introduced a program of transferring ownership of state-owned housing to private owners at fairly low costs and with subsidized mortgages. . By the mid 2000s about three quarters of all families owned their own residence. During the 1990s and early 2000s, many high-rise apartment buildings were constructed in the cities. In the early 2000s, the housing space available in the country increased by more than 10 percent. The government said it planned build about 486 million square meters (5.2 trillion square feet) of living space each year through the 2000s and 2010s. In 2002, the annual investment for housing was at about us$97 billion. [Source: " Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations", Thomson Gale, 2007]

China has been a housing shortage in China for some time as housing construction in towns and cities has lagged behind urban population growth. A 1978 survey of housing conditions in 192 cities found that their combined population had increased by 83 percent between 1949 and 1978, but housing floor space had only grown by 46.7 percent. In 1978 there were only 3.6 square meters of living space per inhabitant in these cities, a reduction of 0.9 square meter since 1949. To remedy this problem, construction of modern urban housing became a top priority in the late 1970s, and by the mid-1980s new high-rise apartment blocks and the tall cranes used in their construction were ubiquitous features of large cities. Some apartments in the new buildings had their own lavatories, kitchens, and balconies, but others shared communal facilities. Nearly all were of much higher quality than older houses, many of which were built of mud bricks and lacked plumbing.[Source: Library of Congress, 1987]

By 1981 living space in urban housing had increased to 5.3 square meters per person, and by 1985 the figure was 6.7 square meters, Despite this progress, scarcity of housing continued to be a major problem in the cities, and many young married couples had to live with parents or make do with a single room. Housing construction picked up in the late 1990s when people were given the right to own their homes. By the end of 2002, an additional 19.25 million square meters (207.21 million square feet) of commercial housing was completed, a 10.5 percent increase from 2001. [Source: Library of Congress, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Housing in the Mao Era


In the Mao and Deng eras the government provided housing. Rents were extremely low, often less than $5 a month. The negative side of this was there wasn't enough money for maintenance or modernization or the construction of new homes, which meant there were housing shortages and apartments themselves were drab and poorly built. People were placed on waiting lists to get apartments and often waited for years for apartments that were wrecks when one finally moved in.

In the pre-Mao-era, many courtyard homes in Beijing were occupied by single extended family units and had spacious open air courtyards. But after Communists came to power the houses were divided and occupied by several families and the courtyards were filled with shanties. In many cases a house occupied by one family became occupied by six or seven. Many urban people lived in apartments with closet-size kitchens off a communal hall and outdoor public restroom. People could build and finance their own homes but few people had enough money to do that. In some places the state got involved, providing loans but also adding surcharges that in some cases doubled the cost.

Many urban Chinese lived in dreary pre-fab apartment complexes built from concrete panels constructed in assembly lines and put together with cranes. A typical apartment was sold as a shell with no cabinets, appliances, closets, bathroom vanities or even molding or electrical fixtures. The owners were expected to supply these things for themselves. The interior walls of many homes were brick covered with plaster, which is very cold in the winter. Toilets were often outside the apartments. Many of the Soviet-style apartments in Beijing have been torn down.

Citizens were theoretically supposed to be allowed to live where they wanted but in reality they were required to be registered with the government and have a residency permits to live where they did. Those that didn't have permits could be evicted. Young married couples often had no choice but to move in with their parents. New parents were given priority on scarce apartments and loans were given according to how many children they had. In some places, the government gave $2000 in credit to start a home, and owners paid the loan back in decreasing amounts as children were born.

Rural Housing in China

Housing conditions in rural areas varied widely. During the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of production brigades built sturdy, sanitary houses and apartments and in many cases entire new villages. With the introduction of the responsibility system and the more than doubling of rural incomes in the early 1980s, another wave of housing construction took place as farm families moved quickly to invest in their major personal assets — their homes — which for the most part were privately owned. Many farm family houses lacked running water, but virtually all had electricity and were considerably more spacious than urban dwellings. [Source: Library of Congress, 1987]

In 1980 farm homes averaged 9.4 square meters of living space per person, and by 1985 the figure had risen to 14.7 square meters. Despite extensive construction of new housing, in poorer regions some farm families still lived in traditional dwellings, such as mud-brick and thatch houses or, in some regions, cave houses. Many of the nomadic herders in Nei Monggol, Xinjiang, and Xizang (Tibet) autonomous regions still lived in tents or felt yurts. In the Chang Jiang Valley and in south China, some fishing and boat transportation communities continued to live on their vessels.

Urban Housing in China

The housing market took off soon after the communist government gave the green light to private property development in 1998. Since then, the amount of new urban residential space unveiled each year has doubled. These days Beijing, Shanghai and other cities are filling up with newly built apartment complexes and condominiums. Many newer homes have blue glass and pink tile walls. Some sell for millions of dollars.

Housing in Beijing

The average price of a home in Beijing has soared from around 380 yuan (US$55) per square feet in the early 2000s to well above 5, 610 yuan (US$813) per square foot in 2019, according to property data provider creprice.cn. [Source: South China Morning Post, May 28, 2019]

In 2010, Andreas Lorenz wrote in Der Spiegel: “On average, apartments in Beijing rent for the equivalent of $500 per month, about as much as many ordinary workers in the city earn,” “And prices are rising. At the start of the year, tenants paid around $450 . A year earlier, it was $375. One reason for the high prices is that demand outstrips supply. There are relatively few apartments available for rent in Beijing. Over two-thirds are privately owned, of which a large share were in the past sold cheaply by authorities or factories to their employees.” [Source: Andreas Lorenz, Der Spiegel, December 24, 2010]

"Social housing, moveover, has only begun to develop. Last year 8,000 rental properties were built for those on minimal incomes, and this year there should be 10,000 — a mere drop in the ocean for Beijing. Even those with enough money to buy their own homes are not necessarily fortunate. New housing developments keep springing up, and the amount of new property available is growing, but prices have also shot sky-high in the past few months. Buyers are currently paying $3,750 per square meter on average.”

“For rich Chinese, like the wealthy coal barons from the Shanxi province, Beijing apartments are investments worthy of speculation, like stock market shares or gold. These speculators don't think about renting the apartments out. They simply aim for properties with rising prices, so they can sell them on and turn a profit. Recently experts have talked about a real estate bubble which threatens to burst. As discontentment grows among those citizens who earn good money but still can't afford their own apartments, the Chinese government wants to curb speculation with new taxes and rules.”

“Beijing's officials pride themselves on the fact that the city has no slums like those in, say, Nairobi or Bangkok. The areas of brick hovels without so much as a toilet, which used to shape the cityscape in many districts, have begun to vanish. What the city fathers don't admit, though, is a still-unresolved problem — that many millions cannot afford a normal apartment in Beijing. The city's housing market in some ways symbolizes the new communist China — a society in which the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.”

Construction and Construction Noise in China

Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in ”CultureShock! China”: Construction sites are a major source of noise pollution. Check if there are any near your apartment. Even a person with the steadiest nerves in the world can be reduced to blithering mush after two weeks of non-stop drilling or pounding which has left them sleepless for nights on end. Walk the exterior of the building and see if there is any construction going on nearby. It is also critical to understand if there are any unfinished apartments in the block you are looking at, and if so, when they intend to renovate them. The sound of drilling and hammering in cement buildings carries many floors each way. ”CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

“Typically the construction crew is from the countryside and lives in the apartment while they are renovating it. They get paid by the job and want to hurry through it. Regardless of building regulations, they will start tapping away as soon as the sun comes up and they are awake, and if under time pressure to finish, will do the same in the middle of the night.

“Many cities have adopted regulations for renovations to assure reasonable coexistence during it by neighbours. If there is renovation that will be going on in your building, you must feel confident that the building management will police it properly. If they are not diligent, the situation quickly deteriorates into you having to take matters into your own hands and do battle with poor peasant farmers who have no reason to listen to you. It is a no-win situation on both sides at that point. Apartments in China typically come either partially or fully furnished.

Housing for Urban Poor in China

China offers modern affordable housing to poor urban hukou holders. According to the China Economic Review: “The program is the centerpiece of China's effort to integrate rural workers into urban economies, where it's hoped they will earn and spend more money, and eventually drive China's economic growth. The government has earmarked US$19.2 billion for affordable housing this year alone, an increase of 14.3 percent on similar programs last year. By 2020, it also plans to renovate urban slums that currently house about 100 million people...The government has remained quiet on the fates of those left out of the sweeping reforms because they lack the resources to get the required papers. Moving such a crowd into stable urban housing during the next six years is an ambitious plan. But that still leaves more than 150 million migrants to fend for themselves in the big cities and no solid timeframe for assisting them. [Source: China Economic Review, May 19, 2014 \^/]

“The affordable housing program is facing a debilitating bottleneck in supply. Starved of funding, local governments have few avenues to fund urbanization initiatives. With the central government passing the buck of urbanization reform to local governments, they in turn have passed some of the responsibility for building affordable housing to property developers who can ill afford to do so at present, says Youqin Huang, a professor at CUNY Albany. \^/

“Property developers are often required to designate 5 percent of new residential properties as affordable housing. However, these projects routinely fall short of covering the costs of development, leaving companies at a loss. At the same time, the same firms are in the midst of a liquidity crisis. Housing prices are slowing and property investment is declining — even nose-diving in some regions. Developers often skimp on the low-income projects, rendering them “low-quality and vacant,” Huang said.” \^/

Chinese Middle Class Housing

There has been a surge of home ownership in China since laws allowing it were enacted in the late 1990s. Home ownership remained somewhat of a novelty until then but is now the norm. In 2000, 25 percent of the families in Shanghai owned their homes. In Guangzhou and Shenzen the figure was near 50 percent. By 2007, 80 percent of urban homes in China were owned by individuals.

Clifford Coonan wrote in the Irish Times, “Bian Xiaosong, who is 33, and Zhao Xiaohui, who is 32, both work for local firms and have a family income of about US$2,000 a month, which is a pretty good salary in China. In 2008 they bought an apartment in Beijing for about US$170,000, paying 20 percent down. They pay about half their income every month on their 20-year mortgage. “Sure, we feel pressure that we can hardly save our money to do other things, and we need to think carefully before we decide to have a baby. But we had no choice: we have to buy an apartment to live in, and the price has doubled now anyway,” Bian told the Irish Times. “Really, we don’t care so much about whether the price was rising up or going down, since we bought it to live in, not to invest in, unless the price fell so much that it cost less than we bought it for. All my friends bought apartments like we did; it’s our main expense. We believe the government won’t let the real-estate market collapse, especially here in Beijing, the capital. If the real-estate market collapses, the whole economy will go down.” Some people save and save and just when they think they have enough for a down payment and are ready to buy a flat, the prices surge. [Source: Clifford Coonan Irish Times, January 22, 2011]

On suburbs sought out expats and upper middle class or even upper class Chinese, Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in ”CultureShock! China”: Many people electing a quieter lifestyle will chose to live in villa compounds outside of the hustle and bustle of downtown. Villa compounds are usually built near international schools or around recreational areas like golf or tennis clubs. They provide a safe and secure area for children to play outdoors. They are the closest things to a freestanding house that you can find in China if you are yearning for a backyard and slow, unhindered sunset strolls around the neighbourhood. Oftentimes you are living in an oasis surrounded by farmland, and restaurant and shopping options are limited. Public transportation is sparse and you are reliant upon your own car (and driver) or the compound shuttle service. The suburbs are also pet friendly, many cities in China have regulations that are far stricter for pets kept downtown than those living in the suburbs. In Shanghai, it is actually illegal to walk your dog on the street during the day inside the ring road. [Source: .”CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

Thames Town and American Middle Class Suburbs in China

20080225-mid cl home.jpg
Thames Town

Western-style suburban developments outside Beijing have names like Napa Valley, Soho, Central Park, Palm Springs, and Vancouver Forest. Condominium developments in Shenyang have names like Up East Side Manhattan. Some middle class apartments are outfit with solar panels. In a middle class development near Nanjing called Stratford, a polluted river was buried underground in giant pipe while a new ornamental river, really a lake, has been built above it. Other foreign-style developments include the Balinese retreats and Italian villas in Nanjing, the Venice and Zurich in Hangzhou

Some of the developments in the suburbs of Beijing, such as Beijing Riviera, are almost exact replicas of American suburbs. Mothers watch Oprah on cable television, children drink Slurpees and play in large backyards, fathers barbecue hamburgers. The streets have names live Maple Avenue and Park Lane, with no Chinese translation. There are swimming pools and putting greens.

Shanghai is building nine satellite towns, each designed to mimic the architecture and culture of a different foreign country: Scandinavia town has Nobel Science and Technology Park. Canada Maple town has palm trees and a bridge with Roman columns. Orange County is a development about an hour outside of Beijing financed with Chinese money and designed by American architects. It features tidy cookie-cutter homes with neat lawns, Tudor facades, backyard barbecues and $500,000 price tags. In accordance with feng shui the houses are oriented towards the south with mountains to the north. As is teh custom in China the cooking is often done in a separate shack outside the main house.

Thames Town, a suburb 70 kilometers away from Shanghai downtown, contains a Gothic-look-alike church, cobblestone streets, a statue of Churchill, Georgian, Victorian and Tudor architectures the Cob Gate Fish & Chips and a piazza with guards in red uniforms.The town has become a tourist attraction with visitors thronging to have a look at the Western-style architectures and for scouting interesting corners for photography. The community is so admired brides and grooms come there in large numbers to have their wedding pictures taken. [Source: Xu Shenglan, Global Times, June 9, 2009]

Shanghai’s One City Nine-Satellite Towns program aims to relieve population pressure and break the mold of dull rural development. The one-square kilometer town has been developed into a community township incorporating a school with sporting facilities, kindergarten, club, theater, hospital and hotel. Various cultural and arts festivals, exhibitions are frequently held here. Many of the residents are foreigners who make jokes about their artificial environment but say they have chosen it because they want a safe and pleasant environment for their kids. Others are Chinese anxious to experience the American dream.

Rip Offs, Bean Curd Construction and Land Grabs


People often buy homes and apartments before they are finished. Developers often promise all sorts of things — community swimming pools, tile floors, imported light fixtures, health clubs and tennis courts — before the construction is complete but fail to deliver as promised. When residents try to fight back in some cases the developer shut off their water and electricity. There have been cases where people were required to put down a 20 percent deposit for new apartment and the apartment was never built and the buyer didn’t get his deposit back.

Shoddy construction is common. The average lifespan of recent constructions in China is about 30 years, according to Chinese media reports. The boom in Chinese construction has to led to the building of many unsafe buildings. One example of this "bean curd construction" occurred on December 2000, when a shopping mall collapsed in a suburb of Dongguan, a city in southern China, killing eight people and injuring 32. The disaster occurred because developers tried to add two additional stories to a building with a foundation built for one story. One witness told Reuters, "There was a loud rumbling sound and I thought it was an earthquake. But within seconds, the whole building just crumbled before my eyes."

The state owns most of the land. Until recently people only had rights to own buildings and lease land. In recent years, large amounts of land have been expropriated by developers, in cahoots with corrupt officials, who fail to offer residents fair market value for lost buildings and homes and who often employ bullying tactic to drive the residents off the land.

Image Sources: University of Washington except cave homes, Beifan.com , and Beijing suburb, Ian Patterson; Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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