I was really lucky when my husband and I got assigned to Busan last year. We were told, as the EPIK contract states, that we would get housing fit for two people. It wasn't until months after I arrived that I learned we were living in government housing. In fact, an EPIK employee in Busan lives in my old building. I wouldn't be surprised if they stick most employees in their own housing. I do understand that it is not always the case. But out of my 10 or so fellow Busan bound EPIK-ers, 5 of us were in the same government owned housing.
I was also fortunate enough to find out (from other veteran foreigner couples in the apartment) that the reason that my husband did not receive housing allowance our first year in Korea was because we were given government housing. If we had been in a different building, my husband would receive the (new contract 2014 now say "up to") 400,000 won per month.
It is common belief here (from what I have heard- don't shoot the messenger) that it is the responsibility of the incoming tenant to clean the apartment. I did not know this. Nor did I know the depths of depravity and filth an EPIK teacher could live in. During orientation I found out another EPIK-er was cousins with the former teacher whom I would be replacing. He gushed at how big my apartment was going to be.
And it was. 2 bedroom, full tub, large kitchen sink and a balcony. What he didn't know, was that his cousin was an absolute pig. First impressions really do matter. When we got to our apartment our first day in Busan, and walked in with our co-teachers, all four of us were just....speechless. It looked like the guy had just gone out for a walk- not left the country entirely.
Mens underwear and socks were hung upon the clothes rack, shoes in the shoe closet, dishes all in the sink. There were half empty bottles of beer everywhere and five or six packs of cigarettes-all different brands- some open, some full but most half empty. In the freezer was a bag of frozen french fries and the fridge had half full bottles of marinade and sauces. The cupboard had an assortment of sauce packets. There were stacks of magazines and four or five full bags of rice laying about. The place was covered in a layer of dust. It took three days to clean completely and a good 10 minutes of it was spent trying to get an empty bag of chips out from the farthest corner under the bed.
Needless to say, EPIK does not enforce any rule of cleanliness on their apartments. As long as you leave their government provided TV and microwave behind, you're all set. So when we renewed our contracts for a second year I immediately checked the box for housing allowance. I did not fear going it alone. Finding an apartment, putting down the key money, finding movers, somehow I would manage.
The first thing I learned was that the Korean housing system is interesting. It is illegal for a person to post a 'for sale' or 'for rent' sign. You must be a licensed real estate agent, or in Korean, a bu-dong-san. So apartment owners pay a bu-dong-san fee to get their apartment rented. In my case, with the apartment my husband and I chose, the landlord had bought the apartment unit when it was brand new, ten years ago. She took a bank loan and now has paid off over half of it. The bu-dong-san is legally required to tell you this. You should know the value of your apartment and what is owed on it.
The key money or security deposit system here is also interesting. I believe the exorbitant amount they ask for (anywhere upwards of 1million Won) is to ensure you don't break your lease but it is also for the landlords to make a bit of cash from interest. For a two person place in Busan, it is almost impossible to find anything less than 5million won plus anywhere between 400,000W and upwards monthly rent. Some landlords prefer to rent to foreigners who are more familiar, and willing to pay monthly rent.
Other teachers at my school put down around quadruple of what I did in key money and don't pay a dime in monthly rent. I suppose the interest on that is more than enough for the landlord. But never fear single people! You can find a small studio in Busan for around 1million won in key and upwards of 200,000W in rent. You'll get one big room for your bed, living, and kitchen area. If you're an active person, a studio is more than enough and very very affordable as your monthly allowance would cover rent and utilities, and maybe even groceries.
So, maybe you have noticed by now that rent and key money are obviously based on size. In Korea, they use a unit of measure called pyeong or pyung. A quick wiki of the word will tell you that the Korean government is trying to update this system to square meters or feet, as of 2007. And yet when I was apartment hunting, my advising co-teachers, and all the real estate agents said "pyeong". No one corrected me and no one seemed to know what a square meter was so I will continue to use it here. You can learn more about the measurement at this site- http://askakorean.blogspot.kr/2012/07/pyeong-and-old-habits-dying-hard.html -. Anyway, a studio like the one I mentioned for 1million key and 200,000W a month (1 thousand U.S. dollars and $200 bucks a month) is around 10 to 15 pyeong.
Next let's talk real estate agents. I remembered a post on Koreabridge from maybe, seven or eight months ago, praising an English speaking real estate agent so I looked for the listing and emailed him in December. Since I wouldn't be moving for another 2 months at that point, he advised me to wait. A month later, I emailed again and this time he called me and very calmly told me I still needed to wait. Korean landlords don't like to show apartments so early. By the beginning of February I was too nervous to leave everything to the last minute.
In order to find a place, I used a Korean apartment search engine and narrowed down my criteria with a co-teacher helping me. We went through maybe 30 or so listings before we found one and my co-teacher called and arranged a viewing with the bu-dong-san located in Seomyeon. She was rather young, maybe in her 30's, and a serious power walker. Within an hour she walked us between three apartments around Jeonpo. There was something not quite right about all of them but my husband preferred one and I preferred one and we mutually hated the third. We asked about her fee on both apartments which differed by 80,000W because one was bigger in pyeong.
We left that bu-dong-san experience feeling like we had to make a choice already. And wouldn't you know it, two days later she calls and explains to my co-teacher that I need to make a decision soon before one of the apartments got taken by someone else. But both apartments had clearly been empty a while based on the level of dust so I assume she was just trying out some pressure on us. I don't like being pushed and I felt as though her fee for both apartments were really expensive at around 300,000W. An agents fee is also government regulated. You can view the formula used here - http://www.korea4expats.com/article-realtors-korea.html - . I asked my co teacher to do the math, and wouldn't you know it, she was charging us the maximum legally allowed.
So I went back to the English fluent bu-dong-san, terrified that I was going to end up stuck in my government housing for another year. Man, oh man did he come through. Within a few days he arranged for us to meet with another bu-dong-san in Seomyeon. This time, a husband and wife in their 60's. The husband spoke a little English and used his phone to translate. They had a car and drove us to three apartments in 30 minutes. The third (which we are living in now) was perfect. The agents had to call the landlord because we couldn't get the door open. Turns out the agents were trying to open the apartment next door. The landlady, a sweet woman in her 60', actually came out in her pajamas to open the door for us at 8pm. We said then and there that we would take it.
Our contract was written in English and Korean and signed with all the bu-dong-sans and the landlady present. It took a little long to get everything signed and explained but everyone joked and spoke with us and made the entire experience really wonderful. The landlady would pay the bu-dong-san fee, and we would pay our English speaking bu-dong-san. He gave us a discount, and we paid less than the 300,000W for an apartment bigger and more expensive than what the female bu-dong-san tried to sell/charge us.
And he hasn't just abandoned us now that the lease is signed. Upon moving in we noticed the sink and shower pipes leaked a little, and some lights didn't have bulbs, and other minor things. We emailed him, and the next day an appointment was arranged for the realtor, and the landlady's husband to show up and check it out. The handyman comes to fix everything today.
Having a real estate agent to act as a translator, and an ally throughout this experience has been a blessing. Without him, we wouldn't have found our dream apartment. Without him, we would have no idea what real estate agents are supposed to tell us about the building specifications or that the real estate agent is required to insure the deal in case anything happens. Without him I wouldn't have been able to manage.
So, don't be afraid to take the housing allowance. Don't be afraid to get an apartment that fits your taste. Having a safe and comforting apartment to come home to has by far improved the quality of my life.
I guess this will be the second customer satisfaction post you can find about the man on Koreabridge, but he is worth every penny, and I endorse him gladly. His info: