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Accommodation in Korea: What you need to know

What should you check if your school offers you an apartment? How do you go about finding one by yourself?

Korea has a reputation as a good place to save money when teaching English for a year. One of the reasons you can save so much money is because in Korea, housing is nearly always provided. (Only university positions often come without it.)

Not only does this take off the pressure to find somewhere to live in a new country, but it also saves you a lot of money.

Free Housing

If you're being given an apartment then there is a lot less to think about. You'll usually get no choice of apartment, you'll just be given one.

Because changing housing is un-common in Korea, it’s typically only an option if something is seriously wrong with the apartment like an infestation or mould problem, this means you’ll usually be given an apartment and have to live with it.

Housing Provided by Public Schools

If you work for a public school (i.e. EPIK or GEPIK) there isn't much you can do to investigate your apartment beforehand; you’re very unlikely to be able to get pictures of it or get specific information about it from your recruiter. Due to how the system works you just have to take what's handed to you.

It is however worth working out with your recruiter what is completely unacceptable and what you’ll do on the tiny chance that your housing is unlivable.

Although public school housing can be a bit random, there’s always the option of finding your own place and getting an allowance, which we’ll cover in the Housing Allowance section.

Housing Provided by Private Schools (Hagwons)

If you’re working for a hagwon on the other hand, then you should be asking specific questions and getting pictures before you sign a contract.

Example Questions

  • What style of housing is it? Officetel, villa?
  • Can I get an inventory of all the belongings?
  • How large is it?
  • How long is the commute?

And so on. The three sections starting with "What are Korean houses like?" all give general information about housing in Korea.

The previous state of the house

With either housing option you need to remember that often the biggest factor in your first impression of your housing, will be the quality the previous owner has left it in. In Korea the responsibility for cleaning the apartment sits on the new tenant, not the old one.

If your previous owner believes in paying it forward you might find it stocked and clean, or if not you might find it filthy and your first couple days will be spent in an intense deep clean.

Most schools will clean the apartment in-between teachers, but it’s often not the deep clean that people might consider mandatory when moving into a new place and whether or not it’s enough will depend on how the previous teacher lived.

Housing Allowance

Having fully provided housing isn’t the only option. Many contracts also have an option to take an allowance instead of a fully provided house.

If you’re working at a public school on EPIK, there is a standard clause, which allows you to take a 400,000 won allowance instead of a fully provided house (might vary slightly from province to province).

If you’re going to work for a hagwon you might be able to negotiate a housing allowance, it’ll depend on the hagwon and your relationship with them.

While searching for an apartment might be a bit too much for a first year teacher, for someone more experienced it can be ideal.

An important thing to consider when deciding to take an allowance is where you'll be living. If you’re living somewhere cheap and rural then this can be great option, however if you’re in Seoul or another high rent area then the 400,000 is unlikely to come close to covering your costs.

What are Korean houses like?

Officetel

These are studio style apartments that are used either for business or work. Usually found in high rise apartment blocks, the apartments are on the upper levels of the building and on the bottom floors there are businesses like cafes or convenience stores.

They’re the most modern of all of the apartment types and usually come with appliances (fridge, washing machine etc.) built into the apartment.

Villas

Villas are the other common kind of housing you’ll end up living in, typically older buildings, 2 – 5 stories high.

They’re usually cheaper than officetels (or larger for the same price), but are less likely to come with the appliances and convenience you’ll get from living in an officetel.

Apartments

In Korea you can’t use apartment as a generic term because it refers to a specific type of housing. (Well this article has done it several times. It's really quite hard to write about housing without using the word apartment...)

Apartments in Korea are the largest of the three kinds of housing and are usually for families. They're large living units, usually with two or three bedrooms, which are piled atop each other to form high rise buildings. The apartment high rises are then grouped together in apartment complexes, which will include everything from post offices to grocery stores in a nicely landscaped area.

Unless you’re looking to settle down with a family, the only way you’ll end up in one of these as a teacher is if you end up sharing it with other teachers.

Apartments have plenty of space to make this possible, but because apartment sharing is not common in Korea nearly all apartments are designed for families not individuals sharing. So for example, one bedroom will typically be larger than the others because it’ll be the bedroom for the parents.

To get an idea over the general difference between these three kinds of buildings it’s worth googling the Korean words for each on Google image search:

What else should I know about Korean houses?

Size

Apartments in Korea are small, especially compared to what you may be used to back home.

Size is measured in pyeong, a pyeong being roughly 35sqft. The average single studio apartment is between 8 -15 pyeong (350 sqft to 525sqft).

The biggest factor in deciding your apartment’s size will be the size of the city and the location of your school. If you end up in a big city like Seoul your apartment will be very small (10 or less pyeong), whereas if you’re out in the sticks you’ll be far more likely to get up to 15 or over.

Furnishings

Whether or not your apartment comes with furnishings, depends on whether or not your housing is provided and the kind of housing you get (for example officetels will typically come with appliances).

If your housing is provided you’ll usually have:

  • Bed
  • Table and chairs
  • Wardrobe
  • Washing machine
  • Fridge
  • Gas stove top (no oven)
  • TV
  • Western style toilet
  • Dishes & basic kitchen utensils
  • Microwave
  • Air conditioner

If you’re finding the housing yourself then it’s specific to each apartment and contract.

There may be preset options in the contract, which you can select to include certain large pieces of furniture or appliances (like a bed or washing machine) with the apartment.

Depending on the length of your lease, you might also be able to get them included in your house contract by using them as bargaining chips when negotiating.

What are the monthly housing costs

Utilities

Although your rent is paid for you when a school provides your housing, utilities aren’t. That covers:

  • Gas
  • Electricity
  • Water
  • Maintenance
  • Internet
  • TV

All together expect utilites to cost you another 80,000 to 200,000 won. In particular watch out for the heating bills in winter. Korean winters are very cold and it’s easy for your heating bill to rocket up.

Korean heating is traditionally done through the floor (ondol heating), one cheaper option can be to pick up an electric heater.

Also note that the monthly maintenance charge is usually referring to building maintenance. That means it doesn't cover things in your apartment like a fridge breaking, instead it pays for the upkeep costs of the building, such as rubbish disposal, elevator maintenance, security etc.

Deposit

Many public school contracts will have a security deposit that will be taken out of your paycheck in the first month (or two), in case you leave behind unpaid bills and damages when you finish your contract.

The other purpose of this deposit from the schools point of view, is to stop you upping and running off.

For example: The GEPIK contract typically takes out 300,000 won for the first three months.

This initial deposit can make the first couple months a little harder and creates a forced bonus at the end. The GEPIK example shown is typically the top end of the amount that will be taken as a deposit.

Private schools will still usually require a deposit, but they tend to be smaller.

How to find housing in Korea

You’re fed up with the provided housing and are comfortable enough in Korea to think about finding your own place. Let’s go through the process and what you should know.

First and most importantly, there are two different ways you can pay for housing in Korea:

How do you pay for housing in Korea

  • Wolsae – This method is most similar to what you're probably used to. You pay a monthly rent to your landlord and put down a deposit when you start renting.

The big difference is the deposit money (or key money) is a lot larger than back home, usually 5 to 10 million won, although this will of course change depending on the quality of the house.

In job adverts the way you’ll see this rent written is: 10000/300/100 which is key money/rent/expenses. (For the sake of shortening it, it’s also common to write in thousands of won.)

So that previous example means, 10 million won key money, 300,000 won rent per month and 100,000 won in monthly upkeep bills.

For most people renting their own housing, this is the easiest option.

You can usually negotiate into paying less rent by paying higher key money, which leads us nicely to other main kind of payment.

  • Cheonsae – This is the other option for people looking to rent their own housing in Korea. You pay no rent, instead just a very large deposit.

Pay no rent? Yep. Rather paying rent the landlord takes a large sum of money from you at the beginning of the contract. They get their payment by investing your money over the length of the contract and you get it back at the end.

Unfortunately it’s rather a lot of money, often 50% - 70% of the value of the housing, which means you’re looking at 50 million to 100 million won upfront. These huge upfront costs mean this is usually only an option for people who are a lot further into their career and have managed to build the kind of savings needed.

(It’s often spelt in a number of different ways in English: Chun-say, jeon-sae, jeonse)

Secondly the next problem you should be aware of is the language barrier.

Language barrier

Most estate agents will speak either no English or very little. While it is possible to find English speaking estate agents in the larger cities, it hugely reduces your options.

If you don’t know anyone who can speak Korean and can't convince your school to help you, then it’s possible to find local agents who will act as translators between you and the budongsan (for a fee). Asking around your school and the teachers who’ve been there for longer for recommendations, is usually a good place to start.

Researching Apartments & Visiting Them

Bearing those two points in mind, it's time to start looking for a place. The location of your apartment is usually decided by the location of your school and how long a commute you’re willing to put up with.

It’s possible to research apartments online to get an idea for prices in that area, but unfortunately unless you can speak Korean using the main renting website, Peterpan Naver Café, is very difficult.

Instead you’ll probably end up using Korean estate agents (Budongsan). Just like estate agents back home they act as a go between for apartment hunters and landlords.

Finding them in the area you’re hoping to move to will be easy, estate agents are very common in Korea.

All the normal rules for visiting estate agents apply:

Before you go out to them you should make a shortlist of what you're looking for:

  • Size, how many pyeong is it?
  • Furnished? Washing machine, how many gas stoves?
  • What kind of building? Only officetel, officetel or villa? Etc.
  • Method of payment, Wolsae or Cheonsae?
  • What length of contract?

Know what you’ll compromise on beforehand, feel free to work with multiple estate agents and make sure they show you a bunch of different places.

Two important points:

  1. Most housing contracts in Korea are for two years. It’s possible to find one year contracts, but it’ll reduce your options quite heavily.
  2. The timescale from search to actually moving in Korea tends to be quick. Most estate agents will be expecting you to move in within a month at most when you start to look for an apartment. If you turn up 3 - 4 months before, they’ll usually ask you to come back later.

Signing housing contracts in Korea

Once you've found a place you'll need to sign a contract and finish up on the formalities, which brings us to:

Negotiations

The most important thing is to try and find someone who speaks Korean fluently. It’ll make all the contract intricacies go a lot quicker.

What are your options when it comes to negotiating on price?

  • If you’re renting using a wolsae arrangement then you can use the following rule as a very general guideline. For each extra 10 million won you can add to the key money, it’ll usually decrease the rent by 100,000 won. So if you add 5 million to the key money you’ll knock 50,000 won off the rent.
  • The best options for negotiation tend to be one off costs. Furniture and appliances are perfect for this, the landlord might be willing to throw these in for free or a reduced price to sell the apartment.
  • Along that line, although not as good as one off costs, small monthly fees like the building maintenance costs and utility bills can be a good target for negotiation. Try to get them bundled together or included in the rent.

Finally although it’s not really a negotiation thing, key money is so large in Korea that it's common to ask your estate agent to look into your landlords financial situation and make sure he’s not in debt etc.

Estate Agent Fee in Korea

The apartment charges we’ve mentioned so far are the building maintenance fees, the deposit key money, the rent and the utilities.

There's one final charge which you'll only run into if you're renting your own place, which is the estate agent charge . As an estimate it’ll be somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 won.

If you're not an estimate sort of person, here's the formula set by the government for estate agent fees in Korea.

This formula can differ from province to province. We’ve put together an example with numbers for Seoul from Invest Korea.

First you calculate the transaction amount.

Transaction amount = Your key money + your rent multiplied by 100.

Then:

  • If it’s less than 50 million, they can charge 0.5% which is capped at 200,000 won.
  • If it’s 50 million to 100 million, then it’s 0.4% which is capped at 300,000 won.
  • If it’s 100 million to 300 million, then it’s 0.3% which has no cap.
  • And if it’s over 300 million, the estate agent can set anything up to 0.8%.

Once you’ve signed the contract, congratulations you’ve got an apartment! You’ll need to head down to the nearest immigration or local government office within 14 days to update your Alien Registration Card (ARC) with your new address.

Image Attribution:

"Ilsan Balcony Panorama" by Craig Nagy is licensed under CC BY 2.0. This photo has been cropped.
"2005-02-20 Taehwa Apartment Complex 11" by Stephen Hucker is licensed under CC BY 2.0. This photo has been cropped.
"Debbie's apartment in Suwon" by Ray_from_LA is licensed under CC BY 2.0. This photo has been cropped.
"Day 267/ 366 Getting a Bill in the mail in Korea" by Cali4beach is licensed under CC BY 2.0. This photo has been cropped.