If there was a vote for the most unscrupulous profession in Beijing, I am sure there could be a lot of potential winners. I know people that would say it is taxi drivers or clothes sellers but, if I cast a vote, it would solidly be for housing agents.
Before I lay into them too hard, please consider my own disclaimer, not all of them are bad. However, can you really expect to believe someone whose job forces them to be as devious as possible? I know that is quite an accusation to make but, believe me, it's not unwarranted.
About a year ago, I was looking for an apartment to rent with my girlfriend. I can't tell you how many calls we got from different agents telling us they had just found the place of our dreams.
"Oh, it's really nice, everything is new and the place is really clean," they would say to us over the phone.
The first time we went to see an apartment with an agent, we had high hopes ... well, until we saw the building.
I could have sworn the complex was the set of a war movie. There was no door, the walls were ripped apart and what was left of the building smelt of mold.
"I thought you said this was new," my girlfriend said in the most annoyed yet professional voice possible.
"Well it will be in a few months ... so what do you think of the place, interested?" the agent asked as a construction worker grunted and then spat in the corner of what would have been our bedroom.
Finally, after dealing with a lot of nonsense, we actually found a place we liked. But the whole time we were taking a look at the apartment there was a strange tension between the owner and the agent. When no agreement could be made between the agent and the now seething owner, we had no option but to leave disappointed. At the time, I thought it was very strange, after all, wasn't the agent there because the owner had hired his services?
My curiosity got the best of me, so, after following the agent out of the housing complex we hid in the subway a few minutes and then made our way back to the apartment without the agent.
To our surprise, the owner was waiting there for us.
"I am so glad you came back, I can't stand those agents; all they do is to lie!" she said with absolute disgust in her voice.
As it turns out, she had never even contacted a housing agency for help to rent out her apartment. Instead, she had posted her own ad online in the hope she would never have to talk with an agent. But, unfortunately for her, about as soon as she put up the information for her apartment, multiple housing agencies harvested her info and turned it into an advertisement of their own. Soon, agents appeared at her door with potential renters, at first she resisted but when all her efforts to find renters herself were constantly hijacked by different housing agencies, she had no choice but to relent. After all, she needed to rent the apartment.
It was enough to make my blood boil, but, after all, maybe the housing agents are just trying to make a living. Maybe, they aren't such bad people. I tried to be positive until an Italian friend of mine told me about the run-in he and his Chinese girlfriend had with housing agents a few months ago.
He was having a surprisingly easy time until it came down to signing a contract. Being a lawyer, after he read the contract, he immediately saw a number of red flags and went about making a point of them to the housing agents. Of course, the housing agents were too far down the ladder to make any changes to the contract but what they resorted to was shocking even to me.
Did they offer such relationship advice to all their customers? An argument ensued, which mainly consisted of my friend's girlfriend yelling at the agents but in the end the agents seemed to care little. After all, they had other customers to wait on.
I guess with so many people looking for an apartment in Beijing, they practically rent themselves because it's definitely not common decency that's doing the tick.
I know it is bad of me to generalize but every time I see those housing agents in their white dress shirts and dark ties, I can't help but think bad, terrible thoughts about them. Like I told you, I think they ply the most unscrupulous profession in Beijing.