It’s no secret that the little town of Paengseong, specifically the village of Anjeong-ri, is inundated with realty offices. I tried to count all of them on a Naver maps but many of the offices have opened up in the past 6 months and weren’t there yet. Naver simply can’t keep up. New USFK Personnel moving to Humphreys can’t keep up either and families are floored when the housing office hands them a realtor list three pages long and wishes them luck. How are new families expected to find not just a realtor but a trusted friend for their 2+ years here?
Disclaimer: I will not advertise nor endorse a single Realty Company. The Humphreys’ Housing office shuffles the realtor lists to prevent showing favoritism and that is a good proposition for most organizations. This post is a guide to help you make your own decisions. My interviews with Mr. Michael Yu was for informational purposes only. I have no business ties with any realty company mentioned in this post.
Are those offices on Main street truly all Realty Companies?
Anjeong-ri of today looks very different than it did just a few years ago. In my short time here, I watched as little restaurants and mom ‘n’ pop shops gave way to realtor office after realtor office. Do you see them all? In the little village of Anjeong-ri you can walk from the main gate to Korea mart, to Brownstone and up to Angel Montessori and find realtor offices on almost every street corner and alleyway.
Being in a foreign country, it’s easy to think this must be business as usual but I can assure you it’s not. When I spoke to Michael Yu of Western Real Estate, he was adamant that over half the realtors in the area will be gone by next year as the market begins to settle. This troubles me because 50% of the Koreans I volunteer my time with are realtors but the realtor bubble is going to pop before too long.
Why are there so many realtors in Anjeong-ri?
I am going to focus on Anjeong-ri since it directly affects myself and my readers but I am sure many other towns in Pyeongtaek are feeling overcrowded with realtors. The mayor and city council must be as happy as ducks in a rainstorm with all of the growth Pyeongtaek is experiencing. The city is home to multiple corporate factories, its sea port makes Pyeongtaek a global shipping center, there are plans in the works to create the largest ever Chinatown in the world and Samsung just opened the doors of its brand new chip factory, the biggest of its kind in the world. Pyeongtaek has a lot to be proud of but the growing pains will be tough to work out and our little village is not immune to this growth spurt.
While the city of Pyeongtaek lays the rails for subway lines and paves the way for more infrastructure, the small farming village of Anjeong-ri finds itself next to USAG Humphreys, an Army base that will soon be the largest US military installation in Asia. Anjeong-ri is tiny, you can walk it’s length in under an hour if you are taking your time and getting coffee on the way. But Camp Humphreys is huge and the number of personnel moving down to the post in 2017, from all around the peninsula and stateside, will more than double it’s current workforce.
More people invariably increases the need for residential investment properties and realtor offices but why so many? Is it normal for there to this many in one square mile? I am not a mathematician but even I can tell you that Anjeong-ri is beyond saturated with realty companies. Why aren’t all these realtors out next to the new Samsung factory or working out of another area of major growth?
What it comes down to is USFK personnel are trustworthy and reliable customers. Every time a family signs for their rental home, that is at least 2 years of steady income and trustworthy tenants for the realtor and landlords. What happens if a soldier doesn’t pay their rent? Call housing and let command know. What happens if a tenant smashes a hole in the wall and refuses to pay for repairs? Call housing and let command know. What happens if a tenant disappears and doesn’t fulfill their contract? Call housing and let command know. The US military is giving this little town dependable customers and that is what every realtor dreams of before going to bed at night, great tenants.
Do USFK pay more for Rent than locals and other foreigners?
The answer is Yes and No. When I asked a few Korean friends what they pay for their 3 bedroom apartment and I compared it to other 3 bedroom apartments for USFK, the cost of rent wasn’t that much more. Everywhere I’ve looked, USFK pay maybe $100-$200 more a month in rent.
Now before you get out the pitchforks it’s important to understand what rent means here in Korea. There is a rent system called 전세 Jeonse where the tenant gives the landlord a large deposit (often 50%+ of the property value) and lives in the home rent free for a year or two. The landlord will invest the money and at the end of the lease they return the deposit and keep whatever they made from their portfolio. Many DoD civilians will pay through Jeonse. The other method, 월세 Wolse, is very similar to the monthly system we know in American of putting down a smaller deposit and paying monthly rent. This is what USFK pay for their off post homes. The difference with the USFK Wolse is the need to satisfy American client’s expectations and to accommodate our inability to easily obtain and transfer money to a Korean bank account.
When a local or a non-USFK foreigner get a Wolse apartment, the most they can expect is an empty shell of a home. That means no ovens, no refrigerators, no furniture, nothing. Since USFK tenants are the customers every realtor hopes for, they will do everything within their means to leave a a great impression. Many homes targeting USFK residents are much larger than regular Korean homes, have extra bedrooms and baths, extra storage and often come furnished.
Getting a bank account in Korea isn’t very difficult but keeping it maintained with costly wire transfers is out of the question for USFK personnel. Some amenities, like cable and internet, are often paid through debiting a bank account. To avoid the trouble of getting every USFK resident a bank account, realtors may include cable and internet as part of the monthly rent.
Here is the real reason USFK get charged a little more each month than locals and non-USFK foreigners: Because US Army Policy said so.
The Overseas Housing Allowance (OHA) policy states that finance will only pay for the rental amount owed to the realty company as it is written in the rental agreement. This means, if the OHA calculator says a family is allowed $1600 a month for rent but the apartment costs $1500, housing will only give the $1500 in their pay. The $100 disappears into the government honeypot never to be seen again. Realtors are well aware of this policy and charge rent based upon the family’s OHA allowance which allows them to offer wonderful homes with furniture, large appliances and extra courtesies.
What should my family and I look for in a Realty Company?
I asked Mr. Yu “What makes a great realtor?” and he only took a moment to say, “I know what it means to be a tenant. Since I know how to be a good tenant, I know how to be a great realtor.” Mr. Yu spent many decades in the US so he knows what it’s like to live as a tenant in a foreign country. I hate living in rental homes, I spend all my time making sure the carpet doesn’t get stained and I always live in fear of a vexed realtor deciding what counts as normal wear and tear. My motto was “Don’t talk to the landlord unless something breaks.”
But my plan doesn’t work here in Korea. I can’t read the electric bill, I had to have someone teach me how to turn the hot water on (twice) and I quickly realized my realtor was my only hope for an enjoyable experience in my Korean home.
How to pick a Realty Company
Look for your rental with THREE Realty Companies:
- First Pick – Obviously, pick a realtor that you know you want. Maybe a friend was adamant this is the best realtor in town, maybe you’ve seen the name enough to know you want to give them a try. Everyone has a first choice so stick to it and try them out.
- Second Pick – Choose a realtor that you’ve seen recommended regularly on social media or by friends. If a realty office is good enough to become popular by word of mouth then give them a try and see if they are right for you.
- Third Pick – Don’t laugh but I want you to google “Random Number Generator” and pick one more realtor off the housing list randomly. Roll a 60-sided die if you prefer. Better yet, take the family out in the Anjeong-ri/ Ville area and walk into a random realtor’s office without calling beforehand. It sounds intimidating but everyone should give this a try. There are amazing realtors hidden in the crooks and nannies of Anjeong-ri that haven’t had a fighting chance against the leaders who can afford the advertising space and big signs. You may be pleasantly surprised but if they don’t work out, at least you have a baseline for your expectations.
What you might see in a USFK Rental Agreement
The following is what I’ve seen and experienced with a USFK rental agreement in Korea. These ARE NOT REQUIREMENTS for a rental agreement but are unique circumstances to Korea that many may not recognize.
The circumstances of a final rental agreement is ultimately between the tenant and a realty company but remember that realtors are people too. If you treat your realtor well, they will treat you ten times better.
- Cable and Internet as part of the rent – Since USFK often don’t have a Korean bank account, the costs for cable and internet are sometimes covered in the monthly rent but this isn’t always the case.
- Water tower/ purifier – Every house should come with access to purified water. You may want to insist on a water purifier if you are a family of Camels who drink water non-stop all day. In my household, we were up to 5+ bottles of water a month (2 bottles free with the rental agreement) and it was becoming quite a pain to get water delivered consistently and to find a space to store all the bottles. A water purifier is much easier to maintain and enjoy.
- Management Fee – Apartments may have a management fee, added either to the rent or as another bill, to cover security and janitors. Villas and single family homes may or may not have a management fee.
- Appliances and furniture – Some homes come fully furnished but at a minimum USFK personnel will probably get a refrigerator, oven and water tower/ purifier. Newer homes come with dishwashers. Looking for garbage disposals? Sorry but you’re out of luck. Korea does not use garbage disposals.
What Courtesies a Great Realtor can offer:
The English word ‘Service’ has a different definition to Koreans and it’s important for foreigners to understand what their realtor and other businesses mean when they say they offer extra services. In Korea, Service is “a courtesy provided to a customer, free of cost, as an act of appreciation” (South of Seoul, 2017). Following is a list of services, aka courtesies, that make for a really great USFK Realtor but are not a normal part of their paid work.
These are extra courtesies we receive as USFK residents. Non-USFK foreigners fend for themselves of beg work mates to help them pay their bills, get repairs completed, etc. We are beyond lucky, and a little bit spoiled rotten, that our realtors are there for us for our entire stay here in Korea.
- They Should Listen Well – When looking for a home or discussing problems, a realtor should listen to your needs, wants and interests. I picked my realtor because they really listened to my desire to live near the 20-bus stop, restaurants and grocery stores. They listened on the first day I met them and they’ve been listening ever since.
- Offer Free Taxi rides – For the first few visits, until you are settled into your new home, your realtor should do everything they can to help you navigate the area and get to the office. Do not expect more than one or two free taxi rides.
Give A Welcome Packet – This is different for each realtor but a welcome packet is a must have after signing a rental agreement. It should have important information on the city garbage and recycling program, driving expectations, how to use public transportation and other quick faqs for foreigners in Korea.
- Offer Transportation to the Pyeongtaek DMV – If your command team or sponsor is unable to assist you to the Pyeongtaek DMV then ask your realtor if they can help. This is my biggest pet peeve for newcomers to Korea, no one should have to spend $40 on a cab to pick up their temporary plates for their PoV’s. Many realtors are aware that USFK newcomers can’t easily navigate Pyeongtaek and they are willing to explain to you how to use the bus to get to the DMV or offer alternative solutions.
- Assist with moving from Lodging to your new home or help you rent a truck – No one should have to rely on taxis or the shuttle bus to get to their new home for the first time. Ask your realtor if they can help you rent a small box truck or if they have another method to help you get to your new home. When it comes to transporting furniture or for moving all of your household goods to a new home, ask your realtor to find you the best deal in town on a box truck rental.
- Respond to Maintenance calls Quickly – Great realtors should be on their game and have maintenance come out for repairs the same day you call or at least within the week. If you need help with lightbulbs, if you don’t understand how to turn on the water or if you lock yourself out of your house, a great realtor will be on call for you. Once, the security panel on the outside of our building was shorting out and the door wouldn’t slide open. My realtor dropped everything she was doing up in Pyeongtaek and she called the maintenance man as she drove down to make sure we were safe. She didn’t leave until the door was working and we were back inside the house.
- No Stress when Paying Rent – Just like the states, many people in Korea pay their rent through direct debit. Realtors in Anjeong-ri find themselves in the unique position of collecting rent the old fashioned way. It is imperative that realtors collect money in an honest and stress free way. It should be counted carefully by hand and machine and tenants should receive complete receipts for each transaction.
- Help USFK pay their Utilities – It is very common for locals to pay their utilities at any area convenience store but it’s imperative that USFK take their bills to their realtors. Unless you are fluent in Korean, you won’t be able to read the nuances in your bill or understand any errors that come up. A great realtor will read each of your bills for you each month, make sure the dates match and you didn’t accidentally bring in old bills and help you if your utilities look to be too high. During the summertime, my realtor was always checking on my electric bill and reminding me that too much AC is very expensive. “I know! But the husband loves AC!”
- Help pay Fines and Traffic Tickets – Your realtor can help you look up any vehicle tickets you’ve accrued and assist you with paying them.
- Help make online appointments – Making immigration appointments, signing up for recurring debits for HiPass etc all need to be done online and it is easier to ask your realtor to help you than it would be to fight the security protocols required by Korean internet.
- Recognize Normal Wear and Tear – Just like in the states, great realtors recognize normal wear and tear.
What to do if you and your Realtor are having Troubles or Disagreements
- Keep a timeline of events – Write down everything. Keep notes of dates, money amounts/ transactions, people involved and keep all receipts.
- Talk to your Head Realtor – Set up a meeting with your head realtor and calmly explain what problems you are having with their office and what solutions you see to fix it. A cool head is best when settling a disagreement. It’s best if both the sponsor and dependent go to the meeting and the member that was not directly involved in the incident gives a summary of events and the solution. This way those who were directly involved can hear their account from a different point of view and fill in missing details. The conversation should flow smoothly towards a calm and, hopefully, positive outcome.
- Speak with Housing – If the problem could not be resolved with the realty office then housing is your next step. This is a final resort and it’s very bad for realtors to get reported to housing. Do not use housing as a tool for punishing your realtor. Housing is going to tell you the same thing I did, “Have you had a meeting with the head realtor first?” Most incidences can be solved through a discussion. Miscommunication because of cultural misunderstandings and language barriers do occur and often can be resolved through a meaningful conversation.
Thank you to Michael Yu for taking the time to meet with me and answer some of my questions. Thank you to South of Seoul and Katie Howell for reading this over and helping me clarify some key points.
What do you expect from a realtor? Have a success story? Let me know in the comments.