Navigating Housing Scams in Korea

4C10E212-B67E-4E94-A5B1-EF70103C0196This post is a bit of a departure from previous posts because I feel that this is important to share. I want to talk about the recent experience my partner and I had with finding a new apartment in Seoul, South Korea.


*Disclaimer* Because of Korea’s strict defamation laws I can not name a business specifically by name. Also, this IS NOT ABOUT JIKBANG OR AGAINST THE APP IN ANY WAY, but about SOME realtors who use the app. Again, no names are mentioned.

A map of the area and all available listings under the price range I set.

Many people in South Korea use a popular housing app called 직방(Jikbang) to find a new apartment. It’s very convenient because you can see what an apartment looks like and everything about it before making a decision to view the apartment. We had used it a few months before without any difficulty and were able to find a place almost at the last minute, so we felt comfortable using it again. We started looking and adding the places that we liked the best to our favorites list and then we contacted one of the realtors asking when we could see one of the apartments. We set up an appointment and headed out to Sillim(신림). We chose this area because we were under the impression that the area was cheaper to live based on what we saw on the app and from what we have heard other people say.

These are not the apartments we considered, but they are similar. The first number is the key money and the second number is the rent. 100 = 1million won and 34 = 340,000 won etc. The addresses are blocked out because of the defamation laws in Korea.

Now, when my partner had spoken to the realtor the day before he did say that the apartment we wanted was only available for one month, but we still wanted to go and see what other apartments they had available because they didn’t have all of their apartments listed on the app. When we arrived I immediately felt as though something was off. It was not a typical realtor office and it was set up kind of haphazard. There were more desks inside the room than could comfortably fit and everyone in the office was under 40. This is not to say that younger individuals cannot be realtors, but it is odd not to have at least one seasoned realtor. They welcomed us in and we sat with a young woman, not the person my partner spoke to on the phone, and she asked us the normal questions of our budget, location, preference and move in date. She then pulled up a website and input our criteria. At first, I thought that this site was the company site, but my partner later told me that it was a website that any realtor could sign up for and use for a fee. As we looked at apartments for over an hour I was very discouraged because the living conditions of each apartment were very poor and the apartments were expensive. This was shocking to me as we saw many apartments on the app that fit our price range and met or cleanliness standards. Also, during the hour the realtor kept pressuring us to lower our standards. She wanted us to choose apartments that I told her were “shoeboxes” or were 30 minutes away from the train station by bus. I felt that our expectations weren’t unrealistic so I wasn’t willing to compromise and neither was my partner. We thanked her for her time and left.

153DB400-4A60-4D2A-B60C-53F82683291EWe took a break and went to a coffee shop and called another realtor and met him an hour later. There was an apartment on the app that he had listed that we wanted to see, but it magically wasn’t available anymore when we called him, so we asked him to show us a few other apartments. He took us to an apartment that was a “shoebox” even for Seoul standards. I’ve lived in a small apartment in Seoul and my friends have, but nothing as tiny as this. A bed would not be able to fit in that small space and if it did, your apartment would be all bed. It was more the size of a goshiwon(a very small room that’s similar to a dorm room)than an apartment. He said he showed us that apartment to give us “realistic expectations” of what is available. He then took us to another apartment about a 5 minute walk from the station. This one was a villa(a smaller building with apartments) that didn’t have an elevator, but I’ve experienced that with a villa before and I was willing to at least see this apartment. However, the apartment itself was well below our standards. It had a rotten smell and the bathroom was very moldy. Most Korean bathrooms don’t have windows and small apartments don’t have a separate shower from the rest of the bathroom, so mold is a real problem, but this was not something I could deal with. The bathroom did have a window, which was unusual, but the bottom of the toilet wasn’t sealed(the source of part of the smell) and there was mold throughout the kitchen as well. This is mostly the fault of the current tenant, but mold is not only disgusting but it is very dangerous to be around for your health and it can make you very sick. We told the realtor no thanks and asked him to show us a few other places.

14CCC8DD-46EB-407A-9B76-7BC706A783D4After my very apparent displeasure with the last apartment, I thought he would surely show us something with better living conditions. After all, he did ask us what we thought and we were polite but clear on how we felt. I was very disappointed. He took us to an apartment that was even further from the station and even worse than the previous one. The key money and rent were higher, but the apartment was small and the bathroom did not have a sink. That’s right. No sink. When I asked about the bathroom sink he literally said, “there’s a sink in the kitchen that you can use.” I have never seen that in any bathroom in Korea no matter how small the apartment and bathroom are. Also, there wasn’t a refrigerator or a stove. There was a small balcony that could be used for storage, but it was layered in mold. All of that on top of the smell throughout the building it was a big no from us with this place.

When we walked outside I was nearly in tears out of frustration with not finding a place after what we had been shown. Throughout the process, this realtor kept telling us that we needed to lower our standards and that it would be impossible to find an apartment based off of our criteria. He actually told us that we were used to a nice place and that’s why we were being picky. We told him we would be in touch and decided to get something to eat and regroup. While we were eating my partner decided to call one more realtor. We saw another place that could fit our needs, so we decided to give one more realtor a try for that day. When she called the realtor told her that the place we wanted had a lot of problems. He said the owner had a lot of debt and that if we rented that place we might not get our key money back, but he had other places that were available. We went, despite our better judgment.

When we arrived I was immediately suspicious, again. This realtor office was a lot smaller than the previous ones we had visited that day, around 7 desks that were almost impossible to walk around, and the realtors were even younger. I would say they were all under 30 years old. The realtor we spoke to took us to an apartment in the same neighborhood as his office and it was just as bad as the previous apartments we had seen. We quickly left and asked if he had something better. You would think that we had learned our lesson, but we actually gave him one more chance. He took us to an apartment that was the worst one we had seen all day. The entire apartment was moldy and the bathroom was very filthy. I was shocked that someone was actually living there and paying the amount of rent that was listed. My partner and I were so disgusted that we told him we did not want to see anymore apartments. Just as the other realtors had said he also told us to lower our standards.

That night we were very discouraged and disappointed but we were both glad that we went through that experience because we would not have known that these scams were going on. A majority of the listings for the Sillim area were fake. Each picture was bait to make you believe that decent apartments were available, but once you called about the apartment you wanted the realtor would say that it’s not available but they would show you some other apartments that are comparable when none of them were. A realtor that my partner called the next day actually admitted to her that he didn’t want to put up fake listings but because other realtors were doing it he had to as well to stay competitive. He only admitted this after she had pressed him about a particular apartment that we wanted to see.

9C7CBE4D-247B-4A0A-B947-41DEB10E95E4We decided to forget the Sillim area and look around where we were currently living. We found a place that we liked and called the agent. I didn’t have high hopes, but the realtor asked us if we wanted to visit his office first or go directly to the apartment. We didn’t want to waste anymore time so we went directly to the apartment. When we went inside we were both pleasantly surprised. The apartment was spacious and it was clean. The key money and rent were reasonable, and cheaper than the places we saw the previous day, and it was only 600 meters away from our current apartment. The neighborhood was quieter and we could move in right away if we wanted. He took us back to his office and showed us documents pertaining to the building and the owner. The documents said who the owner was and that he owned the building completely. It also said that if the owner ever has financial problems we have the right to ask for our key money. This all seemed too good to be true, so we told him we needed a few hours to think about it. We talked it over for 10 minutes and called the realtor back saying we wanted the place and we moved in a week later.

This whole process was very emotionally draining, but my partner and I felt that we gained some valuable lessons from this. We learned that we should never lower our standards. Each realtor, with the exception of the last one, tried to pressure us to lower our standards because they wanted us to accept whatever they had available because they’re running a scam and they want to make quick money. We also learned to stand firm for what you want. Don’t let anyone sway you from what you want because you are the one that has to live with your choice. You will spend a lot of time in your apartment so it’s important to make sure the place fits your needs and that you feel comfortable living there. When you’re calling a realtor remember the registration number of the apartment you want, if you’re using Jikbang. If they say that it’s unavailable ask to see another apartment that they have listed. If that one is magically unavailable then you know it’s time to move on. You don’t want to waste your time, especially with scams. Don’t worry about their feelings. While being polite is important don’t feel as though you have too spare their feelings if you don’t like a place. Make it very clear that you don’t like it and specify what you don’t like. If they insist on you lowering your standards tell them bye.

It’s also important to do research before you look into moving. Go to a realtor in the area that you want to move to and ask them to show you what they have available. You will need key money, but don’t worry too much about that because you can probably negotiate that. Ask if you can pay more rent or if you can pay the remaining amount during the first few months of rent. And don’t forget to stand up for yourself and trust your gut feeling.


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