No matter where in Taipei you want to rent, there are some things you should consider before signing a lease and moving in. Here are some suggestions to help avoid the basic pitfalls.
Define “Acceptable Noise”
Anything on a main street is going to be noisy, and in Taipei that can mean traffic 24 hours a day. Many new buildings will have better sound proofing, such as extra-thick double-glazed windows, but even then you will need to keep windows closed all the time. It is a pretty effective solution, but is this how you want to live?
Older buildings tend to have two layers of windows at best, and often a very flimsy frame with thin glass and a basic track design. They are likely to rattle when it is windy and will probably let the rain in too.
If you are sensitive to traffic noise, finding a place in a lane behind a big building can reduce the noise considerably, especially at night. Just be mindful of whether your lane is used as a motor scooter parking lot or the loading bay entrance for a restaurant’s delivery trucks. Be aware of the location of your nearby temple, as weekend events can start early.
Even the location of air conditioning units can contribute to the noise you experience. Many buildings built during the 80s and early 90s have a rectangular space designed into each room of the building for placing a single box-style air-con unit. Fast forward to today, and many buildings now use split systems; there is no need for that dedicated hole in the wall. It is worth noting how effectively the hole has been sealed (and sound-proofed), as this can easily allow both noise and rain into your apartment. If your neighbor’s split unit happens to be opposite your window, it can be noisy too.
The thickness of the walls and ceilings can be a major annoyance. Given most apartments use floor tiling, noises tend to transfer directly from the floor above straight through to your room via the ceiling. And likewise, any noise you make, gets shared with your neighbors below.
Chairs dragged across a kitchen floor, kids playing, or even the sound of a TV, can be highly distracting when you are trying to sleep. Older buildings tend to be made from thinner concrete and are noisier in this way, but it is worth standing quietly and listing for sounds even in a new apartment. Can you hear water flushing in the pipes hidden in the ceiling?
Check Ventilation and Natural Light
Good air is so important in Taipei, mainly because the city is naturally humid and air gets trapped within the Taipei basin and is unable to escape.
This tendency for the air to be stale and poorly circulated gets exacerbated by traffic pollution, heat from air-conditioning units, and also heat absorbed by the buildings and roads. So on top of these issues, you don’t want an apartment that has no cross ventilation and sits directly in summer’s afternoon sun.
Some of the best buildings for air flow were actually built during the 60s and 70s, and featured a narrow veranda at both the front and back of each apartment. Many people have enclosed these spaces, but assuming you rent the entire apartment, you can enjoy a natural cross flow of air by opening the windows.
If you are renting a single room, make sure yours has at least one usable window. Likewise, for bigger apartments, look for places that have an external window in the bathroom and kitchen.
Even if you manage to find a place with good-sized windows, you will probably still need to invest in a de-humidifier to guarantee the life of your clothes. Make sure you check anything that has been stored away for 1-2 months without wearing. It is amazing how quickly mold can take over.
The amount of light in your apartment is a matter of choice. There is often a trade-off between a bright apartment on a noisy main street, and a quieter place in a dim alley. Roof-top apartments tend to be brighter but more susceptible to the heat, cold and rain. Hill-top apartments can be well ventilated, bright, and quiet…but a long distance from public transport.
Decide Which Floor
My personal preference is anything above the 3rd floor. The first floor of most buildings will be an entrance area, where there are lots of people banging doors, or a shop space or restaurant. A commercial premises attracts people and tends to be noisier, dirtier and more smelly, simply due to the daily turnover of patrons. How about that 7-11 door bell and that insistent “Huanying Guanglin”?
A 2nd floor apartment is often located right above the 1st floor scenario just described, so it can be noisy as well as overwhelmed by various fragrances wafting up from the business below.
The 3rd floor is usually owned by a contented Taiwanese family. Often located in the middle floor of an older six-story building, this floor is not too close to street level and not too high up the building either. Safer to jump from in case of fire, and fewer stairs to climb in case the lifts are out, it might be the perfect solution you are looking for.
The 4th floor of many buildings is often available to rent. The bad luck of the Chinese character for 4 sounding like death is a very good reason for Taiwanese not to live there, but renting it out to someone else is no problem. Additionally, the 4th floor is a bit higher off the ground and (apparently) still within reach of the ladder of Taipei’s larger fire trucks.
Floors 5 and above have their considerations too. In older six-story buildings, you may or may not have access to the space on the roof. This access can be extremely attractive because it provides the chance to have your own garden or courtyard, sometimes with a view of the mountains or other parts of the city.
If you are considering renting a roof top add-on (they are typically a shed-like structure built before new city regulations banned them), be prepared for hotter summers and colder winters, and potential leaking during typhoons. These add-ons can be great for the sense of space they offer, and in many ways the added privacy, but the expense of heating and cooling is something to factor in to your budget when considering their relative value.
The floor below the rooftop is also usually hotter in summer and more likely to leak during heavy rains. Newer buildings tend to have fewer problems, due to the thickness and quality of the concrete used in construction, as well as the relative age of their drainage system, but it is still worth taking a look on the roof for signs of water damage, blocked drain pipes, cracked tiles; anything that would point to potential hassles in the future.
For newer buildings that are over 7 stories tall, you might have the pleasure of looking over the roofs of everybody else, with a view of the mountains, 101 or Mitsukoshi in the distance. You may even get good ventilation, sunlight, and a quieter buzz from the traffic below.
Review Your Building’s Amenities
The age of your building usually determines what kind of built-in features and management services that you will have available. For many apartment buildings you will have a management fee above your basic rent. Here are some things you may or may not find essential:
- Centralized rubbish disposal — the alternative is you wait on the curb or chase the truck yourself
- Someone to keep public areas clean, including stairs and elevators
- Security – and often they will collect parcel deliveries on your behalf
- Reserved parking – either for a car, scooter, or bicycle
- A pool, gym, kids playground and other sporting facilities
- Elevators – older buildings under 5 floors may not have them
- Gardens and other public space
What’s more, kitchens tend to be fairly basic. You might have 1-2 gas rings for your wok, a small preparation area and minimal storage. An oven is a rarity, even a dishwasher is hard to come by.
Likewise with bathrooms: do you really need to soak in a tub?
Prepare for Natural Disasters and Other Emergencies
Floods, earthquakes, and fires may not be top of mind, but in Taipei you can’t avoid factoring them in to your rental equation.
With massive stretches of Taipei lying on what was once a swampy flood plain, and an annual season of tropical storms, you might want to consider how far your apartment is to those dyke walls you see down the block. They maybe all that stands between you and the next super typhoon flooding your basement.
The city has a network of pumps to protect us from the rising river levels, but it can fail spectacularly as it did in 2001, when huge sections of the eastern part of Taipei were inundated by typhoon Nari. The old advice about never setting up camp in a dry creek bed comes to mind.
Earthquakes are probably a more likely occurrence, given Taiwan’s high level of seismic activity. While they are impossible to predict or avoid, it might be a factor as to what kind of building, especially how high, you want to live in. The further you are from the ground, the more extreme the shaking will feel.
Theoretically the higher you are the further you have to fall as well! But being on the first or second floors can also have its hazards, as some buildings will concertina downwards, eliminating several levels of your building in the process.
A good idea is to see if the business on the first floor seems unusually open and roomy. That might give you a sense as to how many crucial support struts have been removed to make way for that wide open space.
If it is any consolation, anything you can see today that was built before the huge 21 September 1999 earthquake is still standing, and that’s a good sign. Anything built after that should have been designed to meet stricter building code standards. However, newer buildings have never really been put to the stress test.
In either case you should ask friends or other residents about the building’s history. Do a manual check for cracks that appear anything bigger than the standard “settling” fractures that commonly appear on walls, especially on tiled surfaces like in bathrooms and kitchens.
Fire is something you may wish to contemplate too, given the history of lax enforcement of fire codes. To start with, is your building only accessible via a narrow alley that even a small car can barely fit into? Then how would a fire truck go at attempting to save you?
Your building should have fire extinguishers that are easily accessed (usually near the stairs), regardless of its age or your neighborhood. More modern buildings will have a sprinkler system installed, which while somewhat comforting, doesn’t necessarily mean it works. Ask residents if it has ever been used or tested.
Are your windows surrounded by rusted caging that offers no way to escape? Also, check to see if the fire escape doors work, and whether the main stairs or fire escape passage ways are crammed with residents’ shoes, bicycles, unused furniture, or whatever. If you had to make a run for it, could you manage to get to safety?
Choose Your Mode of Transport
What is great about Taipei is that you have many transportation options, and none of them are terribly expensive compared to other cities around the world. However, where you live will still have a huge impact on how you get around.
Before you decide location, consider the kind of transport you are prepared to take. Are you addicted to Taipei’s MRT system? Scared of riding a motor scooter or driving a car? Got absolutely no clue about where the buses go and how to pay? Or you’d prefer to walk or ride a bicycle?
Your preferred mode of transport will be crucial to the housing options you are prepared to consider. Check a map, including the MRT and bus routes, Google Maps or a tourist brochure, to work out exactly how far you are from the places you need to be and the kind of transport that is going to get you there.
Focus on Location Location Location
As typically stated about buying real estate, location is everything. For renters it is not much different. Yet the importance of location is very subjective in a place like Taipei. If your notion of getting to know your neighbors is a view directly into their bedroom, that’s one thing. However, you may hope for a greener outlook, or somewhere more private, quieter, darker, bigger. There are all kinds of trade offs.
While the natural environment might be a major interest, the built environment is a big part of the Taipei lifestyle too. Is there a convenience store downstairs? Can you walk to your nearest coffee shop? Is there a bus stop just around the corner? Are you more than 30 minutes away from school or work? Where you like to work and play will be an important consideration for choosing your ideal location.
Luckily, Taipei’s public transport just gets better and better, and as long as you are within an easy walk to a bus or MRT station, you can get around Taipei pretty quickly and easily.
If not, then you will be more reliant on a motor scooter or car. Or if you prefer to commute by bicycle, the bicycle lanes throughout the river parks and many places across the city, now provide better options for cyclists too.