Turn back the clock to the year 2000 and you would have found fewer than 500,000 foreign nationals living in South Korea.
Today, official figures suggest the tally is closer to 2 million1 after a surge in the country’s popularity as a destination for expat workers.
They join an already crowded population. Fifty million people are squeezed into a country where roughly 90% of the land is mountainous. To give a sense of scale: the country would fit into an area between San Francisco and Los Angeles – and is seven times smaller than Texas2.
How have the South Koreans solved this population squeeze? By building upwards rather than outwards. Apartment blocks are consequently the most popular type of housing.
Apatu: the apartment
South Koreans think of the “apatu” – apartment – in a highly positive light, much like Westerners see the single-family house with white picket fence and private lawn. The country has long been experiencing a housing boom. The apartment blocks constructed by speculators even survived the 2008 global housing market crash. This means that renting apartments in South Korea can be expensive.
In a middle-class area in Seoul, studio flats to two-bed apartments will cost between 850,000 and 1.5 million Korean won (KRW) per month – the equivalent of $725 to $1,280 U.S. dollars. For that price though, the building may be in a pretty rough condition.
Move upmarket, and you’ll find new apartments kitted out with state-of-the-art appliances you probably didn’t even know existed. In some, for example, you’ll find shoe closets that automatically disinfect shoes with ultraviolet light.
Inevitably, you’ll pay a premium for these units. Upmarket studio flats to two-bed apartments will cost between 1 million and 2.1 million KRW per month – the equivalent of $850 to $1,790 U.S. dollars.
Prices will be slightly lower in Busan, but the real deals are in the countryside, where new, ultra-modern three-bedroom apartments can be rented for less than 500,000 KRW per month, roughly $427 U.S. dollars..
Those prices don’t include the high housing deposits in South Korea. For apartments, expect to put down at least 10 million KRW ($8,500 U.S. dollars). Deposits 10 times that amount are possible - if you want to live amongst Korean celebrities and moguls.
Apartments tend to be two or three bedroom units, and are built largely for families. Since many South Koreans live with their parents until they marry - and married couples tend to have children shortly after tying the knot - there tends to be less demand for smaller apartments for couples.
Apartments are usually stacked above one another in identical blocks that can be found throughout the country. One development will consist of several massive concrete buildings that are identical to each other and face one another in a small community. There is usually a small shop and maybe a restaurant or two on site, but most apartment-dwellers will go to a nearby boulevard for shopping, entertainment, and nightlife.
The word “officetel” is a great example of Konglish – a blend of “office” and “hotel”, although many of these units are neither.Designed to be used either as a workplace or a residence, many units in officetels are inhabited by single people who want a place to live close to their workplace.
For this reason, many officetels are studios. Larger units are available, but they tend to be quite expensive. Expect to pay upwards of 850,000 KRW ($725 U.S. dollars) per month in Seoul. In the trendy neighbourhoods of Apgujeong, Gangnam, and Cheongdam-dong, officetels can be much pricier, but deals can still be found.
Unlike the concrete apartments, officetels are often ultra-modern glass-and-steel structures. These developments also differ to apartment buildings as they include shopsand restaurants, which are usually found on the ground floor. If you live in the right building, it’s possible to buy groceries, go to the gym, watch a movie, and have a few drinks at a bar without once leaving the building.
Like apartments, officetels tend to command a large deposit.
South Koreans took the word “villa” from Latin, but the buildings have little in common with their Roman namesakes. The Korean villa usually stands no more than four stories tall and doesn’t have an elevator. Many are made out of red brick, but more recent builds tend to be made out of granite.
They are fast-disappearing as their popularity has waned in recent decades. Tower cranes dot the landscape of Seoul, Busan, and other Korean cities where new apartment complexes are being built over what was once a sprawling neighbourhood of tightly-connected villas.
Villas are particularly common in Itaewon and Noksapyeong, the area in central Seoul where a large part of the expat community, including English teachers, diplomats, and U.S. military personnel, choose to live. As such, a number of expats striking out on their own may find themselves living in a villa in the area.
The cramped neighbourhoods and limited views mean that villas tend to have smaller windows than apartments, although most have a huge floor-to-ceiling window and balcony connected to the living room. A number of “rooftop” apartments have been built on the top floor of villas, and these are usually the cheapest residences you can get in South Korea. Despite that, they they often have spectacular views and a private or semi-private rooftop terrace to enjoy in warmer months.
Because villas are less popular, they tend to cost less than officetels or apartments, despite offering more space. The cheapest one-bedroom villa in Noksapyeong will cost about 400,000 KRW ($340 U.S. dollars). Two bedrooms in the city will cost about the same as a studio officetel, with Gangnam, Apgujeong, and Cheongdam-dong again being much more expensive.
So whichever you choose, apatu, officetel or villa, it’s worth shopping around to see what you can get for your money – and what kind of property best fits your lifestyle.