What is New Housing Like in China?

By Roger Weber

Previously, we published a piece on Capital Frontiers that explored the affordability of housing in China. In it, we concluded that housing is more expensive in China than anywhere else in the world. We described the price of housing in Chinese cities relative to average incomes, and looked at the combination of factors that is driving the affordability crisis.

The difference in affordability of housing between the United States and China is quantitatively remarkable. Housing in China is many multiples more expensive, and the process of saving up to buy a home that is commonplace in China is unimaginably cumbersome to most Americans. Like in many areas of life, Americans don’t realize how good they have it.

But the difference between housing in the United States and China is qualitatively remarkable, too, because not only is housing more expensive in China, but the housing being built in China is almost unequivocally less luxurious. Here are some ways in which that manifests.

What types of houses are being built in China?

While China historically is famous for low-rise housing typologies that include outdoor spaces and traditional designs, today nearly 95 percent of new housing in China is comprised of high-rise multi-family apartments without private open spaces or backyards. While there is typically some demand for housing of this type in the cores of major cities, international research indicates most people would prefer to live in a single-family home. But because the market in China for urban living is so hot, people are willing to pay exorbitant prices for high-rise living, even when that housing is being constructed a long way from urban centers. This is in comparison to the United States, where 70 percent of new housing is being built as detached, single-family housing with backyards, a number that roughly matches the number of people who say they would prefer to live in this style of housing.

How big is the average house in China?

Housing in China is not very big. typical new houses in the United States, which average around 2,600 square feet, are around five times as large as the average new residence in China, which averages around 600 square feet. This is not because US houses are being built further away from urban centers. In fact, the average commuting time from new housing being built in China to the locations of the jobs where its occupants work is around 51 minutes, compared to an average commuting time of 26 minutes for the occupants of new US housing. This is a testament to some of the vast differences we wrote about previously regarding the efficacy of the organization of jobs within cities in the United States as compared to in those elsewhere around the world.

What’s included in the average new house in China?

New apartments in China typically range from one-room studios to three-room dwellings that include a kitchen, living room, and bedroom. They are typically rented furnished, and increasingly include large closets. Most new apartments include air conditioning. Major differences abound between typical US houses and Chinese apartments, however.

In the kitchen, 99 percent of US houses have a refrigerator, while only around half of new Chinese apartments to. It’s a fairly modern development to see refrigerators in apartments in China, and where they are included they are often incorporated in living rooms, not the kitchen, due to space constraints. 99 percent of US kitchens have a microwave built in, something seen in only around 10 percent of new Chinese apartments. 77 percent of US households include ranges, with 55 percent including a range hood, something found in only 20 percent of new Chinese apartments. Where ranges are included, in the US houses they typically include 4-6 burners, whereas in China only 2-3 burners are generally included. 73 percent of US houses include a dishwasher, while in China dish dryers, which wash dishes using dry heat, are much more common. Other standard features of US kitchens – 89 percent of US kitchens include a toaster and 82 percent include a coffee maker – are nearly unheard of in China.

The differences in kitchen luxuries between US and Chinese kitchens speak to both the lingering cultural differences as well as an economic development lag that persists in China. Each drives the other. It is traditional in China to purchase meat on the same day you will eat it, a tradition reinforced by the dearth of ovens or refrigerators, as well as the lack of central heating, which in the winter often makes it possible to store meat on countertops for much of the day. The lack of appliances in Chinese apartments are partly why wet markets, where animals are often killed on-site in open air city street markets, are commonplace there to this day. Similarly, because of the lack of refrigerators, milk, which is culturally rare to begin with, is generally purchased in small quantities and is generally treated with UHT to prevent it from spoiling.

Other differences are stark as well. Beds in Chinese apartments are hard and small, whereas US beds are large and soft. There are massive differences in the provisioning of general apartment appliances as well. For example, around 86 percent of US houses include washing machines, while only around 50 percent of Chinese houses do. Dryers, included in 84 percent of US households, are not commonplace in Chinese apartments. And while there are as many televisions in the United States as there are people, only around 50 percent of new Chinese apartments include a television.

Some of these disparities reflect cultural differences that make them inaccurate measures of comparative luxury. And there is an emerging appliance market in China that is starting to pick up steam. But the differences are stark nonetheless, and it’s fair to say that US houses, even despite their larger square footages, are chock full of greater luxuries per average occupied square foot.

And it’s this compounding final point that underscores what ultimately still a significant difference yet remaining in the qualitative aspects of housing between the two countries. Housing in China is vastly more expensive, yes, but it’s so much more than that: it’s also smaller, less convenient, and vastly less luxurious than what the average middle class enjoys in the United States. China’s urbanization is well on its way, but it has a long way to go before Chinese housing matches the American equivalent in either affordability or quality.

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