low groan followed by a flurry of expletives sent me darting into the bedroom from the kitchen. “We have to move house,” my wife said, her head in her hands.
She had just gotten off the phone with our landlord, who told her he was breaking our contract six months early because he wanted to move into our house.
This is the second time in a row this happened to us, although it wasn’t so bad this time. Our last landlord told us we had to be out in a matter of days because their house smelled like paint and it was giving his father headaches. This time we didn’t have a close deadline at least.
Over the next two weeks we must have seen at least 20 houses in total, guided by a variety of agents desperate to part us with our cash and seemingly indifferent to the fact that human beings have finite lives and, philosophically speaking, we can’t afford to waste our time following men in cheap suits up 12 flights of stairs to look at shabby houses.
The first 10 or so were the run-of-the-mill awful Beijing apartments – tiny bathrooms last thoroughly washed in preparation for the  Olympics, kitchens spread across two non-adjacent rooms, north-facing windows which look out at a brick wall and furniture so hard it can watch videos of disabled dogs learning to walk again without choking up.
But when the first set of houses was inspected and rejected, weird places started to show up as the agents got desperate.
There was a 13th floor shoe-box apartment I was taken to that had a dozen migrant workers sleeping in it at lunchtime, which the agent assured me was a steal at only 5,500 yuan (US$854) a month.
There was the place which was being rebuilt and only had three walls, the outside wall at that time replaced with a gaping hole. “It’ll be ready in a week,” the agent lied, “if you want this place you better decide today because it’ll be gone otherwise.”
There was the cavernous apartment with great solid-wood furniture that had a real “dungeon” vibe after half a dozen IT goblins had moved in. They seemed to have turned the toilet into some kind of cigarette-butt aquarium and had seemingly decided that the best way to feed their shaved cat was to spread its food over as much of the floor as possible.
Then there was the place that was in a good location, spacious, had great views of a nearby temple and was well within our budget.
However the old tenant was lying in wait to ambush the agent and warn us. She said the water of the house had given her diarrhea and eye infections on a regular basis, that the temple rang ear-splitting bells at 4am daily and the walls gave off a strange stench she couldn’t dispel no matter what she did. While we looked at the place, she yelled in Chinese-via-the-American-Midwest at the agent about how she wasn’t going to pay any of the rent she owed.
My wife assumed that she was a spoiled American unwilling to tough the gritty reality of life in Beijing, but we ended up giving up on that place after she said that the landlord was cheap and tried to fix any problem himself. His fix for the kitchen sink blocking on every single use was to recommend using a plunger on it every time.
Eventually we found a place not far from our original location that we could accept. We were willing to overlook its weird layout, lack of natural light and pricy rent due to its good location, recent refurbishment and lack of any smells that made both of us queasy. However the day we planned to sign the contract, the day before we had been told we could move in, the landlord nixed the deal because his wife told him not to rent the place out. Apparently he hadn’t shared his plan with her, preferring instead to mess with strangers first and talk to her later.
For once, at least, this crushing disappointment seemed to embarrass that particular realtor – the others all seemed immune to such feelings – and he swore to find us a suitable replacement immediately. Which, against all of my expectations, he did. He actually did it. He did it so quickly that I couldn’t help wonder why the whole process had taken as long as it did in the first place.
He found us a really decent place with hideous pink walls in the same building we were being kicked out of. When we moved in, we even discovered that the last tenants had left behind at least 10 Russian ice creams in the freezers. It almost made the whole ordeal worth it.