In the U.S. and Europe, you find an apartment usually on-line (I found my last apartment onCraig's List), by word of mouth, or you can simply visit the office of the apartment building you want to rent to see if there are any vacancies.
You pay a deposit, anywhere from $300.00 to $1,000, pay your first month's rent, and voila, you move in.
Here in Korea, the process is a bit different. First, you have to find an a place you interested in. A friend of mine told me that he found his place on a website on the internet. I called a couple of places that had some pictures of some properties that I was interested in, but quickly learned that this is pretty much futile. Most places post pictures of nice places, but once you show up to look at the place, they take you to a completely different place. They use pictures of nice places to get you in the door, and then show you a dump that they are trying to unload. I got the typical, “Well, there isn't anything nicer than this...”.
The next option was visiting a boo dong san (부동산) or leasing office. There are literally five or six on every corner here. A lot of places used the same tactic as the internet sites. Posting places on their windows, but when you go in they don't have the place you want, just an apartment that looks like a toilet.
Finally, I realized that the way to go is to find an apartment building in a neighborhood you like, and then visit a boo dong san that will have properties in that building.
Here is where it gets interesting. Almost everywhere you rent will require something called a key money deposit and monthly rent. The lowest key money I have seen is three million Won (about $2,260). For that money, expect a very small efficiency in an pretty old building. If you want anything half way decent in a fairly new building, expect to pay between fifteen to fifty million Won ($14,000-$47,000) plus monthly rent. The higher the key money, the lower the monthly rent. There is also something called jun sae (전세), where you pay anywhere from one hundred to three hundred million Won ($95,000-$290,000) and then don't pay rent for the entire year. Yeah, read all that again. It's not a typo. Here in Busan, we are lucky. I have heard from many Koreans that property prices in Seoul are astronomically high, and that many young, married couples and young professionals have a really hard time finding anything remotely reasonable.
The building owner takes your key money and invests it. When you move out, they give you your key money back. If it makes you nervous handing over $20,000 dollars just to rent an apartment, don't worry. You can go to the local district gu (구) office and get insurance called a hwak jung il ja (확정일자) that insures your key money up to a certain amount in case the landowner can't pay you back. In Busan, you are insured up to seventeen million won. You should also check your landlord's equity and make sure that he/she hasn't borrowed more than eighty percent of the total cost of the property. Some people try to let a place, then declare bankruptcy.
Just like you, I was left scratching my head trying to figure out the logic of all of this. Not to mention, there are a lot of fake realtors, who try to pass themselves off as realtors and cheat you (you can check at your local neighborhood office and see if your realtor is licensed).
My employer was gracious enough to put up part of my key money, and I paid the rest. In the end, I was able to find an awesome place in a neighborhood not too far away from my old place.
One of the great things about my new neighborhood is that I practically live right across the street from one of the nicest bath houses I have ever been to (here and in Japan) and about ten minutes from a beautiful mountain that is great for hiking. Now if I can just get my A/C problem taken care of...Here are some pictures of my neighborhood.
I like this statue. You should, too.