New Homeowner Hack: Living in an ‘Unfinished Apartment’

The trend is one part interior design, one part dismal economic necessity

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Beatrice Tamagno Headshot
4:29 AM HKT, Fri June 30, 2023 2 mins read

“Last July I decided not to decorate the apartment I’d just bought,” recalls 26-year-old Wang Nanbei. “I’d graduated a few years ago, but I didn’t have any savings and I felt very guilty about it.”

Born in central China, Wang moved to Guangdong province for school and found a job there after he graduated.

“I was moved when my parents agreed to help with the down payment, so when it came to decoration, I tried to save as much money as possible.”

china empty shell house

Images via @毛坯房入住 on Xiaohongshu

As bizarre as that decision sounds, Wang is not alone. For more and more Chinese millennials and Gen-Z, the ‘unfinished apartment’ aesthetic is one solution to the challenge of balancing grim job prospects with the social expectation of owning an apartment before marriage.

The hashtag for the phenomenon amassed close to 1 billion views on Xiaohongshu and 8.8 billion on Douyin, with users sharing photos and videos of their lives inside unfinished homes.

empty house china

Image via @我的理想家 on Xiaohongshu

In China it’s common to purchase apartments that come not only unfurnished, but undecorated — basically just empty concrete shells. With China’s rapid rate of urbanization, and the fact that local governments often use real estate to generate extra revenue, most apartments in the country are newly developed, rather than sold from one private owner to the next; in 2021, over 90% of all houses purchased were unfinished units.

Although his parents made a 300,000 RMB (around 41,000 USD) down payment for the apartment, Wang still needs to pay 3,800 RMB (around 520 USD) every month for his mortgage, which is more than double the amount he was paying while still renting in the same city.

“It’s still a lot of financial pressure for me” he says. “I plan on living like this for two more years, and when I’ve saved enough money, I’ll finally decorate it.”

While he does have a full-time job, he’s trying to develop a “slash career” and create online content that revolves around his life in the unfinished apartment.

china empy house

Images via @就十六啊 and @毛坯房入住 on Xiaohongshu

While most initially choose life in unfinished apartments out of necessity, the phenomenon began to attract significant attention online, and quickly turned into a lifestyle trend.

Last March, Zhao Xinxin, a 28-year-old from northern Shaanxi province, moved into the empty apartment her family owns on the first floor of her building, just so that she could film the whole process and build her own social media channels.

“I really like industrial interiors and I wanted to try something new and unique,” she tells RADII. “After all, it only took seven days to clean and furnish, and I only spent a few thousand RMB.”

Image courtesy of Zhao Xinxin.

Image courtesy of Zhao Xinxin

With their unpainted gray walls, concrete floors and minimal furnishing, these apartments do kind of feel like chic, industrial-style Brooklyn coffee houses. However, the reality of living in an unfinished house is far less glamorous.

“I am sensitive to smell, so the scent is what annoys me the most,” Zhao complains. “When I first moved in I felt like it was really cool and beautiful, but then with time I realized it’s pretty dark and depressing.”

houses china

Image courtesy of Zhao Xinxin

However, for Wang, whose taste in interior design is less avant-garde, life in the unfinished house is more than acceptable, and a sacrifice worth making.

“Every time I shower I need to drain the water manually because it won’t flow easily without tiles,” he says. “But overall, life in the apartment is pretty comfortable. It’s just very ugly.”

Cover image via Xiaohongshu

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