Trend alert: Well-heeled ex-pats buying up historic homes in Beijing


Historic hutong homes — traditional courtyard property lining narrow alleyways — are the hot (old) new thing in the Chinese real estate market. They provide a much-needed sanctuary in the middle of the bustling city of Beijing. Those seeking a more traditional living experience seem to prefer street-level homes to luxury high rises, so these properties tend to be particularly coveted by ex-pats or newcomers to the city.

Many hutongs were built well over 100 years ago built by China’s elite ruling class and wealthy merchants, and are now renovated and renting for $3,000-$10,000 per month depending on their size and amenities. The very first hutong was built during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties (1271-1911) and in 1949 there were about 7,000 in existence. According to the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center there were only 1,350 remaining in 2008.

The Wall Street Journal highlights some recent occupants of these tony homes. One resident living with his wife and two children in a three-building courtyard home which includes a sauna, a downstairs playroom, two kitchens and a master bathroom with built-in closets and a private building for his kids, explained “it’s like living in a forest,” he says. “It’s full of trees and quiet and yet in the center of Beijing.”

While tranquil and aesthetically pleasing, there are some drawbacks. One resident explains, “I knew the hutongs weren’t as insulated as a modern apartment, but I never thought I’d have multiple heaters going in my bedroom and still see my breath in the wintertime.” In addition to temperature control issues, plumbing can also pose a problem. Residents are often told not to flush toilet paper, as existing pipes tend to be fragile.

Modernizing such old properties can be complicated, particularly because Beijing laws restrict a hutong home from being larger than its original footprint.

Still, many are willing to forgo modern conveniences for the cache of living in such an unusual home,“Living in a hutong is less comfortable at times,” says Ms. Odinet, an interior designer, who rents a 4,800-square-foot home with a friend not far from the old city’s center. “While I’m here in China I should live in a place that’s unique and that’s not like anywhere else.”