South Korea is a tiny country, so most housing is built up and not out. Apartment life is the most common housing option, with more than 60% of the population living in highrises. So what’s apartment life in South Korea really like?
Honestly, it depends. It depends on several things – but the most important factor is the consideration of neighbors.
Neighbors Are Not Very Neighborly
We decided to live as Koreans do to immerse ourselves in the community. However, apartment life in South Korea hasn’t been warm & fuzzy. As you would expect, it’s challenging to communicate complicated concerns. My neighbors do not (or will not) speak English, and my Korean is extremely limited.
Making friends with Koreans under the best circumstances is difficult. And no matter how hard I try to present a friendly and welcoming demeanor, it has been a year, and the other family on my floor does not appear to share my interest in becoming friends.
Noise Between Floors
In Korea there is a housing shortage, making housing very expensive. So to alleviate the problem, there is new construction everywhere. Unfortunately, recent (cost-cutting) apartment construction regulations have contributed to noise proliferation.
My last apartment was tranquil, and I never heard my neighbors. I’m not so lucky with our current apartment. I live under a family with multiple generations under the same roof. They have a toddler who runs from room to room-she never walks. We know the moment she wakes up, and it’s nonstop until she goes to bed. It wasn’t so bad at first, but she is getting bigger, and the thumps are too.
Water Always Running Through Pipes
The water always seems to be running through the pipes. I can hear it clearly when I go into the kimchi kitchen. It annoyed me until I realized hot water is the critical component of the ondol or underfloor heating system, keeping my toes warm.
We are going to incorporate underfloor heating in our forever home. We love it. It’s a very effective heating method because we can monitor the temperature and which rooms we want to heat with the push of the button.
I hate few things more than parking underground in South Korea. Most modern apartment complexes have underground parking, which does extend the life of your paint job.
But, it would be great if the parking spaces weren’t so tight. This may be just me, but I don’t think so. I regularly have to climb over the passenger seat to get into and out of my car.
Avoiding the Foreigner Stereotypes
Not speaking the language makes things like asking neighbors to keep the noise down a little complicated. Apartment life can be fun if you have considerate neighbors. However, it can be stressful and very unpleasant if you don’t. Furthermore, as foreigners, we are always trying to be good ambassadors.
Small complaints that anyone would have been difficult to deal with. You recognize that your interactions with your neighbors in any negative way will result in the reinforcement of stereotypes that could affect the entire community.
Apartment Life in South Korea $$$
A housing shortage has led to apartments being super expensive. Although owning an apartment doesn’t mean you actually own any land, and the apartments are small, they are just as expensive as a place in the United States.
Plus, even if you decide to rent, the deposit really isn’t far off of just buying a place outright.
Recycling is a serious business because the country has limited space. And as a result, it is a considerable component of apartment life in Korea. Just about everything is recycled here, including food waste. And the security guards are not shy in letting you know when you put something in the wrong bin.
They are also not shy when it comes to other things too. I was throwing out an empty cognac (hard alcohol) bottle, and one of the guards smiled and asked if he could get a bottle, which we gladly obliged.
I’ve been pretty lucky with our security guard. He is nice enough and happy to help us when we’re not sure which bin something belongs in. But, you wouldn’t want to throw away any items that could lead to embarrassment – they would definitely see.
No Keys Necessary
Apartment life in Korea is key-free. I have to use two different four-digit codes to access my building and apartment. This is great – usually. Unfortunately, I’ve had numerous brain farts when I couldn’t remember either one and looked like a big dummy standing in front of my building until I remember. Conversely, there is no lock on our mailbox.
The kimchi kitchen is a second kitchen with a door. This is the kitchen where many Koreans prepare the most aromatic dishes. It’s closed off to the rest of the house so that it doesn’t stink up the place. Hence the name, kimchi kichen.
You’ll typically find the washing machine, extra stove, small refrigerators, and extra storage in the typical kimchi kitchen. Note I didn’t say dryer.
Westerners often lament about the lack of dryers in Korean apartments. Locals line dry. I do too during the summer when it’s warm. But during the cold winter months, the kimchi kitchen is cold enough to serve as an additional refrigerator.
Unfortunately, communication with the building maintenance, cleaning, security, and property management is challenging. No one speaks or admits they speak English. So I always have to phone a friend if I need translation for anything. This includes the intercom system, which makes intermittent announcements from time to time.
Sometimes we will catch a word or two, i.e., exterminator or elevator, so that we can figure it out. And periodically, scheduled services are also posted in the elevators (in Hangul with pictures). But if a real emergency breaks out, I hope the office knows how to say “run for your lives” in English.
If apartment living isn’t for you, don’t worry the Korean countryside offers beautiful wide-open spaces. Click Here to learn all about living in Korea’s countryside.