Over the weekend I learned about a unique feature of South Korea’s housing market. It’s called jeonse. And the way this housing contract works is that, instead of tenants paying a monthly rent to their landlord, they pay a huge lump-sum amount up front. Usually this “key money” is equal to somewhere around 50% of the value of the home, but oftentimes it’s even higher (60-90% range). In 2014, the average cost of a jeonse deposit in Seoul was somewhere around US$300,000.
In exchange for this huge lump-sum amount, jeonse tenants are able to live in the property for a period of time (usually 24 months) without having to pay any rent. Because what they are actually doing is paying via the opportunity cost of having their money tied up during their occupancy. Jeonse landlords are free to invest these lump-sum deposits however they see fit. The money they make from investing is their “rent” on the property. (The deposits are secured through a lien on the home, but of course that isn’t without some risk.)
At first glance, this seems entirely counterintuitive. If you have hundreds of thousands of dollars available to you, why not buy? Why hand it over to a landlord so that they can go invest in things? Well, usually when there’s a marketplace for something it is because both sides stand to benefit. And in this case, the jeonse system supposedly emerged as the country was developing and people were rapidly urbanizing. Credit wasn’t widely available and so the jeonse system grew to help both tenants and landlords.
For tenants, it was cheaper than owning a place outright and the “rent-free” period allowed them to more easily save up so that they could eventually buy. And for landlords, it was access to low-cost capital and the opportunity to invest in other money-making stuff. Some even credit the jeonse system with being instrumental in South Korea’s rapid rise in the second half of the 20th century.
But is it still relevant today? Good question.
The data suggests that it could very well be on the way out. Jeonse deposits have been declining for years and, based on this, it was overtaken in 2012 with more people choosing to pay rent on a monthly basis. As of 2019, it had grown to over 60% of tenancies in Seoul. And so it feels like the end could be near. But if any of you have first-hand experience with renting in South Korea, I would love to hear from you in the comment section below.