Room enough

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"Officetels are so much more convenient than 'one rooms' or dorms," says Yun Soo-kyeong, a graduate student at Ewha Womans University who has been sharing one such apartment for more than a year. "I've lived in both, but I would rather pay extra to reside in an officetel."

Indeed, Ms. Yun is not alone, as officetels are spreading around Sinchon, north of the Han River, in record numbers. One real estate agent there says officetels are devouring the neighborhood.

In the past few years, many contractors have vied to buy land surrounding the Sinchon rotary to build officetels. These newest forms of housing have become increasingly popular among students because officetels mean having more privacy, more convenience and more independence.

The main road from the Sinchon rotary east to the Ewha University subway station has become "officetel boulevard." Since 1997, Le Meilleur Construction has built three officetels in the area, and is building a fourth, named Le Meilleur Town V (like many people in Korea, the owner believes the number four is bad luck), to be opened in 2004. The latest one will have a golf practice area, squash court, health club and sauna facilities, and is close to its brethren officetels. Within a one-mile radius, Anam and Posco Construction companies are now putting up their own officetels. Including the Anam and Posco ones, the officetels in the Sinchon area will amount to nearly 900 rooms.

The neighborhood's dense layout of small houses have not made life easy for the builders. "At first it was difficult to acquire large pieces of land to build officetels," says Choi Su-yeong, the director of planning at Le Meilleur (which means "superior" in French) Construction. "Residents refused to budge. But ever since the student population grew, the officetels began sprouting up everywhere."

With so many officetels popping up, so are questions as to why the contractors continue to build them. "The demand is still good," Mr. Choi says. "We're talking about 100,000 students within a 10 kilometer radius. Schools are not shrinking, and students prefer officetels over some rundown boarding house."

But real estate agents do not agree. "If they keep going at this pace, within a couple of years we will be seeing an excess of supply," says a real estate agent specializing in Le Meilleur Town officetels.

Approximately three-quarters of the officetel residents in Sinchon are college students, who stay an average of one year. The space of a single room ranges from 40-60 square meters, and monthly rent is between 550,000 and 700,000 won ($470 and $600), excluding maintenance fees. For those that can't afford living alone, roommates are not hard to find.

"The best thing about living in an officetel is that it's quiet, clean, and safe," Ms. Yun says. "There are convenience stores on the ground floor and transportation is so close by. The only downside is it's a little chilly during the winter because the floors are not ondol" ?in-floor heating ?"but we have radiators instead." Because the officetels do not have washing machines on the premises, students usually take their dirty clothes home or call on nearby laundries.

Before the expansion of the universities and commercial building in the 1970s, Sinchon was predominately residential, with the streets lined with hanok, or older traditional houses. Most of the families living here had lived in the area for several generations.

"In the past, [Sinchon and Ahyeon-dong] was never considered 'commercial material' because the location was not strategically important," a real estate agent says. As universities grew in the Sinchon area in the 1970s, homestays and boarding houses, called hasuk in Korean, became lucrative for the residents. As the dormitories filled, the students of Yonsei, Ewha, Sogang and Hongik universities overflowed into the hundreds of area hasuk.

Then in the 1990s, most of the universities in the Sinchon area expanded even further, but the dorms and hasuk could no longer fill the student demand. As incomes grew, parents could increasingly afford private apartments for their college-bound brood.

At this time, real estate developers bought plots of land around the subway area, destroying the old hanok to build commercial buildings and one-room studio suites. Some hanok were remodeled into modern apartment houses and studios. Then came the officetel boom. Now, the once-residential area has become a bustling campus neighborhood with state-of-the-art studio apartments, 10-story-high officetels and commercial buildings.

Nowadays, Sinchon is attracting a new tribe, in addition to its student foundation. Approximately 10 percent of officetel residents are entrepreneurs and owners of business start-ups. Small Internet companies, freelance publishers, individual travel agents and private moneylenders rent rooms to use as offices and/or homes. Officetels are popular among these new inhabitants because of the location, low rents (compared to other business districts) and convenience.

In the world of the officetel, almost everyone is looking for a bargain.

What is an 'officetel?'

Officetels are usually one-room condominium-style studios, with kitchen and shower facilities. The word derives from office and hotel, and it is supposed to evoke the practical comfort of an office as well as the luxury and safety of a hotel.

The room contains one bed, often a pull-down, and wall closets usually alongside the bed. The small kitchen comes with a stove, microwave and dishwasher, along with a small table. The shower is barely large enough to fit one person, with a nozzle that is attached to the sink. Thus, to take a shower you stand in the middle of the bathroom.

The biggest downside to an officetel is the rent ?it is much higher than the traditional studio or boarding house.

The usual studio, or won rum in Korean, is similar to the officetel, coming with a kitchenette and bath, but is smaller and, unlike an officetel, is typically located in noncommercial areas, secluded from bustling main roads and easily accessible transportation.

by Choi Jie-ho

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