“When I think about it, I cry,” says Mrs Guo about the home she had bought. “It’s hard, and I feel sorry for my son and myself.”
In 2021, just months before the Chinese property giant Evergrande showed the first signs of crisis, Guo Tianran (whose name has been changed on request) and her husband bought an apartment off-plan for their only child from the top-selling developer.
The couple, nearing their 60s, had scrimped to afford the $30,000 (£24,500) down payment on the yet-to-be-built flat. They bit the bullet in pledging to use 75% of their income to pay for the mortgage.
“We wanted to help our son, to give him a place to start out on once he graduates from college,” Mrs Guo told the BBC earlier this month. But just months after their purchase, Evergrande’s facade began to crack.
In Henan, the central Chinese province where they had bought the home, building work ground to a halt.
“We saw the main frame being built, and suddenly we heard that Evergrande was falling. Then construction stopped last year,” she says.
In September 2021, Evergrande failed to repay more than $100 million to offshore lenders. At that time it was estimated that the firm had more than 1.5 million unfinished homes. The default brought to light a real estate crisis in China which is still spiralling two years later. The bankrupt firm has spent the past 18 months trying for a recovery deal, but news this week that its founder Hui Ka Yan and other senior leaders have been detained by police has renewed alarm over its future.
“I used some of my retirement money for the down payment. We will be paying [off the] mortgage for the next 30 years,” says Mrs Guo who was initially told that she would get the keys by December this year.
But as China’s housing crisis grows, so have her fears: “We don’t want to end up with nothing,” she said.
It’s a worry shared by so many others who have sunk their life savings into a new home – that their dreams have been bulldozed.
What is adding to the worry is that Evergrande is not the only real estate developer in deep trouble. Another property giant, Country Garden, reported a record $6.7bn half-year loss. Analysts estimate it has sold one million homes that are yet to be completed.
“I almost bought an apartment from Country Garden,” said 31-year-old Zhang Min who also lives in Henan.
She told the BBC that she and her fiancée had planned to buy the place as their marital home. Her parents’ house had been built by Country Garden, and the young couple had been told they could buy a discounted property in August. But they changed their mind when they heard the firm was on the brink of a default.
“We’re certainly not postponing our wedding because we didn’t buy a new home. I will just have to give up pursuing the idea of ‘newlyweds living in a new house’,” says Ms Zhang.
“My parents’ generation have seen two decades of China’s housing market only going up. These days people around me are all worried about house price depreciation.”
China’s property market accounts for a third of its economy, fuelling concerns about the impact on allied industries, from construction materials such as steel and cement, to household appliances. And yet this is one more crisis for Beijing, which is also battling slowing growth, falling exports and a youth unemployment rate that has risen above 20%.
Beijing has sought to temper public concern. State media has said little about Mr Hui being put under police surveillance, and the foreign ministry appeared to stonewall questions on the subject from reporters at its daily briefing on Thursday. But the news has been a top trend on Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo, with more than 600 million views around the topic of Mr Hui’s surveillance alone.
Many on Weibo were critical of how Evergrande and other property giants had been allowed to get to this point. Why weren’t there enough protections for buyers, users have asked.
“Because of inadequate mechanisms and regulation, it’s almost become a norm that companies could ‘blow up'”, one user wrote. There appears to be concern that the property crisis could spread to more developers because Evergrande’s situation has revealed systemic flaws – the effects of excessive borrowing and deep discounts to lure buyers had drained the firm’s coffers.
Another user asked: “How will they ever deliver [those] apartments? Many of these units have been paid for by the savings and hard-earned money of several generations across families?”
People were also sharing their experiences as disillusioned and anxious home buyers. In one video on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, a man said he had to work three jobs to afford both his mortgage and his current rent – because he can’t move into his unfinished Evergrande flat.
When Evergrande’s failings first emerged two years ago, there were protests outside the firm’s offices in Shenzhen in southern China. Those demonstrations have started up again in recent months. At one recent protest, buyers chanted: “Construction stops, mortgage stops. Deliver homes and get repaid!”
Mrs Guo says she and other Evergrande buyers aren’t sitting idly by either. They have formed three groups on WeChat, with nearly 500 members each.
“We have organised ourselves to go to the government. With so many of us they can’t possibly ignore it,” she said.
She also told the BBC that she had been warned by local officials not to speak to the media, and fed promises that construction work at the Evergrande property where she bought a flat would resume soon.
But a few members of her group check on the construction site every day. They’ve seen only a few workers and minimal progress.
“Some of us have stopped paying the mortgage,” Mrs Guo says. “If the bank pushes too hard, they will sleep in the lobby of the bank.”
With additional reporting by Ian Tang and Kelly Ng in Singapore
Yan Chen is a reporter with BBC Chinese