Hong Kong is perhaps the only city in the world where the phrase, “I’m going to be downtown tomorrow. Want to meet for lunch?” simply doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as downtown because everywhere is downtown. Yet New Territories (NT) might as well be no man’s land — regardless of its strong transit connections to Central (downtown in every other part of the world) and no dearth of facilities and amenities in its neighbourhoods. It’s where our organic farms are after all.
New Territories is the largest of the SAR’s trio of defining districts and its least densely populated: half the population is scattered over 80 percent of Hong Kong’s total land area. That makes the NT the default suburbs; the de facto “rural” part of Hong Kong. Technically it comprises hotspots Shatin and coastal Sai Kung, emerging Tsuen Wan and Tuen Mun, Yuen Long, Tai Po, the outlying islands and the northern district, which includes Fanling and Sheung Shui — right on the Mainland border. On any given Sunday afternoon, it can certainly feel every bit as crowded as TST or Causeway Bay, but once the tourists leave huge swaths of the NT go back to their laid back, empty state.
Rural, of course, is relative. No one would label Shatin as anything but urban, but with the exception of a few stops on the MTR line, the perception is still that the New Territories is the boondocks. That’s only true if the assumption is that the 170-odd islands — some little better than protruding rocks in the sea — and relatively isolated country parks should be accessible. Take those out and you still have large tracts of vaguely rural land in the city, where gardens are not unheard of. Not surprisingly the popularity of these districts is growing among those seeking a little fresh air and value for their money.
Says Sam Yeung, an agent at Sunshine Property, thinks there’s a new rush to the New Territories. “I believe so. The prices in the city are high and so people are considering what they can get in the NT. We can’t avoid price rises either, Hong Kong is small, but I think prices are competitive with other areas.” Expatriate families and native Hongkongers are looking at alternatives in equal measure and Yeung points to the practicality and space of village houses as incentives for heading that way, with Sai Kung at the front of the pack.
Though all residential property is coveted in Hong Kong, buyers, end-users in particular, are beginning to balance quality of life against the commute. With the exception of the islands, most mainland NT districts are 30 to 45 minutes from Central. Compared to commutes clocking in at 68 minutes in New York, 70 in Stockholm, 74 in London and a whopping 80 in Toronto — all so-called sophisticated cities with strong infrastructure — a breezy, comfortable 40 minutes on the MTR doesn’t seem so bad.
And New Territories isn’t a hopeless investment. Park Island is a favourite in the NT, and has had an active micro-market of late according to data from Centaline. Of the 128 transactions in the NT in the last three months, almost all the properties — largely flats in developments like Park Island, Riviera Gardens and Bellagio in Tsuen Wan — posted massive capital gains. On the other side of Kowloon, Clear Water Bay has a fan in local advisory IP Global, which traditionally deals in overseas properties for investors. “For us there is mileage in the Hong Kong property market, but not a great deal,” said IPG CEO Tim Murphy at a May seminar. “We haven’t seen the same kind of rebound in the New Territories. Prices now are more similar to 1997 than they are on Hong Kong Island. It’s a strong sustainable rental market… and there are competitive mortgage finance solutions available.” Murphy estimated a 50 percent price gap between, say, Mid-Levels and Clear Water Bay.
So with relatively low prices and open space it’s unsurprising the government has projected a population boom for Sai Kung by 2020. The new Harrow International School alone has drawn attention for the Tuen Mun area. Murphy recalled looking at a three-storey rental house with an ocean view in Sai Kung years ago when he wanted to get off Robinson Road priced at $25,000, but balked at the 35-minute commute. But since then, about a decade ago, attitudes have changed. “A lot of wealth is heading that way now,” said Murphy. “Mainland Chinese money, local Hong Kong people and expatriates want to buy and rent in the New Territories for the quality of life, having a garden, space and paying significantly lower rental and purchase prices.”
For anyone wanting that true “country” feel the ideal property is a village house. Though the houses are limited to 2,100 square feet of floor space, there’s no limit to the plot they sit on, and are therefore tempting. But village houses can be fraught with legal issues that buyers are often unaware of: chiefly conflicting land deeds and muddled titles. “There’s a sensitive issue around illegal structures too, so buyers needs to watch out for those,” adds Yeung. Even still, with prices as low as $13 million up to around $40 million, depending on view, location and how large the outdoor space is. It’s easy to see why many buyers would take the risk.