Like many people, buying a property has topped my to do list for a long time. Like many, I felt that I’ve been constantly behind the eight ball when it came to that hefty down payment. I’m a small business owner who works from home, which means that I have a minimum square footage needed for a separate home office, plus space to entertain and indulge in my many sewing, painting and cooking experiments. Due to the nature of my business, I sometimes crisscross the city on multiple appointments throughout the day that necessitates a central location for my base.
After living in various communities — Tin Hau, Mid-Levels, Mui Wo — I finally settled in Shek Tong Tsui, down the hill from The University of Hong Kong. Western District ticks off every box on my check list: it is a real neighbourhood with a mixed demographic of seniors, families and students; there are many small, decades-old businesses, yet there is still room for entrepreneurs to start up new ventures; and the MTR’s West Island extension opened at the end of December, giving me another convenient public transportation option. After living in my rented apartment for a few years, I knew that I loved this neighbourhood enough to commit: I began looking around for a flat to purchase.
Buy Where You Want to Live
Neighbourhood tops my list when it comes to deciding to buy a home. But finding the right neighbourhood takes time along with a lot of trial and error. I liked the idea of living on an outlying island with sea views and fresh air, but I didn’t want to commit until I’d given it a trial run. After six months, I decided that the island lifestyle was more suited to families or people who wanted a real separation from work and home and who don’t mind being tied to a fixed ferry schedule. There are also plenty of places in the New Territories that offer greenery with a friendly neighbourhood feel, but the downside is often a long commute to Central. I couldn’t justify the hour-plus commute each way for a half hour meeting and did not consider any district beyond the north side of Hong Kong island despite their more attractive prices. Like most people with a small business, time is money for me.
I knew after more than a decade living in Hong Kong that I preferred older flats from the 1960s or ’70s. Their structure, if well maintained by the building’s management, is generally sounder and interior space is generally more useable; window ledges and common areas are kept to a minimum. While some may enjoy landscaped grounds and multiple swimming pools integrated within their property, I would rather just pay for the square footage I’ll be using. Walk-up low-rise tenements (tong lau) are efficient but they run the risk of redevelopment; banks also tend to pass on them in terms of mortgage loans.
Clicks and Clacks
I started my property search by trawling through websites. In Hong Kong, supposed DIY sites like Craigslist and Kijiji are littered with postings by agents rather than direct owner to sellers, and many of the postings are not updated regularly. I used the sites more as a guide to get a ballpark idea of what I liked. The few people who got back to me with information about my requests eventually tried to sell me other flats, as the deals I was interested in viewing were snapped up long before. I quickly realised that I needed an agent to work for me instead the seller.
In Hong Kong, agents tend to specialise in districts. Many are part of the community that they live and work in, and they know their little corner of the world well. Along with international brands such as LJ Hooker and Century 21 and local names Midland and Centaline, there are plenty of independent mom-and-pop shops hungry for business. It really depends on what you want. There is no obligation to use just one agent, and people who are considering multiple districts would do well to use an agent who knows their district inside out. The advantage of using a franchised agent is that if you are considering buying in many areas, they can recommend staff in each of those districts that know what newly listed properties will suit.
In my case, I knew that I wanted to live in Shek Tong Tsui and used Eva, a seasoned agent who specialised in the area. However, I wanted to keep my options open in case there were other great homes in districts I hadn’t considered but wanted to check out, and Martin ended up showing me a few properties in Wanchai and Tin Hau. Though the two agents were complete opposites in terms of personality and approach, I felt they did have my best interests at heart. And they both worked hard to find me something that I would love without breaking my budget. It’s really important that agents listen to what you need as well as want, and show you properties that fulfil those needs first.
In the second-hand market, there are numerous hazards to navigate — and the older the property, the more the hazards are compounded. I saw a flat that was previously flooded and the residual mould meant that whatever savings in price had to go back into an expensive renovation. More importantly, that flat indicated a negligent neighbour, which was something that I would have to live with in the future. Another flat had an illegal addition that was slapped with an outstanding building order, meaning that securing a mortgage would be difficult at best. These are the hazards that a good agent will help you navigate, but in the end it’s up to each buyer to determine if the risks are worth the purchase.
When it finally comes to negotiating a price that both you and the vendor are happy with, make your agent negotiate your best deal while remaining firmly fixed on what you can afford. It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of finally finding a dream home and forgetting that there are other properties out there equally good, if not better. A fair deal for both parties at the start of a property purchase goes a long way psychologically towards a smooth transaction.