We’ve all seen them. HGTV is an entire television station devoted to home renovation programmes. Anyone who has ridden the bus has seen Roadshow’s ubiquitous interior design segments. It is a different story when an agent shows you the reality of a second hand flat. One of the key factors when deciding whether to sign on the dotted line is if the residence works for your lifestyle and needs. It may require a dash of imagination to realise a space’s full potential, a second opinion or the advice of design and contracting professionals. In the end, it is well worth the extra time and effort to ensure that the purchase is something you’ll love calling home.
It is extremely rare to find a second hand property in move-in ready condition. No wonder Hongkongers prefer buying apartments under development. When viewing existing properties, it takes some creative thinking to envision what may be possible. I try to schedule viewings at twilight, to gauge how much light the space receives as it transitions from day to night. Lack of natural light is a deal breaker for me since I work from home, and open views help maximise the amount of daylight into a space. Natural light also helps me decide whether it’s a place I could love. While in the building, I keep my eyes out for exposed or haphazard wiring. These are signs that the building’s electrical system will need upgrading, a sum that I will need to cough up sooner or later.
One of the biggest issues in Hong Kong is water damage. To check if this problem has infected a flat, look at bulkheads, walls and ceilings near windows for signs of cracks that could indicate burst conduits or soggy concrete. Another clear indicator is a veneer of mould — an unhealthy start to a new home. One flat I viewed had been flooded by the upstairs tenant and every surface was completely covered in mould. Neither my agent nor I could stay in the apartment for longer than a few minutes, and I had to hold my breath the entire time I was inside. Water damage is most likely to occur on the top floor of a building, and may even include exterior repairs where a contractor would have to erect scaffolding. Fixing exterior water damage can be a timely and costly undertaking that will immediately put a dent into any renovation budget — and it may end up being a recurring nightmare.
Fixed or freewheeling?
I have accumulated a treasure trove of furnishings and accessories from travels that have become part of any home I lived in. That means that many newer apartments don’t work for me because I can’t fit my stuff into them. The assumption for most is that upon handover, the flat will be gutted and a custom built solution will be designed. While I’m all for custom furnishings, I am a strong opponent of everything being built in to make a space function — such as a bed to fit a bay window within a closet size room, for example. Built-in furnishings often make a flat feel smaller because of all the bulky boxes. If I want to turn the bed around or change an office into a second bedroom, I’d have to rip everything out. Kitchen and bathroom cabinets are fine as fixtures, and closets as well, but that’s where I draw the line. Custom built loose furnishing is an option that a contractor may be able to assist with.
The Emperor’s New Clothes
When looking at a space, I’m always armed with a camera, notebook and measuring tape. I take as many photos as possible to help me remember the flat’s quirks, and often I see things in photos that I didn’t realise were there. While my agent can tell me the overall square footage and should be able to provide a basic plan that was originally registered with the Buildings Department, the flat’s layout may have changed since it was first built. It helps to conduct my own site audit if I am seriously considering the space to help me determine if it can be laid out to suit my requirements. A drawing that indicates walls, windows, doors, lighting, plumbing, fixtures, air-conditioners and other architectural features and a determination of north (for best natural light) will help a contractor provide a more accurate quote, too.
Taking an accurate measurement in an existing space full of the seller’s possessions may be tricky and sometimes involves climbing onto beds, ducking under laundry and squeezing into weird corners. A quick shortcut is to count the number of floor tiles to get the overall dimensions. In older flats they are 12 or 18 inches square (30 or 45cm). It’s then a simple sum of how many there are lengthwise and widthwise. I also measure the width of the entry door and the size of the lift, to make sure that my larger items can be relocated without having to be hoisted through the window. I make a note of where the electrical panel is, to see if it can remain more or less in the same place after renovations. Older flats tend to have nine foot (2.7 metres) or higher ceilings, and it makes sense to use the extra bit of height for open shelves or storage. Just remember that there are usually beams running the width of older flats, dropping the ceiling in some places to less than eight feet (2.4 metres) and which may affect some tall furniture or storage solutions.
If your tastes are not super fancy (that means putting off that blingy Barovier & Toso chandelier), it’s safe to budget about 10 percent of a property’s price for the cost of renovations. If you decide to hire an interior designer as well as a contractor, that price will go up — but then you have someone doing all the creative thinking for you. While many contractors claim to provide interior design services, their solutions are often limited. An independent interior designer, like your agent and your lawyer, works in your best interest and will come up with innovative ways to use the space that are customised to your specific way of life. Their profession is to make your dream home a reality, which is why they may become your best friend.