Unless your name is Li Ka-shing or Walter Kwok, buying a property in Hong Kong is likely going to be the most expensive single transaction you will make in your lifetime. Many novices and even some seasoned homeowners get sucked under the showflat’s spell, and expect their new apartment to look just like that mirage. When it comes to key handover though, most people have no idea what is acceptable and what constitutes shoddy workmanship.
Independent Third Party
That is where the services of Tsim Chai Nam come in. He and a handful of similar independent building inspectors provide a necessary service in a city bullied by real estate clout. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University-trained civil engineer and clerk of works will act as your advocate during the handover stage, drafting up a report based on his observations on what he sees as defects. Although he mostly inspects newly built homes, he also examines second-hand properties and assists with reviewing contractors’ quotations for renovations. And he’s quick: for a typical 500 to 700 square foot, two-bedroom flat, he and an assistant can produce a defects report on site within an hour.
Here’s how it works: for newly completed flats, owners get a grace period of between seven to 14 days to check out the unit and report anything unsatisfactory to the developer. Those defects will then be fixed to an acceptable standard for occupancy. Tsim will conduct his inspection within that period according to his checklist. “I will start with a tapping test on walls, ceilings, doors and frames, to check the structure,” he states. “I’ll then check the windows for possible leakage and the floors, especially the floor around the perimeter of a flat. If there are any cracks in the windows, it signals trouble during typhoons. Window leakage is often the biggest problem. I’ll then look at the bathroom and kitchen, checking the built-in cabinets and fixtures.”
Since he started his home inspection business in 2000, Tsim’s reports have only been challenged six times. “The complaints were valid: I was either sick that day or the sun’s glare prevented my seeing the property correctly,” Tsim recalls.
The most incomplete apartment Tsim has inspected so far was a flat with half of its cabinets uninstalled, all its drains blocked and a bathtub with no faucets. “I recommended the owner not accept the flat, but he disagreed with me,” shrugs Tsim. “I have never inspected a flat with zero defects. The best case scenario was one where we inspected in the morning and the developer was able to fix everything on the list for the owner to move in the same afternoon.”
For his services, Tsim charges $4.50 per square foot for the average 500 square foot flat. While some may feel that they can do just as good a job themselves, most don’t know what they should be looking for. At the same time, he cautions owners not to be overly picky. “If a flat contains more than 50 percent defects, contractors won’t want to touch it because they know the owner will continue to find their work unacceptable. I find that expats owners are the pickiest. Many gweilos have high standards and take on the attitude that contractors must do whatever they say. I will only include an item on a defect list if it can reasonably be corrected and I use the same standards for every developer and every flat. It has to be fair to the contractor, too.”
Tsim has inspected flats in greater China using the same standards that he applies to properties in Hong Kong. “In general, mainland Chinese flats are not as durable. Not because of the materials they use, but because of the sloppier work by contractors.”
In second-hand purchases, the problems Tsim encounters can increase exponentially. Leakage, structural issues, rusty drains, ancient wiring and other issues can turn a cheap find into a money pit. “For these owners, I ask them to send me photos first,” says Tsim. “I can usually tell what the problems are 80 percent of the time and then I will recommend a contractor. The most common problem is water seepage from another flat above.”
For owners considering renovating their properties, Tsim warns that unscrupulous contractors will bid low on a job to get it, and then issue numerous change orders for items that should have been included in the base contract. Again, it’s a matter of buyer beware. “I can help owners check quotations and contracts to ensure that all the necessary items are included,” he notes. “Since owners have to pay 60 to 70 percent of the contract’s sum up front, wily contractors can threaten to abandon a job unless their change orders are approved. They know that owners will have to continue paying them extra or face a construction site and the loss of their initial payment.”
Tsim believes that Sun Hung Kai and Nam Fung are two of the best developers in the city and consistently hand over flats that have a minimum number of issues. “These developers will fix their own defects before handing over,” he notes. Along with the occasional seminar or lecture given by experts such as real estate lawyers and other professionals, Tsim initiated a series of awards to honour the best properties and developers in the city two years ago. Held this year on March 5, the winners included Sun Hung Kai’s i’uniQ Residence, Sino Group’s Coronation and Park Summit, and Ranex Investments’ Chatham Gate. Tsim’s aims are simple. “I hope these awards will inspire developers to do better.”