Bracing For Impact
'Isn't it weird that two guys are renting an apartment together in Hong Kong? Very strange.'
Those words tumbled out, pregnant with insinuation. I had not seen it coming. In that moment, I dug deep into the recesses of my being to muster up a poker face and smile. I had no answer or response to that conjecture and simply looked away but inside I felt like someone had stabbed a hole through the window with a rock. I instantly felt unsafe.
We are after all in a different country. Everything that we had come to be used to and know is now on the reset. New laws, different norms. Or lack thereof for people like us.
We had been apartment hunting for the last 5 days, everyday, since arriving, hitting the ground running. The company provided a week of accomodation. It meant we had 7 days to secure a place to stay for our great big move to Hong Kong. We had already done some research and were told that it is normal to view multiple apartments before finding a suitable one. Or finding a suitable apartment with a landlord who would rent it to us. One guy on a forum said he viewed 50 apartments before landing one. We braced ourselves.
We braced ourselves for it and had 3 agents working for us, with no luck, till we met Gina (not her real name). That's when all this started.
Gina is one of those really relatable professionals you will meet in Hong Kong. In the few days traversing through areas beyond Mongkok, Kowloon, we shared a few coffee and dim sum lunches, between apartment viewing appointments. We were quickly acquainted with our agent and the serendipitous values we shared. She quickly knew what we were looking for in terms of space and price and found us a collection of apartments that were very close to our preference. We stuck with her the next few days as our sole agent, as we had a good feeling about it.
We were hoping to look for something similar to our Miami apartment, hopefully with pool and gym. Because yours truly lives half his waking days in the gym as a rat. So that figures. Did we mention that Hong Kong rentals are really expensive? Here's the kicker. You'd expect that, if the building has a pool and gym, it'll be part of the resident's right to use it? Nope. You gotta pay extra by way of per entry (between HKD $20 to $60 per use) or a monthly subscription (HKD$300 and upwards per month). Locals tell us this is the norm. In fact, pools also close in the winter months and some apartment management even close the pool for longer than winter between the months of October to June the following year.
We viewed a great apartment that was part of a sprawling complex with an attached shopping mall underneath, with two swimming pools (indoors and outdoors) and a sizeable gym easily the size of 6 tiny one bedroom apartments typical of Hong Kong. But, no one was seen using it, except one lonely soul swimming in the small indoor pool. And it was a Sunday. Funny that.
In Hong Kong, realtors work with each other, collaboratively, sharing the commission. Smaller, independent realtors tend to do that. They are usually part of a network of 100 over realtors, covering different areas. It becomes a client-share kind of arrangement, where a secondary agent scouts out suitable apartments in aid of the primary agent who may not have the reach to cover certain areas. It is a brilliant concept, as the search becomes multi-layered and benefits the would-be tenant looking for the perfect rental.
The common practice for tenants signing a new lease will set you back first month's rent upfront with 2 month's rental deposit and 50% of a month's rental as commission to the agent. There is also an additional 0.25% stamp duty payable to the HK government, based off the annual value of the rental price. Payable upfront. It goes up to 0.5% if the lease is more than 1 year. Another hidden fact we never knew until we looked at the fine print. Pretty hefty outlay for renters.
Anyway, enter the secondary agent, Benson (again, not his real name), whom Gina was collaborating with, who led us to an apartment we fell instantly in love with. Spacious 2 bedrooms, 526 square feet apartment with a price that is considerably, a steal. We've seen many apartments going for HKD $20,000 to $25,000 with a much smaller space, mostly around 300 - 400 square feet. This one was priced close to our budget, with a good sized kitchen, decent view, 2 balconies and gym facilities, an extremely rare find. Naturally we put in an offer for the apartment.
But we were immediately knocked back. We were told we were up against a competitor who offered to pay upfront, one year's worth of rent. WHO DOES THAT! Our hopes were dashed and resigned ourselves to keep looking. We had also offered a lower price in hopes of getting a good deal but with a baller contender like that...
Yet, in a turn of events, Gina called us back the next evening and told us that the same apartment was still on the market and we should consider revising our price to match the competition and make an offer as soon as we can to close in on the deal.
The next morning, we found ourselves braving the rain, with a wad of cash in hand, documents and such, rushing to the agent office, to sign a pre-contract agreement. In Hong Kong, you place an offer for a rental with a deposit of a few thousand dollars or a month's rent, as a show of commitment to rent, along with signing a binding pre-contract agreement. If you withdraw your offer after signing, you lose your deposit. But once the landlord co-signs to accept the offer, it is pretty much secured and the rental is approved with signing the actual rental contract. Deposit will, of course, be refunded if the landlord rejects the offer. It sounds a little convoluted but it is a means to protect both tenant and landlord. Conversely, if the landlord decides to renege after accepting the offer, they are liable to pay back two times the deposit paid by the prospective tenant. It is a pretty good system, to be honest.
We were then told to wait for a day or two.
But, in two hours, we got a text, saying the landlord would like to meet us within the hour.
We arrive back at the office, 30 minutes ahead of time. And that was when Benson started speaking directly to us, explaining why the meeting is important. Which was out of character, because he never spoke directly to us, only via our primary agent, Gina. You see, Benson is the kind of realtor you meet who carries an air of all-importance, with a bluetooth earphone glued to his ear, clean cut combed back hair, pristine shirt, gold chain wearing, eye averting, stoic agent. The first time we met him, he didn't even introduce himself nor shook our hands. Any attempt to strike up a conversation is usually met with a cold blank stare through us. He rushed us through the inspection and was back in the lift even before I could wear my shoes to get back down. I never had a good feeling about him but the apartment he procured was something else. Damn it.
We started to feel uncomfortable when he meticulously explained that he has grounds to believe our potential landlord might have a problem with our application. Not because of the money, but, according to him, families are the usual type of people renting in Hong Kong and therefore, 'weird that two guys are renting an apartment together in Hong Kong? Very strange.'
The moment the bluetooth earpiece attached agent said those words, I had the oddest feeling of fear and guilt. The kind where you think someone is coming to get you. It felt like we were thrown into some kind of interview we had not expected. I sat there, poker faced, pretending to listen to the extended pep talk while trying to make sense of this unnerving feeling, and realised I wasn't afraid to be exposed as a gay couple. I was afraid of discrimination. I looked at my partner, with anger and fear, feeling very vulnerable. What if the landlord decides to ask us about our relationship and what if based on that she decides not to rent to us? We would not have been able to do anything about it. It was a scary thought to be found upon such fragile ground.
We had kept our relationship to ourselves since arriving in Hong Kong and never flaunted the fact that we are a couple. Because we know there are no laws that legalise our relationship and subsequently we are not sure what the cultural acceptance of the general public is like in Hong Kong. In a country where there are no laws to protect and recognise LGBT couples, we played down everything that we were used to, living in Miami. We were just seen as two dudes looking for an apartment, having moved here for work.
For the rest of our waiting time at the agent office, Benson kept pep-talking us down, commenting on how we look and dress and how we could probably do better, yadayodeleyhoohoo, basically casting a shadow of imminent negative energy with every word he spoke. What was even stranger was when he asked if we could issue 12 month's worth of post dated cheques in the proposed rental amount as guarantee of our rental payment to convince the landlord. It was the longest, painful 30 minutes.
I had already tuned his voice out while texting our good friends in Hong Kong about how we were feeling and asked them to pray for us. I thought I was being paranoid, but much later after our meeting with the landlord, our primary agent, Gina said she also felt the same negative energy and was not a fan of it either.
The clock strikes the hour and the landlord, Wendy (not her real name) turns up at the office.
She enters, carrying the broadest warmest smile.
"You guys are from Singapore? I love Singapore. I studied in Singapore some years ago! Oh I miss the place! I used to stay in Ang Mo Kio..." she said, bringing with her the brightest sunshine...
"No way! My grandma used to live in Ang Mo Kio!" I quipped.
We were off to a good start. We yakked on about Singapore, the food, the efficiency of the train system, the crowded city and all the changes the country has seen since. Name cards were exchanged and 30 minutes later, she signed on the dotted line. Turns out, all she wanted was to put a face to the name.
We just... what... secured our apartment? Wait, what just happened? We were beyond stoked.
At dinner that evening with our Singaporean friends, we were told realtors here are known to be cunning and we probably met a rogue of the fold. It was unfortunate because our working relationship with Gina has been nothing but pleasant. Unfortunately due to the nature of the industry, she has to reach out to some shrewd characters to get us what we wanted. Apparently, we were told, Hong Kong landlords typically love renters with a Singapore background because we are known to not colour outside the lines and are very disciplined, generally well kept and tidy.
We're so grateful to have met Gina and made a friend along the way. All's well that ends well. She earned her keep, well deservedly, working hard to help us secure a good apartment every step of the way. We certainly plan to take her out for a good meal some time soon.
We just got our keys to the apartment at the time of writing and moved in right away. In less than 5 days since arriving and securing an apartment, that's gotta be a record. Now, we just need to wait for our furniture to arrive.
To those who prayed with us during this time, thank you! Let's do dinner soon! =)