New Territories - Adventures in Hong Kong apartment hunting
We are moving, but not as you might imagine. We are still going to be in Hong Kong. It is almost exactly a year ago to the date we just signed on our new lease. For an apartment north west of here. In a month's time, we'll be packing up everything to drive through the mountains toward newer plains and fresher air.
The New Territories. Sounds real far. Especially for those accustomed to a Hong Kong akin to TST, Central and Sheung Wan. We'd have never ventured if we had chosen to accept that life in Hong Kong was always going to be expensive, crowded and stuck for overpriced-tiny-space choice. Since settling from the US, we've really felt the pinch and pain of overpriced Hong Kong life. 6 months in and we decided we need to find a cheaper place to rent. And, being acutely aware that when tax time comes, that feeling would be akin to an execution. It pays to save for a rainy, scratch that, typhoon season.
Fun fact: Hong Kong doesn't have the culture of pay as you go when it comes to tax - something Aussies and Americans would be used to. For the uninitiated, it just means that when you receive you monthly or weekly wage, a pro-rata portion of your tax obligation is paid to the taxman. Any overpaid portion is refunded at tax time. In Hong Kong, the IRD (Internal Revenue Department) waits till you make your year's worth and send you a bill at tax time - payable over 2 months. On average, we were told, it works out to be around 2 months worth of your annual. That's also because, in your first year, tax is also payable on the year ahead. Yes, you pay tax on the year that hasn't even started! As they say, unexpected typhoons ahead.
It all started a few months ago when I trawled the expat forums and discovered a quaint looking town house going for several thousand HK dollars less than what we were currently paying. For a much bigger space. The only issue being, it was several suburbs away. Seemingly deserted or so we thought.
So, about 5 weeks ago, we made our long arduous journey to visit said, as they call it in Hong Kong, village house. The journey on the train was surprisingly painless. Just 5 stations from where we started. We knew the distance between stations were a lot further apart but within 30 minutes or so we arrived at the village.
Long story short, we hated the house. It was not very well kept and didn't come with any white goods at all. Which meant there would be an initial outlay to buy a washer, dryer, fridge and microwave. Setting us back a whole lot. Which didn't make sense even with the monthly rental savings.
But, at once, we noticed how much quieter and slower life is on this side of the country. And most everywhere you turn, there is that mountain view. There were 3 malls interconnecting the train station with a massive apartment complex above it and in the surrounding region. Following our curiosity we found ourselves making enquiries in a real estate agent office by the afternoon. That led to an entire month's worth of weekend apartment viewing. And what an adventure it was.
It is not uncommon to view 10 - 20 apartments before landing something suitable. We had our first experience a year ago, so we knew what to expect. Make appointments with the agent to view a bunch of apartments, decide on one, make an offer, pay a deposit and hope that the landlord accepts.
We had told our agent what we wanted. A space that was similar to our current 500+ sqft space at a specific price point. We did some research so we knew what as the reasonable rate in the area. It would be significant savings on our current rent. And that's where things started to get interesting.
We started with a bunch of apartments within our price range but in locations that was rather obscure. Eventually we got to better locations but prices started creeping upwards and apartment sizes got bigger. They were way out of our budget. We kept reminding our agent our price point. Yet, somehow, it fell on deaf ears. It went from 2 bedrooms to bigger 3 bedrooms at 600- 700 sqft spaces.
This went on for several weeks. Too big, too expensive. By week 3, our agent became a little passive aggressive, pressuring us to sign a lease on anything we remotely even showed interest in. She was in closing mode. I mean, we might be polite and say the apartment is nice but too pricey and she took it to mean we wanted it. Does she have amnesia?
We had our constraints. Firstly, we can only move in a month's time, because we have to give one month's notice to vacate from our current place. Yet, Little Miss Shadey (yes, I'm calling her that now) completely ignored that and pressured us to sign and move in 2 weeks because she thinks we should take it as a holiday and move in earlier. What holiday? Pay double rent? Ain't nobody got time for that. We also had told her repeatedly, the master bedroom has to be sizeable so our bed could fit.. and... this was what she said...
Then what followed was a series of well-meaning advice. That we should not wait too long to make a decision on another popular apartment (that we were apparently interested in). A certain family has expressed interest but she can hold it for us if we want. Nope. This LMS didn't care if we had to pay double rent - she was trying to appeal to our sense of FOMO, which, to her frustration, we were too self aware to fall for. Some time later, we found out, that apartment in question was still on the market. Whatever happened to that 'family'.
At that point we decided we needed to look at other agents for more options. A fact we didn't bother hiding with her. We made it loud and clear, and nicely, that we will be looking at other agents.
One thing you need to know, when you view an apartment with an agent, the first agent has first dips for 3 months to lease the apartment to you and no other agent can handle it for you. It's a legal practice and fair play. So we had to keep a record of the apartments we viewed to make sure other agents don't double up. Because, and we have no idea how it works, it's like a free play market where any agent from any company have access to similar available properties. It's a first-in-best-dressed situation.
But it wasn't an issue for us, because none of the apartments we've seen so far were suitable. No love lost.
We spent the following weekend with another agent and almost scored an apartment, only for it to be leased out the same morning we wanted to make an offer. MUST. NOT. FOMO!
But voila, everything we saw with the second agent fell within our budget - for properties of similar size, similar view in the same complex. And then we remembered a conversation between our Little Miss Shadey and the landlord at one of the apartments - she had asked him, in cantonese, to confirm the rental price. He mentioned a figure that was a whole thousand dollars lower than the price printed on the rental listing she gave us! She didn't think we understood the exchange. I mean, by now, we may not be conversant but we can certainly understand basic cantonese. Unwittingly, too, in one of our small talks, she let slip on how a similar rental property in the area took a long time to find a tenant. It was overpriced and eventually settled for a price that was the similar to our budget. I mean, how adorably unscrupulous and... densely unaware?
BUT, after 4 weeks of all this ridiculous macarena, she was still sending us new listings! Persistent! So, we thought, hey, let's give her another go. I mean, we weren't putting all our eggs in her basket and since we're gonna be up the same weekend anyway, why the hell not? Honestly, she has been rather patient with us. 4 weekends of showing us multiple apartments and she still hasn't closed. Well if she only listened...
We had a good feeling. We lined up 3 agents back to back, including Little Miss Shadey. We even brought the check book along. We were feeling good and ready to sign something, today!
By lunch time, we had already seen 3 apartments. Actually just 2. One of the properties we were about to view was leased out as we were walking to the apartment door. MUST NOT FOMO! We were already in the complex and our agent got a call that it was gone! In all honesty, we weren't impressed with the gaudy faux italian tacky design of the apartment complex, so it wasn't a big deal. But by this time, hungry and compounded by weeks of false starts, we were even more determined to press on.
Our next appointment was with LMS and we were down to two listings. The first one turned out to be a repeat. Oops, we didn't bring along our list of apartments we've viewed. We were sure we saw the same one... never mind, on to the next. A 700+ sqft apartment... wait a minute.
This doesn't bode well. It's definitely going to be expensive, given her track record. Another one of her overpriced bullshit. Why did we waste our time again... Large living and dining space, 3 bedrooms. Our bed will fit in the master... ok... A surprisingly large kitchen (ooh, plenty of prep space), bigger than any we've ever seen in Hong Kong. It also came with a really big balcony (herb garden!) overlooking a picturesque mountain view (oh hellooo morning coffee!). And, there were 2 bathrooms (what!) - one ensuite with the master bedroom.
Yup, definitely not gonna afford this one. As we were getting into the lift, I realised we hadn't even asked about the price. LMS then proceeds to tell us the rent for this was going for 'much higher than usual' (surprise, surprise) but she had already bargained for the best price for us and was only a thousand more than our budget.
Oh, that's reasonable-ish, right? SAY NO TO FOMO! Ok, let's see, it's a really spacious apartment and the view is amazing. What you pay is what you get. Yet, at the back of our minds, we didn't believe that was the best price. She's a snake. It's never best price. However, we loved the apartment. We decided our absolute compromise was an additional five hundred HKD per month above our budget. Nothing more than that. That should meet the landlord halfway, hopefully.
"Oh cannot. Landlord already said cheapest, cannot go lower, I asked already!"
Well, haven't we heard that one before, Little. Miss. Shaaaardeeerrrryy.
"We brought our check book today," we replied, "Do us a favour, ask the landlord one more time. We are very keen if they can accept our price. We'll be here another 10 minutes and if they accept, we will write you a check for the deposit and sign the lease right away."
Her eyes lit up like the 4th of July. I think we just turned the table on her and we're closing on our own terms.
In less than 10 minutes, we got a text that the price is right and we can move 18th Dec - exactly a month out from when we sign!
I am so glad we stuck it out. We were almost going to cave and settle for a random second best but somehow, we trusted that voice inside and thank God we did!
Let the packing begin!
We'll have pictures up when we move in proper.