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We have an apartment!

You may recall that Paul and I have been living in a serviced apartment (a furnished apartment with housekeeping services) while we wait for our things to arrive from Canada. Well, our stuff will be here soon (Sept 4, we are told) and we have been looking for an apartment since mid-August. We had already seen a lot of suites on our trips to Hong Kong last March and April, so we had a pretty good idea of what we were in for.

What we learned on this recent round of apartment-hunting were some of the ins and outs of leasing in Hong Kong. It’s not a pretty picture.

Not only are Hong Kongers dealing with arguably the highest real estate prices in the world; we also have to contend with an essentially unregulated industry run by profit-driven landlords (I guess there is no other kind, but it’s at a whole other level here) who have ALL the power and absolutely NO responsibility. If a typhoon comes along and blows in a window, it is the tenant’s responsibility to replace it. If a landlord has provided a fridge and it breaks down, it is up to the tenant to repair or replace it. The landlord has no obligation to provide anything other than a roof over the tenant’s head.

Lease agreements here tend to be for two years with a break clause at the one-year mark that allows two months for either the landlord or the tenant to give notice. The landlord might want the apartment back for his own use or, more commonly, he might want to raise the rent. A good landlord might raise your rent by 10%, but most will raise it by 30% or more. There are no rent controls.

As a result, people tend to only live in the same place for the length of their tenancy agreement. Our real estate agent keeps saying “Don’t take this too seriously because you are going to be moving in two years”. I would like to think she is exaggerating, but just about everyone we have met here has personal stories to back this up. You can get longer contracts but you had better really like the place because it’s easier to break out of prison than it is to break a lease agreement in HK.

I was surprised to learn that many landlords do not provide appliances. There was one apartment we loved – awesome view, BIG rooms, walk-in closets, a balcony, nice space. The kitchen had two gas burners. Full stop. Assuming the kitchen was incomplete, I said to our agent that I would be interested to see how the landlord planned to finish it. She looked at me like I had three heads and said “What makes you think he will make any changes?” She followed up on our behalf with the landlord who harrumphed, said he was not planning to install any appliances and wouldn’t budge on the price. We passed on that one.

(A similar story was borne out by a family we met last weekend who have moved three times in the four years they’ve been here. They told us about one place where they had to buy all the appliances and then the landlord kicked everyone out of the building a year later!)

It is safe to say that Hong Kong landlords are generally not a beloved bunch. I am sure there are some wonderful landlords in this city and I hope ours is one of them. I realize it is probably like this in many places around the world but I am accustomed, as a Canadian, to a different set of regulations and controls.

I was glad to learn about this through our real estate agent from Hong Kong Sotheby’s International Realty who was great at explaining the pros and cons of different areas, transportation routes, and generally providing a lot of useful information about living here. Real estate agents in Hong Kong are aware of what is available based on their company’s database of housing complexes and buildings. There is no Multiple Listing Service (MLS) type of service here. Agents have to get on the phone to landlords or people they know to ask what’s available in a particular building. You can’t easily scan new listings or trust existing ones to be available or accurate. An agency can also help provide protection for tenants through a solid tenancy agreement, which is what we are counting on.

We viewed about 20 properties with our agent and they all required compromises in terms of view (I don’t really want to look straight into a construction site for the next two years), location, space, or functional kitchens, but finally found one that meets most of our criteria. It’s a good size with square rooms and angles which are hard to find here. The kitchen is great, “great” in this case meaning it has an oven (WAY harder to find here than you might think) and all other appliances (bonus!) except a dishwasher (which would be rare here). There are two spacious bedrooms, both of which have closets (also not common), and the view is of the hill at Tai Tam Reservoir. My biggest concern is that it is quite isolated. Look at a satellite view of 88 Tai Tam Reservoir Road in Hong Kong on google maps and you’ll see what I mean. Because we don’t have a car, we will be relying on the complex’s shuttle service and taxis (which are super cheap). On a good day, the trip into “town” will be 15 minutes, which means that even on a bad day it won’t be too long.

And so our next phase begins. I have new lists (NOOOO!!). We have a few things to buy, especially electronics, and then there will be the unpacking and sorting and – I’ll bet you anything – more down-sizing. I’m sorry to be leaving our little serviced apartment because I quite like it here, but Paul is really looking forward to settling down. He has been in two serviced apartments in the four months that he has been here (see, he will have moved three times already!) and he’s quite gung ho about this. I think though that I’ll not become too attached to the place because, well, we’ll probably be moving in two years!