HK’s dire apartment rentals

My home search was concluded a few weeks ago, which is why I can now safely blog about it in good humor. First, home prices in Hong Kong are no joke. All those articles and rankings showing HK homes being the most expensive in the world are not exaggerating. Rent is not much better because unlike say, Beijing, rents are just as expensive in comparison to sales prices. That is why, visiting over 20 apartments, at least five agents, and four parts of Hong Kong Island, my search spanned two months and almost drove me despondent at the ridiculous prices and sheer lack of good choices. In the end, I found a decent enough place which exceeded my original budget by a bit, and that was after negotiating a price cut from the landlord.

First, I do have to say that home prices do vary in Hong Kong depending on your region. HK Island is the most expensive, with some of the most eye-popping and nauseating prices you will ever see for an apartment (mind you, not a house) though obviously I’m not living in those, while Kowloon is slightly cheaper albeit less Westernised and a bit shoddy in some parts. The New Territories, which is the biggest, most rural, scenic and spacious part of HK, is the cheapest but it is also the furthest from HK Island.

If you live in the NT, especially in the more northern parts, you will face transit times of an hour or more one way to get to HK Island. I know this all too well, because when I arrived in HK earlier this year to start my job, I stayed with a relative near Yuen Long, and I had to take a bus to the West Rail, then take that to Kowloon, and switch to the subway. I couldn’t handle that in my “advanced age” – I did enough hour-plus commutes during my university years to not want to do that now – so I made the move to HK Island, where I work. I found a serviced “apartment” to stay in at first. In reality, this “apartment” was a room with a bathroom as well as items like a TV, hotpot and eating utensils. These serviced apartments are quite common in HK as they’re geared for people who want a place to live in for a month or two, so it’s ideal for travelers or people like me starting work in HK without an apartment yet. Why they’re called “serviced” is because there is room cleaning, though I didn’t even get that at first since I got a relatively cheap room. It was a little rough but I got used to it, even a little attached, as I lived in the room for four months.

I did consider Kowloon but since my “serviced” room was in HK Island and I got accustomed to life there, I decided to take the hit to my bank balance and find a place on the island instead. Also, earlier in the year, when I’d come to HK to interview, I stayed in a “hotel” in Jordan and it turned out to be a tiny room in a building located in a sketchy area that turned into a bustling and noisy street market at night. So that kind of influenced my decision to stay in HK Island as well.

When I started, I had a certain budget (HK$11,000 or US$1,350) but on my first day and with the first few places I saw, that budget was already being exceeded. I wasn’t too impressed by any of those places and even when I was, the asking price was too much. For instance, I saw a furnished studio I liked, but the price was HK$13,500 (almost US$1,700). Needless to say, I didn’t get it. I didn’t just stick with one agent as I looked around and checked out apartments with different agents. I looked around Sheung Wan, where I was, Central, Sai Ying Pun, and even HKU, where the university of that name is located.

But no matter where I looked, I didn’t really find any cheap places. I didn’t want walk-ups nor did I want any smaller than 200 square feet so that ruled out the real cheap flats. The ones that were just within my budget were either tiny or in one case, located on a steep road 15 minutes from the nearest subway station. Another one had a great sea view looking out onto the harbour but it was small and the bathroom was old and shoddy.
Besides being small, two really major no-nos for me were bathrooms right next to the kitchen (meaning you had to go into the kitchen to get to the bathroom), and bedrooms which were squarish rooms that were only big enough to fit a bed. Seriously, you could barely stand in these bedrooms, which were often found in 2-bedroom places. Because these apartments were only 200-something square feet, the landlord basically split a bedroom into two so it could be advertised as having two bedrooms. A third problem was toilets that doubled as showers, meaning the bathroom was so small you’d have to take a shower standing in front of the toilet.

I had hoped that July would be better than June but apparently, summer is really busy for the rental market because a lot of students and workers come to HK at that time. I found that prices were still around the same, and the decent places I found in June had all been rented out. I looked for more places but they were all either very pricey, old, or one of the issues I described above. Finally as I was running out of options and a bit desperate (did I want to live in my room for a fifth month?), I tried another real estate agency and the one place they had that fit my requirements turned out to be quite decent, which is the one I am staying in now.

Finally, when you find an apartment you like, there is the issue of signing the contract to formalize things. Before you can even move in, you need to pay the first month’s rent and a deposit of two months’ rent, as well as the agency fee equivalent to half a month’s rent, and my part of the stamp duty for the rental contract which was just HK$400. Luckily I’d saved up my first few paychecks otherwise it would have been a bit tricky. In addition, in Hong Kong, standard rental contracts are for two years and usually have a one-year break clause, which means if you move out before the first year is up, you still owe the remainder for the year. And I thought the three-months’ rent cancellation fee in Beijing for moving out before the contract was over was rough.

So if you want to rent in Hong Kong,  budget wisely and choose carefully. If you want cheaper places, live further away from Hong Kong Island, but  if you want to be on the island, then be prepared to spend a bit.

Very decent view, but the apartment had a terrible bathroom and was completely unfurnished.
A bedroom in a 2-bedroom flat. Once you squeeze in a bed, there’s practically no space for anything else.

This is common in older apartments in HK but I can’t comprehend why you’d build the toilet right next to the kitchen, especially with the door facing the kitchen.

Beijing BS- the end (hopefully)

My apartment drama finally came to a close last week as I moved out and ended my old contract. I got back my deposit from the agency, but only because they made the landlady cough up over RMB20,000. I am relieved to be done with them, a serious bunch of deceitful and greedy lowlifes who exploited me and my landlady (and probably a ton of other people too).

Regarding my landlady’s big payout to them, she did this because the agency flatly refused to abide by their contract with her and refused to allow her to end it by paying the stated cancellation fee (of about 6,000). Instead they claimed, according to her, that their business was bad and they needed to regain money on the lost income from the apartment, so they at first demanded something like 15,000. Then they raised it to 30,000, saying that because the landlady had sold the place through another agency, they lost out on the fees. To recap, my landlady was selling the home and she’d found a buyer who said he needed to move in in January.

It makes one think what worth does a contract have (this is the mainland after all) if an agency can just disregard its own contract signed with a client and demand more money.

You’d think such a blatantly dishonest act would merit being able to turn to the authorities and get them to take action. My landlady tried that, including visiting the police, but she kept getting the runaround and being directed to other departments, and her only real option was to go to court. As she wanted the issue to be resolved quickly and because she was concerned the agency might harass her or the new owner, she decided to pay them off. The agency might be a bunch of shady circus clowns, but people like them are capable of doing things like hiring thugs to attack people or vandalize property.

In the end, I think the landlady could have been firmer and held off paying them, if only to see some justice. But she said she just wanted to get it over with quickly and without trouble. I did feel a little sad at leaving since the place was really good, but I’m glad to leave the agency (a small agency with several branches, one of which is opposite the Canadian embassy) behind too.

Besides all this, I took a quick trip to Hong Kong on the weekend to attend a cousin’s wedding. It was decent, but it was especially good to see some of my other uncles and aunts from North America, who I hadn’t seen in years.

Beijing BS continues- agency gets bold

I originally wrote the paragraph below two days before the start of 2014, but since then my apartment issue is still running like a bad movie that just won’t end.

A new twist came up recently, with the landlady finding a willing buyer who needed to move in soon. As such, she needs to take back her place. The problem is the agency isn’t playing along, no surprise, and were blatant enough to refuse to let the landlady cancel her contract and pay her original cancellation fee. Instead the agency demanded a higher cancellation fee, something along the lines of pay us a whole year’s rent and we’ll agree. It was just last week that the agency was begging the landlady for her forgiveness (after she found out they’d been lying about renting her place), and now they’re already making outrageous demands. I am aware the agency stands to lose because if the landlady cancels her contract and pays her fee, the agency needs to do the same with me, and given they raised the rent for me by a lot, the cancellation fee for me is much higher than for the landlady. I’m caught in the middle, since legally my contract with the agency is valid but yet I’ve experienced so much nonsense from the agent and I have no intention to take his side against the landlady.

Last week, the landlady called and said she’d come to an agreement with the agency. She’ll pay them a certain sum, higher than what she’s required to in the contract, but less than what the agency demanded. In return, the agency will end my contract. If they follow the terms of our contract, the agency should pay me a cancellation fee of 2 months rent, but I know they won’t. The agency contacted me a little after and the branch manager himself offered to show me a few places, which I reluctantly agreed. Their rationale is I can move to one of these places and our contract can continue. I didn’t find the places too good, or too bad, but I’d rather not continue to deal with these . My agent then offered to end the contract and return my deposit and remaining rent, but not the cancellation fee. I expected nothing different from him. I later told the manager I didn’t want any of the places and that I’d move out in the middle of the month. Sure, he said. Come into our office before you move out to see about ending our contract.

Then yesterday (Monday), my agent called and offered up yet another new twist. Don’t move, just stay put, he said. Oh, and pay the rent for the next 3 months (due later this week). Why? Doesn’t the landlady want me to move I asked. Don’t bother about the landlady, he said. Just stay put, continue to live in the apartment, and pay the next 3-months rent, he replied. Yeah, I’m sure that’s exactly what I’ll do.

I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

Beijing BS- things take a turn in apartment drama

My apartment issue reached a turning point on late Thursday night, culminated in a semishowdown on Friday in my living room and is settling into a series of negotiations.
I left my workplace after 11pm Thursday when I got a call from my agent. I’m accustomed to getting calls from the bastard at all times of the day, but even from him, this was a bit late. He said to me, the landlady knocked on your door and might be waiting outside, so when you see her tell her you’re Z-W’s friend. “What? Why is the landlord outside my apartment? Who is Z-W?” I asked. “What do you mean who is Z-W? You don’t need to know! Just tell the landlady you’re Z-W’s friends, that’s all!” the agent replied in his typical polite way. So when I reached home, got out of the lift and was met by a worried senior lady who asked me if I was Z-W’s friend, that’s exactly what I did Not do. The landlady (this was the first time I’d ever met her) and I talked, then she left and I was stunned. At this point I didn’t know for sure if she was the landlady but she did have a contract and seemed bothered by the agency.

The next day, she came back in the afternoon, and we had a decent chat. Originally I’d demanded the agent bring the landlady over on Friday so I could meet her since I had that day off. We waited for the agent, who seemed to keep delaying, at one point someone knocked on my door who claimed to be the agent’s friend (possibly a junior employee at the agency). “Go away and tell W (my agent) to come right away!” boomed the landlady. W soon came, and he was subjected to a lecture by the landlady, who pointed out all the ways he and his company lied to her. It was surreal watching the very same man who’d made threats and demands to me smiling nervously and denying he’d done anything wrong like a little schoolboy being scolded by a headmistress. The landlady brought her ownership certificate to show me today and I’m pretty sure she’s for real.

Right now, the gist of it is that for the past 2 years, the agency had rented the apartment to a girl, who is likely one of their employees, and they’d rented it out at much higher rents in turn to other people, the current tenant being me. While this is an acceptable arrangement in some cases, the main problem here was that nobody told her who was really renting the place. So in other words, the agency was possibly subrenting it illegally.

So I’m not that worried about the agent and his threats anymore, unless he gets desperate and decides he wants resort to thuggery (something not unheard of in Beijing), but I’m more worried about the paperwork and negotiating my way out of this mess.

Beijing BS- the ongoing apartment agent drama

Originally I had written the below paragraphs (after this one) a few days ago regarding an ongoing issue with my agent, but just yesterday another issue popped up. After having supposedly resolved the previous issue, my agent suddenly calls yesterday. “The landlord wants to visit so I need to borrow your keys again. Why? I replied, given the agent had brought the landlord over just last week (the agent had borrowed my keys and brought her over when I wasn’t there.)  Why does the landlord want to visit again? Uh, she wants to sell the place. She’s bringing over someone to check it out, said my agent. What? I said. So not even 3 months into my 1-year lease, and the landlord wants to sell the place, and will presumably be bringing people over during this time. “But you can continue living there,” says the agent. The agent is coming to borrow my keys this afternoon, but I’m going to put my foot down and demand to meet the landlord. After all, neither me or the previous tenant has ever met the landlord or has her info. The agent will probably not like that, maybe he might be furious, but I’ve had enough of this bullshit.

I’ve been in Beijing for over three months and it’s been an interesting time. As my recent housing agent issue might be cleared up (I won’t hold my breath about something flaring up again sometime) without any physical or fiscal injury incurred by myself, I hope I can get back to writing more here.

I’ve learned a few quick lessons about  renting a place, so as to avoid hassles in future like being threatened by your apartment agent or being caught up in tussles between the previous tenant and the agent.
-check all the aspects of a situation – for instance, before moving into my current place, I should have clearly asked if the agent knew I was moving in
-don’t take shortcuts just for the sake of saving time and effort – I should have visited the agent before I moved in as opposed to waiting till after. I had indeed called him before I moved in, as the previous tenant had suggested, and we discussed my new rent for when the previous tenant’s lease was up. I didn’t say I was moving in since I thought he knew and he didn’t ask me when I was moving in since he probably thought I was doing so after the previous tenant moved out.
-don’t hesitate to walk away or bargain about rent

And for after you move, here’s what I’m learning.
-don’t hesitate to stand up and refuse to meet their demands (advice I need to put into practice)
-be prepared to get the authorities involved
-be hard up with the agent, especially if like mine, he’s not the most helpful or polite individual, and don’t feel like you owe him anything. Agents are supposed to help you as long as you’ve paid your rent and haven’t done anything bad to the place. I’m finding out from both online and personal sources that housing agents in Beijing are possibly some of the most unscrupulous people in China, if not the continent.