Often the most stressful part of any relocation (unless your employer is providing accommodation for you and all you have to do is turn up with suitcases in hand) is looking for and finding somewhere to live, so have a read below for some pointers on how to mitigate the angst.
Finding somewhere to live
If you haven’t arrived in Hong Kong yet, maybe contact your future employer’s Human Resources or Housing or Accommodation Department (if they have one) for some guidance; email or otherwise contact ask any friends who may already be in the city or check out various expat forums to seek advice and identify the locations where you feel you might want to live want to live.
Review your selection criteria and determine if you want to lease (or buy) an apartment or house—but be prepared to compromise as Hong Kong’s accommodation is generally on the small side but, more importantly, is relatively very expensive (more on this later). Do you really need to be within five to ten minutes of the office? Or can you accept a longer commute on the generally very efficient public transport system? Do you really need a gym, a swimming pool or a clubhouse within your block?
Most of the leading real estate agencies such as Jones Lang LaSalle, Savills, or Colliers International are represented in Hong Kong and tend to handle the more luxurious residential properties; for those on less extravagant budgets there are a number of well established local agents such as Centaline Agency or Midland Realty who provide extensive and exhaustive details on current rents and prices on their websites and on a district by district basis and will be pleased to help once they know you are a serious prospect.
There are also a multitude of very local agents whose ‘’territory’’ often only extends to particular districts and the best way to find them is wander around the locations you like and call into the (very) small shops they occupy—a word of advice, you almost certainly need to speak Cantonese or have a Cantonese speaker with you to find out what you want. Then there are publications such as Square Foot which advertise property but can also help you find an agent.
As mentioned above, property purchase and rental costs in Hong Kong are expensive and many people find that rent can account for over 25% of their monthly salaries; of course, the farther you go away from the main areas the cheaper the rents or pries and some people opt for ‘’island living’’, that is living on one of the various outlying islands such as Lantau Island, Cheung Chau or Lamma which ring the main island; another alternative favoured by others is ‘’flat-share’’ with either someone you know or someone you don’t! Various websites such as Easy Roommate or the Hong Kong version of Craig’s List advertise such available accommodation.
When is a good time to start looking?
If you are still overseas, the sooner you start looking the better, at least it will give you time to get as familiar as you can with the various districts and accommodation on offer.
If you are already in Hong Kong and, presumably, staying in a hotel or with someone already, you may well find that hunting for somewhere to live occupies most of your waking hours; it really can be highly fraught and quite stressful.
As soon as you have established an idea of which areas you want to live in, your budget and your main accommodation requirements, normally two or three full days of viewing should give a comprehensive enough view of what you can or cannot get (unless, of course, you have a mega budget and are looking for that dream abode, that unique pied-de-terre); in reality in Hong Kong you are never really far from good transport links, convenience shopping and access to most amenities so location is perhaps not so important when compared with other Asian cities such as Bangkok.
As with real estate agents in any country, agents in Hong Kong will push you to make a decision, push you to pay the asking rent (their earnings are heavily commission based and the higher the rent or the price the better for them!); yet, realistically, desirable properties in Hong Kong don’t stay available for too long, certainly not in the current market, and it is prudent to be able to make reasonably quick decisions.
Do it yourself or working with an agent?
As, almost certainly, you’ll be working with an agent, forward your criteria and your budget to them so that the agent can identify properties and make a shortlist of those places to view in advance. Try to minimise the viewings of totally unacceptable locations, properties both for your benefit and that of the agent.
Usually people initially work with multiple agents (some will show you the same properties at different rents or prices!) until they find one or two who are reliable, knowledgeable, have good properties and can generally be relied upon to be on time for meetings.
Agents will normally register your viewing with landlords so as to avoid confusion if another agent tries to show you the same place—and thereby claim the commission.
More often than not, the best way to find a reliable agent is by recommendations from work colleagues or friends, or maybe your company has a preferred list from one of the larger property companies, and you can only use on those agents on such list (this tends to be the way for higher budget properties).
Some real estate agents specialise in particular areas of the city whilst others specialise in working with either singles or young couples.
Typically, tenancies in Hong Kong are for two (2) years and the standard commission payable is one (1) month’s rent, usually shared on a 50/50 basis between the landlord and the tenant (or the tenant’s company if one is so lucky); on top of this there is a relatively small amount of stamp duty payable by both parties.
In the event you wish to do it yourself, logical places to start are with local newspapers or magazines, notice boards in supermarkets, suggestions from friends or business colleagues and so on. Some of the larger developers who still own whole blocks have their own teams on site and it is worth approaching such properties as, apart from saving the commission, in many cases the properties in question are better maintained and managed than other similar properties (read more expensive!). If you do decide to take this route, and the landlord has his own ‘’agent’’’, it needs to be clarified early on that the landlord’s agent doesn’t suddenly ask for a commission from you on the basis he or she has been acting for you as an intermediary with the landlord.
The final selection
Suddenly, after viewing a few, or maybe a lot of properties, it’s time to make a selection. Some of the key things to consider when choosing a place to rent are as follows:
- Hong Kong’s public transport, such as the extensive underground train service (MTR), mini buses, (both red and green), buses and ferries are generally extremely efficient. If you don’t plan to buy a car, living within reasonable walking distance to an MTR station or other transport major route is clearly best for getting around, yet such convenience, as with any city, comes at a premium
- Older buildings tend to rent at cheaper rents than newer ones, often with more space but fewer or no facilities; then there’s the management and maintenance issues but may people are prepared to trade off such issues for the convenience factor, and the proximity to the city
- Of course, if you have the budget, apartments with facilities might be the way to go, although often such facilities are comparatively small and crowded, especially at peak usage time
- If you are considering older buildings, one other thing to watch is the possibility of en-bloc potential where owners can band together to force the redevelopment of an old block, thereby leaving the tenant facing another move not long after moving in
- You’ll need to pay at least two (2) months security deposit as well as the first month’s rent before getting the keys to your new home
Sometimes your company will sign the tenancy in its name and be responsible for the rental, security deposit and generally deal with all matters pertaining to the accommodation; more often than not it’s up to you to resolve all of these issues. Most landlords will require that you are legally resident in Hong Kong before allowing you to sign a lease; either by having a Hong Kong Identify Card or a valid visa, work or otherwise.
Provisional Tenancy Agreement
Once you’ve found an apartment or house you like, the Agent (or the Landlord if there is no agent) usually prepares a provisional Tenancy Agreement setting out the key terms and conditions which have been agreed upon for you to sign. Like everything else in Hong Kong speed is of the essence as, until this is signed and a security deposit (usually initially the equivalent of two (2) month’s rent) paid then it may be that someone else takes your “dream” apartment.
This may simply be due to the fact that there are several parties chasing the apartment in question or some other less satisfactory reason—but, whatever, the Hong Kong rental market remains as a very competitive market.
There is also the option to purchase, of course, provided you have a million or so US$ available to acquire a 50 or 60m2 apartment in one of the popular housing estates! Then there is the so-called luxury market which ranges from fairly regular homes of 100m2, up to breathtaking houses perched atop The Peak with prices which hardly fit on your calculator display panel.
Other things to know:
- Depending upon the property, most times an apartment is to rent with little by the way of movable items inside, although you may inherit the last tenant’s microwave, refrigerator or the like; however, there are some landlords who provide other bits and pieces and others who provide everything, these latter apartments falling under the heading of ‘’serviced apartments’’—with rents accordingly higher than the typical unfurnished or semi-furnished apartment
- In some cases it may be possible to negotiate for one or two new appliances (say a microwave) or pieces of furniture (dining table) be included in the rent for free; another alternative is for the landlord agrees to buy such items but increase the rent to reflect such purchases—more expensive for you in the long run, but more convenient
- On the other hand, if you need some furniture or appliances removing from the apartment, as space is at a premium in Hong Kong, and your landlord may not have anywhere to store the items if they are removed, it’s important to request this before signing the provisional tenancy agreement
After signing the provisional tenancy agreement, which is essentially a pre-cursor, and contains most of the key terms which will appear in the formal tenancy, it’s time to look at the tenancy agreement itself. Most tenancy agreements are fairly straightforward and in a standard format but, if you are unsure, either ask your employer’s accommodation team, your agent or seek professional help; some key clauses to look for:
- Most residential tenancy agreements contain a so-called “diplomatic clause” or as is sometimes known a “12+2”, which allow you to terminate your tenancy early if you choose to move or get transferred to another country or leave Hong Kong. Originally for diplomats or other senior people to get out of tenancies if they were being transferred overseas, most tenancies contain this clause—but beware, as this can work in the favour of both parties and the landlord technically can terminate the agreement too
- The aforementioned clause is, typically, effective after the first twelve (12) months, and usually, requires two (2) months’ written notice (or rent in lieu) before you leave
- As part of the tenancy, when there are landlord’s items such as appliances or furniture in the property, a schedule of such items will be attached to the agreement; this should be checked with the landlord’s representative on moving in and moving out and you may be liable for any damage or repairs caused by your actions
- Most landlords will clean the property, do essential repairs, and check all appliances before handing over the property to you; a “handing over receipt” needs to be signed at the time of taking possession of a property (as is a “marching out” receipt” in due course
- Contents insurance is not usually provided by the landlord, although building insurance will probably be covered either by the mutual owners or the landlord if it is a building in single ownership
Utilities and services
Some landlord’s maintain their own accounts for items such as electricity, water and internet and simply charge you according to usage or in the cases of many serviced apartments simply include all such items in the monthly rent. Most times, though, you will need to make your own arrangements and set out below are some tips; in almost all cases deposits are payable to open accounts and such amounts will be refunded at the end of your tenancy, provided all of the accounts have been paid up.
- Electricity: depending upon where you live, apply to Hong Kong Electric or China Light and Power for an account—this can be opened online and the required documents submitted by mail
- Water: Water Supplies Department
- Internet access: PCCW
- Residential phone service: PCCW
- Updating your address for Immigration Department, Inland Revenue and other Government Departments
Looking for property in Hong Kong is relatively straightforward but, obviously, it all comes down to personal taste… and availability. As one would expect, most property websites are run by property leasing companies, but they do provide a plethora of information and data and, despite the need to pay a commission most people end up using real estate agents.