Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Tomfoolery with estate agents in Hong Kong and beyond

I was shocked to read that in Sydney, prospective renters and homeowners get to see flats only for fifteen minutes. All at once. Not a fifteen minute time limit on one person's visitation, but everyone who wants to view a flat has to see it during the same one ninety-sixth of the day. It's ridiculous. It's almost as if the arrangement was designed purely for the convenience of the estate agent, without any thought for the customer.

In Hong Kong, it's slightly different. Perhaps because the agent makes money from both the tenant and the landlord, or because every landlord is massively distrustful of the agent and therefore puts the same place on the market with five different agents, you get to see flats whenever you want.

At prices you don't want, and in areas you don't want, and with big piles of rubble in the living room, which I didn't especially want, but there's none of this nonsense about doing what the agent tells you to do.

Maybe I was lucky previously, but ibe never had as many frustrating experiences with searching for property as I have in Hong Kong. Ok, there were the couple selling their house in Hythe, who didn't really want to sell their house in Hythe (so they just hid). There was also the man in Hythe who thought 'home improvement' was synonymous with 'remove the chimey breast, keep the chimney stack, wait for it to come through the ceiling'. And there was the lady who liked pink just a little bit too much. But they were all vendors, and not entirely the agent's fault.

In Hong Kong, I've had a day long tour of every hovel the agent could think of. Combined bathroom and kitchen. Combined toilet and shower. (No, not in the same room. Actually combined.) A single room flat painted in hazmat yellow with no windows. A flat five feet from the air conditioning vents for one of Hong Kong's largest buildings. (Oh, that was the one with the mound of rubble in the middle of the room, come to think of it. Well, I say 'middle of the room'. I mean 'the entire flat.')

Occasionally, you'd try to explain that you wanted a flat with this feature or that. No view of the hypodermic needle bins from the local hospital, a working lift, a complete ceiling, that sort of thing. All such information didn't so much fall on deaf ears as bounce off and land somewhere down the street. They had a list, and they were sticking to it.

The apotheosis of this (or the nadir, depending on what you think) must have been when I was looking to share a flat with a work colleague. Both new to Hong Kong, we assumed we could get something better if we pooled our resources. We assumed wrong, of course.

We assumed the agents would understand that if you said "we're not a couple, we need separate rooms" that it wasn't an instruction to call our bluff, that we wouldn't want flats with one enormous room and a small one "suitable for a child" nudge nudge wink wink. We assumed if we mentioned this again, they might take note, but again and again: big bedroom, big bed. Second room: space for some cupboards. Big bedroom, big bed. Second room: place to put the cot and the perambulator. Big bedroom, decorated like the Death Star. Second room: one shelf for the maid to sleep on.

A few days of that, and I was prepared for the agent to open the door on a shagpiled shag pad, and just start yelling "Go on, fuck! Fuck! Fuck now!" at us until we gave up the pretence of platonism.

So we didn't end up disentangling any of Hong Kong's social norms, as defined by its estate agents, and we went our separate ways, which was probably a good thing in retrospect, if only because I liked enormous televisions and mountain bikes in the living room, and she liked flowers and paintings and stuff. Still, would have been not live on our own for so long.


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