Where in Hong Kong should I live?

Question: What part of Hong Kong should I live in? How do I find information about places to live in Hong Kong?

Mr Tall replies: We must preface the information you're about to read with a couple of cautionary notes. First, there are few questions more subjective and potentially contentious than 'what's a good place to live'? All big cities have many, many 'livable' neighborhoods, and Hong Kong is no exception. Anyone moving here from abroad is well advised to take a month or two in a short-term, serviced flat to get a feel for the city and its different districts, and to conduct a search for a place to live that's as careful and considered as time allows.

In any case, please take the information that follows in the sense that it has been offered by the Batgung and their readers: no claims to being comprehensive, balanced or fair are made. These are personal opinions, and your mileage will certainly vary.

Question: I need to find housing in Hong Kong, and want to get a sense for prices, availability, and so on. Are there any websites in English that can help?

Mr Tall replies: Yes! Here are some recommendations for sites to check out:

Reader Odaiwai says: Try gohome.com. It seems to have a wide range of prices and properties, from palatial to slum.

Another reader: We found the "Transaction Records" section at centanet very helpful. Once we decided on a couple of flats we liked, we used this site to see how much similar flats in the same building had sold for, and used that information in our bargaining.

Reader Fiona adds: Another great source of info is the Wednesday issue of the SCMP -- i.e. the 'Property Post' section.

Question: What should I look out for when looking for housing in Hong Kong? Do you have any tips?

Mr Tall replies: First, there are lots of tradeoffs to be made in the HK market. If you're willing to consider areas outside the typical expat neighborhoods. In particular, prices drop almost automatically once you get off Hong Kong Island itself. Living 'on the island' is a non-negotiable point for many expats, but those of us who live on the Kowloon/New Territories side generally get more square feet and facilities for our money. Conversely, we've got longer commutes to the business districts on Hong Kong Island, usually find it harder to procure western comforts and amenities, and are more likely to feel isolated from other expatriates. Many people also prefer Hong Kong island's 'character', in that it's got older neighborhoods/streets that feel less planned and potentially soul-less, like some of the huge housing estates elsewhere certainly do.

Second, right now there are a *lot* of new developments in Hong Kong - some sectors of the market are still choking on the glut of flats planned and initiated in the heady days of the mid/late-90s property boom. That's been keeping prices pretty low, although there's been a recent sharp upturn after a long slump. Many of these new developments maintain lavish, sales-oriented websites, so if you see a development that is relatively new, it's likely to have its own site. Many, many hours of websurfing possible here!

Third, remember that Hong Kong property prices are never going to seem cheap to people from most other places, but the recent crash has meant they've at least come back into line with other big metropolitan areas around the world, although I'd guess they're still pretty high on the list. As I mentioned, there are clear signs that the market is recovering, but it will take a long time for it ever to reach the disproportionate heights of the mid- to late 90s -- if it ever does. Just to give you a sense of scale: Mrs Tall and I bought our first flat in late 1995, which was well before the high point of the boom (it peaked right around the handover in mid-1997). We sold that flat in 2002 and were delighted to get just under half our purchase price.

Reader Bijai adds:

1) Off Hong Kong Island is going to be cheaper.

2) New properties, even those listed at 80% usable area, are going to be smaller than old properties with the same listed area and lower usability. How, nobody knows. As an example my previous house (65% usable 1400ft) was smaller than my current flat (90% usable 700ft). Go figure.

3) A mortgage is usually only granted for a maximum of 30 years -- the age of the house. This doesn't include large estates such as Mei Foo, Telford Gardens, Taikoo Shing (this is a good one on the Island) or Heng Fa Chuen because they are considered relatively safe bets by the banks. The first three are also extremely good value if you don't mind the somewhat dubious exteriors.

4) What will happen 10 years down the track....I would say don't trust anyone like me who bought around 1997 for advice on that. Things look good but the prices of property are very closely related to the prospects of HK, so if the economy is good prices will keep going up.

Mr B adds: Buying property in a new country means a whole new set of abbreviations to learn. Out with the "Det. Des. Res." that you admired in the UK (you can't afford one here anyway), and time to start deciding whether you want your flat with MV or SV.

MV is optimistically referred to as "Mountain View", but in most places it means you'll be staring at the wall of a neighbouring tower block. So having decided we wanted a flat with SV (sea view), should we go for FSV or PSV ? ("Full" or "Partial" of course, keeping up ?)

As part of the mass of trivia that property agents hold in their heads, we were immediately told that only flats above the 15th floor would have an FSV.

We purchased flat 20C and admired our FSV for a year or so, only to see an ominous yellow crane peep over the top of a building lower down the hill. In Hong Kong it's only a matter of time before a building in front of you gets knocked down, and a new block twice the height sprouts in its place. Even a seafront property is no guarantee, as one morning you'll open the curtains to find a reclamation barge setting up for work.

Sure enough, our FSV is now a PSV...

And another good point from Mr B: If you expect to hold a flat for, say, ten years, conventional wisdom says you should buy something new-5 years old to make it relatively easy to sell at the end of that period.

Reader Fiona adds: Regarding Hong Kong real estate agents....as with anyone working on commission basis, their aim is to bump it prices as much as possible, and remember, they're really acting with the landlord's interests at heart, and they operate in a cut-throat environment. Even if you don't let one of their apartments, they'll bug you forever more!!!

Question: What about particular neighborhoods? Which ones are good for expats?

Mr Tall replies: The majority of expats in Hong Kong live on Hong Kong Island itself, although it seems to me that more and more are living in the New Territories these days. This may be just my own prejudices speaking, however, since that's where the Talls live.

The most 'expat-friendly' neighborhoods (I use the inverted commas only partially as scare quotes) are mid-levels, i.e. the area just inland (and uphill) from the main business district in Central; the Peak, which comprises mostly high-end housing on Victoria Peak, the traditional aerie of Hong Kong's overlords, both colonial and financial; and the south side of Hong Kong Island, i.e. areas such as Pokfulam, Repulse Bay, Shouson Hill, Tai Tam and Stanley.

That said, there are quite a few expats in just about every district on Hong Kong Island. Western district, i.e. the older area of the city just to the west of Central, is particularly popular for those seeking somewhat lower prices in an area that's still very convenient for working downtown.

Over on the Kowloon side, no single district or area stands out for being particularly expat-oriented. Perhaps the best candidate is Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong's oddest neighborhood, comprising lots of nice low-rise houses and small apartment blocks; kindergartens and other schools (many of very high reputation); bridal shops; and finally a liberal dosing of 'love hotels', i.e. hourly getaways for the adulterous set.

In the New Territories, the Sai Kung/Clearwater Bay area is a growing favorite (more on that below), and there are lots of expats in Shatin and other NT areas, too.

Finally, Lantau Island is also home to many expats, most of them in the highly-planned community of Discovery Bay. More on this below, too.

That preamble out of the way, what follows are some highlights of Batgung forum discussions on a number of particular places to live.

Lantau Island: Discovery Bay

Reader Fiona says: Re Disco-bay (as we call it).....beware of hidden costs such as transportation, management fees and even supermarket prices.

Mr Tall comments: If you live in Discovery Bay, the commute to the main business district in Central is relatively short, since the boats that serve this route are jetfoils rather than ordinary ferries -- it'd be more like half an hour to 40 minutes, again depending on your distances to ferry piers. I am not a fan of Discovery Bay, but some people seem to like it a lot. It's a highly planned community with no cars/buses, and it's got lots of families with small children. It's got that Singaporean planned-community ambience that's just not for me. Many many people -- especially expats -- find it an excellent place to live, however.

If your office would be somewhere other than Central, you're looking at a much longer commute, of course.

A reader replies: The reason I don't like Discovery Bay is that it's a bit 'unnatural'. Even the beach is man-made. It's essentially a large tiled plaza and apartments on the roads behind. If you like a bit of local flavour you'll not find it there.

Having said that it's a great place if you enjoy hiking - there are several good trails leading off from there, and the water seems cleanish for watersports.

Another reader adds some food for thought on Disco Bay: The main reason of why I think Discovery Bay could be an interesting place to buy an apartment is the new Disney theme park that is being built on the northern part of the island. I know from experience with EuroDisney in Paris that after the park starts its operation, the property prices around the park rose explosively. I don't see why that wouldn't be the case in HK.

Lantau Island: Mui Wo

A reader asks: We are thinking we might like to live on a less developed area of Lantau, say near Mui Wo. What realistically would the commute be? Are there good preschools/kindergartens?

Mr Tall replies: Well, it's easy to answer the commute question -- if you'd be working in Central, i.e. the main business district. If that's the case, then you can figure just over an hour, or maybe a bit more, depending on how far your flat/office are from the respective ferry piers, because that's how you get from Mui Wo to Central! This commute would be quite 'easy' in the sense that riding the boat is pleasant, but there's really no way to shorten it.

I should note that there are now 'fast' ferries available, and I guess I really shouldn't put the scare quotes on that word, since they do only take about half the time the 'slow' ferries do, i.e. from the time you leave the dock in Mui Wo to the time you land in Central is only about half an hour. When I mention an hour's commute, I'm assuming the fast ferries -- it's the ancillary bits of the commute that really add up, i.e. getting down to the ferry pier in Mui Wo from wherever you live, waiting a bit for the ferry, then getting yourself to your office in Central (the ferry piers there are a pretty good hike from even the nearest office building, i.e. IFC II). All in all, unless you live right next to the ferry pier in Mui Wo (which isn't the nicest part of the island, by far) I think you'll still end up looking at about an hour's commute. It's shorter from Discovery Bay because of the way the housing there is clustered around the ferry pier (although you can still end up with a substantial walk) and since the ferry service there uses true jetfoils, which are still significantly faster than the 'fast' ferries to the other outlying island destinations.

A reader adds: But the old slow ferries were more comfortable and relaxing and caused less sea sickness. The thing I would not like about living on an outlying island is being so tied to the ferry schedule.

Sai Kung/Clearwater Bay

Reader Saikung Mama: I love living in the Sai Kung Clear Water Bay area. Rents are fairly reasonable, the air is clean, you can get buses and taxis pretty easily after the MTR closes down. Of course, it's an easier commute if you don't work on HK Island.

Mr Tall adds: Thanks, Saikungmama, for recommending my favorite part of town, too. I'd love to live in Sai Kung, but Mrs Tall works in Central, and it really is just a bit too far -- also, you're at the mercy of traffic conditions on Hiram's Highway.

Saikung Mama replies: It depends on where in Sai Kung you live.

If you live in "deepest Sai Kung", then yes, the commute can be well over an hour. But, if you live closer to town -- say around Fei Ngo Shan or Tseng Lan Shue -- you have a 10 min. bus ride to the Choi Hung MTR and about 35-45 minutes on the train to Central.

Or, if you live in the Silver Strand area of Clear Water Bay, you're about a 10 minute bus ride to the MTR in Tseung Kwan O and then about 40 miuntes on the MTR to Central.

Here are some of the listings for CWB.

I live in Sai Kung near Pik Uk and can get to Central in less than an hour.

I used to live in a village in Sai Kung, up near Po Lo Che. I had a gorgeous huge sea view, lots of greenery around me. Some of my neighbors even kept chickens (not too close, no smell) but I was on the middle floor of a "Spanish Villa" style villa house. It was an "apartment" ["But not as we know it, Jim"].

New Territories: Symphony Bay

A reader asks: Do any of you know the Villa Concerto apartments at Symphony Bay (Ma On Shan)?

A reader replies: We had a look at them (I think) but they are a little bit far away down a traffic constricted road from Ma On Shan town centre which means that you are dependent on the estate bus or mini-busses to get at least to Ma On Shan for buses (and later on trains). I've been on that stretch of road in the morning and because of the road works it was not a quick journey (1/2 hour). Nice estate if you don't need to work, good environment.

And another: Symphony Bay is very pleasantly located. The buildings themselves look extremely nice, too. Just wanted to note that their public transport access will improve when the KCR extension opens; it will terminate not far from Symphony Bay. Having said that, it will still be a long haul on the train to get into the urban areas.

And another: I think my husband & I looked at some of the flats there back in the late 90's when we were in the market. As I remember there were no balconies and it was on central air, you couldn't open the windows.

Question: what about some other neighborhoods that are 'off the beaten track' and that might be worth considering?

Reader Odaiwai says: If you're working [in Central], and you're on [a fairly high salary], get yourself a place on the Peak or Mid-levels and have a 15 minute commute on foot, or go for somewhere like Braemar Hill (in Eastern District), where the commute will be 20 minutes by bus or MTR (subway), and the rent will be far cheaper.

(A job I had a while back required commuting from North Point to near Prince's Building. I used the Bus (No. 18) and it took about 10-15 minutes in the mornings. We are talking rolling out of bed at 0830, shower, get dressed, get the bus, get coffee from Starbucks and be in the office by 0900.)

One advantage of a place like Mid-levels or Braemar Hill is that there'll be a lot of schools within walking distance, and hiking trails too, while you'll still have the public transport easily available.

Braemar Hill . . . is high up and out of the bustle, it's surprisingly green and there are trails and walking areas nearby. I think the flats are quite big (in HK terms) as well. (It's referred to as North Point Mid-levels, although I've seen buildings on King's Road (sea level) included in that.

One absolutely enormous advantage of living on HK island is that if you work late (or go out for a few beers with your workmates), getting home late at night is a very cheap taxi ride and usually very quick. The ferries can get very sparse late at night, and you don't want to be stuck with a two hour wait for the next ferry when it's already 1 am.

Saikungmama comments: "Apartment" living in some of the fancy places Dave mentions in Mid-Levels or Braemar Hill can be pretty and there's some green around (and usually nice views of the Harbour) and many offer "club house" facilities that often include children's indoor play room, an exercise room, a swimming pool, etc. This can be a good way to meet other people, and results in your feeling less "apartment bound".

Saikungmama adds: You might want to try Shek O. This site says that it's a 40 minute commute to Central:

Go Home has this information about Shek O.

Some of my in-laws live near Shek O and it's nice to visit, even though getting in and out on the weekends may be a bit of a hassle. But, if you're living there, why go anywhere else on the weekends. ;)

Lamma? I had a friend who would take the Ferry from Pak Kok Tsuen and it used to stop in Kennedy Town, and then she'd take the tram. Maybe living near Yung Shue Wan? There you might be able to find a whole house for not too much $. But the style of life might be difficult at first to adjust to. And, as Mr. Tall pointed out, if schooling is an issue, Lamma might be a problem.

[My husband and I] also lived in Tai Wai for a few years (between Kowloon Tong & Sha Tin on the KCR). I liked Tai Wai a lot: great wet market (wide aisles), lots of pubs, tons of banks, right near Shatin which has a better public library than Ngau Chi Wan or Sai Kung town and also provides pretty good shopping (New Town Plaza, etc.).


Recommendation on Accomodation, TaxMFP

Hi - I've recently been offered a role in Hong Kong wiht the office based out of Wanchi. I would appreciate some advice on accomodation and suitable areas. I'd be living by myself with semi regular commutes back to Australia.

I am new to Hong Kong but have previously lived in Singapore. I have two questions regarding accomodation and tax/MFP that I am hoping readers will be able to assist with.

1) Looking for reasonable priced accomodation within walking distance or train ride to Wanchi. I've been told that the Mid Levels maybe suitable but know nothing of them.

In terms of accomoation - not sure on pricing but would like to not pay more than HKD$20k per month for the following and want to know if this is realistic:
Furnished apartment or studio with a relatively high floor, possibly sea views, a good sized bed, laundry faciltiies within the room (washer/dryer, small kitchentte with cooktop and microwave, dishwasher, shower, high speed internet connectivity, large screen tv with cable.

2) The second question relates to HK tax and MFP. I have dependents in Australia that I will be sending money back to - can I claim a dependent tax allowance for my wife and children even though they reside outside of HK and secondly - with the MFP contributions, when I return to Australia what happens to this.

Please advise.

Horizon Suites Located in Ma On Shan

Hi Everyone,

I've been in Hkg for about a month now and residing with relatives in Shatin. Planning to look for accomodation of my own and was lapping up articles here in Batgung-an excellent website!

I intent to reside in Shatin or Ma On Shan area for short-term period of 3-6 months and saw the only available service apartment here is the Horizon Suites in Ma On Shan. Anyone care to share their 2 cents worth on Horizon?

Also managed to browse thr apartments for rent and thought it might be wiser to go for the service apartments as the basic charges are all (well..almost) inclusive. At least there's no worries abt electricity, water, internet broadband and phone bills.

Anyone out there care to share more of their experience for short-term accomodation, especially for Shatin and Ma On Shan areas.



re: Horizon Suites

EMak, Sorry I don't know anything about them, but there is some more info about short term lets here. I think the you're unlikely to get a standard rental for 6 months, as landlords usually want a minimum of 12 months. So the main advantage of the serviced appt approach will be that it's easy to get one for the period you want. And yes, no hassles of getting internet, etc set up.


Getting around in Hong Kong

Hey, noticed some concerns regarding the accessibility of some locations in Hong Kong, found this extra resource from Home Net that can definitely help.

Here is a transport planner from the Transportation Department of Hong Kong. This planner might seem a bit clunky and hard to get used to at first, but it can plot the quickiest and cheapest way from A to B.

It uses all forms of public transport (except red mini-buses) to plot a route and covers Hong Kong, Kowloon and even the Islands telling you which ferry to take.

Been playing around with the site and it has some great info such as approximate taxi fares from districts. People don't seem to know about it and it should be helpful for those deciding where to rent an apartment Hong Kong.