Finding Cheap Apartments in Hong Kong

Difficult but not impossible. Rents are pretty high at the moment (at least US$1,100 for something decent) and all you can really hope for if you want to live in the city and don’t have enough cash for a penthouse suite is a tiny matchbox some call coffins or cages.

If you have a bit of cash tucked away in your sock, you might want to start with serviced apartments, which cost an average of HK$11,000. As my friend put it, “they’re mad $$$ but comfortable.” They usually offer maid service and facilities like health clubs and pools. Lease requirements vary, and it might be hard to get a spot. Good examples of comparatively affordable ones are the very modernist Urban Cube and 112 Apartments. Don’t rely on pictures alone.

Part of the reason cage is such a good description are the gates on apartment complexes here. They’re pretty much metal grills with a lock on them.

But if you want it on the cheap, (say less than HK$6,000 a month) it’s going to be a bit more difficult. Good places to start looking are Craigslist (Hong Kong’s is not as popular or sleazy); Hong Kong Geoexpat, a community forum for Hong Kongers and foreigners living here; and my favorite, EasyRoommate, which helps you search for apartments within your budget and random people to share flats or houses with. SquareFoot is also helpful as it allows you to screen based on price ranges, locations and — you got it — square feet.

You’ll probably hear about Chungking Mansions. It’s no longer crack den-type rooms after a recent overhaul, but do expect to come home to drug deals in your lobby as well as possibly having to share with a stranger. Expect something like US$100 a day, on average.

Savvy landowners usually list on websites. Others just rely on people off the street. But in general, property agencies are a booming trade. You’ll find at least one (scratch that — 15) in every neighborhood. They are usually glass offices plastered with posters advertising rooms or apartments for rent or for sale. Less reputable agents are known to charge “agency fees” even if you haven’t signed a deal yet. Most will be happy to take you around for free. If you do sign with them, they might take half the first month’s rent as commission.

Because space is a premium, landowners try to squeeze as much money as possible from every square foot. Hence the practice of subdividing flats, which can be a fire hazard. Just something to consider. These “subdivisions” were pretty much what I was shown when I was shopping around. Agents would respond to my e-mail inquiries, call me to schedule a viewing and then take me to the room in question.

A room I was shown in Causeway Bay. The size of the bed is an indication of how spacious the room was. I didn’t take it, though, because it was only available a week after I was gonna get kicked out of the hotel.
Another Causeway Bay room, which was in a good building at a prime location and whose best features included a private curtained toilet and the fact my roommates would be fashion ‘models’. However, this was shown to me by a Filipino agent, whose insistence that I make a decision within an hour put me off.

I was advised by a friend to ask what was included in the monthly rent in order to uncover hidden charges. They don’t usually tell you, for instance, that there is a required deposit of around HK$3,000 or a room key deposit of around H$K300. It’s always good to factor those into your budget. Basic amenities you can expect: bed (with linens), desk, closet, air-conditioner, WiFi, communal lounge, shared bathroom, dirty kitchen.

Melissa was pretty straightforward with me about costs, which is why I transacted with her. Plus the Mid-Levels cage I now I call home is conveniently located within Soho, Central, a hilly and rich neighborhood filled with cool bars and restaurants. It’s my express desire to affiliate with the alcoholics.

Up the escalator…
Down this quiet street…
And you get to my door.

One downside is that you can’t screen your flatmates. When I went to Melissa’s office to sign the one-month lease agreement (not a common practice, I hear, but it’s nice to have because the terms and penalties are clear), she told me a bit about my new roomies. It’s sketchy at best, but I looked in the communal fridge today and saw a few vodka and gin bottles, so I know I can get along with at least one of them.

Our ‘lounge’
Our kitchen — where the laundry machine is.

The hardships don’t end with the search. Moving in is a challenge for normal-sized people with huge suitcases. Mid-Levels is particularly hard to get to because it’s forbidding to taxis (they simply can’t bring you to your doorstep) and a lot of buildings, like mine, do not have elevators. This is why I ended up soaking my shirt by lugging my giant Samsonite up to my room. Also, getting home is an uphill climb. One of these days, I’m going to stumble backward and roll all the way to Hollywood Road.

But here I am, paying just HK$4,800 in monthly rent for an IKEA cave in one of the nicest parts of town, so I’m pretty happy. Better than sleeping on the streets.

My neighborhood.

Maybe a word of warning. There are scams on rental housing listings like Craigslist, where owners offer what seems to be a very nice apartment for cheap (say HK$5,000 for a two-bedroom). This is unheard of. Plus, they will send you an e-mail that tells you they’re abroad on some four-year job contract and can’t show you the apartment. So you just have to sign the lease and they’ll post the keys to you — but not before you pay. This may be a scam.

Also, a note on locations. I hear rents are far cheaper in Kowloon than Hong Kong Island. But there are deals to be had (affordable walk-ups with more space than a room the size of your high-school locker), such as in Tin Hau (plenty of my Brit colleagues live there) or Shek O. I had considered living in the New Territories, not knowing how far and alienating it was — but you’ll get used to it once you get the bus routes and ETAs down.

And if you feel bad about the deal you got, this might make you feel grateful for whatever parcel of land you have: one of our reporters, a Columbia J-school grad, gives a detailed account of life in a teeny-tiny subdivided flat here, and another article evocatively titled “Sweating in a cage in the dark” here. Also, an analysis of why rents are so high here.

P.S. I’ve moved.

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