British expat David Crane has called Hong Kong home for over 20 years now. He and his wife Sally bought a village house in Clearwater Bay six years ago, which they set about renovating. David, who has had a lengthy career in the property industry, details how they designed their home, and shares his thoughts on buying property in Hong Kong.
You’re an expert when it comes to managing and renovating property. Tell us something we don’t know!
When a house feels hot, it’s usually due to humidity, not temperature. If your air-conditioning unit allows it, switch to a dehumidify setting during the day, and buy additional dehumidifying units. Moisture is produced by people breathing, so there’s less humidity in an unoccupied house, but in rural areas like Clearwater Bay or Sai Kung, both empty and occupied houses need quite a bit of maintenance. Spores, algae and bugs from the forest are rife, and everything grows incredibly quickly. You need to repaint a house every two to three years, as even anti-fungal paint can’t combat our extreme climate!
Also, consider the climate when specifying materials, especially outdoors. Decking is in the sun all the time, so use a very hard wood to counter warping. Teak works well, but it needs to be oiled every three months during the summer, requiring considerable work and attention. There’s a lot of imitation woods now that are very good quality, made of plastics or ground up bits of timber. They’re easy to lay and look after, and there’s no thermal expansion in the sun. The only issue is they don’t feel quite as nice on your feet.
A lot of angst for expatriates renovating houses arises from communication issues with contractors. Our own architect understood what we wanted, but he wasn’t on site most of the time, and problems arose from getting contractors here to understand we were building to European design specifications and standards; your design brief needs to be very tight. I only use European contractors, electricians and plumbers; they’re a little more expensive than the local guys, but you save in the long run, because you get very good quality work – and exactly what you want!
Property is so expensive in Hong Kong – if you can afford to buy here, is it still a good investment?
Hong Kong is one of the most expensive markets in the world and it’s driven, like any market, by supply and demand. There’s still not enough supply, and too much demand, which means prices continue to rise. Government measures to slow this down and discourage foreigners from buying have reduced the number of transactions, but prices haven’t necessarily gone down. The government is selling land to developers at a high price and for developers to make their margin, they have to sell at a certain price, which keeps prices high. Is Hong Kong a good place to buy? The short answer is yes: if you buy in an expensive market and it keeps going up, you’re going to make a lot more money!
My clients are generally expatriates who were owner-occupiers and have returned to their country, or overseas investors that have bought property in Clearwater Bay. They’re British, Germans, Japanese, Australians, from the Middle East – a whole mix. If you have rental income from a Hong Kong property and you live elsewhere, the differential in the cost of living means you can have quite a nice lifestyle, because rents are so high in Hong Kong!
The other reason for buying or renting in Clearwater Bay is lifestyle, of course. It’s good value for money relative to the island, and it offers greenery, space and proximity to a beautiful national park. It’s a quiet part of Hong Kong because there’s only one road in and out, no restaurants – just a few noodle shops – and only one supermarket. Commercial structures are forbidden as it’s all conservation, country park or village land.
Otherwise, development is strictly controlled – village houses and villas aren’t allowed to be more than three stories high – so there’s a lovely rural feel to it. But it’s still possible to be in Central in under 40 minutes.
Traditional village houses have all sorts of restrictions in terms of space and overall footprint, so how did you go about making your own place feel individual?
We’ve played around quite a bit with the interior of the house, and the way the spaces function and flow. The ground floor is an entertainment zone, with the focus on a sleek, open-plan kitchen and built-in dining area. We took the idea of a Chinese style round table and gave it a contemporary twist by making it square. There’s comfortable seating downstairs, but once we’ve eaten dinner we all head upstairs to the lounge, where the TV and the built-in office is. It was a good move not having a TV downstairs: it means you actually talk to people!
Upstairs we opened up the entire third floor to make a luxurious master bedroom and bathroom suite, with a double walk-in shower. It’s completely open plan to maximise space, but we delineated spaces by using different floor coverings – the bedroom is European oak, for example, but the bathroom is teak, to echo the decking outside. I wanted texture and grip in the shower so we used a nubby black granite tile, but if I was doing it again I’d go for an even rougher texture, like an outdoor stone. We also created a separate room for the WC – I really dislike it when architects design beautiful bathrooms, and then stick a toilet in the middle – a toilet is not a feature! There was enough space to put in a sizeable walk-in wardrobe too. (My wife has a full-time job and a wardrobe to match!)
Otherwise it’s all about clever design details. When we put in the pool, we wanted a very uneven look to it, as if it were natural. The design was based on the pool at the Shangri-La in Boracay; I tried to source exactly the same stone, but couldn’t track it down in the end. But we found a very similar one in Indonesia; it’s called Bali Green Stone and when the light plays on it, it feels just like a tropical pool. There’s a mixture of palms, hibiscus flowers and bougainvillea surrounding it, and we built a shelf just beneath the water at the deep end. It’s my favourite place in the house. Having a cup of coffee in the morning and sitting on that bench is just about as good as it gets. There’s warmth from the sun, but you’re cool because you’re in the water.
Has Asian design influenced the way you’ve decorated the house?
The pool is Balinese-inspired and the garden is tropical, but the rest of the house is actually very European. When we moved in, we already owned a much-loved contemporary Italian leather sofa, and we used it to define the colour palette and overall feel of the house –sometimes you need a feature piece! It’s probably the most expensive piece of furniture we’ve ever bought, but it needs to be recovered, because Sidney the golden retriever uses it as his personal bed. When you come downstairs in the morning, he tries to guiltily leap off before you see him.
We decided against painting the house a standard white, because we didn’t want to live in a clinical box. Instead, we chose matt, light shades of grey, beige and pink from Farrow & Ball; the colours make the living areas feel more intimate. We’ve been here six years now and during that time our tastes have changed, so we’re thinking about re-painting; but we’ll use different colours and a different paint manufacturer next time. You never really “finish” a house, because you’re always looking at it and thinking, “Do we need to change the wooden doors to something more contemporary? Or re-varnish all the floors, or upgrade certain pieces of furniture?” The outdoor seating is Dedon wickerwork, for example, but it’s definitely time for an upgrade; textures and materials of outdoor furniture have moved on so much.
Otherwise, the kitchen units and the marble in the bathrooms is Italian, while the fixtures and fittings are all German, from Hansgrohe. The electric blinds throughout the house are also German, and the outdoor kitchen is Australian – no one does better barbecues! Inside we have Kartell Bougie lamps, a host of candles from Tom Dixon, and the artwork is from all over the world. Our favourite piece is Bookshelves by Phil Shaw that we bought from the Affordable Art Fair last year.
You’re a homeowner and a business-owner; are you here in Asia to stay?
You’ve got to be working to live here; to have a pension that would allow you to live in the most expensive place in the world would be difficult, I think! We always thought the cut-off point would be when our son went to university – he’s 13 now. We assumed we’d go back to the UK, but he’s talking about studying in New Zealand, so we could easily be here for another 10 to 15 years. There’s a loose plan, but life gets in the way. We love Hong Kong, our every-changing house, and our idyllic rural lifestyle. It’s not a hardship to stay!
Lardos Steak House Hall IV, 4B, G/F Hang Hau Village, Tseung Kwan O 2719 8168
The China Club 13/F, The Old Bank of China, Bank Street, Central 2521 8888
TC Deli 10-12B, G/F, Hang Hau Village, Tseung Kwan O 2358 2332
Ali Oli Bakery G/F, 11 Sha Tsui Path, Sai Kung 2792 2655
Shun Kee City Hardware 66 Yi Chun Street, Sai Kung 2792 9850
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This article first appeared in the August/September 2018 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue