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Local agents have long joked that Hong Kong’s ultimate status symbol is a lawnmower, and with the cost of living in the city rising ever higher, expats are growing more adventurous in their quest for green space.
Historically, families wanting to break out of frenetic Central on Hong Kong Island looked to houses along the island’s southern coast, where Repulse Bay and Stanley became a boardwalk empire of affluent expats. With prices now ranging from HK$30,000 ($3,869) to HK$60,000 per sq ft, houses there have become unaffordable to all but the most wealthy. An increasing number of enterprising buyers — both foreigners and locals — have set off for Hong Kong’s outlying islands, which are served by an excellent network of commuter ferries.
These buyers can crudely be divided into two camps. Many look to the high-end, high-priced enclaves of Discovery Bay on Lantau Island, west of Hong Kong Island, and Clear Water Bay to the east. Others opt for the islands of Lamma, Peng Chau, and the less developed southern coast of Lantau, whose quaint fishing villages are now increasingly popular with young families.
Lamma Island is one of the better known of these locations. Many of the early expat arrivals were in the tune-in-and-drop-out generation and the island retains much of that charm. Among the restaurants and bars of Yung Shue Wan village, which borders the ferry port, one can spot a good number of hippy beards. But most newcomers (a third of Lamma’s 6,000 population are expats) are young families arriving from Hong Kong Island, seeking affordable space.
The islands are also a magnet for the self-employed, who commute only occasionally to Hong Kong for meetings, or those in sectors such as IT who typically work more forgiving hours than Hong Kong’s busy bankers.
“After four years of the cocktail circuit on Hong Kong, when the kids came along, we were looking for more space and some greenery,” says Leigh Powell, a magazine editor who arrived on Lamma in 2006. The ban on cars makes the island especially child-friendly and, for parents, the pace of life contrasts starkly with Central.
“You find yourself walking more slowly when you get off the boat than when you get on it,” says Powell.
Throughout the New Territories — the region that contains Hong Kong’s outlying islands and the rural areas either side of Kowloon to Hong Kong’s north — so-called “village houses” have become increasingly sought after. Unlike the plusher architect-designed town houses that populate Hong Kong Island, and are becoming an increasingly familiar sight in the high-end districts of Clear Water Bay and Discovery Bay, village houses were typically built by local inhabitants. Expats were first drawn to them for their gardens, says Peter Tang of estate agent Century 21. These typically measure between 1,000 and 1,200 sq ft, often double the size of those that come with town houses. Many of these properties also have roof terraces, providing additional outdoor space.
Local agent Habitat Property has a village house for sale 15 minutes’ walk from the ferry port on Lamma for HK$9.6m ($1.24m). Where houses have been converted to flats, a floor goes for a third to a half of this price; Ocean Link, another local firm, is selling one such property, measuring 630 sq ft, in Yung Shue Wan for HK$4.8m.
On Lamma the ferries are relatively infrequent and the last service from Central leaves at 12.30am; after that you will have to barter for a ride on a fishing boat. However, the service from Discovery Bay on Lantau runs every 15 minutes at peak times, and throughout the night (as on Lamma the journey time to Central is 25 minutes).
For Hong Kong’s bankers priced out of Stanley and Repulse Bay, Discovery Bay — which includes a plush marina and golf course — has become a favourite spot. The area was once a popular choice for pilots and flight attendants working at the adjacent airport, a 10-minute shuttle ride away. However, all but the highest-earning have now been priced out. Even one of the community’s sought-after 498 golf buggies (their number is capped to keep traffic down), now sells for north of HK$1m.
The area has a particular appeal for retirees but this is also Hong Kong’s “Nappy Valley”, where wealthy families come to seek better facilities and more space in which to bring up their children. Here, pram-pushing mums rub shoulders with local celebrities drawn by the glitz of Lantau’s beaches.
Schooling is excellent, with several international primary and secondary schools, run by the English Schools Foundation (ESF), Hong Kong’s largest provider of English-style schooling, with capacity for 1,500 students. Education remains a big draw for mainland Chinese buyers, although a 15 per cent sales tax on non-Hong Kong residents introduced two years ago has damped this market.
Savills is selling a number of units in the Siena Two development in Discovery Bay for up to HK$23m, while local agent Okay.com has a new, 1,889 sq ft, three-bedroom house with a garden on Headland Drive in Discovery Bay for HK$36m. Nearby, with less of a view, Century 21 is offering a three-bedroom duplex with a small garden for HK$16m.
Around the corner, beyond the rarefied country-club atmosphere, is Mui Wo, a bay connected by a less frequent and less speedy ferry to Central. If there is any such thing as a bargain left in Hong Kong, this is the sort of place you will find it. According to Simon Smith, of Savills’ Hong Kong office, old houses “needing a spruce-up” in one of the villages occasionally come on to the market for HK$10m to HK$12m.
The area from Mui Wo stretching west along Lantau’s south coast is now attracting the adventurous among Hong Kong’s middle management. It retains a flavour of “the old Hong Kong”, according to Smith — quieter beaches and country parks with wandering buffalo, and is now more accessible thanks to better roads connecting Lantau’s northern and southern shores. There is also the famous 34-metre-high bronze, Tian Tan Buddha, that looks out from one of Lantau’s peaks.
Across the water to the east of Hong Kong Island, the strip of coast from Clear Water Bay to Sai Kung offers something of a compromise. While there is no ferry, there is a road connection that gets commuters into Central in 30 minutes, although buyers must then budget a further HK$7,000 per month for a parking spot by the office. Clear Water Bay is well served with kindergarten and primary schools and a nearby ESF school. To the north, Sai Kung is a shade cheaper but more densely populated. Here, Habitat property is selling The Giverney, a townhouse with a garage, pool and two levels of outside entertaining space, for HK$38m
Price gains here have been fuelled especially by the recent rush for investment properties from local Hong Kong Chinese who, with low bank savings rates, are looking for somewhere else to park their money. Values have doubled over the past five years, according to Peter Tang, allowing a number of expats to cash in and make big gains lately. But modest local houses typically go for HK$20m to HK$25m, he adds, leaving a little change for that lawnmower.
● Stamp duty of 7.5 per cent is charged for properties between HK$6m ($773,923) and HK$20m ($2.58m), rising to 8.5 per cent above that. Estate agents charge buyers and sellers 1 per cent commission
● Check the ferry timetables or be prepared for a late-night haggle with a fishing boat owner — only those to Discovery Bay run all night. In typhoon season, ferries don’t sail when winds get to Force 8
● The English Schools Foundation is Hong Kong’s largest provider of English-style international education programmes. It runs five secondary schools, nine primary schools and a school for students with special educational needs
What you can buy for . . .
$750,000 A 630 sq ft, one/two-bedroom flat in a “village house” on Lamma Island, a 25-minute ferry ride from Central
$1.5m A 2,000 sq ft, three-bedroom house on Mui Wo, Lantau Island, 35 minutes by ferry from Central
$7.5m A 2,500 sq ft, four-bedroom house with garden and sea view in Discovery Bay, a 25-minute ferry ride from Central
Photographs: Marksman/Getty; Getty; Getty/Flickr RF; Maurizio Rellini/4Corners Images; Ian Trower/Getty Images/Robert Harding; Jon Binalay/Getty Images