'How big is your flat?' It's one of the most common questions Hongkongers ask each other. It's a simple enough question, but the answer is complicated - and confusing.
Most people reply by stating the gross floor area (GFA) of their apartment. This reply, however, is far from exact. According to surveyors, the GFA means the flat's total floor area - a figure that encompasses the apartment itself, but also takes in all the common facilities in the property. This common floor area is then divided by the number of flats, to give the extra space supposedly allocated for each apartment. Since there is no clear or universal definition of GFA among developers, surveyors and architects, property firms can use the term liberally to include different facilities in a project. This figure offers what many consider an inflated idea of a flat's size.
A better way to learn a flat's actual size is by its saleable area. This includes the size of the interior and the internal and external walls. The definition of saleable area is binding and, under the law, new properties' sales brochures have to include the GFA and saleable area. But developers, agents and buyers still prefer to use GFA as the price per square foot would otherwise be higher.
A close look at the GFA and saleable area at 15 large-scale residential projects in the past three decades, shows that flats in Hong Kong are getting smaller.
An apartment in Taikoo Shing or Telford Garden, built in the 1980s, has a so-called utilisation rate - the ratio between GFA and saleable area - of about 85 per cent. The figure dropped to about 80 per cent in the 1990s, and, in recent years, has stood at about 75 per cent. In other words, a 600 sq ft flat in GFA, built in the '80s, will have a saleable area of 510 sq ft. But a new flat of the same size will have a saleable area of just 450 sq ft. The difference of 60 sq ft, based on a value of $5,000 per sq ft, means the buyer unknowingly lost $300,000 worth of space.
So why are flats getting smaller? A key factor is the proliferation of luxury clubhouses with swimming pools, fitness centres and saunas.
'For a residential project with 250 units and a 10,000 sq ft clubhouse, this means 40 sq ft in GFA for every unit,' said Yu Kam-hung, a vice-president of the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors (HKIS). 'This will take up about 7 per cent of a flat with a 600 sq ft GFA.'
But Mr Yu said the real problem was that developers were getting more aggressive on the definition of gross floor area. 'There is no universal definition of GFA and developers are not obliged to disclose what is included in the gross floor area,' he said. 'The conventional way of saying how much a unit costs usually refers to gross floor area, which makes the cost per square foot of a flat cheaper. This is a loophole.'
Mr Yu said developers in recent years listed many facilities in a project's GFA to make the apartments seem bigger.
Many facilities, such as a machine room housing air-conditioning, are sometimes included as part of the GFA. Also, the so-called green features, such as a large mailing room, sky garden and lobby, which are granted free of land premium by the Buildings Department, are included in the GFA figure.
'The HKIS is conducting a review of the definition of saleable area on the basis of the green features,' Mr Yu said. Bay windows and balconies were an area of some confusion when calculating saleable area, he said.
So why don't we just use saleable area to describe the size of a flat? Sze Wing-ching, chairman of Centaline Property Agency, agreed that using saleable area would be more reasonable for buyers.
'But this practice will be hard to change,' he said. 'The price per square foot will be very high if you adopt saleable area. A flat now selling at $4,000 per square foot in GFA will then be sold at $5,500 by using saleable area.
'This will scare buyers off and no developer will take the lead. I think people who want to know [about the actual size of a flat] will know it anyway.'
However, even the saleable area may not be the actual floor size.
'Walls will take up a lot of space,' Mr Yu said. 'A 1,000 sq ft flat in a rectangular shape will have an exterior wall 130 feet long and six inches thick; that's already 65 sq ft. Together with internal walls, the walls will make up 100 sq ft.'
Bay windows, a common feature today, are often included by developers in their calculations of the saleable area, even though they are not part of the floor area. Bay windows are also getting larger, sometimes adding up to 40 sq ft to a two-bedroom apartment.
So, the real utilisation rate of a 600 sq ft flat in GFA would sometimes be just over 60 per cent, after deducting the space for walls and bay windows.
'It is hard for people to tell the actual floor area,' Mr Yu said. 'I guess only professionals will know how to make the calculations.'
The government was fully aware of the situation when it drafted a white bill in 2000 to propose regulating the sale of unfinished properties. But the Sales Description of Uncompleted Residential Properties Bill was dropped after strong opposition from developers, who said self-discipline was more effective. So it remains difficult for prospective buyers to protect their own interests.
Consumer Council chief executive Pamela Chan Wong-shui said that most sales brochures now clearly stated the properties' GFA, the saleable area, as well as the size of balcony and utility platforms.
'I strongly recommend consumers read the sales brochure carefully before making any decision,' she said. 'Buyers can use the balcony but they can't sleep there. So they must think clearly before they purchase. They should understand that these facilities will reduce the size of usable area.'
Ms Chan said consumers should not just look at the GFA figure. 'Consumers should be more concerned about the saleable area. I think people know the selling price is based on GFA. We have advocated the use of saleable area and also asked whether the use of the internal floor area is appropriate. But developers said it was technically difficult. I agree it is troublesome for consumers as they have to calculate the actual floor size by themselves,' she said.
Ms Chan said the council would maintain a dialogue with developers and the government on the issue. She said, however, that buyers' attitudes might play some part in the confusion over size.
'When you buy clothes, you try them on,' Ms Chan said. 'Many people buying property are not that prudent.'
Additional reporting by Chloe Lai