Inspector helps you spot the rot

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2007, 12:00am

Drainage pipes with fungi growing in them, pipes so encrusted that stalactites have formed within, and washbasins with no sealed bottom, finding any of these in your newly purchased home would be a nightmare.

Tsim Chai-nam, however, has seen them all, and many worse defects as well. Fortunately for him, he always spots them at other people's homes.

Mr Tsim is the first and most well-known apartment inspector in Hong Kong, or so he claims. He is certainly the most televised, having appeared regularly in Cable Television's property programmes telling people what to look out for in new properties.

Mr Tsim specialises in helping people inspect their apartments before moving in. He and his assistant check all areas of the property including wiring and pipes, doors and windows, walls and floors, electrical appliances - in short, everything there is that could have a fault. He then makes a list of the defects.

His company, Clerk of Works Services, opened in 2000.

'It turned out that 2000 was a good time to start,' he said. 'In 1997, people were too keen on property investment. They did not buy flats to live in, but to earn money. So they didn't care about the condition of the home, as long as it was saleable. In 2000, the property prices were no longer sky-high. People started to see that Hong Kong was still a very liveable place after its return to China. They wanted to buy flats for their own use.'

In those seven years, Mr Tsim said the busiest period was before Sars hit in 2003. During that time the company built up its reputation - Mr Tsim and his colleagues inspected 11 flats daily. After Sars, Mr Tsim said they barely had that number of flats to inspect per month. Mr Tsim had to take up a side job, teaching at the Vocational Training Council, to secure his income.

Now, business has picked up and Mr Tsim inspects about 70 homes a month, but he says he does not want to expand his business further. He likes to do every job himself so that it is done right. Also, hiring the right people to join the company is very difficult.

'We don't want to hire fresh graduates or inexperienced engineers. We want people who really know their stuff,' said Mr Tsim. 'We have received hundreds of applications but we found none of them were suitable for the job. But our company is not large enough to attract experienced people.'

Mr Tsim charges HK$1.20 to HK$3.80 per square foot to inspect a flat. The exact price depends on the location and the age of the building.

'We charge more for old buildings,' said Mr Tsim. 'Old buildings usually have more defects. And we have to have close contact with the drainage and the toilets, so you can imagine it is not a pleasant experience. I always feel like my life shortens when I do those jobs.'

The condition of most flats usually correlated with their age, but this was not always so, said Mr Tsim. He recalled going to inspect a flat that was only one year old. It was very bad. The drainage was clogged, there were holes in the walls and electrical appliances no longer worked. He said it became that way because the flat was rented out to bad tenants. The couple who lived there couldn't care less about the flat. On the other hand, there are also flats more than 30 years old without any major defects.

The most outrageous cases of 'bad flat syndrome', however, were flats from the government's Home Ownership Scheme, said Mr Tsim. The new flats already had loose concrete and the metal bars reinforcing the concrete were rusted.

'The government said they were exceptional cases,' said Mr Tsim. 'But we have gone to many such flawed flats.'

The windows are the most tricky thing to check. About one in 80 windows is dangerous and can fall out at any time. Many also leak when it is raining.

Unlike electrical wiring, there are no special instruments for checking windows. The inspector has to use his eyes and his skill. Even experienced inspectors have to concentrate during checking to detect the problems.

Mr Tsim claimed he never missed identifying leaking windows - except on two occasions.

The first time was because he was sick. The second was because the landlord was too pretty and he couldn't concentrate.

'You wouldn't believe it. She was stunning. I couldn't concentrate with her walking around. Unfortunately, or fortunately, she wasn't there when I went there to check the windows again. I was very disappointed,' said Mr Tsim.

When asked whether he had missed out that window on purpose just to see the landlord again, Mr Tsim gave a sly smile, but did not answer.