See-through walls but no transparency in show flats

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 December, 2009, 12:00am

Want to have an accurate idea of what the flat you're planning to buy will look like once it's completed? Then you may want to avoid the show flats developers use to promote their projects - unless you plan to divide your flat with glass partitions, install extra-shallow wardrobes or do away with the front door and encroach on public space outside.

These are some of the features at show flats of five major developers seen by the South China Morning Post. Visitors say they make the flats seem bigger than they are.

Developers say they are just trying to give would-be buyers an idea of what the flats might look like and to present design ideas without purporting to show the actual size and layout, which they say is accurately reflected on plans displayed at the show flats.

But Consumer Council chief executive Connie Lau Yin-hing said wall alterations, the use of smaller-than-normal furniture and bans on tape measures were inappropriate. 'Buyers don't go to show flats only to appreciate interior design. They expect to see how exactly big the actual flats and the rooms are. Show flats should not contain designs that give consumers a false expectation or a confusing picture on spaciousness.'

One common practice is to replace solid walls that are 10cm or so thick with glass partitions.

For example, in a 465 sq ft show flat for Henderson Land's 8 Royal Garden in Sheung Shui, in the northern New Territories, the master bedroom and study are separated by a glass wall less than 2.5cm thick.

'The glass partition is purely a suggestion for design because many buyers like to knock down the walls. It is not meant to mislead,' a spokesman for Henderson said. Other alterations were indicated by labels and buyers should refer to the sales brochure to see the actual wall alignment, he said.

In a show flat for Cheung Kong Holdings' Le Prime in Tseung Kwan O, a wall separating the master bedroom and a smaller one has been removed. Visitors were trying to trace the original layout when it dawned on them that restoring the wall would leave hardly any space between the foot of the bed and the wall facing it.

'The door could clash with the bed. The room's actually not that big,' said one woman.

One homeowner said it was only after seeing many show flats that he recognised all the 'tricks'.

'You can't say they break any rules, because there are disclaimers. But it's another matter whether you notice them or not,' he said.

He said small and shallow furniture was used as much as possible. 'Plasma TVs were used immediately they were on the market a few years ago. I've also seen a [1.65-metre-long] bed, and beds with their feet placed in the bay windows. All these make the room look bigger,' he said.

A bathroom in Le Prime features a ceiling at least 15cm higher than those in flats in the development. The actual ceiling height is marked with cardboard. A label warns that the area of the bathroom is also not standard. A Cheung Kong spokeswoman said the area of the show flat had been approved by the government and a floor plan at the entrance clearly showed the decoration scheme. Any differences between the show flat and the actual flats were clearly labelled, she said.

In a show flat for Sino Land's Lake Silver in Ma On Shan, a 'wall' between two bedrooms is even more creatively set up to give a sense of spaciousness. The wall is a bookshelf with every other row open. The developer said the show flats were designed to show visitors the interior decoration and that their dimensions tallied with the building plans.

Show flats, set up mostly in office towers or malls, must comply with the government's so-called consent scheme, meaning they must, 'wherever possible', reflect accurately the size and structural layout of actual flats. If they do not, the government has the right to withhold consent for a developer to sell flats.

The scheme does not prevent extensive variations from actual flats' appearance - accompanied by disclaimers to indicate the changes, such as this one from Le Prime: 'The design, layout, partition, specifications, fittings, finishes, materials, decoration and view of this show flat are the concept of designers only ... purchasers shall not take this flat as the standard of actual flat to be handed over.'

The Transport and Housing Bureau would not say whether it had found any developer in breach of the scheme. 'The bureau will continue to explore with the Real Estate Developers' Association (REDA) possible means to further enhance the set-up of the flats,' a spokesman said.

Since the consent scheme does not restrict the way developers furnish them, a 1,500 sq ft show flat for Sun Hung Kai Properties' Aria development on Kowloon Peak features a wardrobe barely 45cm deep. At Le Prime, there are no wardrobes at all - just racks - to save space.

Show flats at Aria, Lake Silver, Le Prime and New World Development's Emerald Green in Yuen Long have no front doors. If it wasn't for the line on the floor where the door should be, visitors could mistake the public area outside for part of the flat.

Similarly, balcony railings are missing from some show flats.

Would-be buyers wanting to measure the rooms to get an idea of whether their furniture will fit in - and how - are out of luck at Aria, Lake Silver and Le Prime. Managers of these projects' show flats said it was company policy not to allow the use of tape measures.

A Sun Hung Kai Properties spokesman said there was a to-scale floor plan at the entrance to each show flat, and visitors could obtain sales brochures containing floor plans with dimensions clearly marked. New World Development had a similar explanation for the missing or incomplete balcony railings at its show flats, as did Cheung Kong - which explained that using tape measures would 'affect others or cause chaos' because its show flat was very crowded. Sino Land said visitors could take measurements with prior notice, but they were encouraged to refer to the approved building plans in its sales office.

Lau, the Consumer Council chief, said the median size of Hong Kong homes was about 500 square feet, so a discrepancy of several centimetres could mean a lot to occupants.

The use of show flats is one of a number of sales practices by developers about which would-be homebuyers, and some people in the industry, have recently voiced concerns. The government is pushing efforts to make sales more transparent.

The council received a complaint this year from a man who found his 719 sq ft flat to be much smaller than he had imagined from seeing a show flat. The council has also received informal complaints about the use of beds shorter and smaller than normal to make rooms look bigger.

Lau said the government should work with REDA to revise the guidelines for show flats.

Dr Lawrence Poon Wing-cheung, of the Institute of Surveyors, said developers should provide one show flat without alteration apart from a designer room. 'Otherwise show flats only amount to artists' impressions, useless in providing accurate information to consumers.'

Shih Wing-ching, chairman of property agency Centaline Holdings, said developers should provide all the dimensions of every room in sales brochures. At present, some brochures only indicate the length of the whole flat and the dimensions of the larger rooms, leaving buyers to calculate the rest.