Improvements with your own two hands

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 June, 2011, 12:00am


When retirees Richard and Eleanor Borley bought a bolt hole in Mui Wo, on Lantau Island, 18 months ago, they decided to take on much of the renovation work themselves. Having had two homes in Britain built from scratch, they were confident they could replicate the success with their 800 sq ft apartment in Hong Kong.

So rather than hire a designer, they worked out what they wanted and hired contractors to gut the flat. In the bathroom, which was completely redone, Borley took on the tiling, including the narrow strip of mosaics that line the shower stall and edge the floor. The couple - in their seventies - painted the flat and wobbled at the top of ladders to install coving around the ceiling of their living room, softening its boxy feel.

Eleanor Borley took on the lighter tasks, leaving her husband to tackle the harder jobs. 'If anything needs doing he is quite handy,' she says, adding that once the workmen were gone, Borley did all the touch-up work.

After staying with a friend at Cheung Sha for six weeks, and commuting to work at their own flat, they had the place they wanted. 'I could spend the time on it, and I knew the way I wanted it done,' Richard Borley says. 'I have always believed anyone can do work as well as a professional, but it will take them much longer to reach the same result.'

But the couple know their example is unusual in Hong Kong. DIY took off in the 1970s in Europe, Australia and the United States, where such television shows as Bob Vila's This Old House series popularised the idea of renovating affordable but run-down properties. It gained traction through the 1990s and 2000s, with a boom in chain stores such as B&Q in Britain, Home Depot and Lowe's in the US, and Bunnings Warehouse in Australia.

DIY is all but ignored in Hong Kong, however. People here seem willing to do a little light assembly on flat-pack furniture from Ikea, which has proved wildly successful in the city, but aren't normally willing to take on more serious home improvement projects on their own. Perhaps Hongkongers are spoiled by the ready availability and relative affordability of local contractors.

In 2007, B&Q opened a 120,000 sq ft store in Kowloon Bay, its first foray into the city. The flagship store, which took up two floors of MegaBox shopping mall, carried 25,000 product lines. At the time, Paul Day, the B&Q manager who helped set up the store, championed it as a 'unique one-stop shopping experience for household items and building materials under one roof'.

Hong Kong was clearly not ready. Faced with poor performance, B&Q's parent, Kingfisher, closed the store two years later, one of 22 stores in China that shut down that year. It has since been replaced by another Ikea.

Still, between the three Ikea stores in Hong Kong and the clusters of home-improvement outlets on Lockhart Road in Wan Chai and in Mong Kok, Hongkongers can pick up almost any kit they need.

'The products are available here,' says Paul Cowling, a contractor who builds and renovates village houses in the New Territories. 'There's all sorts of stuff you can do on your own.'

Cecilie Gamst Berg feels most Hongkongers lack the confidence to take on DIY tasks. 'We have been infantilised,' she says. 'Maybe people here think physical labour is demeaning - it's for workers, not for us. Here we have a class system where workers work and we go to the office.'

Gamst Berg was responsible for most of the renovations to her home in Pui O, also on Lantau, which rambles over three floors and a roof garden. One of her first tasks was installing a wooden floor, the materials for which came from Ikea.

'There was a picture of a woman on the packet, so I thought I could do that,' she says. 'I just got an electric saw and went ahead. That was really good fun.'

She painted the walls herself, and put up bookshelves throughout the house, which had 'nothing, but an old kitchen' when she moved in nine years ago. Along with most of the woodwork inside, and building a bamboo and mesh cover under which to grow plants in the garden, she has also removed a banister by the interior staircase and affixed mosaic tiles to the steps, a job she says was 'harder to do than people think'.

She hired workers to install a steel awning on the roof so she can dry clothes year-round. She also paid workers to handle electrical work and retile the roof, saying she did so only because she did not have the time or was afraid of making mistakes.

The quality of work, however, has caused her grief. 'I have had to have so many things done twice,' she says. A newly installed pipe on the roof had to be replaced because it wasn't the right size for drainage, for instance, and workers broke some of the shelves she had put in.

Gamst Berg grew up watching her father renovate houses in her native Norway and build most things in them with his own hands. She would help out where she could, she says, which had given her the confidence to tackle most tasks now.

Borley, who took early retirement in 1988, grew up in post-war Britain and also learned from his father. He has noted a decline in the handiwork people are willing to take on both in Britain and in Hong Kong.

'After 1945 people were extremely practical, often by force of necessity,' he says. 'But as time goes on these skills seem to be being lost. Or the children are making more money so they don't mind hiring someone to do it for them.'

The Borleys, who live part of the year in England, wanted a home base in Hong Kong for their frequent travels in Asia. They fell in love with their apartment because of its sea views and proximity to the ferry pier.

To have exactly what they wanted, however, they employed builders to demolish most of the walls to make bigger rooms. Like Gamst Berg, they had a kitchen fitted by Ikea. The Swedish chain was also the source of a large closet that was sawed down to fit in their bedroom. The wood flooring was put in by workers to save time. But the couple took on the decorative work themselves.

DIY is as much a labour of love as a way of saving money. But tackling simple renovations can reduce costs considerably. The Borleys kept to their fairly tight budget of HK$250,000. 'Obviously, I wasn't charging for my time,' Borley says with a chuckle. 'On the other hand, we were holding the contractor to prices we had settled beforehand. We knew what we were going to pay for and what we were going to get for it.'

Having invited their agent to inspect their handiwork, they estimate the value of their property, bought for HK$2.9 million, has increased 55 per cent in the subsequent 18 months.

Gamst Berg, who teaches Cantonese with her Happy Jellyfish People's Democratic Language Bureau, also carried out her renovations on a relative shoestring. When she moved in as a tenant, in 2002, she spent HK$60,000, mostly on installing a new floor. Tinkering away over the years, she figures she has spent another HK$100,000 on upkeep and other additions. But that amounts to tens of thousands of dollars in savings by doing the work herself.

She loves her home - which she intends to buy - and all the more because she has made it her own.

'I do it myself not to save money but because it's extremely satisfying to know that I have done it myself,' she says.