Wealth Blog

Lamma, haven of tranquility

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 March, 2013, 12:27pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 March, 2013, 12:29pm

There’s something entertaining about the FT running a piece extolling the virtues of living on Lamma Island. Under the headline “Where No Cars Go,” Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore waxes lyrical about the peace and tranquility to be found just 30 minutes ferry ride from Central.

She finds Lamma: “characterised by overgrown jungle and dramatic beaches”–well yes, the power station can look dramatic in certain lights, in a George Orwellian sort of way, its belching chimneys looming over Power Station Beach, as they do. Hong Kong Island is a “crowded urban mecca of shopping malls and skyscrapers,” she says.

By contrast, villages like those on Lamma offer “serene surroundings and outdoor living for cheaper prices.” She obviously visited on a day when someone silenced the dogs, the “VVs”-noisy, polluting, stinky village vehicles-were on strike and the tour groups were at the Big Buddha.

What made me chuckle most was the lumping together of Clear Water Bay, Sai Kung and Lamma under cheaper alternatives to Hong Kong island. The gentlefolk of Clear Water Bay and Sai Kung might not relish being tied in with all those teachers and left-behind hippies on Lamma. She doesn’t even mention Lantau or Cheung Chau. It’s funny how life seems through the prism of someone who’s just visiting.

She prices village houses between HK$6 and $50 million. I don’t know in what corner of the forgotten New Territories you can locate one for HK$6m and I’m not convinced too many change hands for HK$50m. On Lamma you’re talking about HK$8-$10m, same on Lantau. Sai Kung and Clear Water Bay of course are a different story and the main photo shows a tasteful four-bedroom souped-up village house with pool on the market for HK$78 million. Does anyone really pay that sort of crazy price for a village house, anywhere? Clear Water Bay price tags usually come in around HK$30m-plus.

Maybe she’s right. I was asked HK$29,000 per month rental for two floors, ground and middle, of a three-story Lamma village house this week. And it was not even 700 squire feet - it was 400 sq ft per floor.

But then, according to ECA International, Hong Kong is the most expensive location for high end rental property. But that’s Hong Kong Island. The FT piece says that as a result, a lot of people have been prices off Hong Kong Island and have thus headed for Sai Kung and Clear Water Bay and Lamma, according to Simon Smith of estate agents Savills. Interestingly he does not mention Discovery Bay, where that is indeed the case. These folks typically then go for a weekend hike and discover cheaper Mui Wo over the hill. Only to find the Cathay Pacific pilots have cashed out in Sai Kung and beaten them to south Lantau, but that’s another story. But then the last time I asked a Savills agent to list a south Lantau property, she asked me which part of Sai Kung was it? Seems Lantau hasn’t made it onto the Savills map yet.

The FT warns about living in Hong Kong’s rural nirvana. Locals, she says, afraid of being priced out, can be unwelcoming to newcomers. Er…no, they usually love expatriates, since they are the ones paying them huge sums for village houses. But yes, sometimes your tyres get let down and your car scratched because someone dislikes your choice of parking space. “Over development means these idyllic rural villages sometimes become over populated,” the FT cautions. You don’t say.

She acknowledges it’s not all village house heaven. Stringent government rules on the size and shape of village houses, combined with poor urban planning can lead to unprepossessing clusters of houses, she says. Some even have unauthorised structures that risk demolition. Banks are cautious in lending for village houses, she adds. Not in my experience. With the exception of HSBC, most banks are happy to lend on New Territories’ property, up to 60 per cent, more if it’s new and not a village house. I’ve found the issue is not their unwillingness to lend, but their reluctance to value village homes at market price.

But never mind all that. A village house can offer qualities prized, but rarely attained, in frenetic Hong Kong; “namely space and tranquility,” says the FT. Let me just ask the neighbours, the statutory one metre away, to silence their stereo. Now what was that word? Tranquillity?