Customers no longer bank on safe boxes
Shortage of locked repositories so severe that some must wait years to get one
The shortage of safety deposit boxes has become so acute that some banks have stopped taking new customers or put them on a waiting list that can last for years.
Safety deposit boxes in prime locations such as Central and Tsim Sha Tsui have been full for years, especially bigger ones.
One bank said it charged low rental for its safety deposit boxes because it considered them a "complementary service".
Due to the space safety deposit boxes take up, it would be commercially unwise for banks to provide the service, especially when rents are expensive in key commercial districts, bankers said.
"We no longer accept applications for the biggest boxes because the queue was too long," a staff member at China Citic Bank's Central branch said.
More than 100 people are on the waiting list.
"My understanding is that some banks have stopped providing safety deposit boxes at their Central branches, so quite a lot of the original customers there have flocked to us."
She said it was unlikely that customers who used the large boxes to store their property title deeds would want to give up their boxes, she said.
Many Hongkongers like to put their jewellery, gold and property deeds in safety deposit boxes especially because not everyone has space at home for their own safe.
The charges for safety deposit boxes range from HK$300 to about HK$12,000 a year, depending on the location and size, which vary from the size of a shoe box to that of a mini fridge.
Despite the shortage, retailers selling personal safes have not seen a rush on their products.
Standard Chartered provides about 20,000 safety boxes with an average waiting time of two to three years. The occupancy rate is 70 per cent, with most vacant boxes in less busy branches.
Hang Seng Bank said that even where it had vacant safe deposit boxes, not all sizes were immediately available. "There is a stronger demand for the larger ones," the bank said.
The Hong Kong Monetary Authority does not have official statistics on the number of safe deposit boxes in the city or the number of banks offering the service, nor does the Hong Kong Association of Banks.
"The HKMA always encourages banks to consider the public needs for banking services while operating on commercial principles," the authority said.