As Hongkongers feel the effects of job losses and salary cuts across the city, spare a thought for landlords, many of whom have weathered previous market downturns and know a disaster coming when they see one. As a newly untenanted landlord myself, the unease has been palpable. After my tenant left last November, I only had to look at the slashed numbers in the windows of property agents to understand the increasingly bold behaviour of some prospective tenants, who are demanding everything from rent holidays of several months to penalty-free contract breaking clauses. According to Alex Leung of Island Property Consultancy, it's not unusual for unrenovated flats like mine to remain vacant for long periods even in a normal market. In a tenant's market, where desperate landlords are constantly slashing rents, the only other way to compete is to upgrade your property substantially. With weeks going by without anything resembling a decent offer, I felt I had no choice but to find a contractor to make things happen. Major renovations to rental properties are normally only worthwhile if improvements can be made for a minimum outlay and if they make a meaningful difference to the rent you can request. But in a stagnant market, a good renovation will rent a property much more quickly and position it for better returns in good times. Structural changes, however, are rarely worthwhile from a letting point of view, although - as in the case of my small two-bedroom flat - there are exceptions. 'Usually, more rooms in a property mean you can ask for more rent, but in the past couple of years there has been a much higher demand for large one-bedrooms over similar sized apartments with two or more bedrooms,' says Leung. 'It's just a feature of that market.' American-style 'home stagers', such as Californian real-estate stylist Anne Maurice of the British television programme House Doctor, have their Hong Kong counterparts, who decorate and furnish mostly high-end homes before putting them up for sale. But many of their practices can be boiled down to a few nuggets of common sense for presenting properties as attractively as possible to the targeted tenant market. 'To attract tenants, we always advise a fresh coat of paint and a few simple furnishings in neutral colours,' says Leung. 'A completely bare apartment is not very welcoming and potential tenants have an easier time visualising how their own things will fit if there's already a sofa or table of similar size in the room. But in terms of rent, it's definitely not worth doing more than that unless you are talking about the very premium properties, where things like top brands matter,' he says. 'Landlords who are waiting for the market to pick up before selling their property are in a different position and might spend a bit more on their renovation if they think they will make a big profit out of it. In the meantime they can earn higher rents too,' says Leung. 'Having said that, unless the renovation is a top-notch designer one, there's still a perception that an unrenovated property offers buyers more value.' Sylvia Lam has been investing in rental properties since 2005 and owns eight properties ranging from a 600 sq ft flat in Sha Tin to a stand-alone Sai Kung house with a garden and swimming pool. When renovating rental properties, Lam keeps to a simple formula. As well as ensuring her properties are 'calmly decorated', clean and in good repair, Lam provides plenty of fitted storage, good lighting and basic kitchen appliances. 'And that's all. I don't want to buy too many things to begin with,' she says. 'If tenants are moving from another place in Hong Kong, they will probably bring all their furniture with them and anything I bought would be a waste. I wait to see what they need and usually I'm happy to provide it.' That flexible approach seems to work for Lam, who has never experienced major gaps between tenants. 'There are quite a few things that contribute to the feel of a property, but when a potential tenant walks in they pick up on it within seconds,' says Leung. 'Natural materials seem to be very popular, maybe because they look more expensive. And nice kitchens and bathrooms also make it much easier to rent out a property.' Bruce Harwood, director of Palladio Kitchen, which specialises in creating bespoke designs for high-end kitchens, will next week launch Nova Kitchen, a brand of kitchen cabinets, accessories and appliances specifically aimed at the rental property market. 'We found that the landlords who own mid-value rental apartments of 500 sq ft to 1,000 sq ft have the greatest difficulty in this depressed market,' says Harwood. 'Compared to a full renovation, it's relatively quick and easy to remove an old kitchen and install a new one, but the impact can be just as great. 'The range is very limited, as we order from our suppliers in quantity and pass on the savings to our clients and we also control costs by making cabinets in our own factory,' says Harwood. 'This can bring down the cost of a replacement kitchen to the order of HK$30,000 to HK$50,000, including appliances. Similar kitchens can cost up to HK$100,000,' he says. Relocation veteran Kathie Allderige doesn't necessarily expect the flashiest kitchens and bathrooms when viewing prospective new homes. 'Of course, they'd be a nice bonus but I'm more interested in the place being clean, safe and modern - by which I mean decorated neutrally. That means no wallpaper, no gaudy chandeliers and definitely no funky etched mirrors,' she says. 'The level of light is important too. We turned down one very nice apartment because it had dark tinted windows that made the inside feel quite gloomy. I also always look at the floors. My personal preference is for wooden floors but in Hong Kong I've seen so many old uneven ones with splinters or big cracks that you can trip over. If you have a small baby, as we did, safety is a big issue. But my priority when viewing a property is to see how clean it is. It has to be spotless,' she says. Flat hunter Anne-Corinne Barbier decided against an otherwise attractive two-bedroom apartment in SoHo with a pretty terrace for the same reason. 'It was beautifully decorated and the location was excellent, but there were also a few dead cockroaches lying around the place and straight away I thought no,' she says. 'Of course I know you get them everywhere, but it made me feel the place was dirty and then I just couldn't imagine myself living there.' Although creating a more efficient layout or a lighter ambience are accepted fundamentals of upgrading, imagining a home environment for tenants is often considered irrelevant, on the grounds that everyone has different tastes. But in a highly competitive market, that extra touch can make all the difference to a tenant who has viewed 30 similar apartments. After converting my two-bedroom flat into a large studio with a centrepiece kitchen and new light-trapping windows, I lost no time in giving it the home-staging treatment. Joining the top quality sofa-bed, extendable table and dining chairs, 42-inch television and a bed dressed in fresh crisp linen were two designer lamps and an antique rug taken from my own home. I stopped short of planting lavender window boxes and baking bread during the viewings but, one week on, I'm happy to report that a very nice tenant has signed the lease, albeit at a discount of 32 per cent off the asking price.