Beware of pitfalls when buying a village house

Aside from having lots of space, living in a village house has other priceless advantages such as scenic views and a quiet, crowd-free environment. However, whether it is a detached or semi-detached home, potential buyers should keep a keen eye on the problems often attached to owning one.

Found mainly in the New Territories, with Sai Kung and Clearwater Bay boasting some of the most expensive properties, village homes can range from HK$1.5 million to HK$30 million or more. By law, the house area is limited to 700 sqft per floor, with a maximum height of three storeys. There is, however, no limit to the size of the open ground surrounding it.

But whether the extra patch of land is a swimming pool, garden or tennis court, it is best to ensure that there are no illegal structures or unauthorised building works in the area, as these can pose serious legal and financial problems.

Angela Tam and her husband bought a 700 sqft house in Tai Po four years ago, but problems ensued after signing the transfer of ownership. The property agent said that the 1,300 sqft garden attached to the house was rightfully theirs, but it turned out that part of the garden was not in the deed.

'The other landowner told us that our garden wall is not built properly and in fact we are using part of his land,' Tam says. 'He asked us to demolish the garden wall and build a new one, but demolition and renovation cost a lot. After negotiating with him a few times, he agreed to rent out to us the area that belongs to him.'

According to Tam, it's common for village people to own any patch of land in the New Territories, and what may seem to be an open parking space can in fact be blocked by the rightful owner at any time.

'It turns out that he also owns the flat land in front of our house,' she says. 'At first we thought we could use it to park our car, but he forbade us to do so. He wouldn't even let our car pass.'

Although Tam refuses to disclose the exact amount she has to pay for the parking space and garden area, she says that they have to pay the landowner 'a few hundred per month' in order to keep using the space.

By law, the only access guaranteed to a village house is a one-foot buffer outside the 700 sqft property. Areas beyond it can definitely be blocked or built upon, blocking one's view of the sea or the hillside.

Despite the pitfalls, Tam says nothing beats living in a village house. Paying about HK$1.5 million for a property is reasonable because the house is structured without lots of compromises.

'In regular apartments, you cannot fully utilise the space because there are odd nooks, corners, pillars or air-con unit holes,' she says. 'In here, we can efficiently use every space, plus we can keep our dogs, the air quality is so much better and it's a lot quieter.'

Two years ago, C.K. Wong decided to buy his own village house in Sai Kung after renting for more than 20 years. 'The price is not a steal but it is reasonable ... and I'd rather be woken up by birds chirping and dogs barking than by the roars of bus engines in the city.'

Although he has taken preventative measures to avoid the pitfalls of buying a property, he recounts some of the problems his friends went through, particularly in the newly developed village houses.

'Right after one friend moved in, she found out that her driveway access had been blocked by the owner, who has since then demanded a fee of about HK$500 per month,' he says. 'Another person had trouble with her electricity bill. She found out that the fancy street lamps in her area were metered to the nearest house, which turned out to be hers. At the end of the month, she was shocked to see her bill went up to a few thousand.'

He advises being extra careful when on the lookout for a property. 'Find out about your neighbourhood, get a feel of the place and always go back at least three times before signing the deal - early in the morning, noon, evening and even on weekends. Look around and check if there are crazy neighbours.'

It is most important, Wong says, to go through reputable agents because they can tell right away if there's something wrong with the house. 'Also, a good property lawyer can help you find [problems] when signing the documents, such as if the deed of ownership is ambiguous or there's a page or two missing, or there's a clause that seems problematic.'

According to John Ng, of Sai Kung-based Sunshine Property Consultant, there are four things to look into to avoid pitfalls altogether. 'Get a reliable agent, define a budget, define your criteria with the agent and focus on preferred locations.'