Architecture and Design

Hou fong bin! Website takes pain out of Hong Kong contractor quotations for expats who don't speak Chinese

Originally established in Singapore, a website that connects householders with contractors online has expanded to Hong Kong, much to the relief of expats

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 September, 2015, 12:46am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 September, 2015, 5:23pm

Hong Kong has no shortage of contractors offering services in all sorts of trades. But how to find a good one - especially if you do not speak Cantonese?

You can ask friends or check with industry bodies, but as many lament on various expatriate advice forums, what would be a simple search in their country baffles them in their adopted home.

Andrew Esmonde-White empathises. The self-described "jack of all trades" from South Africa had himself struggled to find reliable tradesmen to do work around the house, so he founded a company, Kluje, which connects householders with contractors online. The business was founded in Singapore in September 2013, and has recently expanded to Hong Kong.

According to Esmonde-White, price alone is not an accurate guide. "Just because [the quote] is cheaper doesn't mean it's a good deal. Ask for references," he says.

If you go for the cheapest, make sure the quote includes all materials, waste disposal and labour costs.

Making and prioritising a list will help you find a contractor experienced in those areas, he says. Knowing exactly what needs to be done also helps the tradesman work faster - he will not have to waste time trying to figure it out.

And, be realistic in your budget expectations. Materials cost money, and no one works for nothing.

Be clear about the fee and payment structure: some contractors quote by the job, others may charge by the hour, or on a per square foot basis. Are their estimates free, or is there a call-out charge if they need to view the site first?

"A contractor who charges by the hour should also give you a rough idea of how many hours they expect to spend on the job, before you commit," Esmonde-White says.

If the contractor stands by the work they do, they should have "no problem" providing a guarantee, he says. "Make sure you have clarified what the guarantee period is and that you have the relevant paperwork available should you need to make a claim."

The website has a handy check list of things to watch out for in a contractor - no licence or insurance, inexperience, and willingness to skirt planning requirements are all cited as warning signs.

The "just trust me" attitude is another red flag, Esmonde-White says. "It's very concerning if important details are only vaguely addressed. If your service provider makes statements like, 'don't worry, you'll love the cabinets!' but you never get to select or even see them, it's a signal that you might not be getting what you expect or have paid for."

It also offers helpful hints, such as that a deposit should not be more than 30 to 50 per cent of the overall job price.

Apart from the checklist, Kluje provides lots of pointers on its blog because, after all, the site does not pretend to stand by the credentials of the contractors on its books.

"We contact all the registered contractors [who have registered businesses] and invite them to join our site by sending us documentation and a photo ID. This makes them a 'verified contractor'," Esmonde-White says.

But "unverified" contractors - whose details have not been checked - are also free to bid for jobs customers post on the site. There is a ratings system, open only to customers who have used that contractor, but Esmonde-White stresses this should only be considered as one part of a customer's due diligence process.

For their part, customers are asked to provide a description of the works required and a budget range. A bidding process then follows: the first three contractors interested in the job bid for it and then go on to provide a quotation.

"We're just the matchmaker. Negotiations are up to the customer. We do advise people: we've had one or two contractors who have caused trouble, and if [clients] are not getting any joy from them, we can provide information on where to take it further."

Since the company started in Singapore, it has facilitated S$51 million (HK$277 million) in works. "We cover everything, from the smallest job right up to big renovations," Esmonde-White says.

He has found that price is a major factor for customers, and also that contractors do not bid on leads where the budgets are unrealistic. He is currently working on a price guide - for example, the average price for floor tiles per square foot - which will be a useful tool for householders when it goes live.

The site is in the process of becoming multilingual, which should help Chinese and English speakers to "click", even though they do not speak the same language. This is a feature Esmonde-White hopes will go live in the coming few months.