HONG KONG, March 20 (SCMP): In early February, the owner of a small flat in the quiet Hong Kong village of Lung Mei Tsuen, Tai Po, found a tenant willing to pay HK$10,000 (US$1,273) a month.
Barely a fortnight later, news broke about the grisly murder of Hong Kong socialite Abby Choi Tin-fung, 28. The details that emerged were horrifying, as she was believed to have been killed, chopped up, with some body parts cooked or left in a refrigerator.
Human remains and butcher’s tools found in the village flat suggest that was where Choi’s body was dismembered for disposal. Her ex-husband, his brother and his parents have been arrested in connection with the murder
As traumatised villagers in Lung Mei Tsuen held prayers to appease Choi’s spirit and restore calm, one question remained: would anyone ever want to live in that flat again?
In Hong Kong, properties linked to murder, suicide and tragedy are often referred to as “haunted homes”, a reputation that sticks for a long time and not only lowers their potential rent or selling price but can also affect neighbouring flats.
Joseph Ng Goon-lau, dubbed “the king of haunted flats” for buying and selling dozens of properties linked to unnatural deaths since 1993, said there was nothing the village landlord could do to repair the damage done.
“Everyone has a vivid memory of a murder. It’ll stay that way forever,” the veteran investor said.
He said he avoided flats linked to murder because they were the hardest to sell. For other properties, this was his formula: “First, you offer a reduced price. Second, you wait for someone who will take it.”
Researchers at the University of Science and Technology who studied almost 900 homes that experienced unnatural deaths found that over a 16-year period, their value dropped by a fifth on average, with no sign of recovery.
Checking property transactions between 2000 and 2015, they found that other flats on the same floor dropped in value by 9 per cent, and homes in the same building could lose 6 per cent.
Vincent Cheung Kiu-cho, managing director of Vincorn Consulting and Appraisal, said “haunted” flats were often sold at a hefty discount of 30 per cent on the market price, although those linked to more notorious crimes had their prices slashed by half.
“In general, flats with a less appalling history can be sold after a few years,” he said. “Those with a shocking past can also be sold, but it will just take longer.”
A private flat in Kowloon Bay was sold a decade after a murder took place there in 1998. A Kornhill flat in Quarry Bay that was linked to a 1980s murder case changed hands before 1990, but there were no takers afterwards. Neighbouring flats were being sold below market value even in recent years.
Buyers need more than courage to land a bargain. Sammy Po Siu-ming, CEO of Midland Realty’s residential division for Hong Kong and Macau, said banks were cautious about lending for such properties because of how difficult it could be to get rid of a repossessed flat.
Investor Ng said that after being rejected for bank loans, he switched to cash deals only when buying. The one time a bank gave him a mortgage, he said, he had to produce a death certificate to prove a suicide victim had died in hospital, not at the flat he was buying.
He said there was no shortage of tenants for the flats he rented out, because he always offered a discount. They included non-Chinese Hongkongers, expatriates and mainland Chinese students.
One of his tenants, who only gave his surname, Chan, knew there had been a suicide at the Eastern district flat he and his family moved into.
The rent discount was a big draw, but he admitted to being on edge at the beginning.
“Doors or windows that I remembered were open were shut, and closed ones were open,” he recalled. “Then I found it was because of my family members or the wind. I realised I had been scaring myself.”
He has since put those fears behind him.
“If you haven’t done anything against your conscience, you fear nothing even if someone knocks on your door in the middle of the night,” he said, using a common Chinese expression.
For public rental flats with a grim past, it is a completely different story. With rental applicants having to wait 5½ years for a flat as of last December, there is no shortage of willing takers.
Vacant rental flats with a history of “unpleasant incidents”, including murder, natural death, debt collection and nuisance, are offered alongside other less desirable homes under the Express Flat Allocation Scheme.
Some flats come with a half-month rent discount for a certain period.
There were 1,156 such flats last year, including six linked to murders. They attracted more than 40,000 applications last September, according to the Housing Department.
Interior worker Zack Chan, 32, managed to get a flat in Tsz Wan Shan after waiting 10 years in the queue as a non-elderly solo applicant.
Housing officials told him someone had hanged himself in the toilet of the flat, which was fully renovated when he moved in this month.
Chan said the history did not bother him because of his Christian faith and past experience living near a cemetery. He liked the flat for its location in Kowloon and slightly larger size.
“It felt brand new with new paint and the doors replaced,” he said. “If you don’t tell people what happened here, anyone who walks in will say this is nice.”
Additional reporting by Lam Ka-sing - The South China Morning Post