Our Search for a Home in Manila – part 1

I’ve been wanting to write about this as it was taking place, but didn’t because I wasn’t ready to announce that I was planning to leave Hong Kong until everything was in place. Now that it is, let me share some of the story with you.

(This is going to be a large post, so I’ll split it into 2 or 3 parts. This might be useful information for others looking to buy a home in Manila.)

Around 10 years ago, my friends in Manila kept telling me I should buy something there. They would point to new buildings going up in various locations or give me a call when prices dipped (along with the economy). But 10 years ago I wasn’t considering living in the Philippines. The economy has been going strong there for the last several years and prices now are roughly triple what they were 10 years ago. Sadly I can’t go back in time and buy something in the past.

We actually started looking about 2-1/2 years ago. The idea at first was just to have a place there so we’d have our own place to stay for our increasingly frequent visits as well as a place to retire to in the distant future. We didn’t have a clear idea of what we wanted or our budget but even then I knew I wanted to be in Manila and not in some province or on some remote island.

We did a bit of looking around and came across this development from Ayala (the largest real estate developer, among other things) called Ametta Place and we were about to sign a contract for a 183 square meter townhouse when I lost my job. (Well, I didn’t lose it. It’s still there. Just someone else is doing it now.)

Things have obviously stabilized for me in the past couple of years and, as I’d previously written, it was getting to be “now or never” time – even if it meant leaving Hong Kong in order to make this happen. So we started looking again over the summer.

My favorite place in Manila, for many reasons is The Fort, aka Fort Bonifacio, aka Bonifacio Global City, aka BGC, so it was the first place I thought about living.  We looked there (and also in nearby Rockwell).  Serendra (another Ayala development) would have been my first choice, but two (or more) bedrooms there was out of my budget. We did find a nice 90 square meter two bedroom condo there in a different building. We were all ready to sign the papers and buy it, until it turned out that the owner wouldn’t budge from his demand for a 50% down payment, rather than the usual 20%.

We looked at some condos from the major developers. There was one that was using Paris Hilton as their spokesperson and yes, we actually did look at model apartments for that. Then there’s a company called DMCI. They’re kind of middle range developers and they always advertise “resort amenities” at very affordable prices. We saw what this meant – huge swimming pool and lots of green outdoor areas combined with tiny concrete apartments with tiny windows, dark and depressing.

As time went by, we agreed that my wife’s daughter would live with us and possibly my mother as well, so it became clear that we’d need more than two bedrooms. A larger apartment in the Fort was out of my price range. And at this point my wife decided that we had to buy a house and land and not an apartment. For her, it was non-negotiable.

I didn’t have a big problem with that decision. I’ve lived in village houses in Hong Kong for the past 7 years and much prefer it to an apartment. No waiting half an hour for an elevator when the dog needs to go out and pee (or when I come home and need to pee!). Lots more space. And a potentially better long term investment. (The only issue is that in the Philippines, foreigners can only buy condos, they cannot buy land. This meant either buying it in my wife’s name or forming some sort of corporation to buy it. In the end, both of our names are listed on the title and mortgage.)

Real estate shopping in Manila is different from Hong Kong in some ways. In one way it’s the same – the major developers own the shopping malls and so every mall has kids trying to force brochures into your hands and get to to agree to look at model apartments. (In some cases, the model apartments are in shops in the mall, so you don’t have to go anywhere to get some idea of what they’re selling.)

Of course with the large developers, you’re not just buying a flat or a house. You’re paying for their heavy overhead – their executives and office towers and marketing and all those kids handing out brochures in the malls. But once you get away from the large developers, finding out what’s available becomes much more difficult. They don’t have large chains like Centaline with shops on every corner. There are ads in newspapers but the ads are like “House for sale. Pasig. Call xxx.” No size, no price, nothing. There are some “buy-sell” magazines, but that’s not much use when you’re trying to do your search from another country.

So I looked at all of the developments from the major developers and wasn’t quite seeing what I wanted. Then I found various useful web sites, the best of which was probably OLX, a local variation on CraigsList with ads for everything from houses for rent and sale to all sorts of services and used goods.

There were several problems with OLX, the first of which is that the site requires you to have a Philippines mobile number to register with them. Without registering on the site, you cannot send messages directly to advertisers.  Many of the agents have an email address on their profile, but most didn’t respond to emails. I only got quick replies to SMS messages.

One thing that is the same as in Hong Kong is that most of the ads are fake. You call or text in response to a specific ad and you’re told that house is already sold but they have 20 others just like it that they can show you. Also there are few if any exclusive listings. 20 agents will post ads for the same house – and if the house gets sold by one agent, it takes awhile for the other 19 to find out about it and take their ads down.

Last but not least, good luck trying to sort out the good, knowledgeable agents from the bad. Just like anywhere else, there are a handful who seem to really know what they are doing and can offer good advice and guidance; there are plenty more who are complete idiots who probably never closed a deal in their lives.

Our search was further complicated by the obvious fact that we don’t live in the Philippines yet. I had one slight advantage – although my business travel budget for the year included just two trips to Manila, my boss agreed that I could work from the Manila office as long as I was paying for the additional trips myself. So while I had to spend a bit of money, at least I wasn’t burning through all of my vacation time.

Of course paying my own way meant staying in cheaper hotels than my company would normally book me into, but that wasn’t anything major. I haven’t worked for a company with a 5-star travel budget in 5 years. I found a place walking distance from my office (The Malayan Plaza), rooms (including a basic kitchen set-up) were just US$50 per night – and that included swimming pool, breakfast and shit-slow internet. (We stayed there again this week – no studio apartments available so a one bedroom set-up was US$75 per night.)

Given that this is the Philippines, where things rarely seem to go as planned, and that I could only make brief visits there, I wasn’t certain if I could find a house and get it locked in within the time period I’d set for myself.  I was successful. I’d guess that from the time I started searching “seriously” until everything was signed, sealed, delivered was roughly 5 months.

More to come ….

Here I Go Again?

I’m just back from Manila. We closed on the house this week. All of the papers are signed. Down payment is done. I’ll write more about the search and what we bought a bit later on, but first …

Earlier in our house search, I didn’t want to put in an offer on one house that my wife liked because I couldn’t get a clear answer on internet service at that location. (As it turns out, the house we finally got is a much nicer one that that one.) Aside from all of my normal internet activities (which require bandwidth of at least 5 Mbps), I will be able to work from home a fair amount of time each week and need to ensure good connectivity.

But as our search stretched into months and the probable move date got closer, internet connectivity dropped in importance. Getting the space we needed in the area we wanted within our budget became the priority.

So the house we bought is a new house on a new street in a massive development. It occurred to me that the various telecomms companies may not have built out their lines to this street yet. I looked at the house immediately behind mine and saw that they had a small satellite dish from Cignal, a company providing the usual batch of channels ranging from CNN to HBO. They might be using this signal because there’s no cable from Sky (that cable company also offers internet) or they might be using it because it’s relatively cheap.

And (dammit!) I forgot to use OpenSignal while at the house, an app that would allow me to see which provider had the strongest signal at that location. I don’t even know if there is any 4G signal there at all; my only option might be the far slower 3G. It will have to wait until the next trip.

I could be in the same situation I was in two years ago when I moved to Lam Tsuen and had to wait a year until PCCW got some copper lines out to my home. I have this image in my head of me buying a 4G pocket wifi, finding some place where the signal is strong, and sitting in my car with a laptop for an hour every day grabbing all of the stuff I want.

This last trip, we stayed in a relatively cheap hotel with shitty internet. Download speed of 0.4 Mbps. It was so slow I couldn’t really go through my daily newsfeeds in Feedly, it just took too damned long. But as I discovered on Saturday morning, it was fast enough for me to do a one hour Skype call with the president of my company.

I’ll get by.