When looking for a property to buy or rent, conventional wisdom tells us to study one thing before all else location. For professional property consultants, however, a different word now dominates their thoughts as they see the market booming in China and consider how best to develop their careers. It is "relocation".
Industry analysts are predicting that, in the next few years, opportunities in China for Hong Kong-trained property consultants will be boundless, provided they maximise their strengths and are familiar with the unique features of the Chinese market.
"The property market in China has many interesting characteristics and, if you understand these, you have a very good chance of succeeding as a property consultant," says Edmund Ho, chief operation officer of DTZ Debenham Tie Leung, an international property consultancy based in Hong Kong.
"For example, if we compare a typical residential unit in Hong Kong with one in China, it is not difficult to see sharply contrasting features. Here, the living room is usually spacious with large windows while bedrooms are small. In China, you will find the opposite with the emphasis placed on having larger bedrooms, particularly in the older buildings," he says.
Mr Ho also points out that, locally, kitchens and bathrooms are proportionately bigger and more luxurious in contrast with the style preferred across the border. "Indeed, in Hong Kong, the size of the bathroom is often an indicator of whether a flat can be classified as a luxury unit," he notes.
There are notable differences not only in design priorities but also in the quality of property management. "For example, shopping arcades in Hong Kong are better managed and tenants are selected meticulously to ensure a good mix of shops," explains Mr Ho. "Retail outlets are required to have the same opening hours to give customers a good impression and provide maximum convenience. Such practices are much less common in China," he remarks.
Given these disparities, it is not always easy for junior property consultants in Hong Kong to compete for jobs on the mainland where their counterparts have better market knowledge and accept lower salaries. "Things are much better for those who can concentrate on the top end of the market where there are more international clients looking for premium property and rentals," Mr Ho advises.
"Good communication skills are vital for property consultants," he adds. "With broader exposure to other cultures, media and tourism and the ability to speak better English, in addition to Putonghua, Hong Kong consultants are generally well equipped to succeed in this sector."
Mr Ho recommends two points of entry for those interested in China's property industry: as a fresh graduate or as a seasoned practitioner with three to five years' practical experience in Hong Kong. In either case, the person should, ideally, have a good understanding of the business, preferably supported by a formal qualification.
Graduates start from scratch alongside other new joiners from mainland China and initial salaries, at around HK$4,000 per month, are quite low by Hong Kong standards but more than mainland graduates will receive. "It is important, though, to focus on what can be achieved within a few years and realise how far you can go," states Mr Ho.
For those who already have a solid track record and experience working in Hong Kong, it is possible to join an international property consultancy or a multinational in an executive position. Specific jobs can be found in project or property management or in valuation. Growth prospects in China are generally promising in all four basic industry sectors - residential, industrial, commercial and retail. "The situation may differ from city to city and region to region but the overall trend is for steady and prosperous growth," Mr Ho says.
The major cities offer more opportunities but competition there will also be more intense. Shanghai is usually the first choice for property consultants moving from Hong Kong and is followed by Beijing. "Cities like Chongqing and Chengdu have immense potential but they seem to be less popular with people from Hong Kong," Mr Ho notes.
When assessing how things may evolve in the next couple of years, Mr Ho highlights certain likely changes. "Hong Kong property consultants may have a strong hold on the top end of the market right now but it will be difficult to maintain a competitive edge over mainlanders who have been educated and trained overseas and have similar international exposure," he says.
Adapting to mainland Chinese culture is also seen as a challenge for anyone relocating from Hong Kong. "In China, personal relationships are often regarded as more important than legal obligations, contracts and procedures," Mr Ho explains. "It is, nevertheless, essential to insist that the correct systems and principles are applied."
In summarising what is needed to achieve long-term success in the property business in China, Mr Ho picks out three key requirements. "If you have good language skills, sound professional knowledge and can understand the mainland Chinese mindset, you are sure to do well," he concludes.