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Pet owners find options are opening up in serviced flats

HONG KONG: Last year Jessie Yip Wai-lun found herself and her family in a bit of a bind. Yip and her husband sold their apartment in Pok Fu Lam to buy a village house in Tai Po that would give them the 2,100 square feet they needed for themselves and their two young children.

But they wanted to renovate before moving into their new house, and while the work was under way the family and pets — a Jack Russell terrier and two turtles — needed somewhere to stay for two months.

"Finding somewhere that was 'pet friendly' was important, otherwise our dog would have had to go into kennels," recalled Jessie Yip. "That's torture because I don't think kennels treat the dogs very well. Also it would cost a fair amount."

A serviced apartment was the obvious solution. So Yip found a list of operators and started calling around. Each call grew more and more dispiriting as she found out for herself that Hong Kong lived up to its reputation as one of the most pet-unfriendly major cities in the world. Only two landlords said they accepted pets.

"Most said no," she remembers. "I even asked if they allow small pets. But they said they are very strict. Pets of any size are not allowed."

A year on, and there are signs that this attitude is beginning to change, albeit slowly. Faced with a competitive environment, serviced apartment operators are searching for ways to set themselves apart, and a handful have explicitly outlined policies under which the furrier members of the family are welcome. Five now allow pets.

Yip ended up staying in Kennedy Town at S-Residence, a block of 14 serviced apartments on Catchick Street. The operator allows small dogs as well as cats, birds, turtles and others. "We are happy to offer the service," manager Shing Dai-kung said. "I think there is a need in this market. Not everybody has a pet but those that do really do care for their pets."

Several other chains of serviced apartments allow pets, normally at just one of their locations. The Ovolo at 111 High Street, the Shama in Wan Chai, and the Apartment O block run by Eton Properties in Causeway Bay all also accept animals.

Some even champion the fact. The Chi Residences serviced apartment block at 120 Connaught Road West in Sheung Wan welcomes cats and dogs, and the operator recently put out a small guide for pet owners that acts as a primer on how to navigate the city with their charges. Chi charges HK$1,500 (RM605.96) per pet per month.

Still, it's a short list of five, perhaps because the companies that run serviced apartments are worried they will get complaints from other tenants. With occupancy rates above 90%, there's not huge pressure on them to make concessions.

"There are very few that allow pets," Anne-Marie Sage, the regional director for residential at Jones Lang LaSalle, conceded. "You can understand why when you have the turnover that you have in serviced apartments. The inconvenience that it causes to other people is a problem, and then there's the wear and tear."

At Chi, the 12-page pamphlet is basic but gives listings for all the most important contacts families are likely to need as they settle in with pets — vets, grooming salons and pet-food shops. Chi Residences chief executive Pilar Morais says its generation stemmed from the legwork she herself has done both literally, in a family that has 13 pets, and figuratively while caring for what the Morais family call their "fur kids".

There are handy tips on which restaurants welcome dogs, as well as which beaches you can get away with walking a dog — at Shek O back beach and the side of Stanley main beach (although of course it's still against the rules).

About 5% to 10% of the queries Chi fields are related to families looking to house themselves with their pets. "So there is definitely a niche market, particularly for people relocating from overseas, as well as those renovating their homes and in need of temporary accommodation for themselves and their pets," she says.

Yip, who falls in the second camp, believes Hong Kong is very unfriendly towards pet owners. Public housing estates don't allow dogs, and they're chased off any of the beaches that have lifeguards.

"Even the public parks don't allow dogs," Yip notes. "There are some dog parks in Hong Kong but the number is limited and you can never find a dog park near where you live."

But more flexible attitudes are emerging. While Chi Residences charges tenants to house their pets on Connaught Road, there's no charge at S-Residence. But the operator only accepts smaller pets. "If we have to do extra cleaning or there is damage, we claim more from the deposit," Shing says. "In general, our experience hasn't been bad. But we've also been a little bit picky."

Some 10% to 20% of the tenants keep pets. The apartments are reasonably small, at 550 sq ft, so bigger animals can't be accommodated. But Yip, who was also moving with her amah and so needed the two bedroom units at S-Residence, found they fit the bill. — South China Morning Post
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