Why Hong Kong’s property agents are brawling in the streets

 

The combatants were nicely dressed. The fight was ugly.

One man smacked a grounded rival in the ribs with a metal pole. Another man thwarted the fighter’s attempt to retaliate by tossing him by the shoulders down to the ground. A few feet away, two more men wrestled, one with the other in a headlock.

“It used to be a really peaceful profession,” a property agent reflected last week, standing near the scene of the June 2 brawl at One IFC, which, the agent added, was the second fight he’d seen personally — and at least the 10th he’d heard of — during four years of selling real estate.

“In the first two years, there was nothing like this.”

While packs of property agents swarming pedestrians and drivers with business cards and brochures have long been a familiar sight in the city’s malls and streets, scenes of them scrapping like mixed martial arts fighters in button down shirts have become increasingly common.

So, in the wake of the most recent throwdown at One IFC in Central, Coconuts HK last week headed down to the scene to seek the opinion of agents about why flogging flats had turned so violent.

“It’s very simple,” another explained, as dozens of agents, split between five of the city’s major real estate firms — mostly young men in dress shirts and ties — milled around him, armed with flyers for flats at Henderson Land Development’s Cetus Square Mile project.

“It’s a matter of everyone wants to earn income, and there is more and more competition. With a set number of people walking through, fighting for customers is inevitable.”

Competition indeed. In the past several years, the number of property agents competing to sell the limited number of flats in Hong Kong’s overheated property market has soared from about 23,000 in 2008 to nearly 40,000 this year.

The influx, says real estate expert Lawrence Poon Wing-cheun, has been driven, in part, by the city’s ever-surging property prices and thus higher commissions on offer.

Poon, a senior lecturer at the City University of Hong Kong, said that with developers paying agencies about 3 percent for new flats, and with some agents taking home a third of that, a sale on a single HK$10 million apartment could mean a HK$10,000 pay day.

“When the market is good, being a property agent for sure offers a better opportunity for money than many other jobs that do not require high education or expertise,” he said.

The prospect is irresistible to many agents, who only have to complete Secondary Five (the second-to-last year of high school) and pass a multiple choice exam in order to get their licenses from the Estate Agents Authority (EAA).

Property agents at the IFC — who all, worried about keeping their jobs, declined to be named —   told Coconuts HK that they thought so, too.

One 19-year-old agent, a recent high-school graduate, said she wanted to earn some cash prior to starting a social work degree at university. Handing out brochures together with her 18-year-old friend, she said it had proved difficult to catch customers.

“I thought I could make a lot of money quickly, but it’s harder than I thought it would be,” she said.

Another 24-year-old agent said he studied hospitality, and worked in a hotel kitchen, before joining an estate agency.

He now earns a base salary of HK$6,000 (about US$765) every month, and expects between HK$10,000 and HK$15,000 (US$1274-US$1910) for helping sell three units this year. But he won’t see a penny of it until several months after the closing papers are signed and so, continues to hustle.

“I normally work six days, but there have been times where sales open that I’ve worked seven days straight,” he said.

All of the agents spoken to by Coconuts HK claimed not to have been involved in the fight on June 2, though at least one, who acted coy about the brawl, was clearly visible in the footage being whacked with a metal pole.

Like our pole victim, most agents we talked to stuck strictly to second-hand references. They said that having a potential customer poached by another agent, talking to a passersby who has already accepted someone else’s business card, or bumping into a rival agent could be grounds for altercations.

“It doesn’t happen a lot to us because we pick our places, but in other areas, it can be tense,” said one, who stood with his co-worker away from the main gaggle.

Another agent in her 30s said she’s heard of two or three brawls since she traded in her old job at an apparel company a year ago. She speculated that the majority of fights happen when agents angle to get their business cards into people’s hands, or if a potential customer, turned off by the chaos, walks away.

She added that some teams have sales goals, creating even more pressure to net customers.

Such high stakes have led some property agents to stand in streets and jump out at cars to advertise flats.

In May, for example, one estate agent was hit by a bus in Sai Kung while handing out flyers for units at New World Development’s Mount Pavilia project.

The tactics, unsurprisingly, haven’t endeared property agents to the public.

“It was only a matter of time before this happened!” one person commented on Facebook underneath a story about the bus hitting the agent.

The behavior is a concern for the EAA, the regulating body that enforces the industry’s code of ethics through investigations and disciplinary hearings. The organization has pointed out that fighting tarnishes the industry’s reputation in statements and interviews going back as far as 2005.

After two brawls in June, the EAA said it warned agencies to keep their staff in line, and is considering a five-year ban on agents who fight in public. The current policy strips them of their licenses for three years.

“The recent incidents in which estate agents fought at the sale sites of first-hand residential properties are absolutely unacceptable and has brought disrepute to the entire trade,” the EAA’s corporate communications office said in a statement to Coconuts HK.

But it remains to be seen whether the warning from the EAA, which has issued similar statements in the past, will do anything to curb future brawls.

At IFC, the news left at least one agent unperturbed. “I don’t think it’s necessary to ban them for so long,” she said. “Some people will already have criminal records from fighting in public, but the penalty should depend on the individual case.”

Then, she launched into a sales pitch for a new HK$6 million 251-square meter flat, insisting, “It’s not too expensive.”

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