Finding a home in Penang, Malaysia – real estate is about trust

When making the decision to come to Penang, Malaysia on our MM2H Visa – it was important for us to understand what type of house was available and where we wanted to live. Travelling half way around the world with little knowledge of where we were landing – the phrase “location, location, location” could not be more important. Many folks are looking for a “how to” – so here is our process.

1. Do your research (from abroad)

There are great property sites all over the world. I used PropertyGuru and iProperty and also jumped around to find other places.  This gave me an idea of condos and prices as a start.  They also included information about certain buildings (we were looking for a condo), and their various amenities.  Also listed were real estate agents…more on that later.

This first step is to really determine what you are looking for and where you want to live.

A word of caution.  You will see properties on sites that you fall in love with.  You will contact the agent to inquire.  They will tell you they have the property.  You will land here with the expectation to see the property and discover it was “just rented last week”.  Many photos (especially the good ones) are not that agents property or were never recently available.  Be aware of the come on – and be prepared to walk away from an agent who is misleading.

2.  Join – an expat website with people on the ground in your chosen location.  Full disclosure – aside from being a member – I have no skin in the game with this group. I joined (it’s free) and started to virtually “meet” people who were more than willing to answer questions.  There are also ongoing threads that you can read through to get an idea of what is happening in the locale you want to be in.

Through Internations, I happened upon a woman who was contributing on the boards.  She did not mention she was Real Estate Agent (or property negotiator), but she simply contributed.  I reached out to her, and she answered a few questions.  Then I checked out her LinkedIn profile and realised what she did for a living and we chatted about it.  She did not solicit me and I respected that.

I was also able to get an idea from the Internations folks as to which buildings had the best internet connections – a very important feature for us.  That immediately narrowed down our search.

3.  Be clear on what you want and need

  • Sea view, mountain, city
  • Amenities like gyms or pools
  • close to schools
  • on the bus line
  • number of bedrooms
  • furnished or not
  • budget

All these will be factors in your decision and will also assist the agents in helping you find what you need.  Be aware that traffic in the region can be a challenge – and determine how far you want to be from amenities.

4.  Temporary Housing is as important as permanent

Let’s face it.  You are in a new place, you don’t know anyone, you have come off long flights and staying in a hotel is frankly too expensive long term.  What to do?

We initially started out up island in Batu Ferringhi thinking it was more relaxed and remote.  We rented an Airbnb in the area while we were looking for places to stay.  We soon discovered that there was plenty of traffic and noise (especially on weekends and holidays), it was far from grocery stores and conveniences, and the clincher was that it was difficult to get a taxi from the area.  When we were able to get one – the cost was incrementally higher.  Given that we do not currently have a car (and are not sure we will get one) we decided it was not for us.

For a number of reasons (including an Airbnb that was nothing like the pictures) we moved.  We then spent two weeks in Straits Quay renting a serviced apartment from Siang at Home-Suites  He was an outstanding host and ensured we were well looked after.  The apartment is located inside a larger mall area (think Queens Quay in Toronto) and that meant any groceries or restaurants were right there.  There was also the added bonus of a lovely boardwalk and the ability to head out and go to other places because Uber, Grab (Malaysian version) and traditional taxis were there in minutes.

As a result – we really got a good feeling of where we preferred to stay without the long term commitment.  Sure we had to move our stuff and it was a bit of a hassle, but in the long run it was worth it.

5.  Choosing your Property Agent

Based on some help of people we “met” virtually and a bit of research, we discovered that most people engage multiple agents to look for properties and take them out.  This struck us as odd, since in North America you are typically with only one agent.  However, we soon discovered the following:

  • there is no MLS or database that shows all the properties available to everyone
  • properties are based on trust relationships and on networking
    • good agents with good reputations will tell other good agents about their properties
    • bad agents will be shut out by good agents
    • some agents will work cooperatively – others won’t
    • multiple agents will get you into different properties – then again – you may be shown the same thing twice

You will hear that there are thousands of vacancies in Penang.  This is true.  However, just because a place is vacant does not mean that the owner wants to rent.  Many simply don’t need to rent their properties, and finding the “right” tenant is of great importance.

We had three agents working for us.  Our preferred agent ended up being Allison Siew and Dominic Ong from KLTC International Realty.  While the other two agents we engaged were enthusiastic, we just found Allison and Dominic to be better connected.  They were also upfront about their fees.

6.  Understanding Property Fees

Theoretically in Malaysia, the landlord is supposed to pay the fee on the rental and the agents split that fee.  However in Penang, the trend is a bit different.  You can try and fight it or negotiate it.  We decided that we would pay the agents to ensure that they were working for us and that our needs were their priority.  Some will argue that agents are taking advantage of expats because we don’t know better.  Some are able to negotiate lower or no rates.  I leave that decision up to you.  Typical fees are as follows:

  •  one month commission (one month rent) for  2 years rental agreement
  • half month commission for one year rental agreement
  • Subsequently, if the tenancy agreement is renewed, then there’s a half month charge for renewal of the tenancy agreement (I am not keen on this one as that puts you in perpetuity with an agent – and by this time you should have a relationship with your landlord – however, if the agent works to negotiate something on your behalf or builds another tenancy agreement with the stamp fee – I can see this making sense)
  • Stamp duty (this is a fee charged by the government that is paid based on a sliding scale of the rental amount)
  • Tenancy fees (this is typically a deposit for electricity, water, sewer)

This is an important thing to understand and budget for because your initial outlay is going to be quite a bit.

As an example of what your fees might be:

RM 8,000 Rent

  • Two months rent due on signing (note this is the security deposit – NOT first and last months rent) – RM 16,000
  • First months rent also due – RM 8,000
  • Tenancy Fees deposit – RM 4,000
  • Stamp duty – RM 856
  • Property agent commission for two year rental – RM 8,000

In simple terms, be prepared for some significant cash outlay.

7.  Viewing Properties

We were clear on our needs, but had to make adjustments as we saw buildings and amenities.  The key is to keep an open mind and know this is not “back home”.

We saw empty caverns, overcrowded furniture and stuff just not to our taste.  We kept an ongoing log in Microsoft OneNote of the good, bad and ugly.  It allowed us to review the properties at the end of the evening and begin eliminating buildings all together.  It also meant that when other agents wanted to show us something we could tell them we already saw it – or we don’t like the building.  We sometimes took photos but always asked permission to do so (typically of places we really liked so we could remember them).

We were also candid and direct with the agents about what we liked and disliked.  We ruled out places because of size and cost to air condition, narrow balconies, too many kids, too close to the international schools, poor gym equipment, bad views, bad furniture, weird layouts etc.  This is a very subjective area, but do ensure that you and your partner are on the same page.

8.  Be prepared to be disappointed

We found a place we loved.  We put in an offer after discussions with our agent.  We were denied.  Why?  We were told that the landlord decided to continue to use it as a holiday home and have pulled it off the market.  The reality is that our offer was too low and no one wanted to lose face negotiating back or counter offering.  It happens.  Just keep looking.

9.  Write a profile

We wanted the landlords (and their agents) to know us.  We provided profiles of who we were, our professional lives, our interests etc.  And we wrote it to the cultural values of the landlord.  Did it work?  We think so.  Certainly on the apartment we lost – the agent on the other side then felt that we were great tenants and agreed to show us another one that had never been rented before.  She seemed to go the extra step to bring us into the building and find a way to make it work.

10.  The Paperwork

It takes longer than you think, and no one seems to mind.  Being someone who was diligent about contracts and paperwork in my professional life, this freaked me out.  I could not believe that we had transferred money to the trust account, signed the initial tenancy agreement and the night before move in still did not have the final documents in hand.  In fact, 7 days after move in we still don’t.  Both parties have signed and the paperwork is now off to the government waiting for it’s stamp.

This part can be nerve wracking.  Should I move in?  Should I cancel my temporary accommodation or make alternative arrangements?  What do I do about deliveries?  Is this really happening or will the landlord pull out at the last minute?

It is a challenge.  But remember, this is a culture built on trust.  That is when having a good agent can reassure you, tell you what is going on, and allow you to vent your frustrations and allay your fears.

11.  The Last Word

  • Find a property agent (or two or three you like) and ensure they negotiate on your behalf
  • Be clear on your needs with your partner and your agents
  • Do some research ahead of time (websites, floor plans,buildings) so you can narrow the search
  • Get good temporary accommodation so you are comfortable
  • Make good notes of your viewings so you can eliminate quickly
  • Negotiate (within reason)
    • On this note we have heard that 20 per cent is possible, but found that was not entirely realistic

Above all – enjoy the process.  You decided to try this adventure warts and all – so embrace the differences, have a sense of humour and understand that it is not the same as back home!

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It’s the little things you notice

  • no towel bars
  • counter top heights are either for Peter Dinklage or Ian Whyte (GoT reference)
  • beds are so hard I suspect they are coconut shells
  • there are no top sheets – fitted and duvet – but you have to go out and find a top sheet
  • pillows are high
  • no point wearing nice shoes as my friend Ellen says – you just have to take them off before you enter
  • even had to take shoes off to go to the second floor of a large shop
  • lines on the road are just decoration
  • signalling is optional
  • napkins are a box of tissues – if you get any – or you have to pay for them
  • toilet paper in public washrooms is scarce – bring your own
  • BYOB in restaurants just about anywhere
  • never ask “which dish is not spicy – no chilli” – because their version of spicy is very different for this wimpy girls version
  • you will always be asked “Where are you from” – always
  • dinner arrives when it arrives, not in any particular order, and not always at the same time (I suspect that is why family style makes the most sense)
  • laundry shops are called “Doby” which has me in the mind of a house elf franchise
  • when you get into a cab – you will be asked if you “had breakfast/lunch/dinner” – because food here is sacrosanct
  • you eat much slower with chopsticks
  • everyone has “got a guy” – and those connections will save you
  • language barriers are easily overcome with a smile and a laugh – and your miming skills will improve greatly
  • grocery shopping is an outing of discovery
  • banking takes much longer than you expect
  • appointments only tell people that you are coming – but it is first come first served when you get there
  • negotiating is a competitive sport – and you can do it well and respectfully
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Penang – The Pearl of the Orient

After months of preparation on the other side of the planet, we have finally landed in Penang, Malaysia.  It seems almost surreal that a decision made a mere 9 months ago has become a reality and sees me sitting on a balcony overlooking the Straits of Malacca.

It has been a whirlwind week of getting stuff done while painfully jet lagged.  We spent the first two nights at the wonderful Eastern & Oriental Hotel in the Victory Annexe.  It has an old world feel that reminds me of of the Victoria Hotel in Zimbabwe or the Strand Hotel in Swakopmund.  A very colonial feel and decor.  Service is outstanding – particularly when the airline loses your luggage, there is a public holiday – and you have no idea how to go about navigating the system.  The front desk staff immediately set to work assuring us that they will find out about our missing bags and did we want a call when they arrived – even in the middle of the night.  We demurred – willing to wait until morning.  Two days later at precisely 7 am, we were called and informed that our bags were on their way up to our room.

As we pushed to get ourselves connected – a call to Uber had a delightful young man show up who runs his own IT company.  While we researched which company we wanted to go with – our driver decided he would be our “fixer”.  He steered us away from the “tourist” mall and to a more local place for our SIM card sign ups.  He chatted with the staff, came up with the best plan and we were sorted out in about and hour.  He also drove us around town a bit and showed us the best place to exchange money – then dropped us at the local mall so we could look around and grab some lunch.

We have been pleasantly surprised at the inexpensive costs for Uber and another local company called Grab.  For a couple of dollars, you can get anywhere relatively local with no worries about driving or parking.  Frankly, a smart way to start as we learn our way around.

Our next mission was opening our local bank accounts.  While we did all we could back home, it is necessary to establish a relationship with the local manager and ensure that you can obtain a local account, debit and credit card.  With the foreign exchange fees on our cards from Canada, we were sure we wanted this to go off quickly.  The process took about 4 hours.  It also included being treated to a lovely Japanese lunch by the bank – an unexpected bonus!

Our final housekeeping must do included a visit to a local doctor (hospital) in order to provide our medical history so that our papers can be forwarded to the government for the final visa.  We were met by a staff member of our agent Alter Domus,   The entire process of obtaining our Visas has been shepherded by the AD team.  They have been thorough and invaluable and while you can get the Visas on your own, I think it is well worth the money to have them deal with the details.

Alter Domus took us to the Loh Guan Lye Specialists for our medicals.  Frankly, I was astonished.  The building is a medical centre that looks more like the lobby of a hotel.  There is a reception area that takes your passports and moves you through the intake system.  As we waited for our intake – I discovered a concierge and pharmacy in the lobby.  Our details in the system, we went to the cafe for a coffee and could watch the board as our number would show up and tell us we were next in line.  The clinic has every speciality you can think of.  We had our little books in hand and were told to keep them with us every time we visited so the docs know who has seen us – though the place is completely electronic.  Should we have an emergency, we are to call a number of the clinic and they dispatch their own ambulance so that we have continuing card.  We were seen by one of the top cardiologists on the island whose credentials were from the Royal College in the UK.  Overall an impressive place and no doubt we will return as the need arises.

So our first week of what we must do is under our belt and we move on to our house hunting and food discovery so we can settle in to our new home.  We know we are in the honeymoon stage and are struck by how well we are acclimating to island time.  This is the Pearl of the Orient, and pearls are created slowly and are initially an irritation – and look forward to the true beauty revealing itself.


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Canada to Malaysia – on the threshold.

In less than 16 hours we will be jetting from Toronto to New York to Guangzhou to Penang.  A blistering pile of flights – but not our longest surprisingly.  I have managed to pack our belongings into four suitcases.  Jacques has added two more that are strictly technology and cameras – but fortunately – that was not under my purview.

We have spent the last few weeks eating and drinking our way through good byes.  Love, laughter and liquor were all in full force as we celebrated our friendships with joy.  It was also an opportunity to say things one often holds back – a moment of heartfelt connection that is vocalised and spoken – a rarity in our oft rushed lives and day to day doings.

For those moments I am truly delighted and grateful.

With the advent of our ability to communicate from afar being so easy we have promised to have dinner/breakfast combinations over Skype.  Hilarity will no doubt ensue.

For now, we will sign off from the True North – and will recommence our adventures from the other side of the planet.

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All the comforts of home – are gone.

We have spent the past twenty odd years accumulating, beautifying, comfortizing our lives.   And here we are – down to about 12 cardboard boxes with all those things we surrounded ourselves with in someone else’s possession – giving them joy.  We are sleeping on a mattress on the floor and soon that will be gone as well.  The idea of becoming global nomads is literally knocking at our door – and that door too will belong to someone else.

We have lived in a unique home in a small forest with a creek running next to it.  We have watched our deer Edgar come back time and again with his doe, mallards Bob and Margaret frolic in our pond, and innumerable birds, squirrels and coyotes wander through for food.  Inside the house, our creativity took flight and we were able to make our home sing while still respecting the original architectural vision.  Mid-century Brutalism is not for everyone – nor is it for the faint of heart.  Hours spent renovating, fixing, repairing and just loving this home.  It has been a part of us and has given us that safe haven many people dream of.  We have been very fortunate.  Yet we were just stewards – and it is now time for someone else to pick up the torch.

Many ask if I will miss this place.  As I think on it I realise that this home was part of the natural progression of our lives to get to this point.  This house 15 years ago was a big risk, was called ugly, was misunderstood – was well before its time.  We saw what it could be, and what we could be in it.  We grew as people, as partners.  This house taught us it was ok to dare to be different, to dance off beat, that quirky was just our rhythm.

Will I miss this house?  I will carry it with me wherever I go.  It has taught me that the environment I live in is what feeds and nourishes me – and that is something I will never miss.


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