Looking For An Apartment In The Big City

Although Manila does have a thriving real estate industry, many of whom advertise rentals on weekends in the Manila Bulletin, the tried and tested local method of finding a place to rent is still to wander the streets of your chosen neighbourhood and look for those small signs. Doing this ensures you don’t waste time chasing properties too far from where you work, as the traffic is truly in charge of things in Manila! Additionally, it allows you and the owner to meet and assess one another, something that is vital given the nature of the relationship of landlord/tenant in the Philippines.

The Filipino landlord will generally take things a little more personally regarding the place you rent than would a landlord back home. The tenant often views themselves as being lower on the totem pole in the relationship, rather than as a customer the landlord needs for his business. Consequently, getting anything repaired or changed if you haven’t the right relationship with the landlord can be challenging. Landlords will often cut off their nose to spite their face to show you, the lucky tenant who they have put a roof over your head, how fortunate you are they have allowed you to live there. The tenant will often accept and feed this relationship status because they feel inferior that they don’t own property. Anyone richer than them deserves their obsequiousness, as they expect it from those they see as their economic and social inferiors.

Walking the streets also gives you a good feel for the neighbourhood, although cruising along at walking pace in an air conditioned vehicle is just as telling and far less sweaty! Very often there will be a telephone number and the annoying direction to “look for” someone particular when you call. How you can look for someone over a telephone beats me, just another example of the worsening standard of English in this once literate country.

Once you find a place you may be able to inspect right away. Often the security guard or helper will show you the property. Unprofessional perhaps, but it saves the very important landlord from having to hang around waiting for someone to respond to the obscure minute sign on the gate. After all, that is what the help are there for.

If you can’t get in to view the place, it might pay to have a local call the number and chat with the owner in the first instance. Don’t expect logical questions to be asked or answered. Rather the passage of information might well be more about who you are and who you know and why you are here more than the features of the property and the monthly rental etc. Remember this is Asia and relationships are more important than details! Knowing the place has two C.R.s won’t make them three or only one or cleaner or more modern or suddenly fitted with hot water, will it? Isn’t it more important that the owner knows you know some of the same people or that your Asawa graduated from the same college as the owner’s second cousin’s daughter?

Once the pleasantries are over with it can be down to business and expect it all to be in the favour of the owner. After all, they have the property you want to rent. Forget thinking they may want the income from the rental. Of course they do and they might very well be desperate for it but you must keep things in perspective. They own a property, you don’t, thus they are higher up the socio-economic ladder than you and if you don’t like it then too bad! Owners of rental properties can’t be changing their policies or improving their properties because a potential tenant wants them to! Where would it end? Probably with the tenant thinking they are at least as good as the owner!

I’m not over dramatising this, the attitude is very real and very much a part of the rental scene here. You won’t change it so rail against it in private, then accept it and then turn it to your advantage whenever you can because that is how an Asian would handle the situation. Don’t forget, if you play the game by their rules then they have to do a few things for you, too. Once the right relationship is formed, the owner has a certain obligation towards your welfare, like a “patron” or fatherly (or motherly) figure. You are now one of the family so to speak and like a small child must be looked after and taken care of. Not because you are paying rent which may form a major part of their income. No, it is because a relationship has been formed, there is “utang an loob” involved. (literally “a debt of honour”)

This is why you can hear of people being months and in a few cases I know of personally, even years behind in the rent! Once the relationship is formed then usually you are guaranteed to be well looked after, although don’t expect things to happen with any speed and be careful how you ask for repairs and improvements. Always ask for things by being humble and not wanting to bother them with the trivial details, especially as you are really there to hand over the rent, which of course is more important than any dripping tap or unhinged door. If there is something embarrassing like a bad smell from an overflowing septic tank, invite the owner around for a coffee and let them notice it themselves. Make sure you apologise for the smell as if it is your fault their house is so poorly maintained!

Be aware of the practise of PDC, or Post Dated Check. Most owners will want these for the term of the (usually 12 months) contract. Some ask for a months rent in advance and two months rent as security deposit, others one month each and some demand as much as three months rent as security plus a month or two up front plus PDC for the rest! Like anything and everything in Asia this is negotiable, so negotiate!

Don’t be afraid to negotiate hard! Be polite and even fawning but stick to your guns! That’s how they do it to us, with that “inscrutable oriental” approach that never stops them smiling but they won’t budge an inch. Well Dorothy you ain’t in Kansas now, you are in Asia so work the angles the Asian way! Smile all the time, keep your voice down and never lose your temper and simply never give an inch. Don’t ever feel sorry for them, they are after all, your socio-economic superiors. You are the poor relation without any property and since they are the rich relation with so much more than you have, they can give you more of it than they may be offering. Hey! We always whine about how we are taken for walking ATM machines, the rich, fat Kano etc! Now turn about is fair play so when in Rome, or Manila…….

If you think you are going to miss out on this one of a kind property that is just so perfect, think of this. In Makati alone there are, at most recent count, over 9,000 vacant residential units. Over 9,000 in Makati alone. The report in the newspaper did say property values, rents and so on would increase as vacancies dropped but it will take a long time to fill 9,000 units! And that is just in Makati! When you include the other nine cities and municipalities that make up Metro Manila, there is always going to be at least one other property that is just perfect!


Are There Business Opportunities To Be Had In The Philippines? We Take A Look Each Month.

So far I know of people who are getting involved in bat guano, tempura cart sales, sari sari wholesale supply and a few other interesting ventures, including real estate development, sea shells, prescription eyewear and more! The common denominator seems to be the desire to get involved in something. However, a word of warning.

A business in the Philippines can indeed be started on a frayed shoestring, unlike something you might try back home. But be aware that the less you invest the less it will produce. This has nothing to do with any law of diminishing returns, it is simply that the successful businesses here are successful for the same reasons a business is successful back in the UK or America.

If you have insufficient capital, or a poor location or no real business plan then just because it is only a few dollars to get Dong going doesn’t mean it has any special chance of success or even survival just because it is started in the Philippines. I was in a Chilli’s franchise tonight. Cost of the meals are over P200 and well into P400 with some even more. Drinks were fairly pricey too, but you can have the buy one take one beer deal for P65 that works out pretty good value. Anyway, the points I am making are twofold. Firstly it took a fair chunk of change to put up a decent business like Chilli’s in the first place and secondly, there is money in this country!

There may not be much to spread around in the province where the asawa comes from but in Quezon City there is a lot of it! I was speaking to a car dealer who brings in “gray imports”. On his lot he had a VW Tuareg, a Dodge Ram, a Mercedes, three Honda’s and so on. Plus a 2004 Range Rover HSE going for P6 million! Given the fact Land Rover pulled out of the country due to the gray import market back dooring them for billions, I wonder where the eventual buyer will get it serviced? Woe betide him if it breaks down or the computer chip needs a zap, nobody has the diagnostic gear to fix it!

So between the gray imports and the authorised importers, there has never been more new car metal on the roads in Manila. And it all costs money because financing here is a joke. I left Chilli’s and walked down T.Morato Avenue and turned into Timog Avenue, part of the South Triangle area of Quezon City. The place is wall to wall restaurants, coffee shops, liquor stores, aerobics gyms and anything else you want. By the time you sweat your way onto Quezon Avenue the giant KTV lounges and nite clubs fill your horizon with their ridiculous prices and lurid neon lies of love and popularity. No money here? Rubbish!

So if you don’t have real chunks of cash, then you are in the realm of the SME or small to medium enterprise, which officially lists a micro business as being worth up to P3 million, not including buildings etc!!!! Small businesses are P3-P15 million and medium sized P15-P100 million. Anything with more investment than that gets to call itself a large, or big business. If you don’t believe me, check the official DOLE figures! So unless you have US$60,000 or more in the venture, it isn’t even a “small” business!

Getting back into Manila, my old stomping grounds, after a two year hiatus in Cebu has proven more than merely interesting. I have really gone out of my way to get back into the street vibe that oozes from this city’s pores. Everywhere you turn in Manila somebody is trying to turn a peso. Across the street from me every morning at 5.30am a young woman sets up a simple stall selling corn, sits there all day and by nightfall it still looks like she hasn’t sold a single cob.

Every second house has its obligatory sari sari store attached, the barred serving hatch the sign of a micro enterprise in the making. On the street corners, food vendors offer BBQ meat, BBQ bananas, squid balls, taho and anything else you can think of. There are ten million people in this city and it seems that at any one time five million of them are trying to sell the other five million something. Like I said, there is money in this country, it’s just a question of who has it and how much at any one time.


This Month We Meander Around Malate.

The first time I came to Manila nearly twenty years ago I ended up in Malate on my second night in Town. The first night I had rolled out of the plane into the APP Shuttle Bus, been handed my cold San Miguel Pilsen and watched as Roxas Boulevard rolled by on my way to the hotel in Ermita. I think I was in my first bar (The New Bangkok Bar for the record) within an hour of exiting Customs! The second night I had wandered down M.H. del Pilar Street all the way to Malate Park, where the Church and The Aristocrat Restaurant were located. I dined in Shakey’s Pizza with a great cover band hammering out some fabulous rock and roll tunes and the beer was cold, the pizza was cheezy and the atmosphere simply fantastic.

In those days and until a year or two ago, Malate Park was a pick up place for prostitutes, usually managed by fat women or sad transgender types. It had little to offer during the day and less at night unless you wanted to risk a confrontation or set up and there was no need with Ermita’s night life so close and so vibrant. Nearby the restaurants around Remedios did a decent trade along with several pension houses and the casual attitude to “Bakla’s” there gave it a thumb’s up from The Lonely Planet, yet they would cast scorn upon the seedy sex tourist ridden Ermita nearby. If only they knew that Malate has always been the home of numerous “love motels” where the Filipino clientele take their casual affairs and hookers in numbers no wave of foreign tourists could ever match.

When Mayor Lim closed down the Ermita bars in 1993-94, (mainly I feel as they were an easy target and besides, the rumours were he had his girlie bars safely tucked away in a different jurisdiction!) Ermita pretty much died out and only today, ten years on is it showing signs of recovery. It will never jump like it used to but it may attract some more much needed investment. A side effect of Ermita closing was that Malate suffered too. There was no longer any spill over of tourists and tourist dollars. The trendy restaurants around Remedios felt the pinch and took it hard, although lately they have recovered well and now thrive.

The face of Malate has changed a little, more Korean and less European influence. Once upon a time all the restaurants were owned by expat Germans, Spaniards and Swiss. Now they are Korean, Japanese and even Chinese and Middle Eastern. At the Remedios end of Mabini Street and Adriatico there are numerous coffee shops, nite clubs, restaurants and bars offering regular entertainment. The love motels are still around like Anito’s and Sogo, but they have all pretty much moved upmarket in décor and style.

Malate Park has been remodelled and two new statues and a large fountain fill the plaza. The church, once a gutted, shell torn wreck at the end of WW2, now stands proudly overlooking a plaza where once again families feel safe enough to wander. The plaza leads out onto Roxas Boulevard and looks out across Manila Bay. Along the Bay the new Bay Walk offers several places to sit and enjoy a snack, a meal or just a cold beer or three.

The skyline along the Bay towards Ermita has changed too, now looking very clean and modern. In the other direction towards Pasay and the airport lies the snooty Manila Yacht Club, the Headquarters of the Philippine Navy and beyond that the Philippine Cultural Center. Back across Roxas lies the Central Bank of the Philippines and behind that Harrison Plaza Mall. Harrison Plaza is still a dark, dingy and seedy mall that is frequented by prostitutes and their pimps. A known hangout for gangs who often pose as Police and terrify tourists into handing over large sums of cash to get off trumped up charges. Not a place to treat lightly.

Heading back towards the park you come across the Manila Zoo. This zoo has been progressively improved over the years but it is still what zoo’s used to be like back when most of us were kids. Lots of bars and cages and not a great deal of interaction. I have always found the animals and their cages to be clean and well cared for, but very sad when I compare the facilities with the world class Taronga Park Zoo of my home town, Sydney. Things are improving though as there are fewer instances of visitors killing the animals by feeding them with rubbish such as plastic bags! (this is how the giraffe died!) Asians do have a more callous, casual attitude towards animals than westerners, so don’t be surprised if the place strikes you as sad. I know both times I have been I have had to leave before I made it to the Kangaroo enclosure. I just shudder to think how I would feel seeing my Nation’s Emblem kept, Filipino style.

Overall I must say Malate comes alive at night and that is the best time to visit. Stay away from Harrison Plaza and stick to Adriatico and Remedios and the Malate Park area and you will enjoy a very cosmopolitan evening indeed.


The Biggest Growing Segment Of The Franchise Market Here Today!

I have been watching the steady growth in coffee shops in this country over the past few years with some interest. I do like a good cup of Java and when I first came to these shores 20 years ago it was a hard thing to find. Even today you will be lucky to do better than a sachet of Nescafe Instant, a sachet of creamer and a small cup of tepid water. Why the dumb mongrels don’t put the coffee in to the cup before filling it with water beats me! At least then it would have a chance to blend properly but why am I expecting western standards of civilised behaviour from someone who has never been exposed to such?

The reality is that Filipino’s enjoy a decent cup of coffee too, although maybe more for the fact it sends a message of affluence to others rather than the taste of the brew. At P50-60 and up (my café latte grande is a P100 cup of coffee) not every Dong and Dai out there is rushing to Starbucks, although more than enough are and new stores open all the time.

As well as Starbucks, there are Bo’s Coffee Clubs, Figaro, Seattle’s Best, Moccha Blend, Gloria Jean’s, Coffee Beanery and maybe four or five other franchises to choose from if you want to go into the coffee shop business. They all follow a similar theme, started by Starbucks back in the early eighties and itself modelled on the espresso bars of Italy, relaxed, casual and expensive! I wonder if the first recorded coffee shop, “Kiva Han” in Turkey in 1421 offered a mocchalatte or a frappucino?

In upscale areas they are everywhere and growing. It really is a market niche oriented business, you need lots of A, B and C class Filipino’s willing to spend relatively big money on a drink they really don’t need to get through their day with. At least not the fancy version on offer. Of course most places actually sell more iced drinks than hot versions, although this it is so cute to see Filipino’s wearing coats and jackets and sitting in the (still steamy for me) evening sipping hot coffee and pretending it is cold this time of year.

A decent coffee shop franchise will set you back around P2 million and up. You could get away with less but more will usually be needed. The way things are going though, it looks like a way to print money only a McDonalds franchise could beat. Or a Jollibee!


We Play Word Association To While Away The Hours Caught In Manila’s Traffic.

The other day I had to take a cab from one end of Makati, (Jupiter and Makati Avenue intersection), down Sen. Gil Puyat/Buendia Avenue to the LRT station on Taft. Straight run down one road, more or less. I entered the cab at 09.21 am, as proven by the printed receipt I have in my possession! Yes, a Manila cab with a receipt printer on the dash! The driver said he mainly works the Alabang area and sadly had to bring someone into Makati when I snaggled him. He promised he was heading back there as soon as he dropped me at the airport. I wasn’t going to the airport. He swore. I digress, where was I? Yes, in a cab at 09.21am heading down Sen Gil Puyat Avenue.

I arrived at my destination at 10.44am, 83 minutes and just 4 kilometres later! At a cost of P152 I had spent 71 minutes of that time standing still. At least the cab was stationery, I was squirming a fair bit in frustration! The “waiting time” is recorded via this machine the taxi was fitted with and this is how I know we didn’t move for exactly 1 hour and 11 minutes, in total. I wonder how long the journey would have been if I had taken it right in the middle of the peak “hour”? Of course peak hour in Manila lasts from 6am to at least 10am and then again from about 3pm to 8pm!

When I arrived in Manila the other week I took a taxi from NAIA2, the PAL terminal. I had to go upstairs to the departure drop off area as the airport management have cleared all taxis away from the arrivals area so they can maximise their revenue from airport “limo” services. In other words, the official going rate for a ride into Makati was P345, yet my cab cost me P120, and that included stopping twice to repair a busted fender and change a flat tyre! And this was at 7pm, the very height of peak hour!

When I came back to Manila this week I grabbed a cab at 9am for the trip to Quezon City. It took 90 minutes and cost me P200. The meter said P172 but the driver had asked for an agreed upon fare. I didn’t mind but I insisted he run the meter just so we could compare. Now maybe he was trying to get as close to the agreed P200 as possible, just so I didn’t do a Filipino on him and change my mind, but another person on the same flight arrived at the same destination as me 30 minutes sooner and for P150! His taxi took him via the “very traffic” EDSA route whereas my driver ducked through the middle of town following for the most part the northern railway line and squatter camp.

Traffic in this city is heavy, no doubt about it. It is, however, better disciplined than Cebu traffic, of that I am certain. Far more policing and more effective policing as well as more stringent road rules do make some difference. My favourite giggle is the “color coding” system used to limit the amount of traffic. On Mondays, cars whose license plates end in 1 or 2 are prohibited from being on the road. Tuesdays its 3 and 4, Wednesdays 5 and 6, Thursdays 7 and 8 and Fridays 9 and 0. Sensible system and one day a week is easy enough to overcome, arrange a lift with friends, work at home, use the other car, swap plates whatever. Now, can someone tell me where the “color” comes in to this system of coding? Another case of Taglish at work, methinks!

I have only been living and working here in Manila for a few days now but already the traffic is the locus of control over my life. Where I go and when I go, even if I bother to go anywhere, all is determined by the time of the day or night, the position of the stars and the planets and the omens in the entrails of the sisig soup the jeepney driver is having for his lunch! Where I am working and staying is right across from the Pantranco Jeepney Terminus, or Bat Cave as I call the dark and dreary dive. What it means is I can hop on any one of several jeepney lines and ride them to the end of their route, then simply ride back the same way and know I will never pass my stop!

Naturally, the best way of beating the clogged streets is to rise above it all and ride the LRT or MRT. These light rail systems are terrific. For less than P20 you can go from one end of town to the other, then swap lines and go somewhere else! The LRT has two carriages at the front reserved just for women, as I found out the hard way! I didn’t follow what the security guard was trying to tell me (move along, the first two carriages are women only you stupid foreigner!) and I stepped into a clean, quiet, orderly carriage…….full of women! I knew something was wrong and, concerned it was a trap set by my wife to tempt me into cheating on her, I quickly leapt out and ran to the next carriage. I was then able to stand at the end of the carriage and look through the large window into the women only car all the way to my station.

It can get crowded and those stairs leading up off the street are steep and many, but the MRT/LRT system can’t be beaten. There is a new east-west MRT line I will take one of these days, just to say I have done it! My only hesitation is to warn that pickpockets love the crowded conditions and they are very, very good at their craft. Never think for a second your wallet or purse is safe whenever you are within spitting distance of an MRT/LRT station or car. Then again, keeping one hand on your wallet is a small price to pay for missing out on sitting in the traffic for hours at a time.! If you have plenty of time to spare then why worry? Of course Manila is hardly an ideal retirement destination so most foreigners here are here for work and time is important.

An alternative might be to have a driver so you can sit in the back, read the newspaper or a report, make some calls on the cell phone and generally get some business done while in the traffic. At least it hasn’t degenerated into what Bangkok residents were forced to do a few years ago; basically live in their cars! They would leave home very early, give the kids their breakfast from the back of the family van parked outside of the school at the crack of dawn, then head for work, drop off hubby then fight back to school for the kids then back to work for hubby and then home so late it was re-pack car with the meals for the next day and hit the sack! What a life!

Manila’s traffic problems won’t go away, even as gasoline prices rise higher than ever before. More and more people are buying cars and more marques are opening dealerships to offer their wares to the car buying Filipino public. As the population moves upscale and can afford more and more luxuries such as personal vehicles, the only question left will be where can they enjoy them? More freeway systems are called for but the disruption caused during construction can be immense. I remember back in 1997 while the Skyway and the Ortigas overpass were being built, the traffic was just as bad as today, and there were fewer cars on the roads! Getting rid of the jeepneys and death-rattle buses is one answer, but hard on the lower income earners who need cheap mass transport. More light rail is another possible solution, but again construction will be a pain. Meanwhile, be as Filipino as you can, smile and go with the flow!