[Small House in a Big World] Old houses, new prices

The column reflects the view of the writer

By Viktor Chong

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Beauty is a subjective assessment. The same way a monkey holds no value for a flower or a piece of art that bears little meaning to the eyes of the uncultured. Alone, I sat on an old table, sipping a cup of white coffee while my eyes explored every crack on the walls of a pre-Merdeka coffee shop in Penang.

There was something about the chipped paint on the walls, or the pattern of the broken down tiles. Sitting there, I can imagine the silhouette of a Chinese man on a rocking chair, smoking a pipe while his wife tended to the child. You could almost feel the forgotten sound of the past echoing along the grimy walls.

A week ago, I attended a property showcase featuring some apartments in Kuala Lumpur. Just like any other showcases, the exhibits were painted beautifully, with the furniture carefully placed to inflate its worth. Despite all the pomp and flair, something was missing. I couldn’t put my hands on the right word to describe the feeling. It felt dead.

And I believe property investors and home buyers felt it too. If we are to make a quick search on heritage properties, the average prices could start from above two million to five million, mainly in Penang! Already the entrepreneurial forces in Malaysia are working to convert such buildings into revenue generating machines such as cafes, coffee shops, hotels, museums and much more.

Who could have imagined that these broken down pre-Merdeka houses could actually put up a fight to the newly polished, better-designed homes.

The limited number of pre-Merdeka houses also meant that the market demand will always be more than the supply.

Investing in heritage properties does have its challenges. For starters, the structure of these buildings are delicate and maintenance work must be done carefully. Unlike newly built houses where defects are easier to discern, the faults in a heritage building might not be apparent.

Since these buildings are old, it is also normal for continuous maintenance and refurbishment to be done to maintain it. Maintenance cost for new build houses could be easily estimated based on its condition, but heritage buildings are a different ball game altogether.

The restoration work can only be done with specialist architects who are familiar with such buildings. Changes done to the outer and inner structure of the building must also be authentic to ensure the preservation of its value. Renovate too much, and the building’s history is lost. Renovate too little, and the building isn’t fit for habitation. It is a delicate balance that new property owners find confusing.

Despite the challenges arrayed against heritage property owners, many are still adamant of retaining these structures. The rise and rise of heritage building prices also reflect the sentiment that people appreciate such properties.

It is also a badge of pride as a heritage property owner is not merely a run of the mill property owner. That individual is a custodian of history, allowing our future generation a glimpse into the culture and value of our ancestors, who have laid the foundation for our future.

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