Asia's most wanted

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 September, 2008, 12:00am

Top-quality homes with views are in big demand and there is no shortage of buyers, especially from China, the Middle East and Russia

Beachfront villas, harbour view apartments and resort-inspired city condominiums are among Asia's most sought-after properties. In some markets, these scarce dwellings have proved, in recent months, to be recession resilient despite the falls in the mass housing sector.

The elements that make these properties valuable vary according to the market.

'In Hong Kong, it boils down to low-density apartments and luxury houses that have views and proximity to water, access to good facilities and closeness to international schools,' says Jane Murray, international director and Asia-Pacific head of research at Jones Lang LaSalle.

Charlotte Filleul, general manager of resort property at CB Richard Ellis in Thailand, says in resort environments, the criteria translates into beachfront hideaways within an hour's drive of an international airport, and management of the property by a renowned hospitality group that offers six-star luxury resort services.

Much of the recent growth in Asia's luxury real-estate sector has been driven by the wealth of the newly rich emerging from China, India, the Middle East and Russia, who having traditionally invested in European and United States properties, and are now eyeing the faster-growing Asian property market.

Cash-rich house buyers have little interest in lending rates and prospective returns. Instead, they are focused on snapping up premium and unique properties for their luxury lifestyles.

A case in point is Beaufort on Nassim, a luxury freehold development in Singapore launched last year, where close to half of the units were purchased by buyers from the Middle East, Russia and India.

Vivian Sze Mo-lan, assistant general manager of HKR International, the property's developer, says: 'These buyers have no concern for mortgages and are under no pressure to sell to realise their returns in a market downturn. Some of our Russian buyers never even came to look at the property. They only called and asked for the development's largest and best unit and then later sent their lawyers to Singapore to look and sign the paperwork.'

So wealthy are such buyers that not even the promise of a hefty return on their real estate gems offers much of an incentive to sell.

This trend is prevalent across much of Asia's luxury housing markets, though it is most pronounced in cash-rich Phuket where beachfront plots are fast running out, and there is little sign of a slowdown. Ms Filleul says: 'People who bought residences eight years ago for US$1 million to US$3 million at The Amanpuri, one of the first hotel resorts to offer the sale of private residences, can name their price today but it is virtually impossible to buy one of these properties. None are now available for sale.

'This says a lot about the group of people who have bought such properties. They are buying for the luxury lifestyle and are not interested in the property's capital appreciation and investment gains,' she says.

Ms Murray says that in Hong Kong, where only 3 per cent of total housing stock is considered luxury, growth in the high-end sector recently began to slow.

The definition of luxury properties in Hong Kong are those with a minimum saleable area of 1,700 sqft, according to Jones Lang LaSalle. 'China has underpinned the Hong Kong market and made the city less exposed globally though the full cycle has yet to fully play out,' she says, adding that the luxury market so far does not look as if it has been affected, but the prices have stabilised.

The full picture has yet to be fully realised.

Industry sources are optimistic luxury prices will consolidate rather than dip alongside the mass market as the scarcity of supply will lend some support to maintaining the market's momentum.

A total of 474 luxury residential units in Hong Kong are scheduled to come online this year, according to estimates from Jones Lang LaSalle, of which only about 36 per cent are on Hong Kong Island.

Ricky Poon, executive director of residential sales at Colliers International, says last year luxurious homes costing more than HK$100 million, in particular houses on The Peak, attracted mainland and local buyers in equal measure.

'Record prices in the past six to 12 months are always set on The Peak, with the last highest transaction at HK$56,000 per sqft earlier this year,' says Mr Poon, who believes the unit price on The Peak can still reach HK$60,000 per sqft next year.

Homeowner holding power is stronger due to the strong rental market, which is up 10 per cent so far this year, so Mr Poon says the majority of wealthy homeowners will opt to lease, not sell.

Ms Murray says: 'For now, the Hong Kong market appears to be more recession-proof than Singapore, but we will see more of an impact if there is a shakeout of the financial services sector, particularly if investment banks put their expansion plans on hold and bankers start losing their jobs.' Chua Yang Liang, Jones Lang LaSalle's head of research in Singapore, says the resale capital values of luxury units in Singapore have fallen 4.5 per cent in the second quarter in line with the Lion City's overall economic outlook.

'Singapore's export driven market, dependence on the US and a luxury sector that is largely foreign, driven by Indonesian and Malaysian buyers, has meant that there has been greater exposure to the gloomy global economy,' Mr Chua says, adding that resale values in the luxury and mass markets are expected to continue softening for the rest of the year with recovery dependent on the US.