HK's property market has gone 'crazy'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 March, 2010, 12:00am

Hardened property professionals are starting to scratch their heads and wonder if the eye-popping increases they are seeing in Hong Kong's real estate prices are for real. They call this an extremely tough time to say where Hong Kong real estate is headed.

On one hand developers, such as Sun Hung Kai Properties, are paying over the odds for land.

On the other, middle-class families say it's getting ridiculous when run-of-the-mill apartments are commanding close to HK$10,000 per square foot - previously a price you'd only see at the highest end of the market.

'It is the hardest time that I've ever had to try and predict [the direction of the market],' says Piers Brunner, chief executive for Asia at brokerage firm Colliers International.

'Who would have predicted it would have gone up 40 per cent at the luxury end? Nobody.'

'The market is very strange right now,' agrees a broker, who did not want to be identified because she is not authorised to talk to the media. 'Now the prices are not reasonable. So I feel it is crazy. People can't afford it.

'It is totally going to two extremes between the buyers and the sellers,' she adds.

For most of 2008, Hongkongers were pessimistic about the prospects for property in the city as the global financial crisis deepened.

The city's property market sold off quickly after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt in September 2008. Transactions all but stopped. However, it was a short-lived correction.

From February last year onwards, the market went on an extremely bullish run, adding 40.5 per cent for the calendar year, according to Knight Frank.

Mass-market apartments have outpaced luxury property so far this year, up 5.5 per cent in the two months through February, compared with 4.3 per cent gains for high-end real estate.

Knight Frank forecasts similar gains of 18 per cent for this year for the luxury end of the market, and 15 per cent for mass residential property.

These are strong showings when real estate markets around the world are still struggling to move into positive territory.

The fervour is extending to both ends of the scale. After strong sales at its Yoho Midtown development in Yuen Long, developer Sun Hung Kai Properties paid HK$3.4 billion for a mass-residential site in Tseung Kwan O last month - or HK$4,628 per square foot, just for the land.

That means the apartments will have to be priced at least at HK$6,600 per square foot for the developer to generate a reasonable profit on the 700 units it is likely to build.

At the high end of the scale, Larvotto - jointly developed by Sun Hung Kai Properties, Kerry Properties and Paliburg Holdings - is also expected to go on the market next month. The luxury property is a sea-front development in Ap Lei Chau.

The large apartments - all about 2,500 sqft - may command prices of HK$25,000 per square foot, or HK$60 million per flat. Both prices would represent record highs for the area.

Sun Hung Kai Properties may be hoping its bid also drives prices higher on another lot that it owns, called Area 56 in Tseung Kwan O, where it will develop 1,000 flats.

However, its bid may be symptomatic of a bigger problem.

'The developers are crazy, really,' one broker says. 'This is not long term, investors and developers now just want to make a quick profit.'

Other property professionals say there isn't enough housing stock in Hong Kong, particularly at the luxury end, where price seems to be no object. Even the recent increase in stamp duty on units worth more than HK$20 million, which takes effect on April 1, and tighter banking laws, already in place that require buyers to put down at least 40 per cent as a down payment, aren't expected to have much effect.

'It doesn't cost too much to stop people from buying,' says Rowena Siu, a senior manager with Landscope Realty. 'Because the interest rate is still relatively low, I think people would rather buy properties to keep for investment in the second half of this year as well.' That's the kind of polar-opposite views that characterise Hong Kong property right now.

Half the people you talk to are bulls, such as Sun Hung Kai Properties, and expect at least two years of solid gains. However, veteran investor Jim Rogers, now based in Singapore, says he would short property in both Hong Kong and the mainland. Real estate in Hong Kong and Shanghai are 'must-not-haves', he believes.

'If you are taking the broad spectrum of it, there is a dichotomy of views,' Brunner says.

'Honestly, as a practitioner in the business, I should know where it's going, but I can't tell you.'

Besides working at Colliers, Brunner also runs a small fund which owns 32 apartments in Mid-Levels which it rents out, mainly to young professionals. That market took a beating in the downturn caused by Lehman's going bust, since financial companies that pay the best salaries to those kind of workers were slashing headcount.

But the dip was short-lived and the value of the apartments has risen dramatically.

Now, rents are starting to rise, too. Brunner is looking to sell some or all of the fund's holdings, worrying this may be a peak in the market.

There's added pressure for funds and similar institutional investors that have a set lifespan.

Even if this isn't the absolute peak, it's unlikely that the fund will have time to ride out any kind of downturn, if it comes.

'We're selling partly because of time pressure, and partly because we are taking profit,' Brunner says.

'Should I be waiting another six months and trying to get a little more out of the market? Locking in the profit now is probably the most sensible move.'