People who bought flats in estates a stone's throw from the Qianhai experimental zone quickly came to regret their decision. They kept doors and windows firmly sealed to shut out the dust and incessant noise from container trucks traversing the nearby highway.
They were extremely bad investments … or so it seemed. Then the situation was transformed overnight.
Ou Yijian, senior property consultant at Midland Realty's branch in Qianhai Road, Nanshan district, said: "Two days after new Communist Party chief Xi Jinping visited the Qianhai experimental zone in December, the price of every flat that was put up for sale went up by as much as 2,000 yuan (HK$2,500) per square metre.
"Some owners even told us that they would no longer sell their flats as they expected prices to go up some more."
Over the past two months, investors from Hong Kong and elsewhere have begun a treasure hunt, betting that Beijing's ambitious plan to turn Qianhai into the "Manhattan of the Pearl River Delta" will provide a much-needed and long-awaited boost to Shenzhen's property market.
Under this grand scheme, 285 billion yuan has been earmarked to turn Shenzhen into a global logistics hub by 2015 and make Qianhai, a 15 sq km development zone an hour by car from Hong Kong, a global centre for supply-chain management.
The South China Morning Post recently visited three flats within walking distance of the experimental zone. An 88-square-metre bare shell flat in the Yi Yun Ban Shan housing project was on sale at 2.8 million yuan, or 31,818 yuan per square metre. A couple of weeks earlier, flats of a similar size were going for 2.21 million yuan. The new price represents a 24 per cent increase.
"With limited choice, buyers have to raise their offers to match the increases sought by the sellers. Otherwise, it would be difficult to buy one," Ou said.
Andy Lee Yiu-chi, head of the Shenzhen branch of Centaline Property Agency, said Qianhai became a selling point for the marketing of new residential projects in Shenzhen.
Nanshan and Baoan - two districts close to Qianhai where prices rose by as much as 30 per cent last year - have outperformed other districts in Shenzhen.
Optimists like Lee Wee Liat, the head of research at BNP Paribas, expect home prices in areas close to Qianhai to increase to as much as 100,000 yuan per square metre over the next five to seven years.
"Qianhai is just like Shanghai's Pudong, where most of the luxury residential and commercial projects were being built in the city's new financial hub. History will repeat itself in the Qianhai experimental zone. With low-tax incentives, it will not only attract multinational corporations to set up headquarters but also expatriates who already work on the mainland to move there. It will create housing demand," he said.
"The property market in Shenzhen will be the talking point for the next two years."
At present, prices in Nanshan - a luxury residential area - range between 60,000 and 70,000 yuan per square metre.
"It would not be a surprise to have 30 to 40 per cent growth over the next five to seven years when the Qianhai project is up and running," Lee said.
Then, Qianhai may lure some companies away from Hong Kong's office leasing market, especially those based in secondary locations like Causeway Bay and Quarry Bay as companies bypass Hong Kong to set up there.
"Qianhai certainly has come on the radar of a number of large occupiers in Hong Kong," said Craig Shute, senior managing director, CBRE Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
"The physical size of the development, its proximity and the incentives for certain business sectors have stirred corporate interest, particularly given the lack of space in Hong Kong. However, more specific details relating to eligibility and the practicalities of carrying out business there are needed to quantify the attraction for Hong Kong occupiers."
As one of the roles that Qianhai is due to play is to help with the internationalisation of the yuan, some companies based in Hong Kong may see it as a good option for back-office operations and activities specific to the mainland, Shute said.
"However, this is not to downplay its potential as a major office hub, which would increase with greater collaboration between Hong Kong and the wider Pearl River Delta region.
"Furthermore, should the acute lack of supply persist in Hong Kong, more companies will take a very keen interest in developments in Qianhai."