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New leaders in Beijing face tough decision on property

Curbs introduced in 2010 to cool the market have worked, but home prices are still too high for the average buyer and growth has slowed

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2012, 3:16am

The prospect of a housing surge is fraying mainland policymakers' nerves.

Alarmed by ballooning values - and the growing frustration of average citizens fearful of never owning a home - the central government in 2010 introduced curbs to cool the nation's overheated real estate market. It worked. Tighter credit, a crackdown on speculators and limits on purchases of second homes slowed price rises and stopped some developments cold.

But those moves also put the brakes on the hard-charging mainland economy, which relies heavily on construction and real estate activity. Last week, Beijing announced that third-quarter gross domestic product growth eased to 7.4 per cent from a year earlier, the slowest pace in 3-1/2 years.

Mainland leaders now face some tough choices. Do they rev up the housing market to create jobs and boost economic growth, even if it means fuelling class tensions and a potentially dangerous real estate bubble?

"A lot of things like steel-making, coal and construction equipment have taken a huge hit from the fall-off in real estate and would presumably be boosted by a recovery," said Patrick Chovanec, an economist at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

"The only reason they're not boosting real estate is that the alternative is actually worse."

Real estate agent Wang Yu longs for the return of the go-go years.

She works at a luxury housing development on the outskirts of Chengdu, a booming metropolis of 14 million people in the southwest. Modelled after a European village, the project, known as Salzberg, boasts faux Tuscan villas and cobblestoned streets named after composers such as Strauss and Schubert.

On a recent weekday, the sales office was empty. Outside, a mangy dog sunned itself near a dry fountain with a statue of Beethoven. Wang said demand dried up when the government made it tougher for buyers to qualify for mortgages. Nearly a quarter of the development's 145 houses remained unsold, she said, including the most expensive property, a 3,800-square-foot home priced at US$800,000.

"A few years ago, people would get loans," Wang said.

He Kunwei, a senior broker at 21st Century real estate in Chengdu, said he was also struggling; his sales numbers were down more than half since last year.

Despite the government's efforts, housing remains expensive and out of reach for most mainlanders.

The average annual salary in Beijing, the highest in the country, was US$8,900 last year. Meanwhile, the average price of a typical 100-square-metre home in nine coveted cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, is slightly more than US$192,000, according to SouFun, the mainland's largest real estate website. That is about 45 per cent higher than it was three years ago.

Prime property in the capital can cost well into the millions of dollars.

Popular novelist Mo Yan, the winner of this year's Nobel Prize in literature, joked about the problem in an interview with state media that ricocheted through social media.

The author, whose works are laced with social criticism, said he would use his US$1.2 million in Nobel winnings to buy property in the capital.

"I'm getting ready to buy a house in Beijing, a big house," Mo said, according to a translation by China Digital Times, a US website. "But then I've been warned I won't be able to get anything that big."

It remains to be seen whether the nation's new leaders, to be named next week in a once-in-a-decade handover, will change course on real estate.

Among their considerations: local officials are desperate to revive the market because their budgets rely heavily on land sales to generate revenue.

The real estate boom has also generated resentment among many average Chinese. Luxury apartments are viewed by some as the spoils of the privileged - and the corrupt. Just last month, state media said an urban management official in Guangdong was under investigation after it was found that he owned 21 homes valued at US$6.3 million. His official salary: US$1,500 a month.

Experts say the central government is wary of tensions arising from the growing wealth gap.

"They learned their lessons from 2010, when they ended up with a very dangerous situation with public anger," said Rosealea Yao, an analyst for GaveKal Dragonomics, a Beijing research company.

"The government's credibility was damaged then. This time around they will not let it happen again, even after the leadership transition."

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