POINT OF LAW

Investors need to act fast with caution

Jeremy Liebster, of DLA Piper in Hong Kong, talks about real estate investment in London

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 August, 2013, 4:32am

London's continued importance as a global centre of commerce means property in the city is viewed by many Hong Kong and mainland buyers as a safe asset at a time of global uncertainty.

This means that even with some commercial rental yields now falling to as low as 4 per cent, demand is showing no signs of abating. And while supply is limited, new iconic buildings in London such as the Shard and the Cheesegrater have added renewed interest to the city's property scene.

London is also a place where it is easy to do business and, in particular, buy property. Title records at the Land Registry contain plans and clearly show details of ownerships, mortgages and encumbrances while the English legal system is widely understood and generally seen as reliable and transparent.

 

What about tax?

Corporation tax rates are falling and will soon be at 20 per cent, while stamp duty land tax on commercial property is generally payable at 4 per cent of the purchase price. The government collects taxes in an organised and efficient way and surprise taxes are rare. While bespoke tax planning is still possible, aggressive anti-avoidance schemes are unlikely to work on the back of the general anti-avoidance rule. Note that it is no longer attractive to buy high-value residential property in a corporate vehicle as this is now subject to high stamp duty land tax (at 15 per cent), capital gains tax on sale and an annual property tax depending on the value of the property.

 

Is everything in London rosy for property investors?

Not quite. Demand for offices, prime retail and high-end residential accommodation continues unabated. But retail areas outside the prime London shopping streets do face the continued prospect of tenant insolvencies and rental voids.

 

What does the frenzied demand for property mean for a prospective investor?

Act fast. Property is in short supply and sellers will want buyers to move quickly. If buyers are getting funding from a bank, they should make sure terms are agreed with it as soon as possible. And buyers should make sure the bank has everything they need to do due diligence. It may also well be worth buyers pressing at an early stage for an exclusivity agreement with the sellers for a set period of time. If the seller breaches, the buyer could potentially get back its costs and damages for "loss of bargain".

 

Anything to watch out for?

English leases are generally longer and more detailed than equivalents in Hong Kong and on the mainland. Lawyers for investment buyers need to review all tenant leases to make sure what the buyer is getting matches expectations and the sales particulars provided by the agent.

Investment buyers should also be careful to check the financial standing of tenants they will be inheriting. Even if demand for space in the relevant location is high, a buyer does not ideally want to deal with an unforeseen void if a tenant goes insolvent.

We would also recommend that buyers get a survey done as soon as possible. While a late survey can be a tactical means of obtaining a last-minute price reduction, it is not unusual to see deals simply collapse at the last minute because structural issues are discovered.

Finally, if a buyer is thinking about potentially developing the property, ensure that lawyers and surveyors are informed at an early stage as they will need to check titles for building restrictions, order property searches from the local authority and think about any potential infringement to a neighbour's light access.

 

One more piece of advice for a buyer?

Visit the property at an early stage. We have seen several investment buyers who, on walking around a property just before signing, simply decided they did not like the property's feel and pulled out of the deal.

 

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