Agents bullish on UK property

BRITISH property is now at its most affordable level in 20 years, say Hongkong real estate agents whose business has taken off with the falling pound.

Pressure this week on the devalued pound sterling meant it stood at a sorry-looking HK$11.23, down from more than $15 to the pound about half a year ago.

But this has been good news for Hongkong buyers of British property, who have been getting considerably more for their money.

Falling capital values and British mortgage rates have also worked in their favour.

Average values have come off around 31 per cent from their peak and mortgage rates have fallen from 15.5 per cent to 8.5 per cent.

The latest cut in the base rate to six per cent last week has put renewed pressure on the pound.

And some observers believe there could even be a further base rate cut in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's budget statement.

The pound is expected to fall further in the weeks before the British budget next month, before perhaps rallying.

There has been a growing feeling in property that in this climate a recovery could finally be on the horizon.

Property prices may now have finally bottomed out in more popular areas such as central London and values could begin to rise.

However, no miracle price rebound is expected and any recovery should be slow and sedate.

Many estate agents' offices in Central reported their busiest month in three years in January.

Locally, Hamptons (Hongkong) reported a 30 per cent increase in inquiries for last month.

The majority of buying has come from Hongkong Chinese investors, as opposed to British expatriates.

''It's not just people from Hongkong who have been buying,'' said Hamptons' managing director, Mr David Coreth.

''The Singaporeans, for instance, have been buying heavily,'' he said. ''We've also seen some big buying recently from investors in countries like Germany and Italy.'' Overseas buyers have been principally interested in residential and commercial investment properties in central London where they have been able to attract rental yields of eight to 10 per cent.

Expatriate buyers from Hongkong have been generally more interested in suburban properties which they can live in when they eventually return to Britain to live.

''This is certainly the ideal buying time,'' said Mr Coreth, well aware of how many times that well-worn phrase is used in the industry.

Mr Jeremy Wallis-Frost, associate director of Savills (Hongkong), agreed.

He said: ''British property hasn't been more affordable for Hongkong buyers since 1973.

''The current climate means many Hongkong people have been able to afford something 30 or 40 per cent larger than they would have otherwise have bought.'' Savills also reported a significant increase in inquiries since December.

Mr Wallis-Frost said: ''We might see another base lending rate cut in the budget, which might kick-start the economy, but property prices are not likely to start recovering straight away.

''The time to look is 1993,'' he said. ''I think there might be a short jump back in values in either the latter part of this year or early 1994.''