Hong Kong real estate agents hit as policies to cool property prices dent deal volume

The city's property agents are fuming and are planning a protest after deal volume falls in the wake of government measures to cool red-hot market

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 July, 2013, 5:20am

Hong Kong real estate agents are united. On Sunday morning, agents from big and small firms will march to government headquarters at Tamar in Admiralty to protest against measures designed to cool the property market which, they say, have affected their livelihoods.

The protest is supported by industry leaders Centaline Property Agency and Midland Realty as well as associations representing smaller agencies. The industry is calling on the government to scrap the measures.

"The entire industry, both big and small agents, is suffering," said Centaline founder Shih Wing-ching.

Shih blames a decline in transaction volumes on measures introduced by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying after he took office a year ago. The policies aim to curb soaring residential and non-residential property prices.

Centaline Property Agency said its agents recorded 11 secondary market transactions in the top 10 estates over the June 29-July 1 long weekend, down 31 per cent from the previous two-day weekend.

About 200 primary units have been sold in the seven new projects put on sale since the new Residential Properties (First-hand Sales) Ordinance came into effect just over two months ago.

"No one buys. No one rents. The market is dead," said Lai Chau-lin, in her early 60s, who works for a small property agency, Pak Shing Real Estate.

"I earned HK$1,100 in commission in February. That was my entire salary for the month and the lowest monthly income I've earned in the past 10 years."

Lai brokered one or two deals a month from March to June, for leases on sub-divided and regular units, earning between HK$3,000 and HK$5,000 a month after sharing the commissions with her boss.

"When the market was good, we had no time to go out for lunch because clients kept calling to look for flats," she said. "Today, I do not dare to go out for lunch because I have no money."

Sales of second-hand homes rose 23.9 per cent month on month to 3,314 units in June, compared with 2,674 in May, according to Centaline. The figures reflect the market conditions in May because of a time lag of about four weeks between buying a property and registering the sale. In April, there were 2,171 deals for second-hand homes.


'The number once hit as high as 9,000 in March last year," said Lai.

The implementation of the ordinance on April 29 affected the market.

New rules required greater transparency in property sales procedures, with developers having to publish sales brochures seven days before the official sale period and price lists three days before the launch, to give potential buyers time to study the details of offerings.

Agents said developers needed time to get used to the new rules. They said they expected sales to continue to be slow in the coming months. Sales of offices, shops and industrial properties have also declined.

Total property transactions, including residences, offices, shops and car parks, fell 12.7 per cent month on month in June to 4,616, according to Land Registry figures. The year-on-year decline was 45 per cent.

There were 8,302 transactions in January, 9,643 in February and 6,841 in March.

The fall in sales follows Leung's pledge to make flats more affordable for Hong Kong residents.

Hong Kong's housing prices have surged 120 per cent from 2008 and 34 per cent from their peak in 1997, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah said on February 22, when he announced the latest round of property cooling measures.

Hong Kong is one of the least affordable property markets in the world, with an average home costing the equivalent of 12.6 times an average annual income, according to an International Monetary Fund report in January.

On February 22, Leung's administration made good on its pledge and Tsang announced the doubling of stamp duty on residential and non-residential transactions worth more than HK$2 million. The stamp duty did not apply to those buying homes for the first time.

In a package of measures announced the same month, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, the city's de facto central bank, announced its sixth round of measures to rein in housing prices since 2009, requiring banks to test borrowers' ability to repay mortgages on the assumption that interest rates would rise by 3 percentage points, instead of 2 percentage points previously.

It also lowered the maximum allowable loan-to-value ratio for non-residential property to 40 per cent from 50 per cent for locals. It also capped mortgages for car parks at 40 per cent of their value, down from 50 per cent, and reduced their repayment terms to 15 years from 20 years.

The steps were the first taken by the HKMA that dealt with non-residential loans. In October, a 15 per cent levy on non-local and corporate property buyers, known as buyer's stamp duty, was introduced.

That same month, the government raised a special stamp duty on sellers, introduced in 2010 to curb speculation, by 5 percentage points, and extended its effect on resales from two to three years. The rates now range from 10 to 20 per cent.

Major domestic agencies and international property consultants are diversifying their businesses.

Property consultant Savills, which until now had focused on brokering big-ticket property transactions and introducing overseas properties to Hong Kong buyers, is now expanding its sales force as it moves to enter the mass housing market.

"Small players will be forced out of the market," said Raymond Lee, chief executive of Savills, Greater China. "There are 40,000 real estate agents. One third will be forced out of the market."

Not all industry players agree the measures should be axed.

"The cooling measures are not targeted at agents, but the red-hot property market," said Ringo Lam Chun-chiu, valuation director at AG Wilkinson & Associates. "In the face of rising property prices, it is good to see the government impose measures to cool the market."

Professor Chau Kwong-wing, from the department of real estate and construction at the University of Hong Kong, said the decline in transaction volumes had affected the market.

"Property agents are being hit hardest, followed by related industries such as solicitors, surveyors and those who refurbish flats," he said. "Some will be forced out."

Chau said the weakening of these sectors would not result in a slowdown in Hong Kong's economy.

"Instead, Hong Kong's economy will be hit by external factors such as the global economy and the mainland's economic growth."