Non-permanent residents look outside Hong Kong for real estate opportunities

Government measures to cool property market, including extra stamp duty on non-resident buyers, have forced some expats to buy overseas

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 September, 2013, 3:24am

Chris Chan, a Singaporean who works for a property fund manager in Hong Kong, is looking for attractive real estate in the city.

But like many expatriates he currently finds it impossible to buy, and given the raft of restrictions placed on property purchases, and the high prices, he has instead invested a little over US$1 million in US property over the last year or so.

He's not alone. Although prices have dipped in Hong Kong, and developers are offering discounts on new projects, it's not enough to stem the exodus of capital.

Brokers and real-estate fund managers say many of their clients, particularly those hit by the 15 per cent tax on buyers who are not permanent residents in Hong Kong, have turned their attention overseas, and remain focused on the US and London in particular.

"There is a sense that the pendulum is swinging back to the US in terms of opportunity - you get better yield and value for money," Chan said. "Hong Kong has just priced itself out. With the capital controls, my view is that it hasn't gone down enough to warrant comparable investment in the US."

Chan, who is a portfolio manager at The Creations Group, first invested with three other buyers in a Miami penthouse. They flipped that for roughly a 5 per cent profit, net of fees, within a year to redirect the cash into an Atlanta office building that they anticipate will yield around 20 per cent per year.

Although Chan has more money to invest and owns his home in Hong Kong, he says the impositions here are a "huge disincentive". He finds both Hong Kong and Singapore overpriced at the moment, with too little supply.

North America led the way for the highest growth rate in real estate investment last year, up 22.9 per cent to US$290 billion compared with the prior year, according to figures from Cushman & Wakefield and Real Capital Analytics.

Developing Asia had the greatest amount of property investment in raw numbers, attracting US$315 billion, but the growth was just 5.9 per cent, while mature Asian markets saw investment fall 1.3 per cent, to US$123 billion and western Europe's US$179 billion was essentially flat, down 0.2 per cent.

Government figures show that the number of transactions in Hong Kong carried out by non-local buyers, whether individuals or companies, fell to 4.6 per cent of total transactions in Hong Kong, down from 13.6 per cent prior to the implementation of the tax, known as the "buyer's stamp duty".

Many observers believe the tax was mainly designed to curb investment by mainland Chinese buyers. Their participation fell from a high of 38.2 per cent of new-home sales in the third quarter of 2011 to 7.6 per cent in the first quarter of this year, according to figures from Centaline.

They then rallied to 13 per cent in the second quarter, although that is the second-lowest level of participation since early 2010.

But the restrictions have also hit other non-residents hard.

Chris Lane, who sells real estate for the property investment consultancy IP Global, says the slight correction in prices in Hong Kong - where prices have fallen 4 per cent from their peak, with most market watchers predicting declines of around 10 per cent for the year - has done little to change the direction of capital this year.

"Interest in safe-haven real-estate markets such as London and New York has skyrocketed since the introduction of the new stamp duties both here in Hong Kong and Singapore," Lane said. "There is still a huge appetite for property. However, I am finding even the most conservative local Hong Kong clients agree it's time to look overseas."

Lane has been affected by Hong Kong's regulations himself. With his wife expecting a second baby, he would like to upgrade to a bigger apartment but, since he is not a permanent resident, finds the price and the 15 per cent tax prohibitive.

"If I were a permanent resident, I would buy something unique and luxury right now as the price has come off a bit," Lane said. "Alas, as a foreigner in Hong Kong, I'm forced to invest overseas and continue to rent until the government shows some type of easing of their policy."

The curbs on property are affecting Hong Kong's competitiveness, property brokers say. Companies looking to locate regional headquarters are put off by the restrictions, while executives find they're unable to put down roots in the city.

"If you have to wait eight years to purchase a property, that's absolutely crazy," said Victoria Allan, who runs the brokerage Habitat Property. She noted that executives looking for high-end property essentially have to pay a premium of 23.5 per cent in Hong Kong - a rate that deters almost all buyers. "A lot of clients who would like to buy here but can't any more are buying in London," said Allan.