Roll out welcome mat
New Zealand has no plans to chase away foreign buyers, writes Peta Tomlinson
Foreign investors can be a soft target. Real estate in relatively sound or "safe" locations has appeal for just about anyone with money, and when property markets overheat, the finger tends to be pointed at wealth from abroad.
Wherever foreign investment is prevalent in property markets, we've seen the reaction of late. Singapore, Canada, Malaysia - and soon Britain, reportedly - have jumped on the overseas buyer disincentive bandwagon. But not, it seems, New Zealand. Its markets are running hot - specifically, Auckland, where home prices are 27 per cent above the previous peak in 2007. Overseas buyers are active, judging by reports.
But rather than cook the offshore golden goose, New Zealand has looked closer to home to bring price rises back to sustainable levels: its "speed limits", or higher loan-to-value (LVR) mortgage lending, aimed at local borrowers.
Not everyone is happy with the Reserve Bank of New Zealand's decision, but Fitch Ratings Agency argues that even if the LVR reforms have limited impact on mortgage demand and house prices, they should help improve financial stability by lessening the risks of borrowers falling into negative equity in the event that house prices fall.
And property agents are pleased that the welcome mat is still out for overseas investors.
Ross Hawkins of New Zealand Sotheby's International Realty says foreign buyers, particularly from China, are more active than ever.
"We have more Chinese living in New Zealand or looking to move or invest through our open homes than we have local New Zealanders," he says. "Our websites are getting many inquiries from Chinese also."
Quality of life is a major attraction, Hawkins finds. "The lifestyle is very special, as we have a large coastline for a small country. Much of the landscape is native bush and forests. Our beaches and islands deliver an idyllic summer lifestyle, and winter offers great alpine sports, including world-class skiing. We have a safe environment here in New Zealand, and the country is very clean and green. Also, our population is low compared to other countries, which is a big drawcard.
"The northern hemisphere has many problems, including nuclear accidents, which are harming the environment and the health of populations, so this is also a big factor for immigration to our country."
There are practical factors as well. While young Kiwis might not consider property in their homeland to be cheap, Chinese have remarked that for what it costs to buy a house on Auckland's North Shore, they would only be able to buy a small apartment in Beijing.
Nick Horton, director of Luxury Real Estate, also sees this. "New Zealand is on the [overseas buyer] radar, particularly Auckland. The Chinese investment profile seems to include schools/universities and other infrastructure nearby.
"Also, with the strong Chinese community in Auckland, they are probably most comfortable in that location," he says. Luxury Real Estate is among the local companies offering bespoke property tours to potential buyers from overseas. Horton points out that investing in property in New Zealand is easy, fast and has very low transaction costs. "If you like a property and are sure you want to buy it, and the owner accepts your offer, the whole transaction could be processed within 24 hours," he says.
"'There are no government or council approvals required, and no stamp duty or other transaction costs - all you need is to employ a lawyer to assist with the transfer of title."
Another Auckland company, Property Asia Realty, sets out to help new immigrants from Asia invest in New Zealand property. Agent Sylvia Williams says their tours, held roughly six times a year, are attended mostly by Chinese mainlanders who may not commit on the first visit, but are likely to do so later on. "They like our weather, the schooling system, and find our people friendly," Williams says. "They buy a mixture of apartments and houses, and some are also buying purely for investment."
Sotheby's International Realty sales reflect a preference for apartments with freehold title close to universities, and freehold houses, where buyers own the land, "in our good school zones".
"This indicates that the Chinese like our education system," Hawkins says. "Many are buying as investments and renting the properties out, as they can get around 5 per cent return on investment."
Such is the demand that Martin Dunn, managing director of Auckland apartment specialist City Sales, has 11 Chinese members among his 50 staff. He estimates that 10 to 15 per cent of the company's sales are to offshore Chinese buyers.
"These clients are predominantly in Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and the properties are managed by City Sales," he says.
"Chinese immigrants are in addition to this but mainly [buy] for children at university, as immigrant families tend to opt for the unrealised suburban dream of their own home with gardens and lawns. They do not reside as families in the central business district [CBD] apartment market. These families will often then invest in rental apartments once they are established because they value the simplicity and high returns."
Auckland's CBD comprises 26,000 apartments in 450 buildings, with 3,000 new apartments being sold off plan now, Dunn says. Auckland is in an "early, unprecedented growth stage" with expatriate locals returning to a now-strong economy - this, combined with normal immigration and population growth, is putting pressure on Auckland accommodation. "Auckland Council has stated that an additional 170,000 dwellings are needed within 15 years, and double that within 30 years - all on a geographically land-constricted isthmus," Dunn says.
An example of development activity is SugarTree, a three-building apartment complex between Nelson and Union streets in the CBD. The first stage of 152 one and two-bedroom apartments should be completed by December, followed by phases two and three, each a year later. The estimated rental of an apartment above NZ$300,000 (HK$2 million) is around NZ$400 per week, which after fees and rates, gives an approximate 5 per cent return "and, we believe, capital gain", Dunn says.
Meanwhile, property agents are bracing for a new wave of interest following cooling measures in other countries, such as Canada's scrapping of its Investment Visa Scheme. "[Canada's decision] will certainly send more investors onto our shores," Hawkins says.
What you can buy for NZ$1.35 million
The starting price at Ford Residences, 12 luxury, three-bedroom apartments to be built in a leafy courtyard at 28 York Street, Auckland. These residences "will set new architectural standards" at a premier residential address, site of The Colonial Motor Company's original Model T Ford assembly plant.
What you can buy for NZ$309,500
Penthouse studio 1003 at SugarTree, Freeman's Bay fringe, Auckland central business district. The suite commands westerly views over the Ponsonby Ridge to the Waitakare Ranges, and sunsets over the Upper Harbour and Harbour Bridge.