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Mainland whims fire up HK real estate

HONG KONG: For most people in Hong Kong, a flat means a nest egg, refuge, family home — and usually all these things rolled into one.

But for many wealthy mainlanders who have splashed out on some of the city's priciest apartments, they mean something quite different.

Many do not plan to live in them in the immediate future, some view their new acquisitions as holiday homes, while the super rich may just use them to store designer handbags.

Shi Aobing, who owns a shoe-making firm in Wenzhou , recalled how his wife ended up buying a flat during one of her shopping trips to Hong Kong three years ago.

He said she bought an 800 sq ft flat at The Arch at Kowloon station — a favourite among mainland buyers — for about HK$10 million (RM3.99 million).

"We haven't lived there. We don't plan to move to Hong Kong because we have permanent residency in Singapore, where my kids are studying. We bought it for an investment and it's done well so far," said Shi, referring to steady rises in luxury property prices.

Shi is part of a stream of buyers who have become increasingly active in the city's luxury market, driving prices sky-high in the process.

Overall, home prices in the secondary market have jumped 47.9% since January last year, prompting Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to announce a string of measures to cool the housing market in his annual policy address.

From October 14, applicants for the Capital Investment Entrant Scheme (CIES) — 79% of these come from the mainland — are no longer able to use real estate as an investment category. The government has also raised the minimum investment under the scheme from HK$6.5 million to HK$10 million.

Other measures intended to take the heat out of the market include increasing the supply of land. The government plans to offer enough sites to build 20,000 private flats a year. It also plans to build 5,000 small and medium flats under a scheme called "My home purchase plan" and lease them to eligible applicants at market rents for up to five years. A subsidy equivalent to half the rent paid by tenants will form part of the down payment to buy the homes.

In the first half of the year, mainlanders bought more than one in three new luxury flats in Hong Kong, figures from Centaline Property Agency last week show.

Edward Cheung Siu-chuen, chairman of 18 Property Agency, said the value of a Hong Kong property only accounted for a small portion of mainland buyers' assets.

"They travel, they shop and then they buy flats," he said. "They don't need any particular purpose for the purchase. They just leave the flats there after the purchases, waiting for capital values to rise. They use the flats as holiday homes."

Some of the extremely well-heeled do not even do that. "I have a client who bought an 800 sq ft flat in The Cullinan at Kowloon station about a year ago," Cheung said. "She has never lived there. The flat is full of the big brands she has bought. She buys too many big brands every time she comes here. She can't take it all back home to Zhejiang province so she leaves the stuff in the flat. As time goes by, the flat has become a storage room."

Such extravagance has a hefty price; an 837 sq ft flat at The Cullinan currently costs about HK$12 million.

James Wang, who was born in Xian and turned 48 this year, runs a law firm in Shenzhen. His family of four secured Hong Kong residency under the Capital Investment Entrant Scheme early this year. Wang first invested HK$6.5 million in stocks and other financial products, and only bought a house in May after obtaining residency.

He paid HK$24 million for the 4,500 sq ft Tung Chung property, which has a garden. "I'll probably leave the house empty rather than lease it out. Anyway, it will take a year to decorate the house," he said.

Wang does not plan to move to Hong Kong until his daughter, 10, starts secondary school in two years. "I want them to study in a Hong Kong international school," Wang, who has a seven-year-old son, said.

Wang said the removal of real estate from eligible investments under CIES would not stop mainlanders from applying for residency rights as "we aren't speculating in property".

He believed people preferred to flip flats — buy and sell quickly for profit — in Shenzhen.

"The rise in the minimum investment threshold ... to HK$10 million shouldn't affect those who want to move to Hong Kong," Wang said. "If they don't like Hong Kong, they won't come even if there's no restriction in its immigration policy. But if they like Hong Kong, they don't mind — whether they have to invest HK$6.5 million or HK$10 million."

Thomas Kut, chief executive of Midland Immigration Consultancy, said the number of CIES applications dropped up to 40% a week after the new rules took effect.

"It will take one or two months for them to digest the news," he said. "They will then resume their applications. We have received lots of inquiries about the new policy."

The Immigration Department said it had received 14,102 applications under the scheme up to September, of which 11,240 were from mainlanders. The scheme has attracted HK$57.82 billion in investment, of which HK$18.96 billion, or 32%, was in real estate.

Sun Hung Kai Real Estate Agency executive director Victor Lui said mainland buyers still saw buying property as their main investment abroad and he did not expect a significant change.

"We don't see a big impact on our sales," he said. "Many of them are not buying properties for immigration purposes." Businessmen travelling between Hong Kong and the mainland accounted for 40% of sales at the firm's luxury house development Valais, where houses cost more than HK$20 million, he said.

The developer has earned more than HK$8 billion from the sale of 280 houses at the Valais project.

Anna Chong, 37, a registered nurse from Beijing, bought a flat for her own use. She and her husband arrived in Hong Kong five years ago.

The couple had been renting a 1,300 sq ft flat in Tung Chung for HK$13,000 a month. "But the landlord decided to take it back for reselling, so we decided to buy one as we have seen our friends buy properties one by one," she said.

In July, they bought a 1,300 sq ft flat in Tung Chung for HK$5.07 million with a monthly mortgage instalment similar to their previous rent of HK$13,000 a month.

"After a month or two, we received a purchase offer of HK$6 million from property agents but we turned them down," she said.

Theoretically, it should be difficult for mainlanders to buy Hong Kong property because the yuan is not freely convertible and Beijing maintains strict controls over individuals converting yuan into foreign currency, including the Hong Kong dollar.

But these limits are easily circumvented to buy expensive flats in the city. Property agents cite a variety of ways mainlanders manage to transfer money into Hong Kong for investments, such as via credit card transactions, funds transfers between companies that trade in Hong Kong and the mainland, parallel accounts, the mainland's underground banking system, and using friends to physically smuggle currency. — South China Morning Post
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