Chinese Buyers Look Again at U.K. Property
By WEI GU, ESTHER FUNG and DOMINIQUE FONG
June 28, 2016 2:12 p.m. ET
〔The Wall Street Journal〕As turmoil continues to grip U.K. markets, some in China are starting to look at the British market for potential bargains.
Zhu Mei, a wealthy investor from Shenzhen in the country’s southeast, has been looking to buy a home in Japan for a while. But after Friday’s surprise referendum result sent the pound plunging and the yen—a haven currency—soaring, she is having second thoughts.
“Buying in London seems to be a better opportunity now,” said Ms. Zhu, who already owns multiple properties in China and wants to diversify her wealth internationally.
“Many of my friends have bought properties in the U.K. or the U.S., where they see their children will be educated,” said Ms. Zhu, who has two pre-school age children. “London is a safe place to park money in the long run.”
If people like Ms. Zhu now start looking at the U.K. property market, it will represent a turnaround from the trend so far this year. Foreign interest in British real estate has been declining thanks mainly, analysts say, to the uncertainty surrounding the referendum as well as already-high property prices.
Asian investment in U.K. commercial property fell by 28% in terms of value in the first quarter compared with the same period a year earlier, according to Real Capital Analytics, a data provider. The value of investments in both commercial and residential properties combined was down by 2% in the same period.
“A combination of the referendum and pricing have started to weigh on volume,” said David Green-Morgan, research director at Jones Long LaSalle Global Capital Markets. “After seven to eight years of good investment volume, pricing was towards the top of the market.”
London house prices rose by 14.5% year on year in April, taking the average home value to £470,025 ($621,640), according to the U.K.’s Land Registry.
Yet the pound’s drop since Friday—it was still trading near a three-decade low against the dollar on Tuesday despite a small rebound—could now encourage bargain-hunters.
The number of so-called leads from Chinese home-seekers for U.K. properties last week doubled from the week before, according to Juwai.com, a real-estate website based in Shanghai that allows Chinese buyers to browse residential and commercial properties around the world. Leads indicate that a buyer was interested enough in a property to contact a real-estate agent or developer.
One Juwai.com listing currently popular among interested Chinese buyers is a three-bedroom, 93-square-meter condo in London’s Canary Wharf financial district. Residents in that building get access to a gym, swimming pool, spa and a sky bar on the 22nd floor. Listed for £899,950, since last Thursday it has become more than 10% cheaper in yuan terms thanks to the weaker pound.
In recent years, people in cities from Vancouver, B.C., to San Francisco to Sydney have attributed a rise in property values at least in part to Chinese buyers. The contention has stirred resentment among some potential domestic buyers who feel priced out of their own cities.
The bulk of Chinese buyers still hunt for homes in the U.S. and in Australia. Roughly 40% of Chinese inquiries through Juwai.com are for U.S. property, about 30% are for Australian housing, and roughly 10% are for U.K. real estate.
Chinese companies already are significant buyers of office space in the U.K. From the start of 2014 to the first quarter of 2016, Chinese entities ranked behind only buyers from the U.S. in terms of acquisitions of London commercial property, with a total transaction value of $5.8 billion, according to JLL.
Chinese companies have invested in landmarks such as the Lloyd’s Building and Tower Place in recent years. In 2014, Prime Minister David Cameron said Dalian Wanda Group, a property developer headed by one of China’s richest men, would invest up to £3 billion.
China Vanke Co., the nation’s biggest developer of residential property, which has invested in London since 2015, said on Friday it is still positive about the city’s prospects, saying there might be an opportunity to invest in quality projects during the market volatility. Chinese conglomerate Fosun Group, which has multiple investments in Europe, including in property, said it will “proactively grab opportunities for value investments" when property buying opportunities arise.
Still, industry experts expect a period of caution. One concern is that the referendum result will lead major companies, particularly big international banks, to leave the U.K. Another worry is the possibility of a post-Brexit recession in the U.K., which could also see property prices fall.
“On the commercial side, people will pause to see how the political and economic landscape play out,” said Mr. Green-Morgan. “On the residential side, we expect the next few weeks will see an increased level of inquiry.”
Chinese investors who have already bought property in the U.K. could suffer as the pound’s drop hits both the value of their homes and any rental income they earn.
Chen Tao, a mainland investor who works in Hong Kong’s financial sector, says she feels lucky that she sold one of her London apartments two years ago, at a 30% gain. She says she will hold on to another two-bedroom apartment she purchased for £780,000 about four years ago. It is now worth £1 million.
“The currency goes up and down, but I expect London property prices to hold their value,” said Ms. Chen, who travels to London often for work.