Real Estate Development

Builders Travel to Asia to Court Buyers for New London Homes

Bettina Wassener
Erik Isakson | Rubberball | Getty Images

Wanted: deep-pocketed Asian investors for fledgling London property developments.

In the past few weeks, at least seven London developers have flown east to places like Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to persuade wealthy Asians to buy new residential sites in London as building there picks up after the financial crisis.

British developers now routinely start their marketing in Asian cities, a classic example of the shift in the world's economic center of gravity in recent years. On the one hand is Britain, a languishing economy with high unemployment whose residents are wary of purchasing property. On the other is Asia, whose economies are powering ahead and whose consumers are increasingly affluent and in search of places to park their cash.

"We've got the product. Asians have got the appetite," said Gary Patrick, regional sales director at Barratt, a developer that exhibited a London site in Hong Kong last month. "The industry as a whole is stepping up marketing in Asia."

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At its marketing event at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong, Land Securities, a British property developer, served up mini-scones and a three-dimensional model of an upscale residential site it plans to build on Victoria Street, a short distance from Buckingham Palace.

A week later, the company behind the redevelopment of the Battersea Power Station, whose hulking red-brick structure and towering chimneys appeared on the cover of a Pink Floyd album, set up a large interactive map that lit up, upon request, subway stations and bus stops.

And buyers in search of a home near Tower Bridge had not just one, but two, property displays to choose from, as developers took their models, price lists and images around Asia.

Visitors to the shows had not just come to stare: They took notes, evaluated options, huddled with calculator-wielding real estate agents — and not infrequently paid, then and there, the reservation fees required to secure apartments. Scores of people put down initial deposits for apartments at the Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore events for the Battersea Power Station development, for example.

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"Sales have gone extremely well," said Rob Tincknell, the chief executive of the company developing the site, just south of the River Thames in West London.

The cost of staging marketing events of this kind — involving newspaper advertisements, rentals of function rooms and flights for teams of executives and agents — can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Despite that, such events have become more and more common in recent years, industry executives say, as soaring property prices in Asia and currency exchange rates have made affluent Asian buyers more eager to consider purchasing properties outside their region.

Diana Fung, a housewife who used to work in information technology, attended one of the recent property exhibits in Hong Kong to research what would be her first property purchase in Britain.

"Nothing big, just 500 square feet or so," she said, referring to a space of about 45 square meters. Her older daughter, she explained, recently graduated from a university in Manchester. The goal is for her younger daughter to get an education in Britain as well.

"We hope one day maybe she can live there and that we can come for visits," Ms. Fung said, poring over a 3-D model of a soon-to-be-built apartment building.

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A few steps away, a couple accompanied by their daughter and her grandfather were several steps ahead in the process: They had just put down the reservation fee for an apartment. The family did not want to be identified for privacy reasons, but like Ms. Fung, they said the thinking was that the young girl would one day study in Britain and that the apartment could be rented out until that day.

Education is one of the reasons that London has long been a favorite destination for Asians looking to buy property. Many people from former British colonies like Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, in particular, know Britain well. Many studied there and hope their children will too.

The city's international makeup, frequent flights linking it to numerous Asian cities and a tax system that favors overseas investors all add to London's appeal.

"It's very easy for foreigners to buy in the U.K. — that is one of the major attractions," said Mr. Patrick of Barratt, which is planning to build a large residential site in Fulham, West London. "There is huge demand."

At the same time, the fact that Asian investors are generally comfortable with buying "off plan" — having seen only floor plans and renderings of apartment buildings that have yet to be built — makes them popular with developers, for whom the early commitments mean access to crucial funding.

Asian buyers also tend to be fond of newly built homes, industry watchers say. The real estate consulting firm Knight Frank estimated last month that buyers from mainland China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore had bought nearly half of all newly built apartments in central London in the past year.

Developers have been visiting Asia for more than 15 years to market properties. In Hong Kong, for example, the looming handover from British rule to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 "really got the ball rolling" in terms of Hong Kong purchasers, said Paul Vallone, managing director at Berkeley Homes, which is building an upscale residential building just south of Tower Bridge in London.

Over the past few years, however, there has been a marked pickup.

One reason, industry and real estate executives say, is that a lot of development plans that were delayed after the global financial crisis five years ago are now getting off the ground, as financing conditions have eased again. That has created a flurry of activity, as developers have raced to secure early commitments from buyers.

In addition, the economic turmoil of the past half-decade has turned Asian investors — and consumers generally — into an ever more important focus group for many Western companies.

The weakness of the British currency has only reinforced the trend. The pound slumped in the financial crisis in 2008, and is now worth about 20 percent less against the U.S. dollar and many other Asian currencies than it was then, giving Asian purchasers more leverage.

Finally, property prices in many parts of Asia have soared in recent years, thanks to low interest rates, ample liquidity and the region's generally favorable economic prospects. Home prices in Hong Kong and Singapore are at record highs, despite multiple efforts by the authorities in both places to cool the markets by tightening mortgage requirements, for example.

The result: Investors are casting their nets wider these days.

Among them is Ms. Fung, the mother of two who was researching a possible purchase last month. Hong Kong, she said, is very expensive: "For the same amount of money, I can get something better somewhere else."