Real Estate

Beijing suburbia or your own tropical island?

Jamil Anderlini
Beach house as shown on Panoramic Views website
Source: Panoramic Views

For sale: 1,000 sq m of Palm Beach Central Villas, a suburban Beijing replica of an American McMansion looking on to a rubbish-strewn wasteland. A snip at $8 million — the same list price as Sandy Cay, a resort island in the Bahamas, where the palms are real and the vistas are white sand.

Welcome to the world of Chinese real estate, where a combination of rapid riches and easy credit fueled a decade-long boom in local house prices that only ended last year. From a country of almost zero home ownership just 15 years ago, more than 80 per cent of Chinese households now own their own homes.

Yet the price tags and exotic names often jar horribly with reality. Next to Palm Beach is the "Merlin Champagne town," a gated community whose only nearby shopping amenities consist of a rundown mall where the main draw is a McDonald's restaurant.

Worse, ownership of the land under Chinese homes is restricted to a 70-year lease at most, rather than in perpetuity as in other markets.

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This has helped spur the rise in Chinese buying in global cities in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia that promise cleaner air, good education and rule of law alongside bricks and mortar.

In the past year or so, Chinese citizens have become the biggest group of foreign buyers in key western cities, including London, Sydney and New York, according to estate agents.

"Most of our customers these days are from mainland China so we decided we should come up here to meet them on their home turf," says Alan Jurd from Luxury Estates, which specializes in selling Australian farms, resorts and vineyards.

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Prestige properties on display at Beijing's Luxury Property Showcase last week included a 100-acre top-producing winery with a cricket pitch in Australia's Hunter Valley, an entire Solomon Island where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge spent a night in 2012 and "Old McDonald's Farm" in an area of outstanding natural beauty in New Zealand. None had higher price tags than the suburban villas, which barely have gardens and are squashed into their cramped gated communities.

Chinese buyers are finding more reasons to turn overseas, including the recent drop in domestic property prices. In March, average housing prices across the country fell 6.1 per cent year-on-year, according to an FT analysis of official figures — the biggest fall on record and the seventh consecutive drop.

With more investment piling into residential property construction and an enormous unsold inventory across China, these price falls are only expected to accelerate in the coming months.

President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign has also prompted many Communist party officials and business people to diversify their wealth into assets that are beyond the reach of the all-powerful anti-graft authorities.

Net capital outflows from China reached a record $91bn in the final quarter of last year, following an outflow of $56.7 billion in the third quarter.

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China's strict capital controls limiting residents to a maximum $50,000 worth of foreign exchange transactions a year means much of the money heading abroad to buy property is technically illegal.

Although there are legitimate ways around the curbs, most offshore transfers are done through underground banks or through exporting companies, state-owned enterprises or government departments that have a right to transfer money abroad.

"For smaller amounts there is the gem and fine art trade but for larger amounts the easiest way is to leverage a government department or state enterprise with a foreign exchange quota — I have good connections and can provide that service to clients wanting to purchase property overseas," said one agent exhibiting at the Luxury Property Showcase, who asked not to be identified.

Three other exhibitors said they could also help their clients evade China's capital controls.

For now, Beijing property agents say the prices in developments such as Palm Beach are supported by China's recent stock market boom, which has seen the benchmark Shanghai Composite Index double in less than a year.

But as China's wealthy continue to diversify their property portfolios abroad and as they discover what the rest of the world has to offer, analysts reckon these prices will eventually come crashing down to earth.

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