Chinese Prospects

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As housing becomes increasingly expensive, affluent and middle-class Chinese families are increasingly looking abroad for an ideal home

At the recent Beijing International Property Expo, Wang Jing's eyes widened. At last, her dreams of finding the ideal home for her family were materializing. The island country of Cyprus, which had a booth at the expo, offered a list of properties at steep discounts. She didn't know much about Cyprus, but that wasn't important.

Four years ago, when Wang gave birth to a boy, she decided that her family needed to buy a home in Haidian district of western Beijing to secure her son's placement at a respected primary school in the area. But as many Chinese homeowners know very well, housing prices in China's capital are through the roof. Frustration set in for Wang and her family.

But at the expo, Wang read about a beachfront apartment on the Mediterranean island. The price? Three hundred and fifty thousand euros ($264,800), which is cheaper than many three-bedroom apartments in Haidian district.

"I am considering purchasing one. If my son cannot enroll in the best primary school in Beijing, I can still send him to study at the top universities in Europe 10 years later," the 33-year-old graphic designer says.

Chinese families, ranging from the highly affluent to the middle class' upper crust, are showing a keener interest in purchasing overseas housing. They are primarily driven abroad not only because of China's soaring housing prices but because of the government's curbs on property ownership in the past two years in an attempt to cool prices. The central government is also studying a nationwide property tax, according to Reuters.

Overseas property markets are now becoming more attractive as a consequence. And many Western countries are taking advantage of the newfound interest. In September, more than 140 land developers, real estate agencies and immigration agents outside the Chinese mainland showcased their housing projects at China World Trade Center in September. That tally was a record for the expo in its 20-year history.

Wei Kefei, a director at the Beijing International Property Expo, said moving abroad, securing a sound education and diversifying asset portfolios are the top three reasons why Chinese are purchasing international properties.

"Beijing has good educational resources and that is why apartments are more expensive in Beijing. The city already has high property prices in general," Wang says.

The numerous promotions being peddled by overseas real estate agencies at the Beijing international expo shed light on the growing interest from Chinese families.

Many countries flaunted their properties for the first time in the biggest annual housing event in Beijing. The largest international exhibition group with more than 30 booths was Cyprus, an island country in the eastern Mediterranean Sea that few Chinese people knew about.

Cyprus introduced a new immigration policy at the end of 2011, allowing a person who buys a house in Cyprus of a certain value to apply immediately for a residence permit.

"The difference is that most popular Western property investment countries target mostly rich Chinese buyers, whereas getting into the Cyprus property market is easier and the main target is the fast-growing middle class in China," says Giovannis Kouzalis, an immigration lawyer from Cyprus law firm G. Kouzalis LLC.

Kouzalis says the education system in Cyprus is among the best in Europe and that graduates from Cyprus' high schools are not required to take further examinations to enroll in any university in Europe.

Cyprus' success in reaching out to China has thus far paid dividends. In 2011, only 350 visas were issued by the Cypriot embassy in Beijing. By November of this year, the number of visa applications has already surpassed 1,500.

"Most (Chinese) people are going for house hunting in Cyprus," Kouzalis says.

In addition to new markets like Cyprus, traditional popular Western markets are still attracting Chinese buyers. According to a survey by SouFun International, a real estate platform in China, the United States, Canada and Australia are the priority targets for Chinese overseas property investments. Overseas villas are the most preferred among Chinese buyers, accounting for one-third of the number of purchases.

In 2011, non-American buyers accounted for $82 billion in home sales last year, according to the National Association of Realtors. Chinese investors made up more than $7 billion (5 billion euros) of the total and they are now the second biggest overseas purchasers of US property as of March this year.

Real estate agents say Chinese buyers are also putting more of their money in the US housing market as an investment or as a second home for their children to live. Avi Lasri, vice-president at Douglas Elliman Real Estate, says Chinese buyers interested in buying US properties are parents who want their children to be educated in the United States.

"Some even purchase a house a few years ahead of their children going to college," Lasri says, "so for many Chinese, a property in the US is often regarded as an investment in a child's education."

The influx of China's nouveau riche has pushed developers to compete for their attention, but oftentimes, a marquee name will suffice. The Centurion, a 19-story condominium in New York City's Midtown Manhattan, is designed by Chinese American architect I. M. Pei. Richard Pino, CFO and associate broker of New York Resident, says that after a marketing trip to China recently, the Centurion and Pei's reputation attracted a number of Asian buyers.

Pino says Pei's works - the Louvre Pyramid in Paris and the Four Seasons Hotel in Midtown East - are so well-recognized among Chinese that he has received dozens of requests from Chinese buyers who want to fly to New York at a moment's notice to potentially seal the deal.

"It is a very prestigious project, and (Chinese) recognize the name," he says. "They like the neighborhood, the amenities and all the fancy things."

To woo Chinese buyers, other US developers have taken quirky measures to appeal to the Chinese sensibility. Some are reserving units on floors with the numbers five or eight, which in China are associated with bringing happiness and good luck.

But the bottom line for Chinese investors interested in European properties is the bottom line. Many who spoke to China Daily expect high returns on their investments in not just property but in real estate debt. Huang Shucheng, CEO of Villable.com, a real estate website based in Shanghai, says about 40 percent of the Chinese investors in the British market are aiming for high returns on their investments.

In Europe, Asian buyers accounted for 31 percent of investors in London's newly built homes in 2011, compared with 14 percent in 1992.

The Chinese have become the fourth largest buyers in London's second-hand property market, says Louis Bai, CEO of the Beijing office for Barratt Homes, a UK property developer.

Bai says that many Chinese buyers are purchasing properties in London as an investment because of the city's rising property prices.

A survey from SouFun International says more than 70 percent of Chinese investors expect minimum annual earning rates of between 7-13 percent.

Huang says he deals with many Chinese buyers interested in homes located at the county of Cambridgeshire, where the primary settlement is Cambridge. One property along Rusts Avenue, he says, sold for 185,000 pounds ($300,860; 227,460 euros). Rent at the property is about 950 pounds a month. The return is more than 6 percent, which would be highly prized for Chinese buyers.

"Since last year when many cities (in China) limited the number of homes you could purchase ... many Chinese people went abroad to buy a house. My business in the British market has grown by about 30 percent since 2011 and purchases in Canada have increased even more," he says.

SOURCE: China Daily