Hongkongers are great investors, both the born-and-bred variety as well as foreign nationals that have adopted Hong Kong habits. It’s the main reason international property developers with (to their own minds) fabulous real estate for sale make regular trips to the city to show them off. Property fairs are among the Convention Centre’s busiest shows, and throw a dart at the calendar and one of the major hotels is likely hosting a road show.
UK developers have been tuned in to this for years and, and developers make their presence felt in Hong Kong regularly. The idea is that the UK remains the preferred location for investors and the Asian market is equally crucial for vendors.
Things have shifted since 2008: tougher bank lending policies, fluctuating currencies and property values and prices have dropped globally. Put all that together and the UK has found itself in a new position — as a competitor. According to the American National Association of Realtors foreign property investment in the US topped $80 billion in 2011, and the US was quickly becoming a hot spot for Asian investors particularly in light of the volume of distressed property. “If you’re a Hong Kong buyer and you see everything and buy everywhere you’ll look at London for starters,” admits ONEILL Group CEO Patrick O’Neill. “London rebounded right after the crash. There hasn’t been a bargain there for two years.” But there are bargains in American cities, the best currently in Las Vegas, where prices are off upwards of 70 percent from ’06 peaks.
The US dollar peg ensure prices for Hongkongers purchasing US properties don’t really change, but they have for Australian and Canadian real estate. The latter, however, boast large properties and a quality of life not found in Asia or the US. In all cases, the legal transparency, stability, freehold land and education are similar to those offered in the UK. No less than four projects have made an effort to be noticed by Hong Kong investors lately, and they demonstrate what keeps the UK at the top of the list.
There’s something to be said for familiarity. “There are a quite a few historic ties between the UK and Hong Kong … so there is an affinity between residents here and the UK and that’s often an attraction as well,” notes Piers Clanford, managing director of Berkeley Group, which is currently showcasing its One Tower Bridge around the region. Tower Bridge is 390 units in eight lowrises in culturally vibrant South Bank facing the Tower of London and the bridge. It’s a historic location that connects old and new — a modern office complex, Norman Foster’s bulbous City Hall and the latest addition to the skyline, The Shard, are nearby. And it’s developments like it that keep London an investment darling. “This is a pretty unique location. We’ve developed in London for 30 years and I don’t think we’ll ever find a site like this again,” Clanford says. One Tower Bridge has only been available for a few weeks, but 50 (starting at ￡700,000) units are already sold. Clanford expects an equal mix of overseas and local investors, as well as by owner-occupiers and investors for the project that distils what makes London so attractive: everyone wants to be there but they can’t find a place to live. “Even at the peak of the market in 2007 we never reached the supply [we needed]. It’s taken us five years to get to where we are now, and there’s no opportunity for even one more unit on the site,” Clanford finishes.
Also on the south bank is St George’s The Tower at One St George Wharf. One of the tallest residential towers in Europe, The Tower is a 50-storey luxury high-rise comprising 223 units (prices upon request). “This … will appeal to a truly international audience as London is still recognised as the world capital and attracts investment from a global audience. The opportunity to purchase in a high end residential prime tower development that offers a luxurious, hotel-style lifestyle, is generating a lot of interest,” echoed Mark Griffiths, Managing Director of St George South London in a statement.
Not too far away across the river at Aldgate Station is Redrow’s One Commercial Street, a mixed-used development including 200 residences (starting at ￡330,000). Regional director for Redrow Homes, Charles Calverley, agrees with Clanford’s assessment. “Clearly the UK’s longstanding trading links with Asia have provided potential investors with a proven track record of London’s ability to perform and provide attractive returns,” he remarks. “I also believe its geographical location in terms of trading links with easy access to emerging markets, bodes well for the future.” He’s probably right. As O’Neill pointed out, London bounced back after the great debacle of ’08 quickly, and a city that can do business with Tokyo and New York on the same day is well positioned for the long term. Calverley cites the city’s stability, capital gains and rental returns (Redrow is forecasting 4 to 6 percent for One Commercial homes) and value for money right now as additional incentives.
Finally a bit farther afield is The Residence, developed by Regal Homes. Located in West Hampstead, the 56 flats (starting at ￡320,000) are designed with an eye towards peace and privacy in the middle of London. Not too far from Regent’s Park, Bond and Paddington stations, The Residence is an indicator of London’s residential diversity even in the midst of a supply crunch. Whether or not that diversity makes the UK, which admittedly is not London, a decisive winner is up to individual buyers. Clanford notes favourable capital gains tax policy as a selling point as well, but asked outright if the idea that the US is gaining on the UK he pauses. There’s likely room for both. “Who’s right? Wow. I don’t really know. That’s difficult for me because I don’t develop in the United States … I think investors in Asia tend to pick a number of cities really.” But he does throw in one final notion that could keep the UK on top. “We see kids in London now recommending properties to their parents.” And so it continues, at least for now.