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Continental divide

Real estate agents shift to overseas properties

As the English band The Clash sang in the late 1970s, it may be “London calling” for many mainland and Hong Kong property investors who have purchased more than half of the prime retail properties up for sale in the UK capital so far this year, according to research by property consultant Savills. However, sharp-eyed property investors are also looking for attractive opportunities elsewhere.

In recent weeks, the decision by governments in Greece, Portugal and Spain to grant visas to property investors from outside the European Union has begun to spark interest among Asia buyers eyeing the Mediterranean-rim real estate market.

Effectively, non-EU citizens investing a minimum of €500,000 (HK$5.3 million) in a property will be granted a five-year residency permit. Those who meet the criteria will have the option to apply for permanent residency after five years.

Amid official efforts to dampen property speculation at home, Hong Kong and mainland investors have been busy snatching up properties in Europe, says Chris Liem, owner and principal of luxury real estate agency Engel and Völkers Hong Kong.

“For property buyers in Asia looking for an investment that offers visa benefits, Greece, Portugal and Spain offer interesting possibilities,” he says. “The period required to stay in these countries to qualify for a visa ranges from a week to zero days.”

The easy requirement allows investors from Asia to secure a residency without disrupting their other commitments.

Although licences to sell properties vary in specifics from country to country, representatives of real estate companies operating internationally say they use basic requirements when recruiting staff. Obviously, agents must have relevant links with the markets on which they focus. A connection may include having lived, worked or studied in a given country.

In the case of the UK, an agent would ideally be familiar with London. As more mainland buyers eye the British market, agents must also be fluent in English and Putonghua.

Joseph Tsang, managing director and head of capital markets in Hong Kong at global real estate services firm Jones Lang LaSalle, says that London and certain Asian locations remain the preferred markets for local buyers, with some focusing on Australia and New Zealand.

According to real estate agents familiar with the Australian market, temporary residents are allowed to buy one established dwelling, which they must use as their principal place of residence. There are, however, no restrictions on the purchase of new properties or land for development if approval is acquired.

To help clients buy properties in popular London locations, agents must be fully familiar with the local regulations and market nuances, Tsang says. “Our international property agents know London like the backs of their hands,” he adds.

As Hong Kong buyers are no strangers to the UK property market, incompetent estate agents will be easily exposed, Tsang warns.

To boost its cross-border capabilities, Jones Lang LaSalle has recently expanded the headcount of its corporate finance team across Asia. “It means we can meet demand from our clients who increasingly require integrated cross-border real estate services in both the debt and equity components of a deal,” says Stuart Crow, head of Asia-Pacific capital markets at Jones Lang LaSalle.

“By expanding our team in the region, we can continue to offer our clients market-leading expertise, matching global capital to local development and operating partners across a range of sectors.”

Crow says the number of cross-border deals have doubled in Asia-Pacific since 2010.

According to David Simister, chairman of CBRE Thailand, buyers from Hong Kong are maintaining a strong interest in luxury Thai properties. “Hong Kong buyers are today equally keen on Bangkok condominiums as they are on Phuket assets, particularly branded properties like Ritz Carlton. Resort homes offering managed income remain popular, particularly if branded,” he says.

He adds that buyers are also eyeing small, luxury resorts along the Gulf of Thailand such as Alila Villas and Soneva Kiri, which boast guaranteed returns, a quality brand and a high level of privacy.