Buy what you know, close to home, the buy-to-let mantra goes. It was ignored by investors – mainly Chinese and some UK expats – who recently flocked to Hong Kong’s Mandarin Oriental, 45 of whom exchanged contracts on the day for flats 6,000 miles away in Stratford, east London.
The flats in question were at Capital Towers, a Galliard Homes scheme that consists of 191 waterside units costing from £280,000 for a one-bed apartment. Due to complete in 2016, the development benefits from having the Westfield Stratford City shopping centre and excellent public transport links right on its doorstep.
It’s exactly what Asian – and, in particular, Hong Kong Chinese – buyers want from London, says Robert Fraser, managing director of estate agency Fraser & Co, which is marketing Capital Towers. Fraser adds easy access to the West End and universities for their children to the typical Chinese property checklist.
“Entry level schemes in Stratford, Greenwich and Canary Wharf have sold well recently. In Hong Kong, most people buy their own homes off-plan, so they are comfortable investing in this way. They see London as a financial safe haven that offers good value compared with property back home,” says Fraser, whose company has sold 3,000 London properties to the Asian market since 2009.
In fact, many new developments in London now view Asia as their first port of call. Through vital pre-sales, Asian buyers are effectively financing UK-based schemes that would otherwise fail to get off the ground.
“This whole situation of selling abroad has come about because the banks stopped lending and UK buyers couldn’t get mortgages, while Asian property markets were still steaming ahead,” says Tom Rundall, of Knight Frank, who cites One Tower Bridge, Chelsea Creek and Providence Tower in Canary Wharf as recent best-sellers.
Given the restrictions on getting money out of the country for mainland Chinese (the annual limit per person is US$150,000), 90 per cent of “Chinese” buyers are from Hong Kong or Singapore, says Rundall. One in five buyers of new homes in central London is from Singapore and 16 per cent are from Hong Kong, according to Knight Frank’s research.
Soaring Asian house values (Hong Kong prices have risen by 250 per cent since 2005, says Savills) and cooling measures to deter speculation in their domestic markets – including higher stamp duty and restricted loans – add to the appeal of investing overseas.
With UK investments, Asian buyers also have currency movements on their side. Savills research calculates that Chinese buyers currently pay 22.2 per cent less in yuan terms for central London property than they did at the 2007 peak – despite sterling house prices in the capital having risen by nearly 28 per cent in that time. Buyers in Singapore pay 18.7 per cent less than they would have six years ago and Malaysian investors 11.8 per cent.
For many of these buyers exclusivity is important. “A crucial element at property exhibitions in Asia is that the schemes can’t have been offered to any other market previously, whether local or international,” says John East from Kinleigh, Folkard & Hayward. “Asian buyers like the appeal of being offered the best homes first and are certainly prepared to pay the premiums associated with that.”
Within the broad-brush “Asian” market, there are widely differing tastes and cultural requirements. Chinese and Hong Kong buyers tend to buy small new-build flats of an average 855 sq ft, according to Savills. Buyers from India and Pakistan seek an average 1,407 sq ft and prefer resale properties and period stock.
With Battersea Power Station’s £8bn redevelopment in the hands of a Malaysian consortium, it is likely that even more buyers from Malaysia will be tempted to invest in the capital – the country is already the second biggest overseas investor in London commercial property after the US.
A total of 866 flats in the first phase of the Battersea Power Station development are expected to complete in 2016. “The majority were sold offshore; and within a few months of selling, we had at least 50 buyers approach us wanting to rent them out as soon as they are complete,” says Benham & Reeves’s lettings director, Marc von Grundherr. “Two-thirds of all new properties we are getting for rental are owned by people in the Far East.”
Richard Barber, partner at WA Ellis, says a “clean, minimalist style” works best among the Malaysian and Chinese clients. Developers also need to be mindful of superstition. Former hospital redevelopments and sites overlooking cemeteries are out because of their association with death. The number four should also be avoided. “The spelling and pronunciation of the word ‘four’ in Chinese resembles death. Some developers bear this in mind and refer to floors as A, B, C, D instead,” says Barber.
Feng shui is another area some developers are genning up on. Harry Handelsman, CEO of Manhattan Loft Corporation, employs a feng shui master on his developments, including Manhattan Loft Gardens, a 42-storey tower next to Stratford’s Olympic Park. Given the commercial developer ABP’s £1bn plan to turn part of the nearby Royal Docks into a business park for hundreds of Chinese companies, Handelsman expects significant Chinese interest in his project.
“I’m not an absolute believer in feng shui, but if millions of people believe in a particular thing, then I don’t see why we can’t try to accommodate them,” says Handelsman, whose new Stratford development is designed – like many Hong Kong buildings – with gaps in the walls to encourage the flow of vital energy.
Such cultural mores are increasingly starting to register on developers’ radars – particularly when China, according to Rundall, is “the great untapped gold mine” for London’s property market.
“Despite restrictions on overseas investment, the ultra top end Chinese buyers know how to process their money in different ways, such as through offshore companies in Hong Kong, and we are only just starting to get an idea of their interest in UK property,” says Rundall. “It’s going to be an interesting one to watch.”
What you can buy for …
£200,000: A one-bedroom flat at Victoria Way in Greenwich, presold in Hong Kong
£1m: A one-bedroom flat at 10 Rochester Row in Westminster
£5m: A two/three-bedroom apartment at 7 Portland Place
This article has been amended since publication