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International Bytes

Chinese buyers flee Hong Kong for overseas property markets

June 25, 2013

On the seventh floor of a luxury hotel in the heart of Hong Kong, a Chinese couple listens carefully as an agent takes them on a virtual tour of an upmarket property development for sale - not in the former British colony, but in London.

Cash-rich mainland Chinese, who some in Hong Kong blame for pushing property prices to record highs, have fled the city's real estate market, scared off by cooling measures that have sent them scouring overseas for better options.

For many, the search starts in the ballrooms of Hong Kong's luxury hotels which host overseas property fairs nearly every weekend, offering prospective buyers a glimpse of homes abroad while providing refreshments such as sparkling water and the bite-sized Cantonese snack dim sum.

"We can only see pictures of the project now so that's why we have to go to London to take a look at the environment of the building," said Christina Chen, who flew with her husband from Shanghai to Hong Kong to check out plans of a development at London's Olympic Park before flying there herself to see it.

"The return on investment is much higher in London than in China and Hong Kong," she said in a room at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental, a popular choice for property exhibitors.

Mainland Chinese accounted for 18 percent of new luxury home sales in Hong Kong in the first quarter - the lowest level in four years - down from 43 percent in the third quarter of last year, before cooling measures were announced, according to real estate company Centaline Property Agency.

Hong Kong, where property prices are among the most expensive in the world, has imposed a series of tightening steps since October, including a 15 percent tax on foreigners that many industry watchers believe was targeted at mainland buyers.

"Mainland Chinese have lost the ticket to buy properties in Hong Kong, now that tightening measures are in force," said David Hui, overseas sales director at Centaline. "If they want to invest in property, they now need to go overseas."

The flight abroad has taken them increasingly to Britain and the United States, where Chinese rank alongside Canadians as the fastest-growing group of buyers, data from the U.S. National Association of Realtors shows.

In London, overseas buyers accounted for 2.2 billion pounds worth of new-build property in 2012, up from 1.8 billion pounds in 2011, according to estate agent Knight Frank. Buyers from greater China are among the top three.

The search for homes has accelerated, with Hong Kong's overseas property transactions jumping nearly 50 percent in May from a year earlier - of which mainland Chinese made up a fifth of sales, according to two property agents in the city.