Some Hongkongers are arbitraging between city’s record home prices and cheaper listings overseas as they head for the exit

Lam Ka-sing
·5-min read

Some Hong Kong emigrants are taking advantage of the price difference between their homes in the city and cheaper real estate overseas, as they rush for the exit in increasing numbers.

Ireland and Portugal, among the most popular destinations for Hong Kong emigrants looking to qualify for residency in the European Union, offer particularly attractive bargains, according to investment advisers. Ireland is popular among parents, professionals and emigrants seeking to fast track their residency, with its offer of a good living environment and low-risk investments, according to consultancy Bartra Wealth Advisors.

“We see strong demand for emigration and it’s likely to continue,” said Bartra’s regional director Jeffrey Ling in Hong Kong. “People in Hong Kong who [are] eager to move abroad with an immediate need or with less than a year’s time frame have strong buying intention towards overseas residential properties.”

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The Irish Immigrant Investment Programme (IIP) offers residency for an investment of €1 million (US$1.18 million) in an Irish enterprise, without requiring the applicant to stay for any minimum period in the country other than a token one-day stay. Approvals can take between four and six months, with better chances of approval if the investment is in a government-preferred industry, such as in social housing and nursing homes, according to Bartra.

Grand Canal Docks with barges moored and the Google building in Barrow Street in the background in Dublin on June 27, 2018. Photo: Getty Images.
Grand Canal Docks with barges moored and the Google building in Barrow Street in the background in Dublin on June 27, 2018. Photo: Getty Images.

Although Australia, Canada and the UK have relaxed rules of immigration for certain Hongkongers, they have longer requirements for the duration of stay. The Australian government last year offered new and extended visa options to students and skilled workers from Hong Kong. This will help Hong Kong passport holders to remain in Australia, with pathways to permanent residency after three to five years.

For those who would like to stay and work in Hong Kong for now for lower tax rates, they could choose immigration investment programmes through investing in property in places that can offer permanent residency in a shorter time frame with more relaxed rules on minimum stay.

Sunrise over Sydney city CBD on waterfront of Harbour around Circular quay with major architectural landmarks and symbols of Australia. Photo: Shutterstock
Sunrise over Sydney city CBD on waterfront of Harbour around Circular quay with major architectural landmarks and symbols of Australia. Photo: Shutterstock

Meanwhile, Canada was the top performing investment migration country in terms of health management and risk readiness, according to consultancy Henley & Partners, which ranked stability in 31 countries that host residence or citizenship-by-investment programmes.

Sales of homes worth more than C$4 million (US$3.2 million/HK$24.9 million) surged 157 per cent in January and February from a year earlier, brokerage Sotheby’s International Realty Canada said in a recent report.

Hongkongers are emigrating in increasing numbers, after the Chinese government enacted its controversial national security law last summer and pushed through a groundbreaking electoral reform. Withdrawals of Hong Kong’s compulsory pension for the purpose of permanent departure jumped 72 per cent in the third quarter of 2020 to a six-year high of HK$1.7 billion, compared with three months earlier, according to data released by Mandatory Provident Fund Authority.

The number of applications for Certificate of No Criminal Conviction, a charged service by the Hong Kong Police Force necessary for various types of visa, jumped 13.9 per cent on year in the first three months to 8,410 this year, according to data by the police. Applications in the first quarter were 47.8 per cent and 51.1 per cent higher than the same periods in 2019 and 2018 respectively, before social unrest, political upheaval and a coronavirus outbreak struck the city.

Some emigrant families in Hong Kong might sell their local properties for cash so the number of such listings for lower prices for sale has increased, slowing down the rate of increase in property prices in the first quarter, said Freddie Wong, founder, chairman and executive director of Midland Holdings.

An apartment measuring 752 square feet at Tierra Verde in Tsing Yi changed hands at HK$13.53 million (US$1.74 million) in late March, 5 per cent below market price, because the seller wanted a speedy sale to emigrate, according to Centaline Property Agency. The homeowner took a profit of HK$7.63 million after holding it 11 years.

According to an online survey of 5,700 people in mid-March by The Hong Kong Public Opinion Program, 21 per cent of respondents said they had plans to leave Hong Kong forever, while 2 per cent had already left.

“We foresee the immigration policy will have more restrictions in European countries, that’s why the number of Hongkongers using immigration investment programmes through buying property is increasing rapidly” before the gateway closes, said Tina Cheng, associate director of Midland Immigration Consultancy.

An investment of €500,000, or €350,000 into a property requiring renovation, in real estate in Portugal will gain a residency permit for a family, including dependent children. The golden visa can be renewed every two years providing the applicant spends two weeks in the country every two years.

“This is the easiest and most steady investment way among all kinds of immigration investment programmes,” Cheng said. “The new policy [is] apparently pushing Portugal to become the most popular residence-by-investment programme in Hong Kong.”

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