More Hong Kong expats buy property in their home countries, offshore markets as they eye leaving city for good

·4-min read

More Hong Kong-based expats are buying properties in their home countries or other overseas markets, boosting the number of transactions by 30 to 40 per cent this year, according to agents and bankers.

If the trend holds, Hong Kong’s population of expatriates – who account for a large portion of the home leasing market in the city, particularly the high-end segment – will decline, likely impacting the overall rental market, analysts said.

The number of persons employed by companies whose parent firms are located outside Hong Kong has fallen to 473,000 this year, down 4 per cent from the peak of 493,000 in 2019, the latest figures from the government showed, suggesting fewer foreign-born residents in the Asian financial hub.

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“[We have] had a very busy year with transactions from Hong Kong based expatriates,” said John Treacy, director at One Global Expat, which handles expat clients of Singapore-based property agency One Global Property Services.

“Over 150 expatriates have purchased with us in 2021, which is up 40 per cent from last year.”

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Treacy, whose clients are mostly British, followed by Australians and other Europeans, said most of the transactions have been in the UK, with most buying purely for investment.

The group’s clients in Hong Kong typically look for new flats in London and other major cities in the UK, such as Birmingham and Manchester, with average transaction prices of £275,000 (US$376,000).

An aerial view of Paris. Mortgage applications from French people in Hong Kong are up 30 per cent from last year, according to Banque Transatlantique. Photo: Shutterstock
An aerial view of Paris. Mortgage applications from French people in Hong Kong are up 30 per cent from last year, according to Banque Transatlantique. Photo: Shutterstock

Not everyone is buying just for investment though. The number of registered French citizens living in Hong Kong has steadily declined since last year, from 14,000 to 12,500 so far this year, according to Herve Guinebert, managing director at the Hong Kong representative office of Paris-based Banque Transatlantique.

“The volume of mortgage applications from French people that we handled this year was up 30 per cent from last year,” he said. “Many of them are looking to buy properties in medium-sized cities in France, where they can have a bigger space, more greens and better living conditions.”

Guinebert said there were two main reasons for this. One is that their work contract is ending this year, while the other is that some want to return because they have not been back to France since the pandemic began two years ago.

Hong Kong’s maximum 21- day quarantine for returning residents who travelled outside the city is the world’s most stringent, prompting the influential Asia Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, which counts 150 banks and asset managers such as Black Rock, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan as members, to urge the government to give a clear road map of how the city plans to resume normal operations like other financial centres.

Nine out of 10 association members said they were finding it difficult to operate in Hong Kong because of the highly restrictive Covid-19 policies, while 48 per cent were contemplating moving staff or functions away from Hong Kong amid such challenges, a recent survey of 30 members showed.

A row of residential housing sits in the Muswell Hill district of London, UK. Photo: Bloomberg
A row of residential housing sits in the Muswell Hill district of London, UK. Photo: Bloomberg

France’s low-interest rate environment is also helping fuel transactions there. A 15-year mortgage can have as low as 1 per cent annual interest, while a 20-year loan is likely to have a little over 1 per cent interest.

While most of the French bank’s clients in Hong Kong are looking to buy properties back home, with popular options including homes worth 2 million euros (US$2.3 million) to 3 million euros in France’s southeastern and western regions, some are also looking for property in Portugal and Spain.

In August, a study by property consultancy Knight Frank showed that expats living in Hong Kong were among the emigrant populations globally that are most likely to go back to their home countries and buy property. Top reasons cited for relocation were changes in employment and family circumstances.

If more expats leave the city, it will “potentially soften rentals as many expats can’t deal with the logistics of the quarantine if they have children who live out of Hong Kong, especially if they are boarding school age or have elderly parents as the quarantine makes it prohibitive to go back and forth,” said Victoria Allan, founder and managing director of Habitat Property. “So we are seeing many expats either decide to leave Hong Kong for good, or leave Hong Kong for a year or two.”

Allan said many expats are considering selling properties they own in Hong Kong and returning to their home countries, as they feel the quarantine is so restrictive that it is detrimental to their quality of life.

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