London Allure to Foreign Property Buyers Seen Dimmed by Tax

London’s status as a magnet for foreign property investment was burnished in the years after the financial crisis by an investor-friendly tax regime and the falling value of the pound. That may be changing.

A new capital-gains tax on homes sold by people living abroad and a growing British economy that’s lifting the currency may dull the capital city’s appeal to property buyers from abroad.

The government “will put people off by changing the rules constantly and making it less tax-friendly for buyers,” Andrew Sneddon, head of tax law at legal firm Trowers & Hamlins, said by phone. “If these wealthy buyers choose to go to Monaco, Paris or New York to spend their summers and their money, what’s that going to cost the U.K. economy?”

Investors from the Middle East to Asia have been splurging on London homes, buying everything from multimillion-pound mansions to apartments in Battersea and the City of London. That’s driving prices beyond the reach of many British buyers and sparking a development surge that’s increasingly dependent on non-U.K. investors buying homes before they’re completed.

South Asian buyers account for two-thirds of new London homes sold before completion, according to Land Securities Group Plc, the largest U.K. real estate investment trust. The high-end market is dependent on pre-sales to overseas buyers to help get development finance and deal with rising land costs, Michael Lister, a lecturer at University of Westminster, said in a Nov. 22 interview.

‘International Hiccup’

The market “only needs a bit of an international hiccup for the buyers to hold back, and then you’re really stuck,” said Lister, a former head of U.K. property lending at Bank of Ireland Plc. “You can’t possibly afford to sell to the domestic buyers because they can’t afford to pay those figures.”

Battersea Power Station Holding Co. raised a 790 million-pound ($1.3 billion) syndicated loan to develop and refurbish the first phase of the site after it pre-sold about $1 billion of apartments and townhouses in May, the company said in a Nov. 21 statement. The record of pre-sales was reflected in the terms of the financing, it said.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced the new capital-gains tax in a statement to Parliament on Dec. 5. It will apply to “future gains” after the tax goes into effect in April 2015, he said without specifying the size of the levy. Capital-gains tax rates for second homes of U.K. residents currently range from 18 percent to 28 percent.

Building Luxury

Luxury-home developers plan to build more than 20,000 properties in London with a value of about 50 billion pounds in the next decade, Mark Farmer, head of residential property at consulting firm EC Harris LLP wrote in a Nov. 25 report. As well as a strengthening pound, the developers face rising building costs and a risk that investors will grow weary of repeated sales exhibitions, he said.

“You’ll see softening in pricing, at the bottom end of the luxury-housing market,” Farmer said. Investors will remain interested though they will “drive a harder deal.” EC Harris defines the lower-end of the luxury homes market as 1,250 pounds to 1,700 pounds a square foot.

In central London, about 28 percent of home buyers in the two years to June didn’t live in the U.K., according to broker Knight Frank LLP. That rises to about 49 percent for new homes. In Greater London, 10 percent to 15 percent of new homes are bought by non-residents, Knight Frank estimated in October.

Moving Goalposts

Singapore and Hong Kong, two destinations also favored by south Asian buyers, have introduced measures to cool property prices and curb speculation. Singapore linked borrowers’ maximum debt levels to their incomes and raised transaction and capital-gains taxes. Hong Kong has increased minimum down payments six times in fewer than three years and in February doubled stamp-duty taxes for all properties over HK$2 million ($258,000).

Transactions in Hong Kong will probably drop as much as a third this year compared with 2012, Knight Frank estimated. In Singapore, home-price declines accelerated in October from a month earlier to 1.2 percent.

The frequency of changes to U.K. property-tax law and the possibility of further levies are also seen as a hindrance to homebuyers from abroad. Osborne raised a transaction tax known as stamp duty to 7 percent from 5 percent for properties priced at more than 2 million pounds in March 2012.

Mansion Tax

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, head of the Liberal Democrats, which govern in a coalition with Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party, support an annual levy on houses valued at more than 2 million pounds known as the mansion tax. Cameron opposes the idea.

“The government had a chance to review property taxes in 2012 and they fudged it,” Rob Perrins, managing director of U.K. homebuilder Berkeley Group Holdings Plc said in a telephone interview. “Our real concern is that the government will keep playing around and changing the tax every six months. Property is a long-term acquisition and people deserve to know where they stand.”

About 30 percent of Berkeley’s customers are foreign, Perrins said.

“There will be no mass sell-off as foreigners crystallize past gains and little incentive to exit or not buy into the London market going forward,” Lucian Cook, head of research at broker Savills Plc, said of the capital gains tax in a Dec. 5 statement.

Lower End

The capital-gains tax will affect prices at the lower end of the prime central London homes market where “speculators” who didn’t intend to live in the properties are more involved said Alex Michelin, a founder of luxury developer Finchatton Ltd. “It’s not going to switch off the tide. The marginal investor will say ‘this no longer makes it as attractive for me and I will stop doing it.’”

The tax won’t affect the superprime market, he said, as buyers there are more likely to live in their homes. Superprime homes are valued at 5 million pounds or more, according to broker Savills Plc.

“It’s not an unfair tax. It brings London in line with Paris and New York,” Michelin said. “This is just trying to say we want to make it fair for everyone.”

The tax also may result in falling land values on the fringes of London’s prime areas as developers wait to see the tax’s effect on overseas buyers, he said. Residential land rose almost 14 percent in those areas in the year through September, twice the rate of prime homes, according to Knight Frank.

Appeal Remains

Still, some say London will always be appealing. “It is a place where people’s homes will never be taken away from them,” said Gary Hersham, a joint managing director at luxury broker Beauchamp Estates LLP. “There is no political risk in this country, there’s no security risk in this country. Aside from this you get good education, you’ve got decent people and it’s a safe place to live.”

U.K. economic growth is increasing more rapidly than previously expected, Osborne said last week. That may affect property investors from abroad more than the new tax as it puts pressure on the Bank of England to raise interest rates, boosting a pound that has already been rising.

The pound plummeted against a basket of major currencies after the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., making London homes a relative bargain for wealthy investors and buyers from emerging Asian economies. The Singapore dollar gained 60 percent against the pound from September 2007 to June this year and the Malaysian ringgit climbed by 50 percent. Since then, the pound has risen 6.8 percent and 12 percent respectively against the Asian currencies.

“One of the key drivers around demand in that market, particularly from the Far East, has been the relative weakness of sterling over the last three or four years,” said Farmer of EC Harris. “The improving economy is good for U.K. Plc but it might make residential investment slightly less competitive or good value in the eyes of the international community.”

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