Asian developers move into Australia's property void

A new wave of Asian property developers currently has $10 billion worth of approvals in the Australian pipeline, and this is just the beginning.

Against the backdrop of measures to cool property markets in their home countries, Asian residential developers are looking to Australia for growth.

Well-heeled Singaporeans, Indonesians or Hong Kong Chinese have long bought the odd apartment in Australia, mostly for the twin purpose of investment and accommodation for children studying in Australia.

Although Asian investors have been conspicuous investors in non-residential property in Australia for more than three decades, the arrival of offshore residential developers is a relatively new phenomenon.

Investment in residential sites has reached an unprecedented level in Australia. Independent property researcher Kevin Stanley says Asian developers have spent more than $1.1 billion on sites in the last three years.

These sites have approvals for 19,000 units - 30 per cent of the 60,000 apartments approved in Australia each year - and 2,000 houses, in 55 separate projects, located in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Gold Coast and Perth.

Stanley says the collective development cost of these projects is $10 billion.

The private Chinese-based AXF Group, a relatively new entrant, has sites for 2,300 apartments in Melbourne, including the 3.3 hectare former Kinnears Ropes factory site in Footscray, an inner Melbourne western suburb.

On the Gold Coast, the Chinese development group Ridong has lodged development plans to build a $900 million three-tower residential project on a 1.13 hectare beachfront site.

Aside from large high-profile deals, anecdotally agents say that land-banking on behalf of Asian developers - or for sale to Asian developers - has been going on for some time in suburbs populated by Asians, such as Springwood in Brisbane and Burwood in Sydney.

A leading agent says: "They don't mind old rundown homes as long as they are located close to railway stations and in sought-after suburbs with a view to assembling a development site eventually."

Veteran agent John Hill, who runs an agency in Sydney's inner west, reflects the view of the wider industry, saying that these Asian developers are filling a void left by Australian developers.

The medium-density market in Australia collapsed following the global financial crisis, when liquidity dried up and banks brought in stringent lending rules.

Depending on the track record of the developer, Australian banks require up to 60 or 70 per cent of presale before agreeing to finance a residential project.

Sources say Asian developers are not hamstrung by such restrictions. They source their development capital from overseas at lower interest rates.

Often, they model the viability of their projects differently from the Australian developer who works on supply and demand.

Offshore developers, especially those from China, work on the basis of the broader fundamental of the Australian economy. Often, they have patient money.

Andrew Wilson, senior economist with Australian Property Monitor, says one concern is that offshore project financing, which is not driven by the need for high level of presales, could lead to oversupply.

"There is currently not enough demand, either from tenants or owner-occupiers, for the number of apartments under construction or approved," says Wilson.

This problem is particularly real in Melbourne where, despite a slowdown in demand, commencements and approvals of high-rise residential towers in central Melbourne continues unabated - raising the spectre that some could become "ghost towers" of the future.

According to BIS-Shrapnel, Melbourne traditionally has 2,000-3,000 completion a year (to make the take-up rate), but between now and 2015 more than 5,000 units will be completed each year.

"A lot of the apartments are sold to buyers overseas. Chinese buyers are keen to move their money out of the country and they may be happy to lock up their units," says Angie Zigomanis, BIS Shrapnel's senior economist.

The seriously rich foreign investors of top-end apartments buy for personal use, but generally buyers of run-of-mill units will lease for an income yield.

Asian developers and investors are well aware of a shortage of rental properties and an underlying housing under-supply in some Australian capital cities.

When the Malaysian company SP Setia launched the first phase of its inner-Melbourne Fulton Lane project, in Kuala Lumpur in late 2011, it sold 70 per cent of the 291 apartments for $112 million in three days. (So far, it has sold some 600 of the 780 apartments in Fulton Lane.)

Success stories such as this whet the appetite of Australian developers, including large Australian groups, like Lend Lease, to market units to Asian investors.

Brisbane-based Lachlan Walker, Place Advisory research director, says that Chinese investors have spent $200 million on residential real estate in Queensland in the past year.

Walker says Singaporeans alone spent $29 million on residential property.

Asians love freehold properties, compared to leaseholds in many Asian countries, he says. (In Singapore, leasehold titles are usually for 99 years.)

Mathew Cassidy, Knight Frank's leading project marketing agent, in Brisbane, says his "guestimate" is that Asian investors probably spent as much as $500 million in Southeast Queensland.

Over the coming months, literally billions of dollars worth of projects will be offered to buyers in China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia and so on.

Asian developers are tapping the Asian innate love for brick-and-mortar investment. Not surprising really, when one considers how a generation of Singaporeans became "middle-class" on the back of the appreciation of their home.

Property is the first step to wealth accumulation for people from rapidly-growing economies, such as China, where alternative investment products have yet to be developed.

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