No nuptials, no nest

Singles are being frozen out of property market under strict new rules, writes Bonnie Cao in Shanghai.

Singles are being frozen out of property market under strict new rules, writes Bonnie Cao in Shanghai.

Tank Zhao is being forced to ditch tradition by taking a bride before buying a home as Shanghai bans unmarried non-locals like him from purchasing property.

The 28-year-old software engineer from Fujian province had been looking for an apartment before planning to marry his girlfriend next year, in accordance with the Chinese proverb "Zhu chao yin feng" - build a nest before attracting the phoenix. He'll now have to secure the phoenix before the nest.

"The policy is unreasonable. We aren't speculators, we just need a place to live," Mr Zhao says. "Getting married first goes against our culture. I'll have to explain to my girlfriend's family that the Shanghai policy is what it is."

Last year Shanghai started limiting locals to owning two homes, while families among the city's 9 million non-local residents were capped at one. Unmarried non-locals, who had been able to buy as long as they proved a year or more of tax payments, are now frozen out after the city toughened implementation of the curbs following the vow of the Premier, Wen Jiabao, in July to "unswervingly" contain prices.

Chinese males are expected to own a home before they approach their would-be wife's family for approval to wed. In rural areas, parents extract most of the family's wealth to build houses for their sons ahead of marriage; in cities, securing an apartment is the equivalent.

New-home prices in China fell for nine straight months through May as government restrictions achieved the goal of cooling the market, says SouFun Holdings, the country's largest real estate website owner. In July values bucked the trend, posting the biggest gain in more than a year, SouFun said last month.

China's second-largest city by population, Shanghai, had about 23 million residents at the end of 2010, about 9 million of whom were non-locals, the nation's statistics bureau stated. An influx of construction, information technology, and other workers almost tripled the cost of homes in Shanghai in the past 10 years, government data shows.

Zhang Lei, 31, a blogger from eastern Zhejiang province who has lived in Shanghai for eight years, has set up a "non-local singles anti-purchase restriction alliance" online. Mr Zhang, who does not plan to marry, was ready to pay a deposit for a yuan3 million home ($455,000) in June until the crackdown.

"This is very, very irritating. It's discrimination," says Mr Zhang, who boasts more than 110,000 fans at Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblog portal. "I've been making money and waiting for the time that I can finally buy a home. Then all of a sudden the government told us that we couldn't buy."

Shanghai, with its own dialect, has some of China's strictest population controls. To be defined a "local", one must be born in the city to Shanghainese parents, be a skilled professional with residence of at least seven years and tax receipts to prove it, or marry a Shanghai local and remain married for 10 years.

The residency policies fuel chauvinism by Shanghainese against newcomers and reinforce divisions between the two groups, says Wang Xiaoyu, an associate professor and social critic at Shanghai's Tongji University.

Previously, unmarried non-local residents were qualified to buy a home as long as they worked and paid tax in the city for a year, says Lu Qilin, senior research manager at Deo Volente Realty, Shanghai's third-biggest property brokerage. That changed after Wen ordered the crackdown.

Buyers could try forged marriage licences, and the city government is unlikely to check as long as they aren't from Shanghai, said Mr Lu. Such licences cost about yuan100, he said. "Compared with what they pay for a property, this is small money," he said.

As prices rose last year, some couples faked divorce to skirt the two-property limit.

The average age at which Shanghai residents get married has climbed along with housing costs. Shanghai men averaged 32.45 years and females 29.89 years when they wed, the city's statistics bureau show. That is up from 28.64 years for males and 26.43 years for females in 2007.

Shanghai's home-price surge fuelled concern a bubble was arising and housing was becoming unaffordable. A standard two-bedroom apartment about 10 kilometres from Shanghai's centre costs about yuan3 million , versus an average annual wage of yuan52,655.