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Chinese settle on London as prime location

08-09-2010 09:01 BJT

Walking around some of London's affluent retail areas such as Bond Street and Knightsbridge, the intonations of Putonghua are never far out of hearing.

The Lancasters by Hyde Park, one of London's premier new-build developments, which is proving popular with Chinese investors. Prices start at 22 million yuan for 90-square-meter apartments, rising to 215 million yuan for the 900 square meter version. Provided to China Daily

Expensively dressed Chinese people are there to shop for the expensive items they now see as their right.

But it is no longer just Luis Vuitton handbags or diamond jewelry they are buying. China's new rich now want to splash out millions to buy property in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

According to the research arm of Knight Frank, the leading estate agent, people from Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland are now the biggest overseas buyers of central London new-build property, accounting for one in 10 of all purchases.

Such properties do not come cheap. Even modest flats in central London can change hands at more than 1 million pounds ($1.57 million), or 11 million yuan.

One of the most exclusive new developments currently on the market, which has attracted a lot of Chinese interest is The Lancasters by Hyde Park, where the biggest four bedroom apartments are for sale for 20 million pounds.

John F. J. Kennedy, a partner at Knight Frank, said the influx of Chinese buyers has been a relatively recent phenomenon.

"Just over 12 months ago we began to see the first signs of this. The people coming in are mainly from the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong. They are either looking for investment or somewhere for their children while they are at university," he said.

The Chinese buyers appear to be taking advantage of what seems to be a once in a generation opportunity.

The value of the pound (in which London properties are obviously valued) has slumped by around 30 percent against the yuan over the past two years while properties fell in value in prime central London by around 25 percent from their peak in 2007 to the first quarter of 2009. Although values have since recovered, at one stage prices in yuan terms were half the price they were at the top of the market.

"The exchange rate has been a major driver for investment in London over the last 12 months," said Lucian Cook, director of Savills Research, the property information division of the leading international estate agents.

Few ask questions about how the Chinese manage to get their money out of China when the individual annual limit for them for foreign exchange is just $50,000, a hopelessly inadequate amount for even the smallest deposit on a London property.

According to those close to the market, people buying properties are often doing so through corporate transactions, usually involving their own companies, or taking advantage of underground money exchangers who have proliferated in southern China, in particular.

Some speculate what might happen should the Chinese government relax the restrictions on people taking money out of the country.

Edward Lewis, a director of Savills estate agents in the company's Berkeley Square headquarters, has no doubts.

"At some stage there will be a relaxation of the amount of money you can take out of China and at that point the dam bursts," he said.

The company is arguably one of the best placed to capitalize on such an event with 14 offices in China already.

"We want to make sure we are there to offer our service when that happens," he added.

Property developers are already adjusting the layouts of their schemes to make them attractive to Chinese buyers.

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