China's new home-buying policies were meant to make it easier for people to put a roof over their heads, but they've brought nothing but trouble to Xi Ning and his fiancee, who've quarreled many times before even getting the keys to a new home.
Xi, a 26-year-old journalist in Beijing, signed an agreement on Oct. 19 to buy a second-hand apartment. A week later, the government announced a reduction in required down payments and a waiver on stamp taxes for property deals. But most enabling regulations and details have yet to be released, leaving Xi and others in the lurch.
"Most banks have not decided their lending rates for home-buyers. And the Beijing municipal government has not made it clear to what extent I can enjoy the tax cut."
Xi had just 300 yuan (44 U.S. dollars) in his account after making the initial payment of 330,000 yuan, but the bank suspended its lending to determine a new rate system after the announcement of the new policies.
Xi can't proceed without specific rules from banks and the tax bureau.
"My life is a mess. All I do is wait for my loan," Xi said. "My fiancee blames me for a hasty decision, and now I wish I'd never done it."
Effective Nov. 1, the Finance Ministry cut the deed tax on purchases to 1 percent from 1.5 percent for first-time buyers of residences smaller than 90 square meters.
For those buying their first home, the minimum down payment was cut to 20 percent from 30 percent, and banks were allowed to charge as little as 70 percent of the central bank base lending rates for such mortgages.
BANKS PLAY WAIT-AND-SEE
The central government gave commercial banks freedom to decide their own mortgage rates, ranging from 5.04 percent to 7.2 percent. But among the four major commercial banks, Agricultural Bank of China was the only one that had published its lending rate as of Monday.
Chinese banks are mostly state-owned commercial banks, which have been less affected by the global financial crisis. Most lent cautiously to the more credit-worthy borrowers.
Analysts said banks were struggling to keep a balance between attracting borrowers and maintaining profit margins.
"As mortgage lending is shrinking, each commercial bank is waiting for others to announce the rates first, so they can try to compete with an even lower rate," said Guo Tianyong, a banking expert at the China Central Finance and Economics University.
"Banks and buyers may need to wait for a long time," he said.
CITIES TAKE THEIR TIME
Local authorities were slow to respond to the national policy, too. Shanghai, China's finance hub, was the first -- and one of the few -- to announce its regional housing policy to encourage home-buying, especially for low-income households.
Beijing authorities, and those in other cities, said they needed more time to figure out who could get tax breaks and wouldn't have a plan ready to announce until the end of this year.
"The real estate market accounts for more than a half of Beijing's domestic fixed-asset investment. We have to be cautious to keep the sector stable," a Beijing municipal construction commission official said, asking to remain anonymous.
Property accounts for 10 percent of all economic activity in China and has a broad impact on the steel and appliance industries and the service sector.
After several years of soaring home prices, investors saw things slow last year. Home-buying plans are at a 10-year low.
An exhibition from Oct. 29 to Nov. 3 attracted more than 60,000people, but few deals were made despite many discounts, organizers said. People were waiting to see how the new policies would affect housing prices.
Holly Liu was looking for a flat that would make it more convenient for her 2-year-old son to attend a better school. "The agency is calling us more frequently. But to me, it seems the market is stagnant," she said.
BUYERS BECOME FRUSTRATED
Eyewitnesses said a protest occurred last month near a new apartment building in eastern Beijing.
"I saw about 100 people occupy the agent's office, destroy the house models lying on a huge table and block the door," said Ren, an analyst at the Beijing office of an American financial services company.
"The protesters were furious because they signed purchase contracts just a few months ago at a price of 14,000 yuan per square meter, but now the price has dropped sharply to about 8,000yuan," Ren said.
Although prices in outlying areas have fallen in recent months, real estate developers and agents contended that prices would not plunge too much downtown.
"I don't think the new policies will lead to a large price drop," said Zhang Hao, a Ximeng Real Estate agent. "Demand for housing is still huge in Beijing, especially among newlyweds, recent graduates and white-collar workers in their 20s.
"Last month, we offered four buildings in southern Beijing at a price of 10,500 yuan per square meter. Many young people rushed to buy, and all 400 apartments were sold out within a month," said Zhang.
But for Xi, who agreed to pay 1.1 million yuan for the apartment and made the initial payment, all he wanted was a loan and the details of the tax cuts.
"I think the price is fair, and the former owner can make a reasonable profit," he said. "Life is full of uncertainty. I hope we can truly enjoy the benefits [of the new policies] soon."