Property market leaves 'want-to-be' homeowners out in the cold

08:52, January 14, 2010      

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For real estate agents like Zhang Dongmei, 2009 was a fantastic year, and for good reason. The 30-year-old from Northeast China saw her income from 2009's red-hot property market quadruple over the previous year. That made all her hard work as an agent over the last three and a half years that much more worthwhile.

"My annual income used to be around 50,000 yuan, but in 2009 I made nearly 200,000 yuan," Zhang said, adding that agents with big agencies made a lot more. Real estate agents, whose salaries come largely from commissions of up to 3 percent of the sale price, witnessed the "irrational exuberance" of China's housing market in 2009.

Homelink, one of the largest real estate agencies in Beijing, boasted sales of more than 100 million yuan a month starting last April, or more than 3 million yuan a day.

Meanwhile, property agency Zhongyuan reportedly earned more than 1.5 million yuan a day in the Shanghai market.

Most of Zhang's clients were speculative investors from the coastal city of Wenzhou, Zhejiang province. They are known for speculating in property markets across the country. "They now think the price has hit a high in Beijing and want to switch to untapped markets in other cities to maximize profits," Zhang said.

Another group of buyers are in their 20s, married and may have a baby on the way. "Most of them use the lifetime savings of their parents, or borrow money from their grandparents for the down payment," Zhang noted.

House prices have been rising continuously since last March. Prices in residential areas surged 5.7 percent year-on-year last November in 70 large- and medium-size cities, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Zhang believes the actual figure may be much higher.

A 50-sq-m, fully furnished apartment within Beijing's second ring road sold for 800,000 yuan in November 2008 and is now listed for twice that price at 1.6 million yuan. "During the craziest time, prices leapt 2,000 yuan per sq m every three days," Zhang said.

Statistics from the Beijing Real Estate Transaction Management website reveal a record 32,784 apartments were sold in November alone. That adds up to 1,000 homes sold a day, on average, and up 56 percent over the previous month.

It's no wonder that the TV drama Dwelling Narrowness became an instant hit across the country near the end of 2009. The series depicts a young woman who becomes the mistress of a senior official to get money to help her elder sister afford the down payment on an apartment. The show also confirms viewer perceptions that collusion between property developers and government officials serves to inflate prices.

The drama has triggered a nationwide debate on skyrocketing housing prices.

Chinese typically strive to make home ownership a personal goal. In fact, many families believe their futures to be insecure if owning a home is not somewhere on the horizon. Making matters worse, there are no special rules protecting tenants in China.

An online poll recently conducted by Tencent revealed that 80 percent of 360,000-plus viewers of the TV drama feel, "happiness is closely linked to owning a home".

China's long-running housing boom ended abruptly in the second half of 2008, in part because of the global economic downturn. However, government efforts to ease lending, lower required down payments and introduce tax breaks, have put the real estate sector back on its feet.

Analysts say the property market is a key driver in China's economic recovery. Nonetheless, ever-rising property prices are also fueling concern that the boom could evolve into a dangerous bubble.

The price-to-rent ratio - the ratio of residential property prices to annual rent that can be earned from the house - is an indicator of which is more desirable, owning a house or renting. According to the China Index Academy, the current ratio has hit 1 to 434 in Beijing and 1 to 418 in Shanghai respectively, far above the international warning limit of 1 to 200.

Wang Shi, chairman of China Vanke Co, the country's largest property developer by market value, warned that real-estate bubbles in some of Chinese biggest cities could spread to other parts of the country.

A 2010 report on China's economy released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences indicated that 85 percent of Chinese families can't buy a house because housing prices are far above their affordability level.

Given 2009's sky-high property prices, many Chinese have pointed their collective finger at authorities' tight control over residential land use. Blame has also been placed on the government's failure to deal with real estate developers that stockpile housing in order to escalate prices.

"There are two major problems in the market right now. First, there is the bubble and then there is speculation," He Keng, an official with the Financial and Economic Committee of the National People's Congress, said.

Source: China Daily
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