Treasurer’s budget measures on foreign buyers come as China’s spending spree soars

China’s crackdown on capital outflows into overseas property markets doesn’t appear to be working judging by the surge in investment from its shores into Australian real estate.

Chinese buyers led a 19 per cent jump in residential applications to 40,149, according to the Foreign Investment Review Board annual report, equating to a peak of proposed investment worth $72.4 billion for the 2015-16 financial year.

The surge in interest from China’s swelling investor class isn’t lost on Treasurer Scott Morrison, with foreign buyers again being slugged with steeper charges on purchases and new fees on property left vacant for six months or more announced in Tuesday’s federal budget.

Chinese buyers at the Shanghai Luxury Property Showcase.Chinese buyers at the Shanghai Luxury Property Showcase. Photo: LPS

“If anything I would say the investment coming from China has increased, not decreased, since China’s crackdown was launched,” said joint principal of SydneySlice Buyers’ Agent, Steve Smith.

“My sources are suggesting that the government is actually amending the foreign capital restrictions, which could make it easier for foreign investors, and if that’s the case we will see local activity increasing, not decreasing.”

Craig Pontey, director of Ray White Double Bay in Sydney, said buyer interest from China wasn’t just increasing, but “substantially increasing” in both sales and buyer inquiry from China.

The first buyer of the Hunters Hill mansion of Cate Blanchett was forced to default on the deal because of problems getting their funds out of China. Photo: Paul Gosney

“The buyers who dominated sales three and four years ago are being joined by their friends and colleagues from China, and they are finding ways to filter their money out of China to do so,” said Mr Pontey.

A year ago China started forcing its state-owned banks to delay or block large sums of money going overseas, and has more recently moved to block money transfers through Macau.

The issue was brought home to Sydneysiders last August when the Hunters Hill trophy home of Cate Blanchett  and her husband Andrew Upton was returned to the market after the $19.8 million buyer was forced to default on the sale given problems getting their funds out of China.

By law, individuals in China are restricted to moving the equivalent of $US50,000 ($68,000) out of the country each year.

McGrath’s Michael Coombs said the continued strength in buyer interest from China was typified by the current campaign underway to sell the Alex Popov-designed trophy home in Northbridge of hedge fund manager David Curtis and his wife Joan for $15 million. Of 142 enquiries, at least 40 per cent came from China, he said.

“Without the current curbs on foreign buyers in place we would have double the number of sales to overseas owners, because the demand for local real estate is just growing,” said Mr Coombs.

The first buyer of the Hunters Hill mansion of Cate Blanchett was forced to default on the deal because of problems getting their funds out of China.Simon Platt, who left Kinsale Property Group late last year to join Unique Estates, said: “There was a lot of media attention and talk about the capital controls impacting on our local market, but we haven’t seen any real impact or change in demand.”

Sydney’s trophy home market has proved largely immune to capital controls, although the market does see sporadic bursts of activity from China, according to Ken Jacobs, of Christie’s International.

“At the top end buyers have a reason for being here – whether that be for schooling or business – rather than just being straight investors, and they have their residency and other sources for funds, so at that end of the market we are not seeing any real change in demand,” Mr Jacobs said.

In May last year, Australian banks started clamping down on loans obtained based on overseas income.

However, ​Meriton Group’s owner Harry Triguboff told The Australian Financial Review this week he has started financing about $200 million of the $1.4 billion worth of apartment sales he expects to make this year to help Chinese buyers struggling with the tougher currency controls.

CBRE director, residential projects Murray Wood, said concerns about the ability of foreign buyers to settle on their purchases prompted some of their developer clients to opt to sell only a small percentage of stock to non-residents, and others have chosen not to canvas offshore buyers at all.

One of the standout measures introduced in Tuesday’s federal budget will be an annual charge aimed at encouraging foreign buyers to rent out their vacant Australian real estate. Any purchase after May 9 will be slugged with an annual charge equal to their foreign investment application fee – starting at $5000 for property valued at $1 million or less – if they leave the property vacant.

The budget also introduces measures to deny foreign tax residents access to capital gains tax exemptions from Tuesday, and those already purchased will have those exemptions grandfathered until June 2019.

For the third year in a row China was the largest source of approved investment across all sectors, staking a claim to 72 per cent of all approvals.