The lure of London – Qatar Today
By Ayswarya Murthy,
Qatar s love affair with London is well documented. And with real estate being one of the two most-preferred investment vehicles for Qataris, buying residential properties in London, a second home to many, has always been a no-brainer. Qatar Today examines some of the changing circumstances around this trend.
London has always been on the map for Qataris, says Laurence Ronson from property developers Ronson Capital Partners. Qataris find London to be a welcoming city. The appeal lies beyond its easy description as a safe haven. It s politically stable, the time zone is ideal and it s a fantastic place to raise children because of the great education system. Then, of course, there are the shopping, restaurants, culture; it s amazing, he says. Don t we know it!
Towards the beginning of last year, British tabloids were abuzz with news of the Al Thani family s acquisition of a row of properties on Cornwall Street and the plans to combine them into one mega-mansion. Due to the general dissatisfaction among Londoners about the affordability of housing in the city that had long been brewing, combined with the fact that it was the year of general elections in the UK, news like this garnered more attention than usual and the subject of foreign investments in London residential real estate was a headline-grabbing topic. There were warnings that, as well as driving up prices for domestic buyers, the nature of investments from overseas was distorting house-building priorities, with developers disproportionately attracted to high-value developments while ignoring the undersupply at lower levels of the market. Naturally, it became an important electoral agenda.
It has been quite easy for governments to use foreign buyers as a vote-catching issue, says Ronson. Oh, they are buying up properties off plan and never rent them out; that s why Londoners can t afford homes It s ridiculous nonsense. Why wouldn t London want to attract investment and tourist it s great for the economy. Among the public, however, some of this resentment found free expression, like in Dougie Wallace s photographic series Harrodsburg that sought to expose the glut, greed and the wealth gap (disproportionately, the subject of which were Hijab-clad Gulf women) and growing demands to come down hard on young Khaleeji men using London s streets as a racing track for their supercars.
Mind the middle class
While the figures are most pronounced in the prime market, the trend of overseas investment in residential real estate isn t confined to just high-end properties. This is not the jet-set but rather the working middle classes expanding into the world, often for the first time. Because the tax regime is preferable, the legal system is transparent and the property market has performed consistently well. The UK has been a relatively stable part of the world amid such uncertainties as the Eurozone debt crisis and the Arab Spring. The exchange rate for sterling has also given London property an edge for international investment portfolios. London is now the favourite city in the world for real estate investment opportunities among overseas investors, according to the latest annual survey by the Association of Foreign Investors in Real Estate.
Source: Finding Shelter: Overseas investment in the UK housing market , Civitas
But neither instances like these, nor the tax measures being brought in quietly to make foreign buyers think twice about the strategy and structure of investment in residential real estate, are expected to slow down the freight train. The government still wants people to come to the UK and invest, but if it s long-term, they feel the fair thing is people should be taxed on the same basis as someone who is UK-domiciled.
The new Conservative-led coalition government is making good on a promise to boost taxes for non-resident individuals who own UK property. In his annual budget speech last year, George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, offered up proposed changes to the tax code that could soon make it more expensive for a non-UK resident to live in the UK for a long time or buy and own properties. There are some important changes afoot in the taxation of residential property, says Piers Masters, Partner at Charles Russell Speechlys. The landscape is moving fast and there is much misinformation. But the new scenario is still manageable and still attractive as an investment, if structured with more care.
For a long time, non-resident buyers had it much easier than those who were domiciled in the UK in terms of the tax burden. It used to be amazingly good for international investors in residential properties, says Masters. For example, if you were a foreign investor buying property, you wouldn t have to pay any tax (capital gains tax) when you sold the property (both commercial and residential). From next year, this would not be the case for residential properties. Now the government is recognising that there is a shortage of housing in the UK and is trying to level the playing field a bit.
Charles Russell Speechlys
Governments are there to be elected, after all, and while these new tax changes might mollify the public, they might end up having no direct effect on either overseas investments or cheaper housing. Can the answer to building more affordable houses in the city be found in changes to the tax regime which affects the highest-value properties? For example, Masters points out that among the clients from the region he advises, most buy holiday homes above the 2 million price tag with very few buying below 1 million. They only tend to go down lower when the purchase is being made for investment purposes. Then it becomes about yield, asset classes and returns. According to experts, projected exchange rates from Middle Eastern currencies against sterling mean these investments are still likely to be very attractive, despite capital gains and inheritance taxes. As Masters puts it, These changes don t necessarily make things any worse for foreign buyers than UK ones. In fact, in some respects foreign buyers still have an advantage.
Live from Doha
Qataris are now increasingly being entertained by real estate agents flying out to the region to promote their developments and rack up those pre-sales. Many agents just directly tie up with local banks and investment houses who handle the portfolios of the country s high and very high-net-worth individuals. One instance is QIB-UK, a wholly-owned Qatar Islamic Bank subsidiary headquartered in London s Mayfair. Their real estate arm was specifically created to help their privileged customers in Doha identify real estate opportunities in London, get early access to exclusive deals and obtain the required financing. Earlier last year, QIB added property advisors Knight Frank to its list of partners. QIB-UK also hosts an online listings page with properties ranging from lavish flats and residences to modern commercial developments and office complexes.
Ronson is in Doha (his first time here) to introduce their brand to the right people and present the different developments they are currently working on. I have been meeting various people introduced to us through estate agents Knight Frank who handle two out of the three properties we are currently developing. Mostly bankers and private individuals, he says. It s always interesting for a London developer to travel and get feedback from on international buyers on how they perceive London.
UK residential property taxes
- Stamp Duty Land Tax on purchase
- Capital Gains Tax on sale or other disposal
- Income Tax on rental profits
- Inheritance Tax on death (and some trust events)
- Annual Tax on Enveloped Dwellings considered if a residential property is held in a company
- important recent changes
- Capital gains tax for non-residents inforce now
- Inheritance tax (which is a whopping 40%) applies to all UK residential properties from April 6, 2017 even if property is held in a offshore company
- 3% stamp duty tax surcharge applies to properties completed on or after April 1, 2016 (exceptions where exchange of contracts predates November 26, 2015)
Courtesy: Charles Russell Speechy, December 2015
Ronson says on average 50% of their buyers are international, although many of them might already be living in London. They welcome them, of course, but he says their approach to attracting investment is different from what many of their counterparts are doing. We always launch our developments to the domestic markets first and don t fly around the world in order to achieve quick sales in South East Asia, he says. And while the price point of their developments are not geared towards first time-buyers (in Riverwalk, their luxury riverside development in the prestigious SW1 postcode, single-bed apartments start at 1.3 million, three beds are above 5 million and the two 6,000 sq ft penthouses with a wraparound terrace, which haven t been put on the market yet, are expected to fetch about 25 million) he believes everyone should have a social conscience about the housing situation. You either have to provide affordable housing or make a contribution towards that, he says. From our perspective, we put so much effort into each development that the last thing you want is to go past it three months later and see dark windows.
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