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How then has ThailandÆs real estate market reacted in the month after Thaksin Shinawatra was booted out of the prime minister's office?
ôThe market has shown that the coup is overwhelmingly positive,ö says David Simister, chairman of CB Richard Ellis (CBRE) in Bangkok. ôIÆm not suggesting that military rule in general is necessarily better. I think we will probably see a return to ThailandÆs former style of coalition government.ö
CBRE has reported closure on two major deals that straddled the coup. Kingdom Hotels bought a 66-acre site in Phang Nga on which it plans to develop the $115 million Raffles Phang Nga Resort. And in Karon Beach, Phuket, Destination Properties has bought the 125-room Fenix Resort.
These are deals that were structured before the coup. What risks though would stop new deals from happening?
Apparently no buyers have even mentioned the tsunami to CBRE, or the possibility of another tidal wave. People are concerned about legal risks, given that foreigners cannot buy legal freehold of houses and land. International buyers like the idea of holding a land title with their name on it, and yet in Thailand they have to settle for either a long-term leasehold or they have to set up a Thai company. With that in mind, it is imperative to hire a good lawyer to do title searches. That is money well spent when making a big financial commitment in Thailand.
Right now, Thai authorities are scrutinising the companies set up by foreigners to buy land. Simister thinks that a properly constructed corporate acquisition of a Thai property will be water-tight and that regional governors will not start kicking foreigners out of their houses. Nevertheless, Thais are perennially resistant to being much more accommodating to new foreign arrivals and see their unique rights over land ownership as sacred.
ôThere is a disconnect in Thai bureaucracy preventing foreigners from buying property, even if it was in a place that no Thai person would conceive of wanting to live in, like atop a rocky outcrop,ö says Simister. ôIf a Thai person was asked to rank on a scale of one to 10 the importance of allowing foreigners to buy property, they would reply that it doesnÆt even appear on their scale. It's possible one day leases might be extended to 90 years, or special areas set aside for foreigners to acquire leasehold title, perhaps with some special land tax.ö
Working within the alternatives sector in Hong Kong, there is no shortage of multi-millionaire prime brokers and hedge fund managers who own property in Phuket and Bangkok, or those who have expressed intentions to buy property in order to spend their twilight years in Thailand. One hedge fund manager asked us to enquire about the property he has bought in Le Raffine, in Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok. ôIt is over-gilded,ö says Simister. ôIt's not one that is on my list to recommend to my clients.ö
Mindful that people want to get a good deal that will appreciate in the future, what will be the hot spot of tomorrow?
ôI agree that it is harder to see prices doubling in the near future on the Andaman coast of Phuket, though if you buy a villa off-plan you might still make 30-40% in the mid-term," Simister argues. "For greater potential upside, I suggest looking in Phang Nga and the east coast of Phuket. Thais themselves might not be rushing out right now to buy new developments, but Thailand has become a global destination for international buyers. Prices there are a tenth of those in Hawaii.ö
Unlike Hong Kong, where real estate is virtually a currency, property is more of an illiquid investment in Thailand. Also there is more opacity about pricing; gauging what has been paid for similar properties is not easy. It is hard to do the research that can lead buyers to decide how much to offer. A stingy lowball or distressed offer can expect to be greeted by the mortally wounded feelings of the Thai seller.
Bargains could be found by disintermediating the agencies and approaching old fishermen on the beaches, asking where to find someone with land for sale, as everyone knows someone with something to sell in Thailand. However, Simister counsels not to be surprised when you find when you do legal searches that your æbargainÆ has no land title and the incumbents possesses no more than squatters rights and the sale then falls apart. (Warning: this precise scenario happened to the author in Khao Lak, five years ago, although this may have been a blessing in disguise: sadly people on that parcel, for the most part Scandinavian tourists, were killed by the 2005 tsunami.)
So what does CBRE think is the next undiscovered property location in Thailand? Go buy your air tickets for Krabi and have a quiet look around.
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