Hong Kong now a renters' market as prices drop on expat moves

Rents in Hong Kong dropped to HK$33.60 (S$5.77) per square foot in the first quarter. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - There has rarely been a better time to be apartment hunting in Hong Kong than right now.

Rents in one of the world's most expensive real estate markets dropped to HK$33.60 (S$5.77) per sq ft in the first quarter, the lowest since the end of 2016, data from Centaline Property Agency show. So a typical two-bedroom apartment in Soho now rents for about US$3,500 (S$4,676) a month, down from US$4,200 two years ago, according to Spacious.hk online rentals.

An exodus of expatriates following anti-government protests, combined with a declining population and higher unemployment rate have led to sluggish rental demand in the Asian financial hub, even as home purchase prices hold steady.

High-end properties in districts including the Mid-Levels and Deep Water Bay favored by western expats and wealthy mainland Chinese saw the most decline, with rents plunging as much as 25 per cent from mid-2019, according to Spacious. Soho in Sheung Wan district, popular among foreign students and young professionals, saw rental values drop by 20 per cent in the same period.

The economic uncertainties and mobility difficulties that emerged during the 2019 pro-democracy protests drove the decline, said James Fisher, chief operating officer at Spacious. The pandemic and the deep recession added to the weak demand.

Rents may decline another 5 per cent to 10 per cent in 2021 due to a shrinking population and travel restrictions, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Patrick Wong. The city's population fell 0.6 per cent last year to 7.47 million and may drop further after the British government received 27,000 applications from Hong Kong citizens for British National Overseas visas, Mr Wong said in a research note.

While the economy roared back in the first quarter at the fastest pace in a decade, the jobless rate was still 6.8 per cent in March, close to a 17-year high set in the previous quarter. Many residents who lose their jobs move back in with family to save costs.

Despite the tepid leasing market, selling prices of homes remain resilient due to outsized demand for home ownership in the city. Home values dropped by less than 4 per cent from their peak in mid-2019.

Rental yields, which measure profits on leased properties, decreased to the lowest on record in February, according to the latest government figures. Large properties were the worst hit, with the yields on homes bigger than 160 sq m (1,722 sq ft) falling to 1.8 per cent.

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