Foreign property investment and the Chinese factor

ScreenHunter_06 May. 06 09.27

By Martin North. Cross Posted from Digital Finance Analytics Blog

One factor which is driving the residential property market, especially in the major centres of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth is a rise in overseas purchasers. They may be Australian residents, overseas purchasers buying property for investment through an approved development, or locals acting for overseas purchasers, who are attracted by the sustained house price growth and relative economic stability. China is often identified as a major source for potential purchasers.

Foreign Residential Property Investment is subject to the regulations as stipulated by the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB). The overarching principal is that foreign investment in residential real estate should increase Australia’s housing stock and all applications are considered in light of this. To quote them:

Residential real estate means all land and housing that is not commercial property or rural land. In that regard, ‘hobby farms’ and ‘rural residential’ blocks are residential real estate.
Temporary residents need to apply if they wish to buy an established dwelling. Only one established dwelling may be purchased by a temporary resident and it must be used as their residence in Australia. Such proposals are normally approved subject to conditions (such as, that the temporary resident sells the property when it ceases to be their residence). Temporary residents cannot buy established dwellings as investment properties, but can buy established dwellings for redevelopment. Temporary residents need to apply to buy new dwellings in Australia. Such proposals are normally approved without conditions. Temporary residents need to apply to buy vacant land for residential development. These are normally approved subject to conditions (such as, that construction begins within 24 months).

Foreign persons that operate a substantial Australian business need to apply to buy established dwellings to house their Australian based staff. Such proposals are normally approved subject to conditions (such as, that the foreign person sell the property if it is expected to remain vacant for Six months or more).
Non-resident foreign persons need to apply to buy established dwellings for redevelopment (that is, to demolish the existing dwelling and build new dwellings). Proposals for redevelopment are normally approved as long as the redevelopment increases Australia’s housing stock (at least two dwellings built for the one demolished) or where it can be shown that the existing dwelling is derelict or uninhabitable. Approvals are usually subject to conditions. Non-resident foreign persons need to apply to buy new dwellings in Australia. Such proposals are normally approved without conditions. Non-resident foreign persons need to apply to buy vacant land for residential development. These are normally approved subject to conditions (such as, that construction begins within 24 months)

Residential Real Estate was freed up in 2009, although in 2010 changes were made to remove an earlier exemption that currently applies to temporary residents buying residential real estate in Australia. This ensures that temporary residents need to notify the Treasurer before buying residential real estate in Australia. Short-term visitors such as tourists, business people and those here for a medical procedure are not temporary residents.

But overseas students studying in Australia may purchase. In addition, foreigners may apply to redevelop a second hand dwelling.  Development must increase the number of dwellings and no rental income can be obtained from the existing dwelling prior to demolition. Such redevelopments are required to demolish the existing dwelling and commence construction of the new dwellings within 24 months in line with vacant land.

Under existing laws, developers are able to sell 100% of their developments to non-residents.

According to the FIRB Annual Report 2011-12 overall Residential Property Investment by overseas parties grew from $14.92bn in 2008 to $19.70bn in 2012, with $10.92bn from 70 Developer off the plan projects, (235, $5.48 in 2008). This shows a significant rise in custom development targeted at overseas markets. Portals like Investorist  offer the opportunity for overseas investors to view property projects for sale in Australia.

Some argue that this is going to become a significant force driving the market higher, and it will continue to displace local first time buyers, given the sheer numbers of for example Chinese buyers who face Chinese Government restrictions at home and significant savings. Bear in mind the size of the Chinese population, as one indication each year 7 million students graduate from Chinese universities with degrees!

One factor to watch is the exchange rate,  Here is the 2 year view from As the AU dollar falls against the Chinese Yuan, the purchasing power of investors from China will improve.

AUD_CNY_2yearThere is no good data source for the number of overseas purchasers buying property, other than the 2012 FIRB data. Interestingly, China registers as the highest number of FIRB approvals (though FIRB does not adequately separate out different types of investment), so this may be deceptive.


The average transaction from China is in the order of $800k, which looks more like the price of a house/unit to me. The Australian approvals are most likely to be the construction on approved residential tower blocks, like we see being built at Hurstville, or Wolli Creek in Sydney.


So far as I can see, good data is not captured at the point of purchase. Even if it were, it would be complex. To illustrate this, we looked back over our surveys and identified the following scenarios:

  • Australian residents from overseas buying units off plan in a number of city suburbs, across Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth for own occupation and investment. Many of these will be pre-approved by the developer with FIRB.
  • Australian citizens buying property in their own names, using money from family or friends overseas, for investment. No FIRB approval needed.
  • Overseas investors purchasing via an Australian company structure. Many need FIRB approval.
  • High-Rollers from overseas purchasing up-market property for residential use. Many need FIRB approval.
  • Overseas companies buying Australian land and existing property for development. FIRB approval required.

We also see the reverse by the way:

  • Australians buying property overseas, in markets including Spain, Italy, UK, for investment

We are essentially becoming part of a more globalised property market and it is unlikely this will change. Given what we know about the state of the market, and that locals are being priced out by other purchasers, including investors and overseas purchasers, we need to be wary of these current trends – so I think the Chinese Factor is a critical issue. With limited supply, continued overseas investment in our market will drive prices higher, that is, until conditions change. If China caught an economic cold, it is possible we would see a reversal in property fortunes in Australia, so we are probably more leveraged to China through property than we know or realise.

I would advocate capturing more comprehensive data so we can at least get a handle on overseas property investments. I do not think we are able to stop globalisation, but we need to understand the implications a whole lot better.


  1. GunnamattaMEMBER

    The weak link here is that FIRB simply don’t check anything. They manage a website which grants approvals for those who apply. As was noted in their response to a senate inquiry after the Chodley Wontok thing came to public notice they aren’t funded and don’t have the staff to check applications, and their biggest fear is not people who may make somehow fake applications, but people who simply do not bother about it at all.

    What I understand is that there is an increasing concern on the part of quite legitimate ‘Chinese’ (migrants or visa holders) buyers of Australian property about the essentially unregulated nature of much investment here by foreign nationals who do not have any status theoretically enabling them to buy Australian residential real estate. A good example was the couple of ‘Chinese’ who bought Julia Gillards former Altona place, who went out of their way to state emphatically that they are Australian residents – if there was a decent FIRB process then they wouldn’t have to do that.

    On the other side I understand there have been auctions recently where people have flown in with wads of cash to trump all bidders at auctions in Melbourne (god only knows what is happening in Sydney) in such an ostentatious manner that in one instance (where footage of the auction was placed on YouTube) even agents/auctioneers were asking ‘is there anything we are supposed to do to check this?’ and also there has been a marked increase in transactions at auctions with quite literally cash changing hands – yes suitcases.

    After sussing out how feeble the FIRB vetting process was last year I approached real estate agents about buying real estate (lifestyle place involving large acreage) on behalf of foreign nationals and was told and was told inter alia their foreign national status ‘Wont be a problem’ ‘We’ll handle that for you’ and also that ‘At the moment probably about 70% of our buyers in the one to ten million dollar range are foreigners so there will not be any issues’ – this is referring to the area between one and three hours drive to the west of Melbourne, including prime agricultural production land as wel as your more lifestyle segment (vineyards – of which there seems to be quite a few owners looking to get rid of them – and horses in particular). On one quite funny occasion, after I had spent an entire meeting largely speaking in another language and translating with heavily accented English I reverted to my natural Australian (mate) accent (sure the buyers weren’t interested in the place) and to the reasonably intense embarrassment of the agents in question asked them if they didn’t feel a touch of regret about selling off the farm – to which they replied ‘our job is just to sell it mate’, not to ask questions about buyers’

    As someone with very good rural contacts I also understand there is rising concern about the 250 million threshold below which FIRB doesn’t look at rural land purchases, and have been reliably informed that property sales have been structured in such a way as to
    Fall beneath that.

    • We are selling off everything!

      And the kitchen sink it seems…

      ANZAC day may as well be changed to Mao Zedong day… Utter disgrace!

      • Yeah indeed…and all around Australia on Jan 26 thousands will be waving their little plastic Aussie flags and wearing I love Aus T shirts etc etc ……all as we know made in China or Thailand or Vietnam….and when we go down to Sydney Harbour to watch the celebrations and drop into a pub for a schooner there isn’t much change outa 10 bucks…..but everybody will look so happy….oh it’s such a fun city

    • Japan from the 80s on steroids. As a mate of mine from Cairns pointed out the other day, when the large Japanese corporates were buying in the 80s they explicitly recognised they were over-paying, but also felt they would lose less money when Australia corrected than when Japan corrected.

      Add to that that the extreme bubble conditions had meant Japan was swimming in fiat money just like China is now.

      It will of course correct, but do we look through it or not is the debate.

      • Too true aj. I was only a young lad at the time but I remember the days of “you can’t go wrong in Japan”. Of course Japan oozed capital as China is now doing. The similarities are scary. History doesn’t repeat but it sure rhymes, as they say.

      • Great posts all round, aj’s point rings true for me.

        The uncoordinated nature of real estate investment in Australia is astounding, not to mention the poor regulation of the real estate industry.

        The responsibility to maintain a countries patriotism falls largely on the Governments that are meant to represent them. In Australia’s case our current leaders are cheapening what it means to be a citizen of this country. It is poor policy, poor politics and to be frank divisive more than inclusive. The citizen feels cheated, cheapskated being sold out to people from China who uphold the greatest patriotism for the mother land. The money will always return to China, siphoned out of this great hole.

        So much has been said about this PROBLEM that at least the readers on this forum and their friends and family members have enlightened to the tricks, forgery and fraud that occurs with foreign investment transactions in Australia to the benefit of big business and politicians and to the detriment of the citizen, and if attending an auction we are obliged to demand proof of residency or citizenship from the Auctioneer of registered attendees. Otherwise walk away.

        The social construct of our country is becoming weaker, the rentier society, the begger thy neighbor and the plain lack of honesty, comradery and mateship that make communities cohesive. What we face are enclaves of ethic diversity that are divisive and parasitic to the national interest.

    • ” ‘Wont be a problem’ ‘We’ll handle that for you’ ”

      Yes Gunna there is some sort of scheme being worked. I spoke to a Bank Manager who says they are marketing direct into HK and China. The people will never have been here. I am guessing it must be some Company or Trust structure happening.
      P.S. Bank Manager not marketing. It is Mortgage Broker/RE group. According to the Manager they are also raising money here!

      Anyway who gives a s..t as long as RE prices always go up and the country is saved and remains prosperous!

      • GunnamattaMEMBER

        I’m not now going to that investment forum in Hong Kong that I mentioned a couple of months back, but I have a some mates going who said they would pass on how intense the spruiking for Australian RE was – if it is stronger than what I saw in Singapore 6 weeks ago I would be impressed in a depressing kind of way. I know for a fact that you can get mortgages in Singapore dollars and Yuan Renminbi for Australian RE. There are a load of chinese websites which are arguably better value than or domain in terms of information they provide (down to school rankings in one i was pointed to). I don’t mind if they want to sell off Australian RE in this way, but I would have thought acknowledging to the public what is happening, and doing something about supply of new residential RE would have been a Sine qua non for that.

    • disco stuMEMBER

      Disgraceful Gunna – one wonders why ACA or TTN can’t do a similar expose instead of doing their under cover work to catch a couple dodgy Irish driveway bitumen layers.

      • GunnamattaMEMBER

        Well the dodgy Irish bitumen layers market has the upside for Australia’s media world of not being major advertising buyers and being absolutely impotent in terms of providing any response to reporting they didn’t like.

        Whereas the real estate lobby – and feel free to note the production values of any real estate insert in any print media, the regularity of any real estate sell on commercial radio, and the omnipresence of soft and overt real estate spruik on commercial TV – is about the only major buyer of advertising still in robust mode, and I would imagine that commercial media executives – bearing in mind the cash strapped nature of network seven, nine and ten, most radio, the near terminal financial status of Fairfax, and the moral integrity of Uncle Ruperts Australian minions – would find themselves fellating anything paying with gusto, and fairly attuned to client preferences.

    • How can anyone be sure that those suitcases cash money isn’t from drugs? We have a legal limit for import cash without declaring it at the border and it is only $10,000. How could anyone with so much cash in a suitcase pass the border without being stopped and checked?

      I have asked many times a year and more ago about the validity of the “housing prices slow meltdown” MB theory, but none of MB has paid attention to my simple question:

      “What is only 0.01% of the wealthy Chinese want to come and come here for buying properties?” I regret I gave more weight to MB opinion about property market than my own gut at the time and I gave a wrong advice to my child to wait.

      Sorry for saying that, I love MB blog, but it was a short sightseeing not seeing the impact of globalization on our housing market. At the end, Chinese are more welcome here by our government compared with any other immigrants or foreign investors.

      • “We have a legal limit for import cash without declaring it at the border and it is only $10,000. How could anyone with so much cash in a suitcase pass the border without being stopped and checked?”

        Casino chips or paying money into someone’s foreign bank and then they pay you here are probably preferred options.

      • Lori, it’s not drugs money. It’s the proceeds of corruption. Australian real estate is becoming one of the ways that bent Chinese officials launder their ill gotten gains. If you want proof, I can’t provide it. The circumstantial evidence is pretty clear though if somebody brings a suitcase of cash to an auction. Bear in mind that it’s illegal to take more than USD50,000 per annum out of China. Doesn’t stop our government offering residency to Chinese for the sum of AUD5m though! Everyone’s in on it. Guaranteed to end in tears for all of us and thoroughly deserved.

    • “..approached real estate agents about buying real estate (lifestyle place involving large acreage) on behalf of foreign nationals and was told and was told inter alia their foreign national status ‘Wont be a problem’ ‘We’ll handle that for you’”

      These admissions constitute evidence that the real estate agents could well be party to offences under the FATA (or even committing criminal fraud) and liable to prosecution.

  2. “If China caught an economic cold, it is possible we would see a reversal in property fortunes in Australia, so we are probably more leveraged to China through property than we know or realise.”

    Add NZ to that scenario, particularly Auckland.

    • With the NZD/AUD at nigh on 95 cents, even those Aussies who’ve got property in Auckland etc must be looking at the capital and exchange rate gains over the last 18 months and doing their sums…… and buying more ‘aint part of those calculations!

  3. Thanks for cross-post.
    The 2 groups wrecking local affordability are:
    1. “Australian citizens buying property in their own names, using money from family or friends overseas”
    2. “Overseas investors purchasing via an Australian company structure”

    Both groups represent the entry point into Aus market for pure speculators – living in Aus is optional. The idea is just to make 15% + compounding capital gain per year for the next x years – then sell to next Yuan-holding investor in a long conga line.

    A gamble in the great Aussie real estate casino, with implicit guarantee – ‘Our govt has your back’.

    A govt backed whiteanting of the community is under way. A systematic Sino-fication of select suburbs in capital cities and loss of farms to absentee landlords. Ex-PM Rudd was the herald and champion of this current investment scramble.
    Unless FIRB rules change, it is open slather with locals increasing shut out.
    The whole game needs to be tightened up – FIRB approval over $248M is a joke.
    How about a threshold be $2M+ (farms) & $1M (residential dwelling) with the mandatory seizure of assets in the case of proven scamming the system?
    And even if FIRB rules change, I doubt it will do much to slow the 2 groups above. Changes there need to come through Treasury and ATO.
    What a mess.

  4. I’ve started noticing real estate agents in my area in Sydney (northwest) starting to put up more and more bilingual signage when selling property. Also a lot of my real estate junk mail I get in the mailbox is increasingly targeting Asian buyers, some material is all purely in Chinese.

    I fail to fathom why we need to globalise our residential property, nothing good can come of this. I also cannot understand why there are no checks or balances in terms of money laundering, we pretend all the money coming out of China is squeekly clean and not the result of proceeds gained by corrupt means.

    I found this article in Forbes from May 2013, they state Australia is 2nd behind the USA for most desirable location for Chinese money laundering, I mean residential property purchasing.

    • This has all got a long long way still to run. The appetite for prime Oz RE by new foreign wealth is unstoppable. Knight Frank list 2.2 million properties available for sale to Chinese buyers in 57 overseas markets. The USA is the #1…Australia is #2. Sydney agent John McGrath recently called the demand from China “unprecedented and the strongest influence (on house price inflation) ever”. Like many Australian RE agents he has recently opened offices in Asia.
      In London the majority of the prime suburbs are now owned by overseas investors. Global capital from emerging markets left largely unscathed by the GFC are seeking safe havens, pouring hot money into residential RE in favored locations around the world.

      From the Forbes article…
      “Our neighbor has a two year old daughter and every holiday they go to Australia and New Zealand,” he tells me. “They go there for vacation, but part of that vacation includes scouring the city and countryside looking for properties. That’s where they want her to go to school. The rich Chinese don’t want the stock market. It is too volatile.
      “in Singapore, China accounted for 34% of the foreign property market, according to U.K. real estate consultancy Knight Frank. China’s numbers in Singapore have been on the rise so much that the government is curbing foreign buying of housing.
      “We found that they all said it was being impossible to buy a house in Shanghai because of government restrictions on buying two homes. They (the Chinese) said they would rather have a home in Sydney, London or San Francisco…

  5. 4 points

    1. It is an offence under the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act 1975 for a foreign person to purchase an existing dwelling in Australia without prior FIRB approval.

    2. There is no requirement for passport details or FIRB approval to be produced by the purchaser for the sale of an existing dwelling to be registered.

    3. This is a clear regulatory failure with a simple, low-cost fix.

    4. Fix it FIRB. Ensure compliance with the Act. It is your job.

    • “3. This is a clear regulatory failure with a simple, low-cost fix.”

      It is also intentional failure.

      We are living in such a whore-ish country, selling to the highest bidder of the day. Pardon my strong language, but that is how I feel.

      • I don’t believe there has ever been a prosecution. It should be a job for the AFP. Yawn……

  6. UE

    “We are essentially becoming part of a more globalised property market and it is unlikely this will change. ”

    Correct, excess profits end up in popular (and “safe” according to one’s criteria) residential markets.

    Australia is but one subset. Not unlike a ritzy suburb in Sydney is to NSW or for that matter what Sydney. Melbourne & Perth are to Australia.

    These popular areas are scarce and prices climb higher.

  7. The powers that be cannot afford a serious property downturn without considerable exposure to the banking sector (see Deep Ts informative posts). If they wanted to enforce this law they could with ease, but in so doing the real estate market could take a serious turn for the worse wiping out the pitiful equity of the banks and mortgage insurers.

    • GunnamattaMEMBER

      I spent a few weeks over Christmas NY driving around with investment banking types discussing how to short the whole shebang – which has interested a few of us since mid last year or so. Shorting the banks isn’t the goer largely because they are backed by the government, but keep an eye on Australian mortgage insurers (very weak) and more distantly the international banks placing money with Australian banks and their insurers/hedging setups.

      Apart from that the weak link is actually the broader Australian economy, which is on course for a slow melt lasting a generation or more, and which will position Australia economically in such a way as say Cyprus is – nice beaches, lowly paid hospitality staff, a good range of holiday services, and sweet FA beyond that.

      • and which will position Australia economically in such a way as say Cyprus is – nice beaches, lowly paid hospitality staff, a good range of holiday services, and sweet FA beyond that.

        Big call …

      • GunnamattaMEMBER

        Yeah, you are right, I am overcooking it. We will have the services sector revolving around selling RE to foreigners (google buy Cyprus real estate) and our 75% foreign owned mining sector, and an agriculture world firmly held by the nads through processing, shipping choke points currently being sold off to parts not here…

      • @Gunna Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t say I disagree but that is a rather big call.

        What’s your recommendation for anyone without financial ties here?

      • GunnamattaMEMBER


        My advice, as I tell my wife and kids……is to enjoy the place and get what advantages you can from it. my son is being educated in English which will be useful for him,my wife wil get an Australian passport which will be useful for her. I am having an OK time with family and friends I have not seen in a long time and showing my family parts of Australia and things to give them a feel of where daddy comes from.

        But the one thing I am probably not going to do is to commit my kids to being ‘Australians’ (apart from having the passport – which is useful) if I think that means I am committing them to a moribund economy, and a society which equates excellence in any field requiring intellect to long periods overseas. I will tell them to go somewhere else and come back in their dotage if they stil think it a good idea.

        I’m off for a swim, cop you all later…

      • “I spent a few weeks over Christmas NY driving around with investment banking types discussing how to short the whole shebang”

        Short the AUD against just about any currency you can think of, except the CAD perhaps…

      • Not sure about the slow melt. Debt problems in China and/or the next 3 Roy Morgan unemployment and underemployment monthly figures deteriorating at the same rate would probably turn this market even with more RBA cuts. Hard to tell what will happen.

      • I’m with fitzroy on this one, it could all coming crashing down sooner rather than later.

        Predicting exactly where that tipping point will be is incredibly difficult but to quote Dennis Denuto from “The Castle”, “Its the vibe”and the vibe over the last couple of weeks has turned from cautiously optimistic to slightly worry about the future. That change in mood is something that I haven’t seen or felt since the dark days of the GFC.

        When the ABS unemployment figures blow by the December treasury forecasts for 2014-2015 of 6.25%, panic could potentially set in and slam the brakes on for consumer and business spending.

        That being said I have no idea how long this insane housing ponzi lead “recovery” will last, while unemployment is taking the escalator up and there is very little in the way of positive data coming out people are still pouring their life savings on the housing investment bonfire.

      • ” nice beaches, lowly paid hospitality staff, a good range of holiday services, and sweet FA beyond that.”
        I think that’s a great call too. I see it similarly.
        Let’s just add a financial enclave in Sydney sitting on top of it all, that is itself watched over by the JP Morgan building. ( honest, that building so reminds me of the discovery of the monolith in 2001. It gets revealed, but has always been there)

  8. can we stop this global tide?
    we can limit its effects by:
    1) lower immigration, less direct purchases by the migrants themselves and les conduits for families
    3) ban all perm residents from ANY purchase of existing residents INCLUDING where for redevelopment
    4) restrict new builds purchases for apartments only NOT new homes. I dont buy the argurment that foreign investors result in more supply of new homes – maybe they are just buying at a higher price than a local would have bought anyway
    5) RELEASE MORE LAND TO PUSH DOWN PRICES – Chinese see Aus as a stable investment becasue it is a good investment when land supply is constrained. Add more and like any speculator they will run for the doors at the first whiff of price drops.

    • Another way is to charge stamp duty in tax tokens instead of dollars.
      For example to buy a $500k house you must provide proof that you have paid $50k in taxes to the Australian govt. This way working Aussies get the houses stead of foreign elites who earned their money other ways.

    • All great ideas but it’s not as though the government is looking for any ideas to stop the madness. They will not do anything that will intentionally bring down prices, and if the bubble bursts, it will be despite govt policies, not because of them.

  9. Make a difference, write to your local MP and say that if the FIRB is not looked at ASAP, they will loose your vote, if enough people do this it will become a political issue and brought into the spotlight!

  10. Great comments here. We are basically a nation that is being sold out by our stupid and supine politicians pandering to local vested interests and the religion of globalisation. The people, our nation, etc, mean nothing. Just a mimic of the stuff that is happening to the US.

  11. There is an interesting article below on the Netherlands housing bubble…

    Falling Netherlands house prices leave owners stuck

    “And all this in a country that until recently was seen as an exemplary economy – one that was quick to criticise others in Europe for not living within their means. The irony is not lost on Dutch citizens. ”

    “If you went to a dinner party before the crisis and told people you were renting a house, people would probably consider you financially backward.”

    “It was received wisdom that house prices would always go up.”

    It all sounds a bit like Australia…

  12. We know this is a global phenomenon. Just have a look at this article for Canada.

    $4 million CAD Vancouver condo is considered “cheap” by Chinese investors.

    They face pretty much the same problems as we do. Chinese investors buying regardless of local economic circumstances. Even the major of Vancouver say he doesn’t want to do anything that might impact “investment” in this city. I.e. he owns properties too!