The surge in Hong Kong housing costs has lifted home prices well beyond the bounds of affordability for most local families and young professionals, leading to long lines at housing sales that were sometimes oversubscribed by as much as 15x. But while home prices have risen for every type of home, Bloomberg notes that the intensifying demand for micro-apartments - some of which are as small as 128 square feet (about the size of a garden shed) - has caused prices for this segment of the housing market to climb more quickly than normal-sized homes. Why? Because they’re practically all Chinese buyers can afford.
“The pool of buyers for small flats is getting bigger and bigger because people have to downgrade their expectations of the size of flats they can live in,” said Nicole Wong, regional head of property research at CLSA Ltd. in Hong Kong.
One 161 square foot micro apartment sold by property giant Henderson Land Development Co. was bought for just under $500,000. For that amount, buyers would be better off sleeping in their cars. Specifically, a Tesla Model X, which, as Bloomberg notes, is about 160 square feet, the same size of the above-mentioned apartment. Bizarrely, this is one instance where a Tesla Model X might be considered a bargain: They start at $150,000 in Hong Kong.
Indeed, the intensifying demand for smaller apartments has caused their prices to rise much more quickly than those of larger homes. The average micro apartment price has increased by 99% between 2010 – when they comprised just 5 percent of the Hong Kong market – and 2016 – when they jumped to 27 percent of the total. According to government figures, micro apartments are forecast to comprise 43 percent of new housing stock next year.
“The higher cost of smaller units is demonstrated by the square footage price: At a Kowloon City development, a 181 square foot apartment on a high floor sold in May for HK$25,897 ($3,321) a square foot, or HK$4.69 million. A larger apartment that’s similarly positioned sold two days later for HK$23,047 a square foot — a HK$2,183 difference.
The trend reflects the unintended consequences of government policies meant to cool the property market, which are instead driving demand for the smallest apartments. Developers, looking to help the government achieve supply targets while aiming to lower the buyer’s price threshold, need to recover the record prices they’re spending at land auctions — so they’re squeezing more units into a single plot of land.
Even Hong Kong's actual parking spaces cost more than homes in much of the developed world. One in a prime building of Hong Kong sold for the equivalent of $664,300 in April, local newspaper Ming Pao reported this week.
Incoming Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who takes over on July 1, the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, has promised to increase the home ownership rate by providing government help for people too wealthy for public housing and too poor to afford an apartment of their own.”
The state of Hong Kong’s housing market has changed dramatically since early 2016, when prices were down as much as 10% from a recent peak. Compounding the misguided policies of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, which Bloomberg alluded to above, the massive credit injection authorized by Chinese financial authorities has also contributed to the giant run-up in HK home prices, which have tripled over the past decade.
According to the latest data from Hong Kong's Centaline Property Centa-City Leading Index of existing homes, prices in Hong Kong have risen an unprecedented 23% in the past year. Prices have increased by as much as 2% per day, and it seems that nary a week passes without home prices on the island setting some new record.
But what makes this particular bubble different is that this time, it is obvious to everyone. An editorial in The Standard newspaper published last month was surprisingly accurate: “successive moves by the government in recent memory to cool the property market only resulted in it becoming crazier. The result is a sea of madness.”
Yet these warnings have failed to deter local buyers, who have turned up in droves at each new property sale, where snaking queues of would-be homeowners line up in the hope of being the winning bidder for one of several properties for sales. At the Victoria Skye, a luxury project at the former airport site of Kai Tak and at the Ocean Pride development by Cheung Kong Property Holdings people were lining up days ahead of time for their chance to buy a home at all time high prices.
Another HK new home sales oversubsribed 14.8x today, not as hot as ystdy 'cos >HKD18k/sq ft. Only hundreds buyers. pic.twitter.com/WrraPLudEk
— Simon Ting (@simonting) May 27, 2017
It is also obvious to the local central bank, which, like Vancouver and Toronto, appears powerless to halt the tsunami of hot mainland money spilling over the border. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority has been tightening rules for lenders, Bloomberg writes, including restricting levels of lending to developers, as it tries to limit financial risks and take some of the heat out of the market.
Speaking at a Legislative Council meeting last month, Hong Kong's central bank chief, HKMA Chief Executive Norman Chan, said levels of demand were reminiscent of 20 years ago, just before Hong Kong suffered a property bust.
Chan expressed concern that people with limited financial resources were buying just because they thought prices would only keep going up, just like in a bubble. He said that while the global economy has improved, uncertainties remain and warned that when the property cycle reverses, "the impact will be serious.”
Bloomberg noted that the Hong Kong government, which champions the free market, has no immediate plans to prevent housing sizes from growing ever smaller, preferring to leave flexibility in the market so that developers can respond to demand as needed.
While Carrie Lam’s promises to raise home ownership rates sounds noble, similar thinking helped fuel the subprime bubble in the US. The US government created Freddie Mac and encouraged banks to try and help every willing borrower buy a home, even if they clearly couldn’t afford one. With this in mind, we ask: what’s the point of owning a home if, when the crash comes, banks foreclose, and buyers are put out - often in worse financial circumstances than they were in beforehand?