Hong Kong homeowners who bought flats in the last several months have seen their value decline as much as 20% in a matter of weeks, according to HSBC, sending values into negative equity which had only left the region in early 2017, reports the South China Morning Post

Hong Kong’s famously expensive property market has started to feel the strain lately from a fall in demand caused by rising interest rates, a struggling stock market and fears about the impact of the US-China trade war.

Negative equity occurs when a home loan exceeds the market value of the property, and has not been seen in Hong Kong since early 2017. -SCMP

"Theoretically, buyers who obtained a mortgage of 90 per cent of the flat’s value will fall into negative equity once home prices have dropped more than 10 per cent," said Chief Vice-President at mReferral Mortgage Brokerage Services, Sharmaine Lau.  

The largest losses are likely to be flat owners who paid sky-high prices for tiny apartments in older tenaments, according to industry watchers, who add that banks tend to become very conservative in valuing such properties when the real estate market takes a turn for the worse. 

"Lower valuations will first apply to flats that have less marketability. Banks’ valuations, which are supported by surveyors, are made in line with market conditions," said Cushman and Wakefield head of valuation and advisory services for the Asia-Pacific region, Chiu Kam-kuen. 

Meanwhile, SCMP was able to find apartments at older housing developments which are now valued at HSBC far below their recent selling prices. 

A 234 square foot unit at 36-year-old Lee Bo Building in Tuen Mun, which was sold for HK$3.82 million on October 8, is now valued 20 per cent lower at HK$3.08 million. In North Point, a 128 square foot unit at 41-year-old Yalford Building, sold on August 29 for HK$3.1 million, is also valued a fifth lower now by the bank, at HK$2.48 million.

In Kowloon, a 210 square foot unit at 34-year-old Hong Fai Building in Cheung Sha Wan sold for HK$3.87 million on June 20 is already down about 13 per cent, according to HSBC, at HK$3.38 million.

The spectre of negative equity is only going to get worse, according to Louis Chan, Asia-Pacific vice-chairman and chief executive for residential sales at Centaline Property.

“More homeowners will fall into negative equity next year as flat prices may decline by 10 per cent,” he said. -SCMP

The precipitious drop may force companies such as the Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation (HKMC) to adjust their mortgage insurance program in light of market developments. 

Under the programme, buyers of flats worth less than HK$4.5 million can get mortgage loans of up to 90 per cent of the unit’s value, capped at HK$3.6 million, while for flats priced between HK$4.5 million and HK$6 million the maximum loan-to-value ratio is 80 per cent, capped at HK$4.8 million.

In the first quarter of 2018, HKMC said 6,955 applicants secured HK$26.86 billion in home loans under the mortgage insurance programme. In 2017, a total of HK$32.3 billion in mortgages were granted to 8,829 applicants, up from HK$24.6 billion of 7,145 successful in 2016. -SCMP

Negative equity reached its peak in Hong Kong in 2003 following an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which sent already-teetering home values plummeting. According to the HKMA, over 105,000 households found themselves in negative equity at the time - all of which were above water as of the first quarter of last year.