The London property market has long been a favorite of Gulf investors, but does the Brexit vote and the instability of a minority government in Westminster make the city less attractive?
Political turmoil may be something Middle East investors are used to, but it is also something they like to avoid. That is one reason for the huge amounts of Gulf money that have been poured into property in cities like Paris and New York over recent years.
London too has benefited hugely due to this investment behaviour. From the Harrods department store to the Shard skyscraper and countless luxury apartments and homes, Middle East buyers have made their mark on the London property market. But the threat of the U.K. leaving the European Union (EU) in a ‘hard’ Brexit deal (or even no deal at all), coupled with a general election earlier this year which left Prime Minister Theresa May weakened and without an overall majority in parliament, is tarnishing the U.K.’s image as a place of stability. Might all this force Middle East investors to look elsewhere when thinking about property in the future?
There have certainly been some signs that wealthy Gulf buyers are shying away from London, both in terms of commercial and residential properties, although the picture is a mixed – not to say confusing – one.
One reason the market is so hard to read is there are several different issues at play. On the one hand, the unstable political climate has caused the value of sterling to plummet, making it cheaper to pick up assets in the U.K. For anyone using dollars – or currencies pegged to the dollar, as most Gulf countries are – prices are effectively 18% lower than they were two years ago.
“The incentive for Middle Eastern purchasers has sharpened in recent months, mostly due to the favourable currency swing,” says Charles Penny, an associate at the London super prime team at Knight Frank, a real estate consultancy.
But prospective buyers need to weigh up cost savings against other negative developments before deciding whether it makes sense to press ahead with a purchase. For example, the stamp duty tax on purchases has increased several times since 2012 and other new taxes have been introduced to cover properties held by corporate owners that had previously avoided stamp duty. Those changes have arguably had a greater influence on prices than any nervousness caused by the febrile political atmosphere and, while there has not been a crash in prices across the city, there is evidence of a slowdown, particularly for new-build developments, many of which have tended to be sold in recent years to buy-to-let investors.
“We have seen a softening of prices in prime central London,” says Naomi Heaton, chief executive of London Central Portfolio (LCP), a real estate investment firm. “That’s mainly been due to tax more than Brexit uncertainty.”
When it comes to weighing up these pros and cons, some market participants will have less discretion than others over whether to buy or sell. A wealthy parent may want to acquire a property if a child is coming to London to study, for example, while marriages or divorces might also prompt sales or purchases. Those buying investment properties will have more hard-nosed calculations to make, but it is not an easy call for anyone.
The fall in the value of sterling “definitely does make a difference,” says Fionnuala Earley, residential research director at estate agency Hamptons International. “It makes U.K. property relatively cheaper, but you’ve got to take into account the uncertainty we’re facing because of Brexit and whether that, in the judgement of a buyer, means the U.K. economy is going to go downhill and whether it will take house prices with it.”
All this helps to explain the slowdown in activity. Hamptons International says this year it has taken an average of 21 weeks to sell a home in London, compared to just seven weeks in 2014. And according to LCP’s analysis of transaction data, the number of deals across the main areas of prime central London – including neighbourhoods such as Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster – were down 21% in 2016 compared to the year before. Chelsea was hardest hit, with a 12.2% fall in average prices and a 28.5% fall in sales volumes. Price falls were also seen in Kensington (3.9%) and St James’s Park & Mayfair (2.5%).
There are similar trends at play in the commercial market, where concerns about the nature of any Brexit deal are even more pressing, as a bad deal could lead to a slump in demand for office space, particularly in the city where the finance industry is concentrated. Here too, Middle East investors appear to be taking a back-seat. “None of the recent major transactions in either the city or the West End have involved Middle East buyers or sellers,” says Kiran Patel, chief investment officer of Savills Investment Management.
“We’re not really seeing that much appetite coming from the Middle East since Brexit,” he adds. “They’re either keeping their powder dry or [pursuing] opportunities elsewhere. There are some Middle East family offices around, we just haven’t seen them in the market as much. They may be buying the odd small building here and there but they’re not featuring much at the moment.”
Middle East investors are not uniquely affected by these issues. Indeed, European buyers are likely to see Brexit as a more serious concern, as trade flows between the U.K. and the rest of the EU are far more substantial than they are with the Gulf. In addition, Brexit may end EU citizens’ right to live and work in the U.K. without a visa that could potentially dampen demand for real estate from this section. According to Hamptons, the proportion of EU buyers has been falling for a year: in the second quarter of 2016, EU citizens accounted for a third of buyers in prime central London but by the first quarter of this year they made up just 8% of buyers. Indeed, they have now fallen below Middle East buyers, who were the largest group of overseas investors in prime central London, accounting for 10% of all purchases in Q1, albeit it in a slower market.
Overall, it looks like international investors as a whole are in retreat. Data from estate agency Countrywide released in mid-July shows the proportion of overseas-based landlords across Great Britain is now at a record low of 5%, compared to 12% in 2010. London has seen the largest fall with 11% of rented homes now owned by an overseas landlord, down from 26% in 2010. In prime central London, overseas-based landlords owned 31% of all rented homes in 2010, a figure which has fallen to 23% this year. The number of European-based landlords in London has been gradually falling over time and now stands at 28%, ranking them behind Asia-based landlords at 33% but ahead of North Americans (10%) and Middle East landlords (9%).
Despite all this there are some things that have long been – and continue to be – in London’s favor. The city remains a big draw for Gulf buyers who know the landscape and enjoy visiting. And despite the uncommonly tumultuous politics of the U.K. in recent years, observers say London continues to be seen as a safe haven, particularly at a time when there is so much turmoil within the Middle East itself.
“London is always one of those global cities that carries with it a cachet that some others do not,” says Earley. “The London prime market has always performed well against other sorts of assets and the Middle East [investors] in general have always favored buying in London, so it would be odd if they didn’t continue to do that. It doesn’t look like they’re scared of what’s happening at the moment, they may just be a little bit wary of where capital values might go.”