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The latest trends in Southeast Asia’s property market show that the region offers the best options for those looking for a stylish sanctuary and a sound investment rolled into one

American poet T.S. Eliot once wrote: “Home is where one starts from”. The Covid-19 outbreak has not just accentuated the importance of our homes, it has also encouraged us to explore every possibility in making it the sanctuary it is meant to be. This holds particularly true for Southeast Asia, as the region is still holding firm to its reputation as a magnet for safe-haven investments despite the pandemic.

Christine Sun, senior vice-president of research and analytics at property agency OrangeTee & Tie, attributes the unexpected real estate boom to investors seeking such safe-haven investments, thereby pushing up property prices in the region. “There is still ample liquidity circulating in the system as investment funds have reallocated a large amount of capital from financial markets to real estate properties,” she says. “Many long-term investors and home buyers have been repositioning their wealth from riskier assets in light of the macroeconomic uncertainties.”

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1. The region's proximity to China

According to Tricia Song, the Southeast Asia head of research at real estate services provider CBRE, countries such as Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia have been attracting significant foreign direct investment in recent years, and the rising affluence and growth of the middle class have been driving luxury property sales. The region’s geographic proximity to China is also a contributing factor, as many international firms are employing the “China Plus One” strategy, and setting up regional offices in Asian countries, in addition to China.

“Southeast Asia is one of the key beneficiaries of the China Plus One strategy for top manufacturing multinational companies looking to diversify their supply chains outside of China,” says Song. The region also boasts an abundant talent and labour pool, and the improving telecommunications and transport infrastructure of its key cities have been significant contributors.

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2. Rapid urbanisation in Southeast Asia

In Southeast Asia, changes in buyers’ behaviour since the start of the pandemic have reshaped the property market, says Micah Tamthai, vice-president of real estate at hospitality and lifestyle company Minor International. An Attitudes Survey conducted by real estate consultancy Knight Frank in late 2019 found that Asia maintained a preference for urban living while the rest of the world showed increased buying interest in suburban, resort or coastal destinations. 

“Asia is now undergoing rapid urbanisation and economic development, and the city is much more of an aspiration for the average Asian homebuyer,” explains Knight Frank’s head of residential for Asia Pacific, Victoria Garrett. “Western markets, such as the European Union and North America, have been through the urbanisation process and are now seeing more interest in rural or suburban destinations, which offer more outdoor and leisure spaces.”

Asia is now undergoing rapid urbanisation and economic development, and the city is much more of an aspiration for the average Asian homebuyer.
Victoria Garrett, Knight Frank’s head of residential for Asia Pacific

3. Multigenerational property purchases

Asian owners don't discount the importance of space, nature and wellness either. More buyers are seeking larger abodes that can accommodate their daily lives, and leisure and work activities. In fact, their needs come packaged with quality time spent with loved ones, says Tamthai.

“We see a trend towards multigenerational property purchases within the luxury segment in Southeast Asia with pooled investment being made in residences that can be used by grandparents, parents and children. There has also been a preference for landed and single-family homes where outdoor areas and privacy are a given, and living spaces are customisable to fit the needs of a large or growing family.” 

In Singapore, the proportion of transactions on larger homes rose in the second quarter of the year, confirms Sun. “In the past quarter, 39.2 per cent of private homes (landed and non-landed) were at least 1,200sqft, higher than the 35.9 per cent of the previous quarter. Therefore, the bigger units probably resulted in lower per square foot prices in some locations.”

In Vietnam, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are top choices among high-net-worth (HNW) individuals as they tick a few essential boxes with regard to economic growth, amenities and accessibility, according to Song. On the same count, rising land and property prices have been nudging people towards condominiums with investment potential. “Most of the developer-built housing projects are in decentralised locations or new townships. Their developments depend mainly on infrastructure development, especially inter-provincial infrastructure such as expressways and national roads,” she says.

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4. Increased interest in holiday homes

While the real estate market in key cities continues to grow, there has also been a spike in second home purchases among HNW individuals, especially in holiday destinations in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, says Tamthai. “With border restrictions confining many travellers in Southeast Asia to domestic destinations, lesser-known, off-the-beaten-path property markets such as Desaru Coast in Johor, Malaysia, are also being explored,” he adds. 

As telecommuting is becoming the norm for many firms, investments in key cities are also viewed as playing a dual role for digital nomads who are able to work remotely from almost anywhere in the world—offering the balance of an enhanced lifestyle that affords easy access to such leisure options, says Andrew Corkery, group CEO of Selo Group.

Tim Skevington, managing director at Christie’s International Real Estate, agrees. In Thailand, a resurgence of interest in Phuket’s luxury villas has occurred in tandem with growth in the capital city. “Bangkok is seen as an attractive investment destination due to its many lifestyle benefits, excellent health facilities, readily available international schooling and ease of access to beach resorts,” he says, adding that landed properties have been popular among Thai buyers as they ensure social distancing.

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5. The value of land banking

Corkery also brings up an oft-ignored investment option, land banking, which has become a trend owing to the unpredictability wrought by the pandemic. “Land banking allows buyers to invest in a fixed asset that will grow in long-term value—it can be a relatively low-risk buy-and-hold technique,” he says. “As the global population increases and more buyers invest in tropical destinations, land will become more in demand and increase in value, especially in up-and-coming markets such as Lombok, Indonesia.”

As the global population increases and more buyers invest in tropical destinations, land will become more in demand and increase in value, especially in up-and-coming markets.
Andrew Corkery, group CEO of Selo Group

Skevington has also noticed a significant uptick in luxury property sales priced over US$1 million (S$1.35 million), particularly in Thailand’s branded residences segment. He expects an accelerating trend of cross-border purchasing as travel resumes, especially from China. “Branded condominium residences are popular among foreigners as they provide 100 per cent foreign ownership, ‘lock-up-and-leave’ services and a guaranteed level of management. They also provide a secure investment and a known standard benchmark for buyers purchasing off-plan or remotely,” he says.

As buyers’ demands get more detailed and specific compared to the past, Garrett anticipates that developers will keep pace with equally special classes of residences. Corkery agrees. “As the sharing economy continues to take hold and grow, homeowners will seek more flexibility of usage options, particularly the ability to spend their time (in holiday homes) across multiple destinations and enjoy seasonal experiences,” he says.

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