Prime London boosted by international buyers

A weak pound has led to a massive increase in overseas buyers, and they're heading straight for central London.

It's the stuff of dreams – a prime London property for less than half price. And, for some, it has become a reality.

But, of course, this offer is only available if you are paying in foreign currency.

Because it's the heady combination of a weakened pound and a drop of approximately 25 per cent in prices since the peak of the market that has made the UK, and central London in particular, an opportunity not to be missed.

Investors to the rescue

Yolande Barnes, Head of Savills Residential Research, welcomes the influx of international buyers, saying that during every slump it's the overseas investors that have kick-started the recovery.

"In the mid '70s it was the Middle Easterns. In the early '80s, the Americans. It was the South East Asians in '92, and the Irish after the dot.com crash.

"This time round it seems to be a variety," says Yolande, "because Sterling has fallen against almost every currency.

"The most common buyers are Euro buyers, French, Italian, or German. But very often in London we also get investors from less stable regimes who want a bolthole in the UK.

"We shouldn't underestimate the potential attraction of bricks and mortar continuing to provide a relatively safe haven, particularly for owners from less financially and politically stable countries.”

Middle Eastern Buyers

Recent Hamptons' figures indicate there are now two and a half times as many Middle Eastern applicants (year to date) as there were in the same period in 2008.

And, keen to meet the demand, Hamptons launched promotional property roadshows in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in April.

Phil Tennant, Regional Sales Director for Hamptons, says that the Gulf market is seasonal: "When it's too hot over there people come to London. But this year it has coincided with the recent fall in the property market.

"These buyers deal in any currency. If they're dealing in, for example, the Qatari Riyal, it makes buying in London about half price, so we've found they're a really willing market.”

They may be willing, but buyers from the Middle East also know what they want.

"We tended to find in Dubai and Abu Dhabi that a lot of people were keen on areas such as Knightsbridge and Kensington, and less so on country locations. But large manor houses still get interest.

"One thing that surprised us was that the demand wasn't all for £4 million penthouses. A lot of buyers were looking for £500k to £1 million two-bed flats for their sons and daughters who were coming over here to study."

But caution prevails. "People stick to what they know. So it's easier to sell newly built properties which could be anywhere.

"It's stereotyping, but we would expect to sell many more new builds than conversions, for example riverside developments such as Imperial Wharf in Fulham.

"For the same money the average British buyer would prefer to be in Parsons Green."

The Europeans

A stronger Euro has also drawn the Europeans. Jonathan Hewlitt from Savills says: "We have seen Italians, French and even Dutch and Danish people who have decided that London's a good long-term investment, because they can get about 50% off.

"The overseas buyers predominately buy in the South Kensington area which has always been very popular, particularly with Italians and some French.

"They usually want two to three-bed flats, at anything from £800k to £1.5 million. And the French tend to end up in purpose-built Edwardian mansion blocks, which are very similar to French apartments.

"Most overseas buyers love the period stucco buildings, and garden squares are popular too. But the schools are also a draw. So properties around the Lycee in South Kensington and near the Norwegian school in Wimbledon will be sought after.”

Sterling assets

And it's more than just the low prices that are luring in the buyers. "One of the attractions is that it's a Sterling denomination asset," says Yolande Barnes.

"It takes confidence in the country and the currency, as well as in the potential recovery of house prices."

And, says Phil Tennant from Hamptons, it's the tempting long-term tax implications.

"They are attracted by the 100% tax relief when they sell. In many countries they have quite punitive property taxes. We have overseas buyers telling us that the tax regime overall makes it favourable to buy."

Where will it all end?

Phil Tennant predicts that international buyers could become less important to the prime London market in the coming year.

"The role they usually play is in soaking up the excess stock, but that's been done now.

"We've got four and a half times as many registered buyers as in January, but no more stock. It's a well-priced market and prices are starting to edge up now, but people still have an expectation that they'll get a bargain.

"So, if someone thinks they can offer 20% below asking price and get it they'll be disappointed.”

Yolande Barnes sees them making way for home-grown buyers. "It's been an extra wave of demand that has been very welcome. But UK buyers will come back when house prices settle.”