Hong Kong: The World's Most Expensive Real Estate?

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Mike Clarke / AFP / Getty Images

A view from Victoria Peak in Hong Kong on Aug. 20, 2009

Home prices in overcrowded Hong Kong have traditionally been high, but when it comes to having the most expensive residential properties in the world, the Chinese metropolis has never seriously challenged cities like New York, London and Tokyo.

Until now. In another demonstration of how the recession is shaking up the global financial order, two luxury Hong Kong apartments have just gone on the market for a stunning $38.7 million each. If the developer, Sun Hung Kai, finds buyers at that price, the three-level penthouse dwellings, perched atop the 93-storey Cullinan towers with sweeping views of Hong Kong's harbor, could well qualify as the world's most expensive apartments. More than 4,000 sq. ft. in size, the apartments, which are still under construction, are selling for $9,677 per sq. ft. That's considerably above the $6,000-per-sq.-ft. price that top-end London flats were fetching in early 2007, when that city was reputed to be the world's priciest housing market.

High-end residential real estate around the world has been hit hard by the recession. Prices for luxury flats in London are still a fifth lower than they were in March 2008. But confidence in Hong Kong's luxury market, driven by surprisingly strong economic growth in China, is recovering quickly. Just last week a penthouse apartment located in a new tower built not far from the Cullinan in Hong Kong's Kowloon district sold for $3.16 million. That may not sound like much for an upscale address, but the apartment has just 590 sq. ft. of useable space — meaning the buyer paid $5,356 per sq. ft. of living area.

Soaring prices for posh abodes does not mean Hong Kong's economy has escaped the recession. The unemployment rate remains high — for Hong Kong at least — at 5.4%; retail sales dropped 5.5% year-on-year in July, the most recent data available. Though average prices for non-luxury housing has rebounded 25% this year, they are still a third lower than the market's all-time high, in 1997.

The luxury residential market, however, is getting a special boost. Local property agents say prices are being driven higher by buyers from the Chinese mainland. Wealthy Chinese have ample cash and easy access to low-interest loans because of the government's loose monetary and fiscal policies, which were implemented last year to fight the recession. Buyers are looking to invest close to home, and despite China's restrictions on moving capital beyond its borders, that often means acquiring assets in Hong Kong. (The former British colony belongs to China but has a separate system of government and a more open economy.) About half of the buyers for luxury apartments in Hong Kong in recent weeks came from the mainland, according to reports.

The large number of Chinese buyers means growth in Hong Kong's luxury-property market could suddenly cool if Beijing decides to tighten credit. Su Ning, vice governor of the mainland's central bank, said last week that China would continue its "appropriately loose" monetary policy at least into next year, but regulators have already started to clamp down somewhat. In August, total lending by Chinese banks dropped to a third of June's levels.

Peter Churchouse, a director at a Hong Kong investment research and advisory firm, says he doesn't think Hong Kong's housing market is a bubble. But some analysts worry that low interest rates, high liquidity and a tight supply of new apartments could fuel irrational exuberance. Churchouse says: "I could easily see this market developing into a bubble, but it's not a bubble yet." That should be of some comfort for the buyer who just paid $3.16 million for a 590 sq. ft. apartment.