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Real estate market tough to gauge

IT'S hard to tell anymore which is the more stubborn - China's housing price bubble or government efforts to puncture it.

For four months, some of the toughest measures ever implemented to rein in property speculators and deflate housing prices have been in effect. But prices remain at near record levels and housing affordability for those wanting to buy a first home remains out of reach.

Real estate prices in 70 major cities on the Chinese mainland rose 10.3 percent last month, extending year-on-year gains for the 14th consecutive month, the National Bureau of Statistics said last week.

Joining forces

In the latest government salvo, the Ministry of Land and Resources and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development reportedly have joined forces with the China Banking Regulatory Commission to crack down real estate developers who intentionally hoard land parcels or shelve home sales in hopes of waiting for further price rises and heftier profits. Unscrupulous practices have been singled out as principal culprits behind as much as 10-fold surge in home prices in Chinese cities over the past decade.

Earlier this month, more banks around the country confirmed that they are now complying with banking regulatory rules suspending new mortgages for people who already own two homes in cities where prices have skyrocketed.

In June, China's housing and lending regulators and the central bank issued a document saying that banks, in assessing mortgage applications, must determine how many homes the applicant already owns. The more homes, the higher the down payments and interest rates. The rule was aimed at cracking down on people applying for cheaper-rate first mortgages when they already owned properties purchased without bank loans. It was the first time China has required home ownership records as part of lending criteria.

The government crackdown appears to have had some effect on property sales volumes but have so far not budged prices off their highs much.

In Shanghai, for example, sales of new homes, excluding those designated for relocated residents under urban redevelopment plans, dived to 310,000 square meters in May from 1.02 million square meters in April, according to Shanghai Uwin Real Estate Information Services. Then volumes began creeping up again, to 420,000 square meters in June, and to 430,000 square meters in July.

Home buyers greeted the figures with anticipation that prices would soon follow the downward trend after reaching a record 22,926 yuan (US$3,381) per square meter in Shanghai in April.

Consumers have largely been disappointed. Prices fell slightly to 22,338 yuan a square meter in May and then dropped to 19,168 yuan in June and to 19,313 yuan in July. But industry analysts said the lower prices merely reflected more homes sold in cheaper, outlying areas of the city and didn't signal that developers were paring back prices much.

Luxury homes

If there is one ray of hope, it's an ebb in buying sentiment for luxury and high-end homes.

The latest report from international property services provider DTZ found that transaction volumes for luxury houses, priced above 50,000 yuan a square meter, dropped 26 percent to 8,000 square meters in July from June, but the average price slipped to only 64,100 yuan per square meter from 69,900 yuan.

During the first week of this month, 62 apartment units developed by Wharf Holdings in New Jiangwan Town in northeast Shanghai's suburb sold for an average of 43,776 yuan per square meter, indicating some recovering sentiment among buyers. The apartments were considered high-end housing, with a gross floor area of more than 160 square meters each.

Property prices in 70 major Chinese cities, according to the National Statistics Bureau website, slipped 0.1 percent in June, measured on a monthly basis. It was the first decline, however small, in 15 months. And the month-on-month dip just lasted for one month. In July, no change was uncovered, the bureau said.

Meanwhile, major real estate developers are showing no price pain.

In the first six months of this year, eight of the 10 publicly traded property companies in China, including industry leaders Vanke, Evergrande and Country Garden, were selling homes at an average price 27 percent higher than a year earlier, according to research conducted by Soufun, the country's leading real estate information portal. Only two developers, Gemdale and Poly, showed minor price decreases of 7 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

Zhu Yinghua, an analyst with Soufun, said he sees no major downturn in prices of new homes across the country.

Indeed, Guangzhou-based Evergrande Real Estate, China's top property seller by area, recorded a 32.5 percent increase in prices in the first six months, followed by a 30.2 percent rise at China Vanke, the nation's biggest home seller by sales.

So the dramatic face-off between those who profit from the property bubble and a government bent on curbing prices continues, leaving average would-be home buyers sitting haplessly on the sidelines with their family dreams on hold.


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