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Empty rooms, Shanghai booms

By 27 June 2009 No Comment

Model growth: Shanghai's Urban Planning Exhibition Hall keeps tabs on the city's expansion | Photo by Hudson Lockett

Wang Xiaojia would never marry a man who didn’t own his own place.

“No house, no security,” Wang stated flatly. A 26-year-old living in Shanghai, Wang said she planned to marry in a few years, but only to a guy with the right real estate bona fides.

Sitting in the shade on a hot day in the city’s People’s Park, Wang confirmed the widespread  Shanghai view that owning property is a status symbol, and for many men, a necessary qualification for marriage in the eyes of local women. “‘The girls who aren’t looking for a house aren’t realistic, they’re idealistic,” said Wang.

Wang’s opinions echoed beliefs about the marriage of housing and, well, marriage that have not infrequently gone hand in hand with the rise of other modern Asian mega-cities – Tokyo in the 1970s or Seoul in the 1980s, say – places with booming economies and rising middle-class populations that were quickly becoming cosmopolitan, if still a little rough around the edges.

And like the others, Shanghai is growing in its own inimitable way. More than the national financial center and engine of China’s economic growth, it is home to the personal dreams that growth has made possible. For Shanghai, these dreams are critically bound up in a complex real estate market where investment patterns have complicated the picture.

Wang said the ability to wisely invest funds trumped spending money on a high-rise loft in the center of the city or a roomy home in Shanghai’s suburbs. Yet in Shanghai, and the rest of China, the two may more closely related than she thinks. Here the real estate market puts at odds those looking to set themselves up for marriage with those who simply want to invest.

Real estate in the People’s Republic of China operates on a different model than that of the U.S. Starting in the 1990s government policy allowed for the purchase of authority over land or housing for 70 years, with little clarification as to what happens when the time is up – if the policy even lasts that long, said to Wang Zhi Yang, a seller at a Century 21 office in Shanghai’s Gubei district.

“Most houses will be used for 50 years, after which [they're] too old,” Wang said.

Taxes on property only apply to transactions in the People’s Republic. This makes investing in property an enviable strategy for preserving one’s funds in China, where the stock market is fast and loose and the currency holds the danger of devaluation, according to Hu Chun Sheng at another real estate office in Gubei.

Hu said that in Gubei, an international area, housing for couples accounted for less than 10 percent of purchases, whereas somewhere from 30 to 40 percent was strictly investment. Of that he estimated only a little over half was done by mainland Chinese, with 40 percent of investments by buyers from Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, and about ten percent from the U.S. and U.K.

While more diverse and investment-oriented than some other areas – the larger nearby Chunnang area has couples going toe to toe with investors at around 30 to 40 percent – both pose an interesting question to the rest of Shanghai, which keeps expanding without any readily available information on how much demand is a result of investment and how much is from a need for a place to actually live.

On the third floor of the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall Mrs. Li, who declined to give her first name, was looking to expand from one to the other. Pointing toward the railway snaking through the scale model of the city that takes up much of the floor, Li explained that she had come to check on the government’s plans for city development before going into the investment business herself.

“I’m looking for housing near Shanghai railway stations and a house in Pudong,” she said. Home to the Shanghai Stock Exchange and the towering coastal skyline often associated with China’s economic boom, the Pudong district accounts for most of eastern Shanghai.

A native of nearby Anhui province, Li had moved to Shanghai a couple years ago – her husband having already bought a house before their marriage. Now they’re looking to invest in residential housing and possibly change what they buy into commercial offices for sale to businesses.

Li was confident her investments would pay off as Shanghai grew and its transport system improved. “Shanghai is good for young people to develop their careers,” said Li. “It’s a young city and full of energy.”

Professor Wong Li Xin of Donghuan University’s business school estimated the percentage of Shanghai real estate tied up in investment could be as high as 30 percent. While the potential for expansion was substantial, he said, many poorer people were being driven further away from the vast ring of housing around downtown.

“I see a lot of houses, high-standard houses in the evening – there are many windows shut down,” he said.

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