HONG KONG -- Spurred by concerns over Hong Kong's future under a newly imposed national security law, interest among residents in residential properties overseas has soared, as increasing numbers plan for emigration.
The U.K., which recently offered citizenship options to about 3 million people in the former British colony -- roughly 40% of the city's 7.5 million residents -- has become the most popular destination for Hong Kong buyers.
"For the sake of my children and their education, I have no choice but to leave Hong Kong," said a 38-year-old teacher, who recently bought a two-story house in Glasgow, Scotland, and is planning to move there with her family in two years. "I want my kids to grow up having the freedom to speak their minds."
Hong Kong's soaring housing prices, which in recent years have made it the world's most expensive property market, has suddenly become a benefit for some citizens looking for a new home. An average apartment in the financial hub costs more than $1.2 million, according to a CBRE report in 2019, almost twice that of London at $650,000.
"I would say about half of our clients are seriously thinking about emigration," said Kingston Lai, founder and CEO of the Asia Bankers Club, which provides consulting services for banking professionals looking to purchase overseas homes.
Lai said that inquiries on U.K. properties have jumped at least fivefold after the British government announced a plan on July 1 to offer a path to citizenship for nearly 3 million Hong Kong people. A survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong shows that more than a third of Hong Kong citizens are contemplating emigration, citing social unrest amid the past year's pro-democracy demonstrations and diminishing freedoms as the main reasons.
In light of Beijing's imposition of a sweeping security law in Hong Kong, which took effect on June 30, the U.K. government said British National Overseas passport holders -- primarily Hong Kong residents born before the 1997 handover -- will have the right to remain in the country for five years and apply for citizenship afterward.
Although Hong Kongers have been regular buyers of properties abroad, overseas real estate has moved from an investment opportunity to a greater consideration of family and life options, said Eli McGeever, Hong Kong-based Vice President at Sohoapp.com, an online platform for international properties.
"With the British government's recent offering of a pathway to citizenship, this has made U.K. property extremely popular," he said. "In recent weeks, more than 50% of all overseas property exhibitions in Hong Kong have been for British property."
The dramatic change in Britain's immigration policy combined with a stamp duty land-tax holiday has led to a spike in investment appetite in U.K. properties among Hong Kong clients, according to Hannah Goldie, Hong Kong-based Asia head of sales at Select Property Group, which develops, sells and manages luxury properties in the U.K.
The stamp duty break allows buyers of homes valued at less than 500,000 pounds ($667,310) to be exempted from paying the tax until April 2021, making U.K. properties an even more attractive option for prospective buyers.
"We have seen an incredible amount of interest over the past weeks," Goldie said, adding that her clients range from young couples and new parents to retirees.
Apart from London, an increasing number of Hong Kong buyers are eyeing properties in smaller cities, including Manchester and Birmingham, for higher rental yields.
"Many are looking to move to the U.K. over the next few years, but most of them don't have a date in mind," she said, suggesting that many property owners are renting out their apartments after purchase, at least for now.
A recent survey conducted by Midland Immigration Consultancy, part of the Midland Holdings property group in Hong Kong, showed that more than 90% of the 300 respondents are interested in buying overseas properties, with more than half saying they would move abroad in the next three to 10 years. The U.K. is the most popular destination due to the relaxed visa measures.
While there are no official figures on the number of Hong Kong residents who have purchased homes abroad, the desire to buy properties overseas has been seen in other English-speaking countries as well, according to the Midland survey. Australia, which recently granted visa extensions for Hong Kong passport holders in the country, has also attracted prospective Hong Kong buyers, with 35% of survey respondents interested in emigrating there.
Canada, another popular emigration destination, also has seen growing interest among potential homebuyers. The latest Canadian government census shows that there are at least 300,000 Canadian passport holders who are permanent residents in Hong Kong. The past year's social unrest in Hong Kong has prompted many of them to consider returning to Canada for a more peaceful life.
"Every time there is an event in Hong Kong, like the 1997 handover, the riots, and this year the proposed new security law, there is a spike of interest from Hong Kong residents wanting to come," said Lisa Sun, a Vancouver-based realtor at Royal Pacific Realty.
Sun said that she and many other real estate agents in Canada have been receiving more inquiries from Hong Kong buyers. "Whether or not it translates into deals will depend on how things go in Hong Kong."