Why foreigners aren't buying houses in Vietnam

By Ngan Anh   November 5, 2017 | 06:00 pm GMT+7
Why foreigners aren't buying houses in Vietnam
Removing regulatory obstacles will create more interest in Vietnam’s housing market. Photo by Reuters/Kham

There's a wealth of expats and overseas Vietnamese interested in the real estate market, but red tape is putting them off.

“Only a few expats are able to buy houses in Vietnam because there are still so many legal barriers,” said real estate manager Nguyen Chien Thang, counting on his fingers the number of potential foreign buyers who had visited the housing developments he's in charge of in Hanoi over the past two years.

Thang said there is foreign interest in Vietnam's housing market, but it often fades due to the complicated rules and excessive paperwork.

“Expats do not have a clear understanding of the legal procedures here, while some administrative agencies are not used to dealing with foreign buyers,” he said.

Official estimates vary greatly. The Ministry of Construction was widely quoted by local media last August as saying that 750 foreigners had bought houses in Vietnam since a new housing law came into effect two years before. That’s six times more than before, the ministry said in a statement, claiming that the new procedures were “really clear and open.”

The 2015 Housing Law allows foreign investment funds, foreigners with valid visas and international firms operating in Vietnam and overseas to buy unlimited residential properties with leaseholds of 50 years.

Before that they had been only eligible to buy one apartment providing they were either married to a Vietnamese national, held a managerial position or had contributed to the country.

However, earlier this week, Ho Chi Minh City's Department of Construction said only 15 foreigners had bought houses in Vietnam since the new law came into effect.

While the data remains strikingly conflicting, industry insiders have taken the ministry’s statement with a grain of salt.

Sitting in his office overlooking Hanoi’s skyscraper-dotted West Lake, Thang’s own estimate stands in the hundreds, and that’s counting since 2009 when Vietnam first opened its real estate market to foreigners. With 80,000 expats and more than four million overseas Vietnamese, that’s virtually an untapped gold mine.

“The expat community living and working in Vietnam is large, while the number of overseas Vietnamese is huge,” he said. “Many of them have money and want to own houses in the country, but only a small number are able to do it.”

The shortage of publicized projects that foreigners are eligible to buy is one of the biggest obstacles, according to industry insiders.

According to the Housing Law, developers can sell a maximum of 30 percent of units in an apartment building to foreigners, and a maximum of 250 houses in a ward. Areas considered sensitive to national defense and security are off-limits to foreign buyers.

Given the restrictions, authorities are required to publicize housing projects eligible for sale to foreigners, but in practice they don’t.

Another barrier facing foreigners and overseas Vietnamese is the lack of property title insurance, a standard document issued in many countries, said economist Nguyen Tri Hieu, who is an overseas Vietnamese.

Because of this, Hieu, who returned home eight years ago after living in the U.S. for 30 years, has been unable to buy a house.

“Unlike Vietnamese people who buy houses with their savings, expats often need bank loans," he said. “However, foreign banks will only offer a mortgage if their customers can provide property title insurance, which is unavailable in Vietnam, so they are unable to access credit.”

Hieu said many overseas Vietnamese want to buy houses in their home country. “Many old people buy houses so they can spend the rest of their lives in their homeland, while young people want to invest in the lucrative property sector.”

The shortage of list of projects that are allowed to be sold for foreign clients is considered one of the biggest obstacles. Photo by VnExpress

The shortage of properties that foreigners are allowed to buy remains a major obstacle. Photo by VnExpress

Hot market

In a move aimed at attracting more foreign buyers, the Ministry of Planning and Investment tabled a draft law in August suggesting that foreigners should be offered leaseholds of 99 years in special economic zones.

Vietnam has 18 special economic zones and is developing more in Quang Ninh Province near the Chinese border, the central province of Khanh Hoa, and Phu Quoc Island in the southern province of Kien Giang.

Industry insiders believe that removing more barriers would create more interest in the local housing market.

Vietnam is becoming one of the region’s hottest property markets for Hong Kong and mainland Chinese investors, as prices continue to go through the roof at home, according to the South China Morning Post.

More than 300 potential individual investors recently attended a two-day Vietnam property investment seminar in Hong Kong .

Encouraged by fast economic growth, supportive government policies and low entry costs, housing prices in the country’s two largest cities, Saigon and Hanoi, have seen considerable growth in recent years.

In Saigon, new apartment prices grew 6.9 percent in the first quarter of 2017, and 7.3 percent in Hanoi, data from real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle shows.

It now forecasts 8 to 10 percent annual growth in residential value in the country’s major cities this year.

“On the back of its economic improvement and with a GDP target of 6.7 percent in 2017, market sentiment is very positive,” said Stephen Wyatt, the country head of JLL Vietnam.

“Foreign buyers typically like the new urban districts such as Ho Chi Minh City’s District 2 and District 7,” he said. “And many investors from mainland China are hoping to see these cities replicate the same growth as Beijing and Shanghai.”

There is also a trend to buy second homes in coastal areas such as Da Nang, he added.

Neil Jensen, a financial industrial worker from Malaysia, said Vietnam would be an ideal property market for investors if legal procedures are improved.

He is looking to buy a condominium in Saigon to lease to overseas workers there.

“I will do it only when legal procedures are clearer and opener," Jensen, 34, said. "I don’t want to take risks.”