The Gulf Today - Business - - SPECIAL REPORT -

ATHENS: Three times a week, hun­dreds of Chi­nese in­vestors ar­rive at Athens air­port to be greeted by Greek real es­tate agents who drive them straight into the city to view apart­ments for sale.

The visi­tors are drawn to Greece by rock-bot­tom prop­erty prices and one of Europe’s most gen­er­ous “golden visa” schemes, of­fer­ing a re­new­able five-year res­i­dent’s per­mit in re­turn for a 250,000 euro ($285,000) in­vest­ment in real es­tate.

That’s enough to buy a three­bed­room apart­ment in the cap­i­tal with a view to the Acrop­o­lis hill.

It is also enough to bring the first glim­mers of re­cov­ery to the mar­ket since the Greek econ­omy started to col­lapse af­ter the debt cri­sis in 2009, although prices are still down by about 40 per cent from their peak.

One Athens res­i­dent, who gave his name only as Vas­silis, had al­most given up find­ing a buyer for his home last year when a mini­van pulled up out­side his maisonette and a Chi­nese fam­ily of four got out. A day later, he got an of­fer.

“They didn’t see the house again. We went and got a down-payment, and ev­ery­thing was set in mo­tion,” he said.

Vas­silis had bought the home in the up-and-com­ing sub­urb of Ger­akas for 320,000 eu­ros ($367,000) in 2007 and de­cided to sell in or­der to buy his two adult chil­dren their own apart­ments. He sold it to the Chi­nese fam­ily for 220,000 eu­ros.

Real es­tate prices rose 0.8 per cent in the sec­ond quar­ter year-onyear af­ter a 0.1 per cent rise in the first - the first pick-up since 2008, ac­cord­ing to Bank of Greece data.

For­eign di­rect in­vest­ment in prop­erty jumped 91 per cent to 287 mil­lion eu­ros last year from 2016, the bank’s data showed. Taxes from prop­erty sales rose by an an­nual 41 per cent in the seven months to July to 204.7 mil­lion eu­ros, ac­cord­ing to data from state rev­enue au­thor­ity AADE.

“We are get­ting much more phone calls,” said Lef­teris Po­tami­anos, head of the Real Es­tate As­so­ci­a­tion of Athens, which rep­re­sents about 3,000 bro­kers.

“The over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity is for­eign­ers and there are yet some Greeks. Cer­tainly, Chi­nese are by far ahead of the game.”

Po­tami­anos pre­dicted house prices would rise an av­er­age 5-7 per cent an­nu­ally in the greater Athens area this year and the next.

It helps that the yuan has fallen more than 6 per cent against the dol­lar this year. Beijing re­stricts overseas in­vest­ment but Chi­nese in­vestors are still find­ing ways to get money out of the coun­try.

Peo­ple like Lian Wen­min, 29, a for­mer ac­coun­tant from Beijing and po­ten­tial golden-visa in­vestor, say buy­ing in Greece is not just about tak­ing ad­van­tage of low prices and get­ting a visa that al­lows them to travel freely within the Euro­pean Union.

Greece’s warm cli­mate is also part of the appeal, Lian says.

“Greece has very nice weather and I like the peo­ple, the food,” she told Reuters on the bal­cony of an apart­ment she is think­ing of buy­ing in an up­mar­ket area over­look­ing cen­tral Athens.

Lian plans to spend 250,000 eu­ros on one or two apart­ments in cen­tral Athens to rent out on a home-shar­ing site such as Airbnb, and pos­si­bly on an­other prop­erty for her­self in a south­ern sub­urb.

“I can buy like two or three apart­ments with 250,000 but if I spend the same amount of money in Beijing I can only buy one apart­ment in a gen­er­ally nice lo­ca­tion of 30 square me­ters. It’s big dif­fer­ence,” she said.

Tighter re­stric­tions on mi­gra­tion start­ing last year in the United States, Canada and Aus­tralia — pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions for Chi­nese in the past - have also worked in Greece’s favour, said Alice Ma, sales man­ager at Beijing-based Bloom Con­sult­ing.

Por­tu­gal’s five-year golden-visa pro­gramme has also at­tracted Chi­nese in­ter­est along with in­vestors from France and Bri­tain, but there buy­ers need to put in at least 500,000 eu­ros.

Ioan­nis Anas­tas­siadis’s Anas­tas­siadis Group of­fers a wide range of ser­vices to fa­cil­i­tate Chi­nese in­vest­ment, in­clud­ing pro­vid­ing lawyers and no­taries to help se­cure the visa.

“Greece is slowly be­com­ing a place which at­tracts peo­ple to live here and to plan even the rest of their lives in Greece,” he said.

For renters, the Chi­nese-led in­ter­est is not good news, how­ever.

The buy-to-rent men­tal­ity of many of the buy­ers is push­ing up rents and some­times lead­ing to threats of evic­tion un­less renters agree to pay the higher prices, said An­ge­los Ski­adas, head of Greece’s ten­ants as­so­ci­a­tion PASYPE.

Rents across Greece rose by 8.4 per cent in the 12 months to Septem­ber from a year ear­lier, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey by the Greek fran­chise of RE/MAX In­ter­na­tional.

“Since last year, the prob­lem is be­com­ing a night­mare,” Ski­adas said. “ten­ants are forced to leave be­cause they are be­ing black­mailed by their land­lords, while those who look for a new house are faced with ex­trav­a­gant rents.”

He said PASYPE plans to lobby the govern­ment to raise the min­i­mum rental pe­riod from three to six years.

Of the 3,404 res­i­dency per­mits is­sued since the golden visa pro­gramme started in 2013, al­most 1,700 have gone to Chi­nese na­tion­als, data from in­vest­ment agency En­ter­prise Greece showed.

Car­rie Law, chief ex­ec­u­tive of, a Chi­nese web­site for global real es­tate, said in­quiries about Greece dou­bled in the first quar­ter of 2018 and jumped three­fold in the sec­ond.

“It is a dra­matic growth,” she said.

Mean­while, volatil­ity in Ital­ian govern­ment debt has made it harder for Greece to re­turn to bond mar­kets, Greek Fi­nance Min­is­ter Eu­clid Tsakalo­tos told Reuters, but said he is com­fort­able with wait­ing for the right time to raise funds.

A re­cent sell­off in Ital­ian govern­ment debt has pushed up the bor­row­ing costs of other South­ern Euro­pean coun­tries, in­clud­ing Greece.

But Tsakalo­tos told Reuters on the side­lines of a con­fer­ence on Fri­day that his coun­try’s fi­nanc­ing needs are un­der con­trol.

Greece, which ex­ited that last of its bailout pro­grammes in Au­gust, has agreed debt re­lief mea­sures with its euro zone part­ners. These ex­tend ma­tu­ri­ties on some loans and soften the in­ter­est rate bur­den on oth­ers. Athens also has a 24 bil­lion euro cash buf­fer, which will help to im­prove debt sus­tain­abil­ity over the medium term.

Tsakalo­tos said Athens would re­turn to the bond mar­ket at the op­ti­mal time, and played down the Ital­ian bond sell­off.

“It has made it a lit­tle harder but on the other hand I think mar­kets are now be­com­ing more so­phis­ti­cated in un­der­stand­ing that Greece has fin­ished its pro­gramme, it has done a huge amount of re­forms, it’s got a buf­fer so that its fi­nanc­ing needs are un­der con­trol for at least 2-1/2 years,” he said.

“Also it has got a debt deal that means fi­nanc­ing its debt is eas­ier than it is in Por­tu­gal and Italy.”

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