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Europe’s Golden Visa schemes

The ‘Golden Visa’ schemes offered by many European countries, including Cyprus, have their risks and rewards, but could processing delays and other inconveniences stymie interest from Asian buyers?

Europes golden visa schemes have risks and rewards

Mainland Chinese are the most active investors in EU countries that issue golden visas

FROM replicas of Tuscan villages in Thailand to recreations of Venetian canals in Macau, European-themed real estate has long been coveted in Asia. And now, thanks to a growing number of “golden visa” schemes in southern Europe, investors from Asia can live out their Mediterranean dream for real.

These programmes, designed by governments to funnel significant sums of cash into their ailing economies, essentially sell the freedom to live and work within the European Union.

For Asian investors, these schemes are proving hugely enticing. Not only do these visas or residence permits come with sweeteners such as exemptions on capital gains tax and duties on property transfer, they also dangle the carrot of citizenship in the prospective country and, consequently, the EU.

Investors from Asia have not been slow on the uptake for these schemes. One of the pioneers of the golden visa initiative, Portugal, has witnessed €1.53 billion (USD1.66billion) in home sales since its scheme got underway in 2012. Of the more than 2,700 Portuguese golden visas issued, almost 80 percent have been snapped up by Chinese nationals, according to the country’s Real Estate Professionals and Brokers Association.

Chinese investment in Cyprus property surged 351 percent a year after the introduction of its ‘Golden Visa scheme

Chinese property investment even surged 351 percent in Cyprus a year after it introduced its scheme in 2014, according to data from property portal Juwai.com. The country has the fastest citizenship-by-investment route in Europe, with applicants obtaining a Cypriot passport within a three-month span. Aspiring citizens must be prepared to invest at least €2 million (USD2.1 million), including the purchase of a €500,000 home.

These investments are inherently risky since they are siphoned into economies that are still convalescing from recent downturns.

At €250,000 (USD335,000), the minimum property investment threshold for a golden Greek visa is the lowest in all of Europe. The situation in Greece, which is still reeling from the effects of a sovereign debt crisis, is also affecting neighbouring Cyprus, which exited its bailout programme last year.

“The risk is definitely higher in Greece than in Cyprus,” says Liana Toumazou, Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) country manager for Cyprus and Greece. “In Greece locals are not buying because every day they are confronted with a new tax.”

Golden visa schemes have suffered other birthing pains. Following allegations of corruption in the programme in 2014, the Portuguese government passed legislative changes that have dragged down the release of visas, reportedly at a rate of two per day.

“The government is inefficient but it’s aware of the problem,” says David Machado, real estate advisor and founder of PTGoldenVisa.com. “The solution is for the government to hire more people because the programme has created such a huge demand in many markets. But the process of hiring people itself, let alone training them, can also be very slow.

Processing visas is a very specific job to do. We cannot expect a random person to do it.”

Additionally, given the rise of nationalist sentiment in post-Brexit Europe, xenophobic resentments against foreign investors have flared. “You have some old minds, small minds – conservative people who are not open to outside investors,” Toumazou says.

Some of the issues that face visa-seeking Chinese buyers stem from their compatriots. “Chinese real estate agents ask the developers to increase the value of the property to cover the commission of the intermediary,” says Georgia Georgalla, partner at Nicosia-based law firm G. Georgalla & Associates. “When the Chinese buyers try to sell their property after three to four years, they realise their mistake: They are selling it below what they have paid for. The property will have been overvalued by 25 percent.”

Overall, golden visa seekers have stoked meteoric capital gains. Values rose 12.4 percent in 2015 in Lisbon alone, Machado reported. Meanwhile, luxury beachfront properties in Cyprus have appreciated by 30 percent within the last three years, selling between €4,000 to €6,000 (USD4,400-6,600) per square metre, according to data from the Cyprus Developers Alliance, an association of national real estate developers.

An overlap in demand from locals and foreign buyers is unlikely. “Not all locals can afford this type of property. Not before the crisis, not now, not after,” Toumazou says.

In fact, the liquidity of beachfront villas in Cyprus, which fetch prices of €10,000 (USD11,000) per square metre, is low.

“They may wait for a new buyer for years,” says David Petrosov, director of Cyprus Developers Alliance. “These villas are designed for a narrow target audience, families who have decided to move to Cyprus and live here permanently. As soon as many people who want to do that, the number of potential buyers is limited.”

Chinese buyers themselves tend not to occupy these homes, says Georgalla. Many purchase exclusive villas in Cyprus, often off-plan, but only come to the country every two years just to maintain their permanent residency status. Those who rent out such empty homes stand to enjoy remarkable rental yields though, which reach as high as 10 percent in Portugal, according to Ideal Homes Portugal.

It’s not a matter of just bringing in money. It’s a matter of bringing a country back to normal

Governments have been spooked by the prospect of investors using their newly bought citizenship as a backdoor route to other EU nations. “They are fine-tuning laws because it’s not a matter of just bringing in money,” Toumazou says. “It’s a matter of bringing a country back to normal. They don’t just want people to come in and buy a visa. They want people to come and actually live here, to invest, to encourage commerce.”

With an appetite for risk and enough money to strike gold, the route to Europe has rarely been clearer for wealthy Asian investors.

(First published in Asia Property Report)

Readers' comments

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  • Scammed says:

    Billions of Euros have been invested in Portugal but stupid investors like us have invested with NOTHING to show for it. Applications are in and we did everything that was required from us. It is 3 years down the line and we have nothing to show for it – except the thousands of Euros we had to pay in running costs of the property purchased as part of the Gold Visa scheme!

    Assuming we get lucky and receive a golden visa now, the six years only start then – we will have to have our funds tied up for NINE years to qualify for residency. There is no guarantee that we will be granted residency or citizenship – the regulations change all the time.

    Don’t be scammed by these residency schemes. We were fools to think it was legitimate. Now to try and sell the properties – at probably a huge loss, reading this article…Sigh.

  • Deanna says:

    Talk about selling your soul.

    Londoners can no longer afford to live in London as the nicer parts are bought, owned by rich foreigners – mostly Chinese, whose properties are left empty.

    So Cyprus thinks it’s a good idea to follow the yellow-brick-road and now indigenous Cypriots can’t afford a house by the sea…….

  • Chrysilios says:

    Ed, don’t believe what they say on their website. I thought you were smarter than that.

    Do some more research. Ask the Cyprus Real Estate Agents Association. Why aren’t they members of that too?

    Open your eyes.

    Ed: The Cyprus Real Estate Agents Association (CREAA) can only register natural persons – i.e. individuals. The law as it currently stands prevents the registration of legal persons – i.e. companies. There was an article in the Phileleftheros in January on this and other issues. I understand that the Interior Ministry plans to table amendments to the law to resolve outstanding issues.

    Therefore the Cyprus Developers Alliance (CDA) cannot register with the CREAA. But as I said in my earlier reply one of the CDA’s non-executive board members is registered with the CREAA – and as I understand the present situation registered estate agents can appoint ‘assistants’ (although the more nefarious registered agents charge their ‘assistants’ €500 to €1,000/month for the privilege.)

    I expect that you are aware that very few (if any) 100% non-Cypriots have obtained CREAA registration. In 2012 when a foreigner complained to ‘Your Europe Advice’, the reply he received contained the following statement “the conditions which one must currently fulfil in order to be included in the registry of real estate agents in Cyprus discriminate against non-Cypriot EU citizens and do not conform with EU law.” (Directive 2005/36 on the recognition of professional qualifications.)

    Several years ago I met the Petrosov brothers (the family owns the Soyuz watch company) in Limassol when they were considering establishing the CDA. I thought it a very good idea considering the many cowboys in property development. I haven’t been in touch with them since then.

  • Chrysilios says:

    Yet another article of yours contains serious inaccuracies.

    For example, “Cyprus Developers Alliance, an association of national real estate developers” is totally wrong!

    Cyprus Developers Alliance is a private company (estate agent without a license to act as one) claiming to be a joint-venture of many developers. Do your research. This company is facing lawsuits from all angles because of the misleading name.

    You need to get your fact right. And by quoting such individuals like Petrosov, your story lacks credibility.

    Ed: The CDA is an alliance of 43 property developers, which are all named on its website. Its MD is also the MD of a Limassol-based development company and a co-founder of the CDA. A further three members of the company’s non-executive board are property developers one of whom is registered with the CREAA (Cyprus Real Estate Agents Association). Alexander A. Petrosov is a member of FIABCI, the International Real Estate Federation. It’s a registered company – registration number C277783.

    You may also note that the article was written by Al Gerard de la Cruz and was first published in Asia Property Report

  • M says:

    “When the Chinese buyers try to sell their property after three to four years, they realise their mistake: They are selling it below what they have paid for. The property will have been overvalued by 25 percent.” ~~~ That’s still sugarcoating at best. Try more like 75%.

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