LONDON, Nov 16 (Reuters) - The spectre of one or more countries leaving the euro is driving the wealthy in Italy, Greece and Spain into the relative haven of the London property market.
Security and stability are London’s big attractions, as well as liquidity and well-kept property registers. The euro zone crisis has accelerated a trend already being driven by the weakness of the pound.
“London is a place to put cash outside of the euro zone, and certainly outside of the south European countries,” said Liam Bailey, head of residential research at international property broker Knight Frank. “It’s fair to say that is a real and live trend.”
The euro zone is mired in a sovereign debt crisis that has brought turmoil to global markets and upheaval to the governments of Greece and Italy.
The possibility of Greece returning to the drachma, and the much more remote chance of Italy leaving the euro, has been enough to fan interest in bricks and mortar, not just away from southern Europe but outside the euro zone completely.
“Our agents are telling us that there is renewed interest from euro zone buyers both within the countries that are particularly affected but also from the wider euro zone,” said Lucian Cook, a director of residential research at upmarket property agent Savills.
Knight Frank data shows that interest in the London property market is largely reflecting the severity of the debt crisis in the countries hardest hit.
Greek buyers accounted for 2.63 percent of upmarket property purchases in London in the year to date. That’s up from 1.7 percent a year earlier. Italians are at 2.63 percent from 1.9 percent over the same period and Spaniards account for 0.7 percent, up from 0.6 percent.
Buyers from the Middle East and North Africa have also been more active in the wake of the Arab Spring and the super wealthy in Asia have been capitalising on the weakness of the pound to snap up prime properties in the UK capital.
Separate data from Knight Frank shows about 7.8 billion pounds of prime London property deals were done in the year to September, with Italian, Spanish and Greek buyers accounting for 393.8 million pounds, or 5.1 percent.
Typically, wealthy southern Europeans are buying properties worth at least 1 million pounds in London’s well-heeled Chelsea and South Kensington areas as pure investments, second homes, or accommodation for children studying at university.
As early as May, these buyers were being targeted by property agents as motivated buyers in London’s elite enclaves, such as Mayfair and Belgravia, as they sought to escape the sovereign debt woes plaguing Europe’s southern periphery.
“In a European context, London has performed better than any other significant city,” Bailey said, referring primarily to alternative capitals like Paris and Berlin.
And this trend is expected to continue so long as wealthy south Europeans remain extremely nervous about the value of assets in their own countries.
“If for whatever reason the drachma came into being, and Greece was thrown out of the euro zone, it would plunge against the euro and assets held in Greece, or any country that was thrown out of the euro, would plunge in value,” Bailey said.
Nick Candy, development manager and designer of One Hyde Park, a 1 billion pound development where apartments cost from 7 million pounds up to 136 million each, said he knew of several property buyers keen to escape the euro zone turmoil.
“We’ve got Italian and Greek buyers in One Hyde Park who have confirmed that view ... They want to have money in a safe haven, preferably not a bank, or stocks because it is too volatile,” Candy told Reuters.
“We have a lot of viewings going on from any country that has got economic or political turmoil,” he said.
One property broker said, on condition of anonymity, that he was working with an Italian buyer who was looking to invest his money outside that country, “but can’t do it fast enough”.
It isn’t just the super wealthy who are looking for a safe home for their hard-earned cash. Brokerage Jones Lang Lasalle said last week it had moved to capitalise on euro zone uncertainty by marketing London homes with price tags starting from 250,000 pounds, to potential buyers in Greece.
“We will gauge if people’s appetite is as high as we have been led to believe anecdotally,” JLL’s residential director, Tim Wright, told Reuters.
He also said Chinese buyers were leading a surge in demand for luxury investment homes, benefiting from a favourable exchange rates that produce price discounts of up to a quarter.