Factors Effecting Real Estate Prices in Phuket
Real Estate Pricing
It is almost a misnomer to refer to “The Phuket Real Estate Market” because it is not a homogeneous entity. It is divided (and even subdivided) into categories which collectively include a diverse array of buyers. This section aims to address some of the fundamentals which impact the cost of property in Phuket, with an emphasis on the prices being paid by foreigners.
The national statistics suggest that while the Thai property market has slowed slightly over the last two years, it made steady gains over the 10 years up until January 2016. The house price index stumbled until mid-way through 2017, then continued rising into the fourth quarter of 2018. At the time of writing, it is slightly off its recent highs.
Since the beginning of 2008, Thailand’s house price index is up 52.73%. (The impact of the current pullback has been only – 0.29%.) In simple terms, this represents a 4.79% rise in prices per year. If you are an investor who looks at capital appreciation in terms of a compound annual rate of return, it is a CARR of 3.87%.
THAILAND’S HOUSE PRICE INDEX
Before going further, it is important to distinguish between the Phuket property market, and the market in Thailand as a whole (even in Bangkok specifically). Bangkok is the capital city of Thailand, and also the major population centre for the country. With a total population of over 16 million, Greater Bangkok is home to nearly one quarter of the total population of Thailand. Because there are more people concentrated there than anywhere else in the country, the property market tends to move with the economy.
In a strong economy, like we have seen for the last decade, estimates of demand can become optimistic, and over-building can occur. At the time of writing, stories of unsold condominium units in Bangkok are common. But that is Bangkok, not Phuket.
While prices in Phuket may loosely follow the ebb and flow in the rest of Thailand, the demand from foreigners in Phuket sets its real estate sector apart from the country as a whole. And those foreign buyers are almost always introduced to the island by taking a holiday here. Everything tells us tourism in Phuket will continue to grow. And so therefore will the real estate sector.
The evolution of visitor to resident sometimes takes a while, but it happens a lot. People fall in love with Thailand, and it gradually becomes their default vacation destination, with more and more holidays being spent here. The love affair with the country is truly complete when they buy or lease a condo or villa in Thailand, and decide to move, work or retire here.
The condominium market has seen especially rapid growth over the last 15 years, and this is due in large part to the increase in tourism. But something else has happened during this period – interest rates were slashed the world over.
In the wake of the global financial crisis in 2008, interest rates were lowered to encourage spending and investment, and to discourage savings. Since then, the relatively meagre income being offered by traditional investments (e.g. bonds) has prompted investors to look elsewhere for higher returns. Banks in some countries, such as Switzerland, are not actually paying depositors, but are instead charging the people who deposit money there. Some offshore banks are also charging any Euro depositors whose balances go above a certain level.
These “negative interest rate” policies have motivated investors to look for alternative sources of income, and the idea of an income producing rental property on a tropical island is naturally quite appealing. The last few years have seen a marked increase in studio and one bedroom units being sold to foreigners, who are in turn renting them out for better yields than a bank could offer.
Thankfully for foreign buyers, there is one unwelcome result of low interest rates which is not a factor in Thailand. In a low interest rate environment, the cheap cost of borrowing typically sends more people into the real estate market, driving prices higher. This can lead to speculative property bubbles.
In Thailand, however, it is almost impossible for a foreigner to get a mortgage, so virtually all property sales are done for cash. No borrowing means no speculation. No speculation means no bubble. No bubble means no crazy price spikes. Prices in the foreign market have gradually increased in Phuket, but it has been a steady rise, predominantly driven by the natural forces of inflation and demand.
Modest inflation is the target of almost every central bank, and most consider a “healthy” rate of inflation to be between 2% and 3% per annum.
Inflation pushes up the building costs of each property. Bricks, mortar, roof tiles, household appliances, the fixtures and fittings – even the plants for the garden – are all increasing in price.
Property prices have not “exploded” in Phuket, but no developer can escape some effects of inflation.
Land scarcity (Phuket is an island, after all) will almost certainly have a massive impact on property prices one day, but that day has not come because, for now, there is ample supply of housing units, and it is meeting rather than lagging the demand.
Increased tourism, low interest rates, inflation and scarcity are all reasons why Phuket property prices possibly should be increasing faster, but there are two key factors keeping housing prices in check: Burmese labourers and the Supply-Demand dynamic.
Low Wage Inflation
Most construction in Phuket (in fact, throughout Thailand) utilises Burmese workers. There is an ample workforce just over the border, and given the employment prospects at home, they are happy to accept work in Thailand. They are also willing to work for lower wages than a Thai worker would demand.
Supply and Demand
Conventional supply-demand dynamics don’t really apply to Phuket.
In a classic scenario, when a large number of buyers are looking for properties, but no one is selling, it creates a fast-paced market with prices rising and new developments selling out quickly. When the tables turn, and the market is flooded with properties, sellers begin to find it difficult as prices start to fall. A buyer looking for a great deal usually finds one then.
One of the reasons this cycle repeats itself over time is that periods of weak demand result in fewer units of housing being built, and the resulting scarcity drives prices higher when demand improves. The “boom times,” however, typically see over development, which leads to oversupply, weakening demand and falling prices.
The foreign buyer dynamic has thus far prevented this “boom-bust” scenario from playing out in Phuket. Visitors to Thailand come from all over the world, but the specific nationality of the largest tourist segment keeps changing as individuals from different countries discover Thailand and Phuket.
The buyers of Phuket real estate once came almost exclusively from Europe and America, as well as Thailand’s Asian neighbours (e.g. Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand). But when western currencies began to weaken, Russians discovered Phuket. Russian activity then lessened as the result of a depreciating Rouble, which is when the Chinese discovered Thailand.
Throughout the last three decades, there has not been a protracted decline in demand long enough to send prices significantly lower (as some volatile western markets have experienced), nor has there been over development due to excessive estimates of future demand. Instead, supply has kept pace with demand, and the buyers have been willing to accept modest price increases for new units. Some of these increases have been due to the natural forces of inflation, while the popularity of Phuket property has also allowed developers to demand gradually higher prices.
Economists have a measurement of how much demand changes as a result of price increases, which they call “price elasticity of demand”. Inelastic consumer goods include tobacco, alcohol, and medicine because any price increase has very little impact on demand.
Phuket real estate is neither an addiction nor a life saving medication, but it is what economists would call “relatively inelastic”. As long as the inflow of tourists with disposable income continues to keep pace with the supply of housing units, there is no reason for this to change.
The fact that Phuket has avoided a property bubble, with prices instead being kept in check, has been a major consideration for property investors.
Given the number of foreign buyers who earn their living elsewhere – outside of Phuket, and not necessarily even in Thailand – the traditional relationship between house prices and salaries/wages does not directly impact the foreign market. And with foreigners generally unable to finance a Thai property, the prices in this sector of the market are also not affected by local interest rates, nor are they subject to the “boom and bust” scenarios which can result from excess lending.
What could affect foreign demand in Thailand are the deposit rates being paid in other countries. As discussed, a number of foreign buyers in Phuket are seeking rental returns to compensate for the interest rates not currently being paid by banks. If deposit rates begin to rise, prospective buyers would have to determine whether a property investment is paying enough to justify tying up their cash.
Affordability in Phuket’s foreign market is thus down to who has cash and who doesn’t, and as long as the prices in Phuket remain low relative to the countries where the buyer has worked and lived, Phuket will remain an attractive place to buy.
And with house prices in China, Russia, Europe, Australia and North America all significantly higher than the cost of most equivalent properties found in Phuket, the prospects for a buoyant market going forward are quite favourable.
“The Local Market”
It is impossible to discuss a property market as dynamic as Phuket’s without a discussion of the local market. While much of the “visible” real estate market on the West Coast targets foreigners, there is a sizeable (and growing) local population in Phuket, and they are also buying.
While the median household wage in Thailand may still be low by western standards, the influx of Burmese workers for low-wage, labour-intensive jobs is a solid indicator of the growing prosperity among Thai households.
A strong economy has created a rising tide in wealth, which has (so to speak) lifted all boats, and the net-worth of most Thai nationals in Phuket continues to climb. That said, most local salaries are not high enough to afford those developments targeted at foreigners, but there are plenty of areas on the island where housing is affordable to someone on a local wage.
For the local population, the traditional ratio of house prices to wages does determine affordability, and any change in this ratio will affect the demand within the local market. But if the price gap between local developments and those targeting foreign buyers becomes too wide, there could be a knock-on effect for “foreign property prices”.
In this way, local prices can act as a quasi-cap on foreign prices.
Confidence and Optimism
In any housing market, confidence is directly correlated to the number of new buyers: the more buyers, the higher the confidence. But what drives confidence?
When it comes to real estate, there are many forces at play, such as supply and demand, affordability compared to income, the flexibility of bank lending, shifting demographics – even a general feeling about the economy as a whole.
The local property market in Phuket will certainly be affected by local business confidence. When business activity levels drop off, most businesses cut costs and put any expansion plans on the back burner. This can potentially have a major effect on employment. If an individual is worried about their job, or the economy in general, they are likely to hold off on buying a property.
If that local business confidence is either causing, or the result of, a drop in tourism, the foreign market will also be affected because fewer holiday makers will mean fewer new foreign buyers.
In a Nutshell
The Thai and Foreign property markets in Phuket are distinct, but the fortunes of both are inextricably tied to the island’s tourism sector.
As the island continues to develop and prosper, so too will the property sector. Phuket is an island, so land is definitely finite. Eventually (who knows when this will be) there will be no more land available for development. Scarcity and inflation are not playing a role at the moment, but longer term these are the “double-whammy” which should support higher prices on the island for years to come.