Investment property abroad: avoid the holiday hotspots

Thinking of taking advantage of the US housing slump to nab your dream Florida holiday home? Tempted by the high yields promised on rental properties in Bulgaria (pictured)? Beware, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

One of the consequences of the general bull market in all asset classes of the past few years is that when the price of something falls, nobody seems to worry much. If something goes up, the market assumes it will keep rising. But if it is going down, there is no assumption it will keep going down. Instead we call it a "healthy correction" or, more often, a "buying opportunity".

US housing market: why a dream holiday home could become a nightmare

A classic example of this at the moment is US housing. New-build house prices in America fell 10% last month and even existing home prices fell 3.5%. This marks not only the biggest year-on-year decline in nearly 40 years, but also the first time that prices across the nation have fallen three months in a row.

At the same time, the market abounds with anecdotal evidence of people taking horrible hits of 20% to 30% off their asking prices in order to sell and of developers throwing in free swimming pools and 4x4s on top of the discounts they are already being forced to offer.

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There are still some optimists out there. USA Today ran a long feature last week explaining that, while things look bad, if you "stage" your house properly making it look "generic, almost bland" you'll have no problem selling. But to most casual observers the market looks like it is in meltdown.

Still that's not the way the ever-enthusiastic British property buyer sees it: over the past week I've had several letters from people asking me if I think it's time to start seriously shopping for a dream holiday home in Florida "now that prices have come down so much".

My answer and I can't see how anyone could sensibly disagree is that it is not. The US property market is fundamentally overvalued and America's mortgage payers are overstretched. Even if, as the optimists claim, the market is already bottoming out, there is no reason to think prices will start rising soon.

Add to that the fast-declining dollar (now at a 14-year low against the pound) and why would you want to own a house in the US? Buy now and you could find yourself nursing double-digit losses from the currency effects alone.

The only possible positive is put by Stuart Law of the property company Assetz (who, to be fair, is not actually suggesting that anyone buy a house in America now). The rental market might benefit from a house-price collapse, he said, and if the dollar really tumbles, "international tourism will soar, providing great stability and demand for rentals". I'd call that clutching at straws.

From Bulgaria to Dubai: beware opportunistic building bubbles

The tourism argument is used all over the place as a justification for buying property. We should buy flats in Bansko, Bulgaria, because it is soon to be flooded with skiing tourists (see: What happened to Bulgaria's property boom?); in Montenegro because it is about to become a premier summer holiday resort for people other than Russian gangsters (see: Could you make money from property in Montenegro?); in Shetland because a recent television programme means nature lovers will be flocking to view otters in the rain next summer; in France because the demand for gtes is infinite; and in Dubai because it's a mecca of sun, sea and sand that will draw in increasing numbers of free-spending tourists.

There are two problems with this. First, while it doesn't always seem like it, there has to be a limited number of tourists: even the most dedicated skier can't lodge in a badly built breeze-block studio in Bansko and a leaseback chalet at Courchevel in France at the same time.

Second, every time you hear the "exciting new tourist destination" argument you can be sure there is an opportunistic building bubble on. Take Dubai. The city has become nothing but a huge building site. Hundreds of residential super towers are being built and it is estimated that over 50,000 properties will be completed next year and another 60,000 the year after.

If the population grows at 7%, says the Egyptian investment bank Prime Group, that means there will be 33,000 spare units in 2008. To fill those up with tourists, at least 1.7m people will have to take one-week holidays to Dubai. Is it really that nice? I doubt it. Analysts at Standard Chartered say they expect Dubai property prices to fall 20%-30% in the next two or three years. (For more on investment property in Dubai, read: Don't fall for the charms of Dubai property and Why Dubai is getting too crowded for comfort).

Property investment: which markets look good now?

I am not against property investment in principle, I just can't see many places where it makes sense right now. I am still tempted by the German property market and its relatively high yields (I'm going to Berlin to have a look) and am eyeing the Indian market.

There is little doubt that we are now seeing growth driven by India's healthy credit market and that the fast-growing middle class is going to need a lot of new housing, but the fact that property prices have more than doubled in the big cities in the past two years makes me nervous.

Buying individual properties in India is probably too risky but, given the speed of economic growth, I am thinking about putting a small amount into one of the Indian property funds listed on AIM: Ishaan Real Estate seems as good a bet as any. (For more on investing in India property - and more -see our cover story: Move over China - why India has the real investment potential).

First published in The Sunday Times (03/12/2006)

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.