New regulations on condominium sales and mortgage financing set stage for recovery of Myanmar's real estate sector

 

In recent years Myanmar’s real estate market has been hampered by oversupply, regulatory uncertainty, and an absence of consumer financing or avenues for international investment. However, as market conditions improve, new laws and regulations governing the development and sale of condominiums to foreigners, along with greater flexibility in mortgage financing, have set the stage for a sector recovery.

Regulation & Oversight

he Department of Urban and Housing Development (DUHD), which falls under the purview of the Ministry of Construction (MoC), oversees housing policy and legislation, as well as the development of some projects, primarily in Yangon. Local government development committees in major cities also supply housing alongside the DUHD. The Construction, Housing and Infrastructure Development Bank (CHIDB) is the agency in charge of housing finance. In partnership with foreign lenders, it is taking an increasingly active role in providing financing for low-cost homes. Those seeking assistance to buy an affordable home can tap the CHIDB’s home ownership product, which allows people with lower incomes to purchase a MMK1m ($651) home on a 10-year instalment plan with a deposit of 20-30% of the price at the bank. Banks from South Korea and Japan are working with the CHIDB to supplement existing offerings.

The Myanmar Real Estate Services Association (MRESA) is the industry association, acting as a portal for investors. In a bid to stamp out rogue players, in 2019 the government passed the Real Estate Services Law, which aims to bind agents to a code of service.

Condominium Law

In 2019 the government implemented the Condominium Law, which was initially passed in 2016. Under the law and its implementing rules and regulations, developers must obtain a licence to register a collectively owned building, and to ensure the development land is registered as such. Obtaining the permit requires developers to submit proposals containing details of the condominium’s units, communal spaces, landscaping and security, and plans for a property-management organisation, before depositing 30% of the proposed investment with a designated bank. Once 30% of a condominium project is complete, apartments can be listed for sale, with 40% of the allocation notionally open to foreigners, who are permitted to resell their units.

However, there is lingering uncertainty about how Myanmar’s banking system will facilitate overseas investment in local property, particularly as it relates to managing exchange rate fluctuations. There are also questions about whether provisions in the constitution that forbid foreigners from owning land might conflict with condominium ownership.

Obtaining collective ownership credentials has proved problematic for some developments. For example, the Golden City Condominium project in Yangon has had difficulty converting army-owned land to common ownership. “The Condominium Law applies to properties built on at least half an acre of land, but the majority of small freehold properties are under that, so most condominium land is leased from the government under a build-operate-transfer framework,” Tony Picon, executive director of Picon-Deed Property Consultants, told OBG. “Consequently, there are deep problems to work through, and a new apartment law is needed for land sizes below 25,000 sq ft.”

The government is also working on a National Housing Development Law, under which it should step back from direct involvement in home building and encourage more private participation, creating a framework that brings general apartments under a legal framework similar to the Condominium Law. The DUHD has announced that it will complete projects already under way, but it will stop work on new developments.

Another major shift can be seen in the opening of mortgage finance to homebuyers (see analysis). Despite the move, in May 2019 U Myo Myint, general secretary of the Myanmar Construction Entrepreneurs Association (MCEA), told local media that many potential homebuyers are deterred by persistently high rates of inflation and elevated interest rates on home loans.

However, the domestic construction sector has successfully lobbied the government to reduce taxes and galvanise property sales. New regulations have been approved that will reduce the rates applied to undeclared income to as low as 3% for amounts of up to MMK100m ($65,200), down from 15% previously. The Union Tax Law, passed in September 2019, stipulates that income must be invested in business or capital goods, such as property, to qualify for the lower tax rates. This will likely jump-start the real estate market.

Performance

Myanmar’s property market has been relatively stagnant since the highs seen in 2015. In 2018 foreign investment in real estate rose by more than 50% to reach approximately $1.2bn. However, the most recent available data from the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration shows foreign direct investment (FDI) in the sector came to $210m in the year to September 2019, spread across four projects, though these figures likely discount substantial undeclared investment from China. According to U Myo Myint, in mid-2019 property transactions were down 50% from their peak in 2015, and the market is unlikely to pick up before 2020. He added that while demand for affordable homes will drive construction sector activity, take-up would be restricted because most people are still unable to afford them.

However, moves to introduce long-term home loans have successfully assisted middle-income buyers in purchasing apartments within the MMK20m-120m ($13,000-130,000) range. In 2019 Daw Moh Moh Aung, general secretary of the MRESA, urged the government to relax taxation rules, including stamp duty requirements, to make it easier for people to buy homes.

The long-term view is more encouraging. Yangon benefits from high-level support from the Japanese government as it seeks to modernise its infrastructure. In 2018 the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) released a strategic urban development plan for Greater Yangon. It is funding the planned development, which it considers the western focal point of the EastWest Economic Corridor to Vietnam through Thailand and Laos. The plan entails the development of seven city projects on the outskirts of Yangon, but it remains to be seen which of these will receive priority investment.

In 2019 JICA pledged and provided hundreds of millions of dollars in financing for bridges, as well as upgrades to the Yangon Circular Railway, a mass urban transit system and ring roads around the capital (see Transport chapter). China has also proposed a 38-km, $1.5bn sky train linking Yangon International Airport to the downtown area, with China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group aiming for a 50-year service contract.

South Korea’s government has its sights set on the Dala Satellite City project, as well as on developing an industrial zone north of Yangon, and in September 2019 signed a raft of measures with the Myanmar government, including a $1bn loan financing agreement. This covers a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to conduct a preliminary survey for the Dala project, and another between the South Korean KB Kookmin Bank and the Yangon regional government concerning financial cooperation in the real state sector. Notably, land prices in the Dala area have begun to rise, driven primarily by vendors from China and locals looking for quiet retreats following the green-lighting of the $138m Korea-Myanmar Friendship Bridge that will eventually connect the area with downtown Yangon.

Affordable Housing

The JICA master plan aims to resolve Yangon’s housing shortage and address the nearly 500,000 people living in informal settlements around the commercial capital, many as a result of damaged caused by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that Yangon alone will require an average of 100,000 new affordable homes built annually between 2019 and 2031 to house existing residents and expected migrants. According to the ADB, public-private partnership financing must be explored to meet this need, as it cannot be effectively addressed by the government alone. There are some positive signs of foreign involvement. In September 2019 Malaysia’s Berjaya Land won the tender to develop a $624m mixed-use project, which will include 10,000 affordable homes, to be completed in the Dagon Seikkan Township in Yangon by 2025.

The DUHD orchestrates a number of affordable housing projects, partnering up with local or international contractors to complete development. Typically, emphasis is placed on developing areas outside of city centres, as redeveloping inner-city land can come alongside bureaucratic difficulties. “Land and apartments titles downtown are mixed up, and cover co-ownership and collective sales, which are often not well documented,” Richard Emerson, managing director of Emerson Real Estate, told OBG.

Between 2017 and 2019 the DUHD and its partners built and sold almost 10,000 affordable homes, most of which are earmarked for civil servants, and the majority of which are located in Yangon and Mandalay. Anticipating demand, the DUHD is soliciting interest in building 60,000 affordable homes in Yangon’s East Dagon and Thanlyin townships by 2021. The planned apartments will be 74 sq metres and cost less than MMK13.5m ($8800). Specifications include work on roads, electricity, water supply and telecoms networks, estimated to account for 30% of the project’s total value.

This points to the serious urban planning obstacles the government faces for land owned by individual ministries, with many of the most viable plots not controlled by the MoC, and therefore unavailable for affordable housing. Moreover, Yangon’s public transport options have improved, but the city still lacks a modern, integrated, inter-modal mass transit system, as well as convenient private motorbike taxis. As such, its residents are somewhat less mobile than those in other major South-east Asian cities. Existing developments have also struggled to attract buyers due to a combination of poor-quality buildings, weak or absent infrastructure like transport, power and water, and the inability of many people to afford the homes in the first place.

The government is attempting to effectively address these issues by offering land at knock-down prices as an incentive for developers, primarily those from China, to address basic infrastructure needs. This is the basis of the New Yangon City development model (see Construction overview). “A focus on affordable housing is the only thing that is ultimately sustainable for Yangon,” Emerson told OBG. “The government is not short of land, and they will have to work more closely with developers while improving the general incentive framework for these low-margin projects.”

Kyaw Paing, vice-president of the MCEA, told OBG that the trade body was petitioning the government for a two-step loan process, with banks offering credit for initial construction, as well as mortgage financing for consumers to buy low-cost properties. “At these prices, we want to bring the construction phase into the financing arrangement,” he said.

Stalled Market

Ample supply and a strong pipeline of new units is keeping condominium valuations under pressure, with property research company Colliers estimating that the market will host more than 12,000 units by the end of 2019, with a record 2000-plus upscale apartments earmarked for completion in 2020. Take-up rates hover around 60% and are projected to remain around this level in the near future. Prices for all but the most luxurious homes have consequently trended downwards, though some landlords are content to wait out the correction and refrain from adjusting prices or putting their units on the market. High-end condominiums were selling for $2920 per sq metre in the second quarter of 2019, according to Colliers. The Condominium Law has drawn interest from investors in Singapore and China in particular, and helped shift new supply in upmarket developments such as Marga Landmark’s development The Central, on Yangon’s Inya Lake, and Emerald Bay, also in Yangon. The latter has already secured buyers from China looking for alternative investments following the barring of foreign participation in Malaysia’s massive Forest City development near Singapore.

Although an influx of expatriates has helped sustain the rental market, a steady stream of new units, coupled with tighter corporate housing budgets, has suppressed prices. Colliers recorded a sizeable drop in serviced apartment rental rates in the third quarter of 2019, but expects demand to recover for low-cost and mid-range units, and anticipates a pipeline of at least 1700 serviced homes to supplement existing stock of 2340 units by 2021. Rents have dropped steadily since 2015, but they are starting to level out in commercial developments. Furthermore, uncertainty surrounding the 2020 election might result in further declines in prices before they rebound post-election.

Commercial Space

Commercial rents have been assisted by a new wave of foreign companies entering Myanmar. In April 2019 the government authorised five multinational insurance companies to establish wholly owned units in Myanmar, opening the door to grow a small life insurance market worth approximately $13m in 2017 (see Insurance chapter). “The office market has been boosted by the relaxation of a number of market restrictions leading to the entrance of foreign insurers, retailers and a new round of foreign banking licences with retail banking capabilities,” Hugo Slade, managing director at Slade Property Services, told OBG. “As more sectors open up office demand will increase, which is necessary, as there is a large amount of new build supply in the pipeline.” However, given the ample supply coming through, a spike in rental rates is unlikely.

Commercial properties under development include Mottama Group’s M Tower, a grade 5-A smart office tower with about 32,500 sq metres in net leasable area, which is scheduled to open its doors in 2020. Meanwhile, a Japanese conglomerate led by engineering construction services company Fujita is carrying out the $332.5m Y Complex development, comprising a highgrade office building, serviced apartments, commercial spaces and the luxury Okura Prestige Yangon hotel, which occupies a total floor space of 92,000 sq metres. The project is backed by a $47m development finance loan from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation.

Recent supply also includes the $400m Yoma Central, a project combining hotel accommodation with retail, office and high-end residential space on a 4-ha site in downtown Yangon. The development nestles against the $2.5bn redevelopment of Yangon Central Railway, envisaged as a new transport centre and mixed-use development covering more than 1m sq metres.

Retail & Hotels

The proliferation of mixed-use space is indicative of the fact that retail developments in Yangon are thriving – at least in terms of occupancy. According to a 2019 report from Slade Property Services, the occupancy rate at shopping hotspots Junction City and Myanmar Plaza is at 100%, while the new Kantharyar Centre is at 80%, with food and beverage outlets enjoying strong business.

“Growth in the food and beverage sector is partly driven by franchise conditions, which stipulate that a certain number of outlets must be opened, but it is also matched by higher spending on leisure experiences from the younger generations,” Steven MK Aung, CEO of CG Myanmar, told OBG. However, the report also states that rental rates, which sat at $28 per sq metre per month in 2019, are expected to continue to fall. The completion of destination mall Terminal M, as well as 50,000 sq metres in Time City, will bring total retail stock in Yangon to almost 1m sq metres.

According to Colliers, Mandalay remains a promising real estate market. The city has large vacant plots and untapped opportunities to build retail spaces that integrate entertainment and commercial services. This makes it an ideal candidate to serve a population that is expected to grow at an annual rate of 4%. The average selling price for housing in the city was $1020 per sq metre in 2019, with a cumulative take-up rate of 74%. Colliers added that new developments should be geared to low- and mid-tier accommodation.

Meanwhile, the government is increasing efforts to attract people to live in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital city. Most recently, it offered almost 200 plots of land at reduced prices to tenants who committed to living on the properties. Furthermore, 10-year home loans are available from Naypyitaw Sibin Bank. However, a September 2019 survey by Picon-Deed Property Consultants reported that the city lacks international-standard health care, sufficient quality of residential housing and convenient transport links, indicating that it could take up to a decade for Myanmar to shift its administrative functions to the new capital. Stuart Deed, executive director at Picon-Deed Property Consultants, told OBG that due to rapidly rising incomes, border towns and state capitals are potential growth markets.

Industrial real estate and nearby residential developments also continue to exhibit strong growth across the country, buoyed by Myanmar’s various infrastructure development plans and the prospect of Yangon’s new Project Bank channelling private financing to the most urgent projects (see Construction overview). However, although the Project Bank seeks to engage more private sector participation, tenders are often too small and of too short a term to be attractive for firms.

Outlook

Myanmar’s real estate market is undergoing a period of transition, and there are challenges that must be overcome before the market can function effectively. Addressing these issues may prove challenging for the country’s relatively inexperienced government, but progress is being made, and difficulties will be overcome if FDI takes off. In the meantime there are opportunities for carefully targeted investments. Much hinges on the coherence of new housing legislation.

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The Report: Myanmar 2020

Construction & Real Estate chapter from The Report: Myanmar 2020

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