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Experts: Chinese not to blame for Australia's home prices
Brief:According to FIRB data for the financial year that ended on June 30, 2013 (the latest available data), Chinese spent A$5.92 billion ($5.21 billion) on property, of which A$1.96 billion was in residential real estate. Total turnover in the residential property sector for the period totalled A$275 billion, of which Chinese investment was under 1 percent. A "drop in the ocean", Curtis calls it.
Go to any residential property auction on Sydney's lower or upper north shore and the chances are the majority of bidders will be Asian, most notably Chinese.

In Australia's two biggest cities, Melbourne and Sydney, Chinese buyers are said to be at the forefront of a real estate boom that is showing no sign of slowing down.

This has raised concerns in some quarters that local buyers are being unfairly priced out of the market by the sheer weight of money pouring into Australia from Asia, and in particular China. It is being argued that overseas Chinese buyers have distorted the residential real estate markets in Sydney and Melbourne, pushing prices up and keeping young people out of the market.

But is it right to blame one particular group for pushing up the price of property?

"No," says Chris Curtis, managing director of Curtis Associates, a Sydney-based property advisory and buyer's agent. He says much of the negative commentary is "misinformed" and in some cases "xenophobic".

"The problem is the lack of transparency and data, not only regarding Chinese but all foreign buyers."

The most reliable source of information when it comes to foreign investment in Australia is the Foreign Investment Review Board, but even the government body has its limitations.

Earlier this year, when commenting on an Australian government inquiry into foreign investment in residential real estate, Curtis said: "It beggars belief that in the entire FIRB annual report for 2013, there exists just one table identifying the ethnicity of some foreign buyers. In those circumstances, it is unsurprising that there exists such disinformation in the media."

A "vast gulf" exists in Australia between public and anecdotal perceptions regarding the levels of foreign investment and the picture painted by information from the FIRB and other relevant Commonwealth agencies, such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Stories that have made headlines include the reported sale of the Sydney mansion Altona to a Chinese businessman in May last year for around $50 million, a record for the city. However, such sales are not a fair reflection of the overall market.

According to FIRB data for the financial year that ended on June 30, 2013 (the latest available data), Chinese spent A$5.92 billion ($5.21 billion) on property, of which A$1.96 billion was in residential real estate. Total turnover in the residential property sector for the period totalled A$275 billion, of which Chinese investment was under 1 percent. A "drop in the ocean", Curtis calls it.

Chinese investment in the overall real estate market in Australia increased by 44 percent for the financial year ending June 30, 2013, Curtis says, "which was paltry in comparison to 100 percent and 101 percent increases recorded over the same period by Canada and South Korea respectively".

"Yet you'll struggle to find a headline ranting about marauding Canucks dispossessing Australian first home buyers," he adds.

One property analyst, who asks not to be identified, says: "One of the problems trying to determine the extent of overseas buying is that the body overseeing foreign investment in Australia, the FIRB, is grossly understaffed."

According to the FIRB, there are about 9 million private dwellings in Australia, of which between 500,000 and 600,000 are sold each year. Of that number an estimated 20,000 may have to seek approval from the board.

The problem facing the FIRB is that it only has a staff of eight people handling foreign investment in residential property. It told the inquiry into foreign investment in residential real estate that if the job is to be done properly, it would need a full-time staff of at least 80 people.

"I think it's fair to say almost all the public commentary around residential real estate buying by foreigners has an Asian component to it," Brian Wilson, chairman of the FIRB, told the inquiry.

"Very often, where we might get a call that says 'a Chinese has bought this house and my daughter wasn't able to do so' and when it's investigated (we find) yes, they're of Chinese background but they're a citizen - they live here," Wilson said.

"I think quite a lot of the commentary is based upon either lack of knowledge of the facts or an inadvertent misinterpretation of the facts," he added.
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