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Chinese business people investing in historic castles and châteaus in Europe
Brief:Wealthy Chinese are buying châteaus and castles in Europe as property investments, but some find the maze of legal and financial red tape baffling

Magnificent: Dromoland Castle, in the Republic of Ireland, was built
in the 19th century and has accommodated The Beatles and US presidents
 
There is something awe-inspiring about their breathtaking beauty. Dotted around Europe’s landscape ate castles and chateaus with a fairytale quality intertwined with centuries of history. Owning such a rambling relic is everyone’s dream, but only the superrich can usually afford to buy one. In what has become a growing trend, China’s tycoons are starting to fork out millions of dollars for their own slice of the past.

Cheng Haiyan, 28, the daughter of the vastly wealthy Chinese businessman Cheng Zuochang, was the first in 2008. The family paid 2 million euros (£1.43 million) for the 148-acre Chateau Latour-Laguens, which is nestled in the hamlet of Saint-Martin-du-Puy in Frances’s prestigious Bordeaux region.

What attracted Ms Cheng was the gracefully decaying 15th century tower, and the irregular pond, stone-lined and shaped roughly like a kidney. There was also the world-famous 74-acre vineyards that appealed to her father, whose vast business interests include a wine importing operation.

“The Chinese connected with the pond and its irregularity,” Bruno Roussy, who helped arrange the transaction, told the New York Times, “because the Chinese believe evil spirits don’t like crooked lines. Zuochang Cheng also wanted to go to France, to the roots (of the wine-making business), and buy a château.”

Since then, more than 30 affluent Chinese businesspeople have invested in castles and châteaus in France and the rest of Europe, including the celebrated actress and film director Zhao Wei.

The 39-year-old has become a shrewd investor and reportedly paid 4 million euros in 2011 for the 16th-century Château Monlot and its vineyard in Saint-Emilion, which is also part of France’s Bordeaux region.

 Along with the château, its garden and vines, Ms Zhao also purchased existing stocks of the respected Monlot wine, including the vintages of 2011 and 2010. The grapes were grown at the 17-acre vineyard.

“China’s rich love to invest in real estate and to collect antiques, which have both value growth potential and cultural heritage,” Knight Frank, an upmarket real estate company based in London, reported in a research note.

Knight Frank has looked into the investment patterns of China’s wealthy business community and found that purchases of castles and châteaus have excellent growth potential.

“A castle may tick all the boxes for those who can afford to purchase and maintain an estate with long history,” the property firm said.

There are about 67,000 Chinese nationals worth more than 100 million yuan (£10.56 million) and roughly 17,000 with an estimated fortune exceeding 500 million yuan, according to an April report released by China Minsheng Bank and the Hurun Research Institute.

“With so much money, investors can diversify their portfolios, not only in terms of what they buy but also in terms of where to buy,” Sherry Wang, an overseas investment researcher based in Shanghai, said. “Castles may meet those demands for buying different properties in different countries.”

Travel has also broadened the horizons of China’s wealthy, and they have started to research old stately homes in Germany and Britain as well as France.

Many are known in the tour guides as “hidden gems”, located in rural backwaters with stunning views and picturesque countryside.

Even China’s professional class has been left enthralled by these monuments to history.

 “I once stayed in a boutique hotel which was a small castle in the north of England — it was like a dream come true from my childhood,” Sun Ying, 24, who works in the legal profession for Shenhong Trade in Shanghai, said.

The trend of buying dream châteaus and spectacular castles started in the late 2000s with properties in the grape-growing region of Bordeaux becoming extremely popular. Britain has also attracted Chinese buyers searching for that special country estate, as well as the United States.

Naturally, prices vary from property to property and can run from hundreds of thousands of dollars to seven or eight figures, depending on location and the condition of the building.

Other factors also have to be taken into account such as national heritage protection laws, which cover planning and building rights.

Obtaining planning permission to renovate these properties can be complicated and time consuming. Even so, there are always wealthy overseas buyers waiting in the wings.

One affluent Chinese businessman, who did not wish to disclose his identity, bought a Jesuit Retreat House, which was built for the Roman Catholic order, on New York’s Long Island for an estimated $40 million (£25.8 million) in 2013.

“A castle, or a similar building, is versatile and can be transformed into a wide range of facilities, such as a museum, a boutique hotel, or a sight-seeing spot,” Ms Wang, the investment researcher, said. “But it can be expensive to keep these properties up to scratch and maintenance costs can be high.”

Putting together the large sums of money needed to buy historic homes can also be fraught with legal implications. China’s regulators, including the People’s Bank of China, or central bank, and the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, eased foreign exchange controls in 2007. They increased the maximum amount that can be transferred out of the country by individuals from $20,000 to $50,000 yearly. But this figure is unlikely to cover the costs of maintaining a sumptuous overseas property.

An offshore account with a major global bank can help clients legally transfer larger sums of money abroad. Another option would be to apply for approval under China’s merger and acquisition rules for outbound investment. This is not subject to the $50,000 cap.

But once the finance is in place, there are more legal obstacles to overcome such as property procedures in the country where you are buying the country estate. It can take months to wade through the paperwork, according to Guo Yan, a real estate solicitor for Xinye Realty Information Services in Shanghai.

Of course, this can quickly turn into a quagmire of red tape. Zhou Qingyang, 46, a Suzhou businessman who owns a trading company and invests in manufacturing companies, was keen to buy a small castle in Spain. But he shelved the deal because the process was “too demanding”.

Mr Zhou fell in love with a castle in 2011 while visiting a friend in Spain and agreed on a price. His plan was to turn the property into a summer resort.

But since the castle had been left to decay over the years, a substantial renovation programme was required, which would take more than two years.

“Even after renovation and refurbishment, it was going to take a small team to maintain the castle,” he said. “The annual cost for that would not have been small.

“So, I talked about this plan with my family and we came to the conclusion that it was too much trouble. With the same amount of money we could invest in a seaside villa and move in straightaway,” Mr Zhou added.

Sifting through the legal and financial ramifications for a property on the heritage protection list in Europe or the United States can also be a minefield compared with buying a luxury apartment overseas.

“Some estates are freehold and some are leasehold, giving the buyer different levels of ownership over the land,” Mr Guo, the real estate solicitor, said. “Then there are the tax levels and other legal requirements that may vary from one estate to another.

“It really is quite important for investors to understand these rules with the help of property professionals before they make a final decision,” Mr Guo added.

But if you have the patience, professional help and money you can navigate this legal and financial maze.

The Chinese entrepreneur Zhang Jinshan paid 4 million euros in 2012 for the Château Grand Moueys in Entre-Deux-Mers, a wine region in Bordeaux, France. His plan was to create a “Chinese and French cultural exchange” at the château. Nearly three years later, he is still renovating the rooms on the ground floor and hopes to open an upscale Chinese restaurant.

Mr Zhang owns a travel agency in China as well as one of the largest drink brands in the country. Château Grand Moueys covers 170 hectares with vineyards spanning 144 acres.

“It may take years to complete the renovation projects compared with just months in the domestic market,” he said. “But you really just have to take your time.”

The Telegraph
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