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Mon, Jul 14, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Thai property prices are an unnerving echo of 1997


Property prices in the Thai capital have soared to levels not seen since the 1997 regional financial crisis but the jump has been partly sparked by the sector's collapse, raising fears a disastrous new bubble is building up.

For the first time in years, cranes are punctuating Bangkok's skyline as the hundreds of unfinished buildings which were abandoned in the wake of the crisis are being salvaged to feed the booming residential market.

Record low interest rates, strong economic growth and pent-up demand are feeding the buying frenzy.

"The residential market has seen in some instances quite dramatic freehold value increase over the past 12 months, as much as 40 percent in some very well located buildings," said Robert Collins from Jones Lang LaSalle.

"Construction pretty much stopped after 1997, banks stopped lending and developers stopped building. Now we're seeing a lot of construction but that seems to be pushing prices further as people are keen to get on the bandwagon."

Collins said there was still room for prices to rise, particularly on the Chao Phraya river which snakes through the capital and which is now subject to restrictions on what can be built along the waterway.

Apart from high-rises, there has also been a boom in up-market residential housing estates on the quieter fringes of Bangkok, which are close to new retail centers and connected to the city by expressways.

"It's a case of so far so good in as far as maintaining the prices we've seen and maybe seeing them rise further," Collins said.

However, some industry experts disagree, saying that speculation is rife in the condominium market and that many new projects are selling off the plan, just as they did before the 1997 crash.

"Some of these projects are done in a hurry and do not even possess construction permits. But they are already selling, collecting money from buyers," Supalai Plc's deputy managing director Atip Bijanond told The Nation newspaper.

Atip, who is also vice-chairman of the Thai Housing Business Association, said many of the factors that led to the 1997 meltdown were back in place -- speculation, overbuilding and state moves to prop up the market.

However, some analysts said the property sector would continue to prosper on the back of strong demand and a steady supply of quality stock.

"I think there is a very low chance of another property bubble. If you look at the supply and demand dynamic now, the supply that is coming on line is nothing compared to what it was during the crisis," said KGI Securities head of research Pat Pattaphongse.

Pat said the developers who flooded the market with ill-considered and unsuitable projects before 1997 had learned their lesson after being saddled with a huge backlog of unwanted residential and commercial properties.

In a sign of the buoyant mood, the first major retail development to break ground since the crash -- the US$141 million Siam Paragon luxury mall -- is taking shape in the city center.

And office space in Bangkok has recovered from dismal vacancy rates of more than 40 percent in the wake of the 1997 crash, to current levels of about 20 percent and rapidly falling to pre-crisis levels of 17 percent, Collins said.

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