Budapest is the place to be for property investors

Despite the plunge in London house prices since the Brexit referendum and the 15 per cent devaluation of the pound sterling, the UK capital remains a very expensive place to buy a home. But there are other options in Europe that still have potential for capital appreciation as well as being a pleasant places to live.

Consider Budapest, which was 12th out of 150 cities listed in Knight Frank’s first-quarter Global Residential Property Index, with prices up 15.5 per cent in the first quarter year-on-year, second only to Stockholm in Europe.

I tipped Budapest as a place to invest this time last year, and have just done so myself. House prices are about a tenth of comparable prime locations in London. Of course Budapest is not London, although it has an eclectic parliament building modelled on Westminster, the second-oldest underground line in Europe and stunning apartments in grand classical buildings from the late 19th century.

Sure, entertainment and shopping are not quite the West End. But we saw Evita in the Summer Festival and open-air Shakespeare from The Globe this year. There is classical music in beautiful auditoriums, jazz clubs and a lively nightlife. The cost of living is low, so Budapest is a magnet for the young and trendy and not just the super-rich.

As one architect pitching to redesign my classic apartment said, the city has soul. Personally, I am more impressed by the Michelin-starred local restaurant scene and the architectural grandeur of what was once the immensely rich commercial capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, playing Dubai to Vienna’s Abu Dhabi.

Then there was the comment my lawyer made about the apartment we just missed buying last year: “That was a shame, because those apartments are up 30-40 per cent in price since then.” I am hardly alone in discovering Budapest.

For that I would have to thank Emirates airline and its very convenient new direct flight, although there is also an intercontinental flight by the local Hungarian low-cost airline Wizz Air to Al Maktoum International Airport in Dubai. This year airport traffic increases to Budapest are running at growth levels similar to the UAE.

House prices here are on a rising trend and nothing short of a major global financial crisis looks set to stop them. Hungary is one of the European Union’s few low-tax destinations, with 15 per cent personal and capital gains tax, albeit VAT is 29 per cent, refundable to foreign shoppers. Corporation tax is also low, as is the cost of labour, so multinationals are flocking to Hungary as the Vietnam of Europe.

Many readers are probably considering the UAE as a place to buy property. But prices have been falling for two years and may not have bottomed out just yet.

The property agents Knight Frank told me: “The selling price index for Dubai shows an 8 per cent year-to-year drop in May, while the drop is milder for the prime market at 5 per cent. In Abu Dhabi, sale prices have remained relatively stable because of an undersupply of quality space, but we expect prices to soften once job cutbacks filter into the market later this year”.

That’s not a compelling reason to rush out and buy in Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

By the way, in Budapest the rental laws are reckoned to be very favourable to landlords, not something that can be said of Dubai in particular these days, and yields of 5 to 6 per cent are high by international standards.

That said, I don’t expect Budapest property prices to spike by 30 per cent like Dubai in 2013. Investment flows in the European Union tend to be more steady. But Budapest does offer some of the same characteristics of Dubai, with its fast-growing tourism sector and business-friendly regime.

Arab investors have already snapped up many top hotels. Oman’s sovereign wealth fund has the FourSeasons. The Dubai billionaire Khalaf Al Habtoor owns the newly opened Ritz-Carlton and the InterCon. The Jordanian partners Zuhair Awad and Sameer Hamdan own the high-end Buddha-Bar Hotel and the historic Párizsi Udvar building about to become another hotel. Qatar’s Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani owns the Ballet Institute opposite the Opera House, but has been slow to start work converting it to a hotel.

For those with more modest budgets, decent central apartments start from US$150,000 before renovation, which is also presently cheap because of low labour costs in Hungary.

Peter Cooper has been a senior financial journalist in the Arabian Gulf for the past 20 years.

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