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Seoul rises to Asia real estate leader after controlling Covid

[LOS ANGELES] Seoul has emerged as Asia's top market for office and retail property deals after the South Korean capital averted a lockdown by controlling the Covid-19 pandemic.

Office transactions totalled almost US$9 billion in Seoul this year through September, outpacing US$7.7 billion in Tokyo, the region's former leader, and Shanghai, with US$4.8 billion, according to Real Capital Analytics. Seoul also ranked first in retail real estate transactions, followed by Guangzhou and Tokyo.

"While headline investment figures may appear muted, there are signs of a recovery underway," the Real Capital team led by Simon Mallinson wrote in the report. "The pipeline of deals at this point is larger than last year's tally, while economies have also been reopened steadily."

Dealmaking across the Asia-Pacific region fell 38 per cent in the third quarter from a year earlier, a smaller decline than Europe's 43 per cent and the 57 per cent drop in the US, where the the virus continues to rampage. South Korea led Asia with US$6.8 billion in third-quarter deals, a 22 per cent year-over-year gain.

The Asia data indicates persistent demand for office and shopping centres, defying predictions that Covid-19 will promote irreversible shifts favouring remote working and e-commerce. Asia was first in and first out of the pandemic. The outbreak in South Korea peaked in early March. The country, with a population of more than 50 million, has confirmed 26,925 Covid-19 cases and 474 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University of Medicine's Coronavirus Resource Center.

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Other global real estate trackers also report comparative strength in Asia where steps such as mask wearing and contact tracing brought Covid-19 under control, even in congested urban centres. CBRE Group reported third-quarter transactions fell 25.6 per cent from a year earlier in Asia, 33.4 per cent in Europe and 59.5 per cent in the Americas on a currency-adjusted basis.

Dealmaking varied dramatically, depending on how hard a country was hit by the virus. Lockdowns in Sydney and Melbourne led to a 61 per cent decline in Australia's third-quarter transactions. In Taiwan, deal volume jumped 168 per cent from a year earlier. In South Korea, a US$9.3 billion pipeline of deals built up in September, greater than the total volume of transactions in the fourth quarter of 2019.

Sales remain hampered by virus-induced travel restrictions that limit the ability of international investors to look over properties or negotiate face-to-face.

"Markets such as Japan, China and South Korea, which have large domestic investment bases to fall back on during times of challenged cross-border investment, have had an advantage in the Covid era," the Real Capital report said.

Pricing has held firm in most markets.

"Sellers have generally been unwilling to match the double-digit discounts that buyers have been pushing for," the report said. "Even in Sydney, Melbourne and Singapore, where lockdowns have hit the hardest, price softening has been confined to vacant or older assets, with prime assets being traded at prices above pre-pandemic levels."

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