Kathmandu’s unreal real estate prices

Land being plotted in KAthmandu's Sankhu for sale. Photos: AMIT MACHAMASI

  • A two-bedroom 185 sq m flat in an apartment block in Hatiban is on sale for Rs8.5 million. An average Nepali civil servant who earns Rs36,000 a month would need 20 years worth of salary to be able to afford it.
  • Just to buy a plot of land to build a small house in the same locality of Lalitpur costs Rs16 million, for which the civil servant would have to pay a lump sum worth 37 years of salary earnings.
  • A small plot of land by the highway bought 20 years ago in Bhaktapur is worth an astounding 7,000% more today. Even considering the devaluation of the Nepali rupee, that is sky-high appreciation.
  • Another plot 4km off the Ring Road in Kathmandu that cost Rs10 million five years ago is now worth Rs50 million.
  • A property in Kathmandu’s prime Darbar Marg area recent sold for Rs90 million ($750,000) per 33 sq m. This is one of the highest real estate values in the world.
  • A house with land that was bought for Rs20 million in Tinkune six years ago sold for Rs80 million recently.

A Nepal Rastra Bank report this year shows that property value in Kathmandu Valley is increasing at 27.7% a year, doubling real estate value every 3.5 years. This is despite average salaries in Nepal increasing by only 7.45% per year.

Property value appreciation is even higher in other urban areas of Nepal, especially in Madhes Province and the Tarai towns of Far West Province. The price of real estate is doubling every two to three years here because of the soaring demand for land due to migration to the cities, plains and valleys from the mountain districts.

There was a prediction that Kathmandu’s property values would decline after the 2015 earthquake, but the opposite has happened. Despite the government valuation for the property being much lower, land transactions are taking place arbitrarily, with no scientific basis for real value, or linked to productivity.

Economists say there are many factors driving this real estate bubble in Nepal. Kathmandu Valley’s urbanisation pressure increased after free market forces were unleashed following the changes in the early 1990s, and people from across the country streamed into Kathmandu for education and jobs. The 1996-2006 conflict exacerbated this trend as people fled the fighting in the hinterland.

This process further accelerated further after 2006, and surveys have shown that one-third of all Nepalis have now moved away from the place where they were born. Domestic migration is  highest in Bagmati Province where Kathmandu Valley is situated, and where 47.3% of the residents are recent arrivals from outside. The percentage for Gandaki where Pokhara is located is also a high 40.2%, while Province 1 has 38.9% of its population from outside – mainly in the densely-populated Jhapa plains.

Fuelled by remittance income, this influx led directly to a steep rise in land prices. Adding to this is the unregulated loan disbursement by the banking sector which fuelled land transactions – leading directly to property speculation. This in turn tempted people with cash to convert it into real estate investment – leading to the indiscriminate ‘plotting’ of prime agricultural land in Kathmandu, Pokhara, Chitwan and other urban centres.

Real estate transactions do not need to be routed through companies, and since anyone can be involved, this has opened up opportunities for buying and selling by bankers, politicians contractors and others who have inside information on future infrastructure projects. Even the Nepal Army is involved in real estate business, turning its property in Kirtipur into a housing colony.

Banks are in on this unregulated real estate speculation. They have distributed loans worth Rs516 billion, which is a full 11% of their entire portfolios. More than 16% of overdraft facilities also mostly go for real estate transactions. Two-thirds of all loans have property as collateral. Even loans given for agriculture are diverted to property market. In the past three years, there has been a 60% increase in loans for agriculture projects, but neither farm production not productivity have not gone up in that period.

In fact, one of the reasons for the liquidity crisis in the banking sector today is due to over-lending for land loans. These loans are not invested in productive sectors, they do not create jobs, or contribute to the economy. They just recycle cash, creating nothing but capital gain for those for whom gambling in real estate is a fulltime occupation.

This trend is driven by unbridled greed which the government and the regulators are unable or unwilling to control because they themselves benefit from it. The end result is that it has distorted Nepal’s economy and created a vicious cycle, with the danger that the artificial bubble could burst at any time.

Former finance secretary Rameshore Khanal says that most governments try to regulate the property market to make housing affordable to citizens, as well as to manage urbanisation.

Read also: Nepal struggles to balance nature and industries, Ramesh Kumar

“As long as banks are careful about giving out loans for land, property prices can be kept in check,” Khanal says. “In fact Nepal Rastra Bank should immediately stop allowing borrowers to put land as collateral to buy more land, and for home owners to get a loan to amass more property – because it is an abuse of the savings that citizens deposit in banks.”

However, the central bank is unlikely to agree to such measures because its own officials have too much personal interest tied up with real estate. A private bank official who sanctioned a loan for a housing colony in Bhaisepati recently bought a lucrative 1 ropani plot for himself. Without any extra effort, and with low capital gains tax, it made sense for him to make the personal investment even though there was a clear conflict of interest.

Nepal Rastra Bank governor Maha Prasad Adhikari himself has invested in property in Lalipur, Jhapa, Heatuda and elsewhere. Ministers, ex-ministers, politicians, senior civil servants and Supreme Court justices own property that exceed the land ownership ceiling.

The unrealistic price of land has impacted on the government’s infrastructure development plans and private sector investment in hydropower, and other projects. It is now established practice for land owners, speculators, middle men and the land mafia to milk the government in infrastructure projects.

Read also: Hiding their head in the sand, Ramu Sapkota

The government spends Rs 20 billion or more every year just in acquiring land for infrastructure projects. Bhairawa International Airport cost only Rs7 billion to build, but the government had to pay out Rs23.58 billion just in acquiring land for the project. Even the 2.38 km Nagdhunga Tunnel project has had to pay as much as Rs4.2 million per ana (33 sq m) of land.

Twenty years ago, during his second tenure as prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba got Parliament to announce a ground-breaking lowering of the threshold for land ownership, and also stipulated that land should be used for none other than the designated purpose. The law was never properly implemented, and to date the government does not even have a unified database of land ownership in the country.

The real estate bubble is so lucrative that most companies that have gone bankrupt because of falling business have managed to stay afloat because of the increased value of the property they own. Nepal has been growing at an average of 4% a year for the past two decades, but this is not reflected in manufacturing or productivity.

“Unless we stop this vicious cycle and prevent investment in real estate speculation that is supposed to go into the productive sector, the bubble in Nepal’s economy is going to burst sooner or later,” says economist Dilli Raj Khanal.

Those with ancestral property in the city centre, and those specialising in buying and selling real estate have become overnight billionaires. This is feeding the market in luxury items, mainly SUVs. In the past four months of the last fiscal year alone, despite an economic downturn, Nepal imported Rs57 billion worth of vehicles and spare parts.

Imports have now risen so sharply in the past two years at a time when exports and remittances have fallen, that Nepal’s hard currency reserves have declined to their lowest level in decades, and able to finance only 6 months worth of imports. This, in turn, has increased the income gap between the poorest and richest Nepalis.

Although there are no figures to prove that the gap between the have’s and have not’s has grown in Nepal, it is clear that the astronomical profits that can be made from real estate transactions have made a limited number of Nepalis extremely wealthy.

One of the reasons for the real estate bubble is that the tax on land transactions in Nepal is so low. In fact, if a land is sold within five years of being bought, the seller only has to pay 5% of the capital gain tax to the government. If the land is sold after more than five years, the tax is only 2.5%. Compare this to income tax up to 36% that individuals pay in Nepal, and there is a transaction fee of 25% in most businesses.

Read also: Ground reality of landlessness in Nepal, Rabi Giri

This is besides the tendency to bribe officials to undervalue the rate at which property is sold, so as to reduce the taxable amount. In fact staff at the land tax office as what the “unofficial” amount for property sales is, presuming that it is undervalued.

“Raising the tax rate for real estate transactions will immediately discourage property speculators, reduce the number of transactions, and put a check on the runaway increase in land prices,” admits Gunakar Bhatta of Nepal Rastra Bank.

The reason property transactions have not gone down despite sky-rocketing real estate prices is that Nepal’s economy is run mainly through informal channels. Many unscrupulous businesses are cashing in on a weak state to get rich quick, and investing their ill-gotten wealth by laundering it through real estate.

In fact the reason for the abnormal rise in land prices is the lack of state regulation, corruption and self-interest at high levels of government, says economic professor Achyut Wagle. “Real estate has become the ideal venue to park wealth earned through corruption, so that even people who do not really need land are investing in it,” he adds. “And since one does not need to work anymore to get rich quick, the real estate speculation has also killed entrepreneurship.”

One recent example of just how high up the rot has gone is the Lalita Niwas scam at Baluwatar where government property was transferred to private ownership with collusion between the real estate mafia and senior politicians. Another is the example of real estate tycoon Ikshya Tamang who allegedly cheated hundreds of investors but was never prosecuted by the UML government of which he was a nominated MP.

In his previous tenure as prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba allowed Gopal Dahit to lift a ban on fragmentation of agriculture land for housing colonies. A lot of money is said to have changed hands to allow this law to be passed. When K P Oli was prime minister, his Land Management Minister Padma Kumari Aryal lifted the ban on turning agriculture land into housing colonies, if a local  government office certified that it was not used for farming.

Read also: Owning land gives former slaves self-respect, Unnati Chaudhary

The Supreme Court ruled last year not to allow the fragmentation of land holdings for housing colonies, but in reality it never stopped. In fact just in the past year, there have been more than 500,000 new property ownership certificates distributed by dividing larger holdings. Corrupt officials are even demanding under the table payments to approve property sales where dividing up a property is legitimate.

The standard operating procedure at the land tax office is that most of these transactions go through only after money exchanges hands under the table.

What is the solution?

Most economists agree that tightening the process through which banks finance land purchases can burst the bubble on real estate prices. For example, a house owner should not be given a loan to buy more than one property.

Sujeev Shakya of the Nepal Economic Forum agrees that buying house or property other than the one a person is living in should be taxed heavily. He has another idea: slap an inheritance tax on property that is passed down from one generation to the next, as is the practice in other countries.

The other measure would be a hefty increase in the currently nominal land transaction tax. “How can it be that a person who earns a living through hard work pays 36% income tax while profit from selling property is only 2.5%-5%?” asks chartered accountant Seshmani Dahal, adding that other measures like enforcing banking transactions for land sales should also be taken to ensure that the sale is not deliberately undervalued to lessen the tax amount.

A lot of the unregulated buying and selling of land and speculation would also be curbed if proper urban planning is strictly enforced. Only after utilities and other facilities are installed should an area be opened for residence.

The government should also be involved in building and establishing affordable housing for middle income families. The Constitution establishes the right of all citizens for decent housing, and it is up to the government to fulfill that pledge.

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