When Chinese whispers fail to sell houses: Sellers are counting the cost of a mythical army of eager Hong Kong buyers. David Berry explains.

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The Independent Online
HAVING trouble selling your house? Can't find a potential buyer? Ever thought about selling in Hong Kong? There must be thousands of people in the territory queuing up to move to Britain before 1997, all of them potential purchasers of property all over the country. They'll pay the full asking price, too.

At least, this is the promise that has been made by London Investment Property Services to potential customers over the past three years. And like many other promises made by the company's sales staff over the phone, it just isn't true. Chris Nichols, of Andover in Hampshire, is one of hundreds who were taken in by the company's sales talk.

'They were certain they would sell our bungalow to a buyer from Hong Kong within 90 days - and at a price higher than I could get here,' Mr Nichols said. 'They even told me they were chartering flights to fly potential buyers over. It was all very promising.'

To someone who had been trying to sell for two years, it was a chance not to be missed. The only catch was that the company wanted pounds 587 towards its marketing costs in Hong Kong. With one or two misgivings, Mr Nichols paid up. He was, after all, desperate to sell.

Eighteen months later, the only evidence of London Investment Property Services' promised 'international showcase advertising campaign' is one edition of a Hong Kong newspaper, where his bungalow was advertised alongside 60 others. To publicise the bungalow himself, in the same paper, would have cost him about pounds 40. Mr Nichols is furious with the company, and is now taking it to the small claims court.

Another dissatisfied customer is Pamela Forbes. After advertising her house near Sudbury in Suffolk in national newspapers, she was phoned out of the blue by a London Investment Property Services salesman.

'Over 10 days, he kept pestering me about how good the market was out there,' Mrs Forbes commented. 'Eventually I gave in.'

The salesman promised her a sale within six months, and she paid the company pounds 700. All she received was two advertisements in Hong Kong newspapers - and no further contact. 'All they wanted was the cheque; that was all they were interested in,' Mrs Forbes said.

Far from selling their houses, Mr Nichols and Mrs Forbes have received not the slightest hint of interest from Hong Kong, despite all the promises that were made to them. They are not alone.

BBC TV's Watchdog programme traced 50 people who had paid hundreds of pounds to London Investment Property Services in 1992 to market their properties in Hong Kong. A year later, none of these people has sold a house through the company. Indeed, none has even seen or heard from any potential Hong Kong buyer. Yet salesmen at the company were still promising success rates of 75 per cent and better as recently as three weeks ago. Do they sell any property at all?

John Sterling, a spokesman for London Investment Property Services, claims they do - although their success rate 'is in single figures'. All the salesmen who had promised something different, he said, were not following company policy and had since left.

Where, then, are the successful customers? Mr Sterling said that they certainly existed, but the details were 'confidential'. Also confidential are the names both of the 'Chinese-speaking brokers' he claims they use in Hong Kong, and the prospective buyers he says the company has flown over from Hong Kong to inspect British property.

Mr Sterling remains convinced there is a good market in Hong Kong for houses and flats all over Britain. Is he right?

There is certainly a lot of hype around, and not just from London Investment Property Services. There are at least half a dozen members of the National Association of Estate Agents selling British property in Hong Kong, as well as less conventional firms. But their experience suggests that only certain kinds of houses and flats in Britain will sell in any numbers.

'It must be near a Chinese community - and I mean a real community, not the local takeaway,' said John Parker, managing director of Brian Lack, a London estate agent. 'And that pretty much means central London. And it must be modern and near transport and shops. Remote property will not sell.'

Mr Parker cannot say with absolute certainty that the average suburban semi will not sell in Hong Kong ('there's always the one-off'); it's just that the chances are pretty slim.

The only significant purchasers in Hong Kong for British flats and houses are Chinese investors - and they want property that is certain to give a good return. The expatriate market is very small, and while it is true that emigration from Hong Kong is now higher than ever, most of the Chinese professionals who are leaving are buying property in Canada or Australia, not Britain.

'With your recession, high unemployment and lousy weather,', says a Hong Kong academic, Michael de Golyer, 'Britain just isn't a very attractive place for people from Hong Kong to move to any more.'

David Berry works for BBC TV's 'Watchdog' programme.

(Photographs omitted)