Canberra has experienced a boom in foreign interest in real estate, with high-end government offices and vacant residential land combining for a fivefold increase in the value of purchase approvals.
No Canberra purchaser has been caught out in the Tax Office crackdown of developed properties, but the latest Foreign Investment Review Board figures showed 165 approvals for the ACT in a single year, the strongest international interest for the decade.
McGrath Estate Agents Gungahlin and Belconnen principal Craig Chapman said he estimated more than 70 per cent of residential blocks in Lawson went to Asian buyers, mainly Chinese, including large-scale developers he represented. In new Gungahlin suburbs of Harrison and Franklin the figures had been "about 50-50", he said.
"We don't have the trophy homes Sydney and Melbourne do, but certainly [for] getting large sums out of Asia, Canberra is on the radar," he said.
While those with permanent residency need no approval, the review board approved applications for ACT real estate valued at $630 million in 2013-14, split almost equally between residential and commercial property, its latest annual report said. Approvals for vacant residential land, new dwellings and off-the-plan purchases made up $280 million, up from $90 million in 2012-13. Established properties attracted $30 million.
Figures are based on the value of property allowed to be bought, not actual purchases, but the scale remains massive given the Land Development Agency's total land sales revenue was $236 million in 2013-14.
Colliers International government services national director Paul Powderly said 2015 figures would also be strong, as foreign commercial investors targeted the "big end of town" with its long-term government leases.
Exchange rates and interest rates here and overseas made Australia an attractive investment for now, he said.
"We haven't seen the peak of it, it will continue to peak probably through until the middle of next year."
Foreign approvals for ACT commercial property were worth $320 million in 2013-14, with a British-based company making the largest purchase, paying $151 million for Industry House, the Civic home of what is now the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.
Colliers International capital markets and investment sales national director Tim Mutton said overseas buyers bought four of the 12 commercial sales of Canberra land worth more than $10 million that year.
This included the $25.8 million paid by South African-based investment bank Investec for a DHS-leased property in Tuggeranong, and $35.5 million paid by New York-based investment manager Blackstone for the Sydney Avenue home of the Department of Communications.
Mr Mutton said he was unaware of any large-scale foreign commercial purchases in 2014-15, but expected foreign investment in Canberra this financial year to exceed that of two years ago, with firm interest from South Korea, Japan, China and Singapore.
An Australian Taxation Office spokeswoman confirmed six ACT residences had been investigated, with no evidence of illegality found, since former treasurer Joe Hockey this year handed it powers to find potential breaches of purchase rules.
The properties were valued between $373,000 and $867,000.
There were 12 divestment orders made by the retiring Mr Hockey this year, five of them for Sydney homes, including a $39 million mansion in Point Piper.
In contrast, Mr Powderly said various trade agreements had recently loosened commercial property restrictions.
From more than 23,000 foreign real estate applications nationally, many from temporary residents, the review board rejected only two in 2013-14.
The federal government's amnesty period for foreign residents to declare potential breaches – allowing them to sell wrongly bought homes without penalty – ends on November 30.
Foreign residents who unlawfully buy established residential property will face increased criminal penalties of up to $127,500 or three years imprisonment, and up to $637,500 for companies, plus have capital gains stripped from December 1.