You are never too old to take out a mortgage in Hong Kong. Last year, one 98 year-old grandma who paid close to HK$20 million (US$2.55 million) for a still-under-construction unit in Grand Central, Kwun Tong, made headlines as a first-time buyer.
As such, she was exempt from various taxes, most notably the buyers stamp duty (BSD) which adds between 15% and 30% to the cost of a property transaction.
However it turned out that the grandmother was not a first-timer, but instead an experienced property investor with a solid understanding of Hong Kong’s tax system loopholes.
According to Ming Pao, 98 year-old Tang Bik-wan transferred the title of her existing property in December to a woman named Chan Wing-mui, around the time she made the new purchase.
In 2013, she bought a unit at Lion Rise, Wong Tai Sin for HK$18.73 million (US$2.39 million) also as a first-time buyer, according to the stamp duty record.
Apparently she lived in East Point City in Tseung Kwan O, where the owner of the unit was a certain Chan Wing-mui, the guarantor of her apartment in Lion Rise.
Twice Tang avoided the 15% tax and instead paid only a 3.75% stamp duty.
To be entitled to the first-time buyer privilege, people transfer their property titles to their spouse, kids or even non-relatives to save tax of more than 10% on property in a market that has seen prices skyrocket over the past decade.
Nowadays, it seems increasingly common for buyers to borrow the names of their parent(s) to save on taxes. Smart buyers put properties in the names of their parents or even grandparents, knowing that they can get it back when their elders are no longer alive.
One such example was popular movie actor and singer Nicholas Tse Ting-fung, whose father Tse Yin, also a famous actor, bought a Repulse Bay unit at HK$85 million in May, 2017.
A year later, Tse Yin transferred the title back to his son Nicholas.
In doing so, Nicholas Tse saved HK$5.52 million, paying 8.5% property tax instead of 15%.
Some feel it may be time for the Hong Kong government to amend laws that allow professional investors to avoid millions in taxes by hiding behind “first-timer” status.