BEIJING – Just how far behind I am in the race to get into the Chinese property market was made starkly clear to me recently. My cleaning lady – who earns about $90 a month for each of the handful of households she cleans (considered a high rate for Beijing) – recently beamed proudly to me about becoming a homeowner.
Granted, it was a small apartment in a somewhat remote area way out by the Sixth Ring Road, the outermost highway circling the Chinese capital, but there was no getting away from the fact she owned her own home while I'm still doling out monthly rent that some people here liken to "money down the drain."
|VIDEO: Is China the next housing bubble?|
Like their American counterparts during the 20th century, millions of China's middle class have been snapping up homes over the past two decades. Since the late 1990s, China's central government has had in place economic policies that have enabled more than nine out of ten middle class urban families to purchase their own homes.
It's been dubbed "the largest one-time transfer of wealth in the history of the world," by Andy Rothman, the China macro-strategist at CLSA, an independent investment group.
The demand has led to booming prices. In February, the average cost for residential property across China's cities was 10.7 percent higher than it was in the same month last year.
But the price rises are meteoric when one isolates cities like Beijing or Shanghai, where the rate of increases for average housing units is anywhere between 50 and 100 percent a year, and the supply of newly built units is spilling over into second-tier suburbs with little or no public transport options.
This kind of growth is happening in spite of what consumers in the U.S. or the U.K., after years of easy credit, might think of as stringent borrowing rules. For one, first-time homeowners in China typically pay 30 to 40 percent cash as a down payment, although often buyers will pony up all-cash payments for their property.
|Adrienne Mong / NBC News|
|The Chinese character for "demolish" looms above a soon-to-be construction site for new housing units.|
'Time to buy'
Being a home owner has become one of the main priorities in life for China's young and upwardly mobile.
"Owning an apartment is very important to us," said Gao, a 32-year-old Beijing resident shopping for a home with his fiancée (he would only give his family name). "Life is the most important thing to us, then work, then a house."
The desire for property has been fueled, in part, by the government's reaction to the recession. As the global slump made its way from west to east during the end of 2008, the Chinese government decided that bolstering domestic consumption would help its economy ride out the downturn. That meant easier credit for the average consumer, thus encouraging them to buy property.
Vicky Tang, an English-language teacher from Hebei had stood on the property sidelines for years, said that the interest rates were so low it seemed silly not to dip her toes into the property market. "It was time to buy," she said.
A bubble about to burst?
Lately, however, observers worry that the easy credit may have been too much of a good thing, with economists wondering if China's property bubble has become too frothy.
"At least seven cities saw land prices triple in 2009," wrote Stephen Green, head of the Greater China research division at Standard Chartered Bank. "This is clearly bubble territory for the land markets in many cities."
Others have thrown out the specter of Dubai. A comment that China is "Dubai times 1,000 or worse," by Jim Chanos, a hedge fund manager, has become a widely quoted refrain.
Some Chinese economists agree. "The statistics suggest that the real estate bubble in China is even bigger than that in Dubai," said Liu Yuhui from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Liu, though, is quick to note a key difference between the two countries: "This is not caused by speculators, but by the [Chinese] government finance and tax system," which he believes can be easily addressed and enable officials to manage a "soft landing."
|Adrienne Mong / NBC News|
|Recyclers sort through demolition debris at a site slated for a new housing development.|
Low cost housing coming
In fact, Beijing has already taken several steps to address the problem. Control measures over taxes, credit, land supply and housing construction have been introduced steadily since late last year, and recent signs suggest these measures are proving to be effective, with residential prices beginning to cool earlier this year.
In addition, officials are making an effort to make housing affordable and available to young Chinese, especially in the face of burgeoning shanty towns and other substandard housing.
Late last year, reports described the desperate situation in a place dubbed "Ant City" on the outer edges of Beijing, where tens of thousands of university graduates and other employable and aspiring white collar workers were housed in dorm-like rooms.
For instance, Jia Yongle, a 23-year-old university graduate with a degree in business management, has been struggling to find a job while living in a 200 square foot apartment with three others (each paying roughly 40 dollars a month in rent).
The authorities say they are investing $59 billion in the construction of subsidized housing across the nation as well as the reconstruction of shanty towns, projects to resettle nomads and the renovation of housing in rural areas.
In Beijing, for example, the mayor has promised that the construction of subsidized housing will make up at least 50 percent of total new building projects in the city.