Investing in Cambodia Property: The Ultimate Guide
February 28, 2017
Out of all the rapidly-growing frontier markets in Asia, Cambodia stands out as the friendliest for businesses and real estate buyers. Ever since the Khmer Rouge disbanded over 20 years ago, the small country in the heart of Southeast Asia has leapt forward in terms of economic growth and liberalization.
Cambodia hasn’t had a single year of recession since that time 20 years ago, in fact. It skipped the Asian Financial Crisis of the 1990s, ignored the tech-bubble of the early 2000s, and even outgrew the more recent 2008 Financial Crisis.
There’s of course no such thing as a “recession proof” country, but Cambodia has proven to be about as close as it gets. The reason is because Cambodia, like many frontier markets, is less correlated with the global economy.
Almost every country is interdependent on each other in the 21st Century. If China, the US, or Europe gets sick, the rest of the world will too. The exceptions are countries which aren’t yet completely reliant on and propped up by foreign capital – just like Cambodia.
Cambodia has been under the radar of most global investors but this is quickly changing. Multinational brands like Samsung, Nike, Toyota, KFC and many others have recently either set up, or are about to set up, operations in Cambodia’s bustling capital of Phnom Penh. Inward foreign investment has grown by more than 800% over the past decade and seems to be only getting started.
Manufacturing is also growing at an impressive level – especially due to the lower cost of labor compared to China, which is becoming too expensive for industry.
Realizing the potential here, foreign investment has just recently started to flood in. But there’s a problem: well-paid expats, often making six-figure salaries from international firms, have problems finding apartments which meet their standards. Phnom Penh has a shortage of expat-quality housing.
That shortage means there’s lots of potential in buying older apartments, renovating them, and either renting them out or reselling them afterwards in Phnom Penh. It’s possible to buy property in Cambodia for $50,000, put $20,000 worth of renovation work into it, and then have it be worth $100,000 on the real estate market.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s some mid and smaller sized towns in Cambodia which are booming with activity, construction and growth as the nation’s middle class grows more prominent. These places have almost no foreign investment activity, but it will inevitably arrive over the next decade or so. First movers gain most.
Either way, Cambodia is one of the world’s most exciting and undiscovered countries for property investment.
Can Foreigners Invest in Cambodia Real Estate?
Cambodia not only allows foreign investment but encourages it arguably more than anywhere else in Southeast Asia. Setting up almost any type of business with 100% foreign ownership is easy. If you want a one-year multiple entry visa it only takes $250 and a few days, so living here long term is also simple and cost-effective.
For real estate ownership, foreigners can own strata titles for condominium units in their own name. But strata titles are not available for either land or shophouse apartments, and the general consensus seems to be that condominium buildings are a bit overpriced.
The best deals lie in the older shophouse apartments, some left over from colonial times. Some plots of land with development potential are also promising for the active investor. But things get more complicated for these two types of property because foreigners cannot directly own anything except a condominium unit. You must either set up a nominee agreement, enforced with several different types of contracts, with a Cambodian citizen or form a Cambodian land-holding company.
A land-holding company is more legally secure, but then requires annual licensing fees and monthly tax filing. The profits could still be worth the effort and cost especially if you’re buying real estate in Cambodia on a larger scale.
Large companies like LG, Unilever, Adidas and many more are setting up shop in Cambodia.
Hard Title vs. Soft Title
In addition to strata titles, another quirk in Cambodia’s real estate market is the distinction between “hard titles” and “soft titles”. Both give legal freehold status and must be owned by either a Cambodian or Cambodian company, but there’s a few very important differences.
While hard-titles are registered through the national government’s land registry and give an indisputable right to the property, soft-titles are instead registered through the local government. Soft titles are, at least in theory not quite as ironclad as hard-titles and could potentially be disputed.
In practice, over 80% of properties in Cambodia are held on soft titles. They’re just fine, aren’t “dangerous” if done correctly, and serve as government-recognized proof of ownership and transfer.
With that said, it’s a good to have your due diligence done. Real estate investors will often hire a lawyer to speak with the neighbors, look through the local land registry, and confirm that the seller of a soft-title property is indeed the true owner and has no encumbrances.
Most Cambodians even prefer soft-title property because the transfer fees are a lot lower. Not only that, but transfers take a lot less time to be processed through the local government rather than the national government. Everything can be finished in a few days rather than months – something which especially makes life easier for flippers.
One important thing worth noting is that the World Bank began a program several years ago called the Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP). Slowly but surely, all land in Cambodia is being converted from soft-title to a nationally recognized hard-title through this initiative. It’s only a matter of time before soft-titles will probably no longer exist, having had them converted free of cost.
How Much are Property Taxes in Cambodia?
Annual property taxes are 0.1% of the market value of the property in excess of 100,000,000 Khmer Riel, or about $25,000. Needless to say, annual taxes are very low in Cambodia and often not even payable at all.
Rental income taxes are 14% for residents. For non-residents, rental income is taxed at a higher 20%. There are various deductions which, in most cases, bring these rates down significantly.
Unused land is taxed at a very high rate of 20% of its market value each year. Because of this, you can’t “landbank” in Cambodia without paying an unreasonable amount of taxes. Any land purchases should be immediately developed or otherwise put to use as soon as possible.
However, if you speak to locals you’ll find that most are not even registered with the tax system. As such, there’s little to no enforcement of any of these taxes in Cambodia. That’s by no means recommendation to not pay them – but a statement that you’re unlikely to get into trouble if you don’t.
Is Buying Property in Cambodia Safe?
In a word, yes. Foreigners enjoy freehold ownership and total control over their properties if things are done correctly. It’s important however, especially for soft-title properties, to speak with the neighbors and look through the land office’s public records to be certain there are no other claims over the property you’re buying.
Although rare, it’s not unheard of for people to sell properties which are either disputed or mortgaged. This can be easily avoided with proper due diligence though.
It’s also important to remember that foreigners cannot legally own soft title or hard title properties in their own name – only strata titles. If you don’t wish to incorporate and form a real estate holding company, your only option is to find a local nominee to hold the property on your behalf and bind him/her down with several contracts. This would require help from an attorney.
Places to Invest in Cambodia
Cambodia is a relatively small nation with a population of just over 15 million. With that said it has several cities which, each for their own reason, are great places to buy real estate.
Some cities like Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and largest city, are popular for obvious reasons. Others like ancient temples of Siem Reap and the beaches of Sihanoukville for their rapid growth in tourist numbers.
There’s also a few mid-tier cities like Poipet and Battambang where property prices are expected to rise due to Cambodia’s urbanization and population growth. A lot less activity from foreign investors goes on in these cities, but they might have more to gain from an economic boom than anywhere else in the country.
With a population of over 2 million and rising fast, Phnom Penh is the nation’s bustling capital and the center of its growth. For the most part, anything of any business or political importance happens in Phnom Penh.
Longtime travelers and residents of Southeast Asia will often tell you that Phnom Penh is reminiscent of Bangkok about 30 years ago. Nowadays, Bangkok is a modern metropolis of 16 million people, a regional business hub, and the most visited city by tourists in the whole world.
Smart Investors would take that as a cue. While many are off buying real estate in Bangkok or Singapore, perhaps investing in “the next Bangkok” or “the next Singapore” would generate better returns?
But that aside, Phnom Penh has much to offer any visitor – from authentic French cuisine to its casinos and street markets. The city’s temples are some of the most ornate in the world, and are second in scale only to the size of its increasingly tall financial district.
Phnom Penh’s art-deco Central Market is the city’s most recognizable building.
Daun Penh is the most central district of Phnom Penh. Home to the city’s central market and main commercial area, numerous government offices, the riverside area, and Wat Phnom (Phnom Penh’s namesake), Daun Penh is the first of three districts in Cambodia’s capital which looks to grow the most over the long term.
The riverside area boasts some of the highest property prices in not only Daun Penh, but the whole country. Of course, prices are still a fraction of what you could pay for riverside apartments with similar views in Bangkok or even Saigon.
Moving westward, Phnom Penh’s financial district has all of the three tallest buildings in Cambodia with more soon to come. Street 110, the focal point of the CBD, sometimes has apartments for sale. Some of them have potential to be bought and resold at a premium to a large developer in the future – this part of town won’t stay low-rise for long. It’s only a matter of time before office buildings and malls replace the colonial apartments which still remain.
Located in the southern part of the city center, Chamkar Mon district has some of Phnom Penh’s most upscale residential areas. The areas referred to “BKK” (specifically BKK1, BKK2 and BKK3) are renowned for their impressive villas, wide choice of fancy restaurants, and top-quality international schools.
The area is also where Aeon, the city’s largest upscale mall, located. Lots of development is underway and Chamkar Mon is quickly turning itself into central Phnom Penh’s nicest residential and commercial area.
If having the largest mall in Cambodia wasn’t enough, Chamkar Mon also has the nation’s largest casino right down the street from it. Even hotel brands such as he Shangri-la, which is scheduled to be finished in 2019, are moving into this part of town to benefit from the coming tourist boom.
West of both Daun Penh and Chamkar Mon, further away from the riverside, the district of 7 Makara is not quite as central (or as pricy) as either. But some predict that this part of town is where much of Phnom Penh’s future expansion will take place as urbanization increases and size of the city center grows.
Numerous cafes are already starting to pop up, while international brands like Cold Stone Creamery, Burger King, and Krispy Kreme are opening their first stores in the country. It’s not hard to see why 7 Makara could be swallowed up by the city center in the next decade.
This would, of course, cause prices to increase to city centre levels – even though they’re about half of that now. Some pieces of real estate even more west of 7 Makara, closer to Phnom Penh’s airport, also have great potential.
Siem Reap serves as the gateway to the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat – the center of Cambodia’s tourism industry.
Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure in the world, the former seat of the Khmer Empire, and today is one of the most visited attractions in Asia drawing in more than 2 million tourists each year. Siem Reap is the city on the edge of Angkor Wat and is Cambodia’s second largest.
Naturally, Siem Reap will benefit from Cambodia’s tourism boom. The city’s airport just finished a major renovation to accommodate the fact that it’s often getting an increase in visitors by more than 10% every year.
There are many apartments in and around the city center and your first idea might be to start a restaurant, hotel or bar to make money off a tourism boom. But this is not only hard to do if you’re not living in Cambodia, but probably isn’t the best way to make money off of property in Siem Reap.
Instead, Siem Reap is a good place to cater to the middle-class local market. As tourism grows, more Cambodians enter the tourism industry. Most of these jobs are in Siem Riem, are well-paying (by local standards), and make it easier to rent to a rising local middle-class without being a slumlord and dealing with mostly less-than-ideal tenants.
The outer parts of the city are mostly land – a great investment choice for those who don’t mind a complex title structure and some development work. But Siem Reap’s city center is, for the most part, the only neighborhood with residential apartments which foreigners can own.
About a four–hour drive from Phnom Penh, but perhaps as little as two hours once the highway is fully paved, Sihanoukville has some of Asia’s best beaches. They’re mostly unheard of and often aren’t crowded, but this probably won’t be the case for much longer.
Sihanoukville also has some of Asia’s cheapest beachfront and beachview property. It’s not impossible to find absolute beachfront land for sale priced at less than $30 per square meter (about $3 per square foot).
Once you’re outside the beautiful coastal areas and travel a bit eastward, the actual city of Sihanoukville isn’t that much to look at. But even here there’s potential for long term growth – all major cities in Cambodia are growing fast.
It’s worth steering clear of the large, expensive villa projects which are marketed toward foreigners. They might be just fine if you just want a lifestyle purchase, but they’re too large and illiquid as an investment. Stay with something nice but not too luxurious.
A perfect example of a city growing fast, Battambang is located in the center of Cambodia’s most important rice producing province. It’s been a commercial hub for centuries and still serves, along with Poipet, as a gateway between Phnom Penh and Thailand.
Cambodia’s population and influence are growing at a pace not seen in the western world. Although a small nation of just over 15 million today, the total population is expected reach over 20 million by 2035 and continue to grow from there.
It’s often the smaller and mid-tier cities which benefit most from urbanization – after all, they’re starting from a lower base. In less developed cities, you can “create something from nothing” in a way you couldn’t in the capital.
Battambang’s center is, for the most part, the city’s only place to buy easily property as a foreigner. The suburbs have some attractive houses and the city’s outskirts have well-priced land plots. But both of these options would require forming a land-holding company, while any unused land would need to be developed immediately unless you want to pay 20% tax on its value every year.
Poipet is similar to Batttambang in that it’s close to the Thai border (even closer in fact) and is a second-tier city which will benefit in the future from both urbanization and regional trade. The difference is that gambling contributes to the economy of Poipet far more than agriculture and markets.
Just across the border in Thailand, gambling is illegal. Of course, many Thais would still like to gamble and Poipet is the closest city to Bangkok where it’s possible. The hordes of Chinese tourists are increasingly choosing Cambodia over Macao for their gaming adventures as well.
Poipet has many apartments and houses in the suburbs north and northeast of the city center, as well as in the center itself. Along with Cambodia’s other boomtowns, the borders of Poipet are constantly expanding in line with its population growth. Property investments on the edge of the city’s core should appreciate in value and perform well over the long term.
Renovation Work in Cambodia
The best way to make money in Cambodian real estate is often to buy an unrenovated shophouse apartment, spend money fixing it and bringing it up to modern standards, and then either renting it or selling it. But if you’re undertaking a renovation job, you’ll need a contractor.
Let’s face it: it’s sometimes hard to find an honest contractor in the developed world, let alone in frontier markets. Contractors may not always be up to international standards, or could simply be trying to rip you off, which means it’s important to find a contractor based on local referrals and connections. Honest, fair contractors exist in Cambodia but you need to know the right people.
Be aware that if you buy the top floor of a shophouse in Cambodia, you own the roof of that building and the right to build on top of it. You first need approval from your district, but buyers often have the right to construct a cheaper second unit on top of the one they already have.
Rather than using real estate agents, locals often want to save themselves the 3% brokerage fee. Signs like this show a property is for sale.
Real Estate Agents in Cambodia
For a newcomer to property in Cambodia, a proper real estate agent is a must. This is another one of those types of services which often isn’t up to international standards in frontier markets. You’re unlikely to find any quality real estate agent outside of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap or Sihanoukville.
The reason for this is because locals, for the most part, don’t use real estate agents in Cambodia. Khmers usually find properties for sale through local circles and word of mouth. Therefore, you’ll most agents are simply there to make things easier for (and make money off of) foreigners.
It’s also worth noting that some properties will not be available if you use an agent. This is because Khmers, whether doing so is practical or not, would much rather market the property themselves and save themselves 3% of the sale value. Brokerage commissions in Cambodia is paid by the seller.
Many apartments for sale will simply hang out a sign in Khmer script which says the property is for sale, along with a phone number to contact. This of course requires speaking, or knowing someone, who speaks Khmer. But some of the best deals are found through riding around on a motorcycle and taking down notes of properties for sale.
With all of that said, real estate agents provide a valuable service – especially for the new and uninitiated.
Other Things to Know About Cambodia Real Estate
Like in almost every developing country, the rules in Cambodia’s lawbook are not necessarily how things work in practice. Some of the things mentioned in this guide either do not apply across the board or are more nuanced than they might seem at first.
For example, because soft-titles are transferred at the district level instead of the national level, processes and timeframes vary based on where you buy property. Some “neighborhood chiefs” are infamous in their bureaucracy and will ask for bribes unless you want to wait two months for the transfer of title.
As of December 2016, in fact, some neighborhoods in Phnom Penh will allow foreigners to own soft-title properties under their own name without needing to find a nominee or form a company. This is despite a recent mandate from the central government.
Sometimes you may run into a small problem, but typically someone will offer to “fix” any small problems in return for a “payment”.
In one case, a two story duplex apartment unit was sold and being transferred. The second story was recently built on top of the first story by the seller, thus they had a title to the first floor but not the second floor. For the land office, this was easily fixed and the title to the second floor of the unit was created out of seemingly nowhere – for a mere $500.
Another thing to be noted, which is obvious to someone who has already been to Cambodia but new information to someone who hasn’t, is that the US Dollar is currency of choice for anything above a very small purchase.
This is a good thing. Regardless of your view on the future of the US Dollar, having your property denominated in the greenback is far better than in some of the local currencies. Some of them like the Vietnamese Dong and Indonesian Rupiah have performed badly for many years due to inflation.
Cambodia isn’t the usual investment recommendation, but that may be precisely the reason it has so much opportunity.
There’s money to be made by investing in frontier markets and other places which aren’t yet overrun by foreign capital. Cambodia isn’t spoken about very much on Bloomberg or CNN. But that’s probably a good thing.
While everyone else hasn’t yet discovered Cambodia, the nation’s GDP continues to grow by over 7% annually. Infrastructure, ports, and new roads are being built. The process of economic liberalization continues on. Large multinational firms, lured by low taxes and business-friendliness, set up shop and bring expats along with them.
More importantly, a nation once scarred by the atrocities of the Khmer Rogue not only moves, but leaps forward. Cambodia’s best days are certainly ahead of it.