Asia’s frontier markets are growing rapidly. Cambodia is arguably one of the best countries for real estate investors and foreigners looking to start a business.
This fairly small country in the heart of Southeast Asia has made a quantum leap in economic growth since the dissolution of the Khmer Rouge over 20 years ago.
Real estate in Cambodia is the best way to take advantage of the country’s current growth.
Cambodia has not suffered a single year of recession in the last 20 years. It avoided the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s. It also ignored the technology bubble of the early 2000s and even outlasted the recent financial crisis of 2008.
There is no such thing as a recession-proof country, but Cambodia is pretty close. The reason is that Cambodia, like many frontier markets, is less dependent on the global economy.
In the 21st century, almost every country is dependent on others. If China, the United States or Europe get sick, the rest of the world will too.
But the rare exceptions are often frontier market economies that are not as dependent on foreign capital.
Investors are on the look out.
Most investors are ignoring Cambodia now, but the situation is changing rapidly. Multinational companies like Samsung, Nike, Toyota and others are setting up shop in the Kingdom’s bustling capital, Phnom Penh.
Foreign investment activity in the Kingdom has increased by more than 800% over the past decade and appears to be continuing on that path.
The manufacturing sector is also experiencing impressive growth. Mainly due to the lower cost of labor compared to China, which is becoming too expensive for the industry.
Clearly, these factors are positive for Cambodian real estate prices and for the country’s economy in general.
Cambodia’s enormous potential is being realized and investment is pouring in. But there is a problem. High-paid expatriates, who often earn six-figure salaries in international companies, are having trouble finding apartments that meet their standards.
The capital is the most attractive city.
Central Phnom Penh lacks quality expatriate housing in several areas, especially in the central and western parts of the city such as Daun Penh, Chamkarmon and 7 Makara.
This means that it is possible to buy fairly old apartments, renovate them and then rent or resell them.
Even in the 2020s, it is still possible to buy a property in Cambodia for $50,000. Add $20,000 in renovation work, and then have it valued at over $100,000 on the resale market.
Some medium-sized cities, such as Kampot and Sihanoukville, are now booming with activity, construction and growth of the country’s middle class.
These second-tier municipalities have seen virtually no foreign investment activity. But they will inevitably see some over the next decade. The first movers are always in the best position.
Regardless, Cambodia is one of the most exciting and least known places in Asia for real estate investment.
Can foreigners buy real estate in Cambodia?
Cambodia not only allows foreign investment, but probably encourages it more than anywhere else in Southeast Asia. It is easy to set up almost any type of business with 100% foreign ownership.
A one-year multiple-entry visa costs $250 and is obtained in just a few days. Living in Cambodia on a long-term visa is simple and cost-effective.
For property buyers, foreigners can own condominium titles directly in their name. But condominium titles are not available for land or apartments. The general consensus is that new condominiums are overpriced.
The best deals are often found in older apartments or houses, remnants of the colonial era. Parcels of land with development potential also hold promise for active investors.
However, things get complicated for these two types of properties, as foreigners cannot own anything directly except a condominium unit.
You must either enter into an appointment agreement, enforced by several types of contracts, with a Cambodian citizen or form a Cambodian land holding company.
A land holding company is more legally secure, but requires an annual license fee and monthly tax return.
Hard Title Deed vs Soft Title Deed.
In addition to condominium titles, another unique feature of the Cambodian real estate market is the distinction between “hard titles” and “soft titles”.
Both types of titles give you legal freehold status and must be held by a Cambodian person or company.
However, there are some important differences between hard and soft titles. Hard titles are registered with the national government’s land registry and provide owners with an indisputable right. So-called “soft titles” are registered through local authorities. Soft titles are not, at least in theory, as “reliable” as hard titles.
In reality, more than 90% of properties in Cambodia are held with soft titles and serve as legal proof of ownership recognized by the government. Soft tilts are strong enough that virtually all local banks will accept one as collateral for a secured loan.
Most Cambodians even prefer soft title deeds because the transfer fees are much lower. In addition, processing by local authorities takes much less time than by the national government. Everything can be completed in a few days rather than several months.
How much are the property taxes in Cambodia?
Annual property taxes are 0.1% of the market value of the property exceeding 100,000,000 Khmer riel (approximately $25,000). Needless to say, annual taxes are very low in Cambodia and often are not payable at all.
The tax on rental income is 10% for residents. For non-residents, rental income is taxed at a higher rate of 14%. Various deductions can be applied that can significantly lower the rates.
Unused land is taxed at a rather high rate of 2% of its market price each year.
As a result, it is impossible to “bank land” in Cambodia without paying an unreasonable amount of tax.
Land purchases must be immediately developed and used to generate income as quickly as possible.
If you talk to locals, you will find that most of them are not even registered with the tax system. So there is little or no enforcement of these taxes in Cambodia.
This is by no means a recommendation not to pay them. It is simply a statement of reality and an overview of local practices.
That being said, it’s good to use common sense. Real estate investors often hire a lawyer to speak with neighbors and check the land registry. They will also make sure that the seller of the property is the true owner and has no encumbrances.
It should be noted that the World Bank has launched the Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP). This program is funding a comprehensive and fully digital land registry throughout the country.
Slowly but surely, through this initiative, all land in Cambodia will move from soft title to recognized hard title. It is only a matter of time before all soft titles are converted for free and no longer exist.
You can read on other websites about “land title vs. non land title”. The notion of a major distinction between these two titles is mostly an invention of the expatriate community in Cambodia.
Some people wrongly claim that soft titles are not “safe”. They would find out otherwise by asking local experts and checking what the banks accept as collateral.
Is buying real estate in Cambodia safe?
In a word, yes. Foreigners enjoy full ownership and control over their property if things are done correctly.
Still, it is important, especially for soft title properties, to talk with neighbors and review the public records of the land office. Make sure there are no other claims on the property you are buying.
Although rare, it is possible for people to sell properties that are mortgaged or otherwise disputed. This can be easily avoided by exercising due caution.
It is also important to remember that foreigners cannot legally own property temporarily or permanently in their own name, but only through condominium titles.
If you do not wish to incorporate and form a real estate holding company, your only option is to find a local candidate to hold the property in your name and bind him or her by several contracts.
This would require the assistance of an attorney.
The best places to invest in real estate in Cambodia
Cambodia has a population of just over 15 million people. That said, there are many cities that, each for its own reason, are excellent places to buy real estate.
Some cities like Phnom Penh, the capital and largest city in Cambodia, are popular for very obvious reasons. Others, like Sihanoukville and Siem Reap, attract investors because of their rapid growth in tourist arrivals.
There are also medium-sized cities like Poipet and Battambang where we expect property prices to rise due to rapid urbanization and population growth.
Foreign investor activity is much lower in these cities. But they probably have more to gain from an economic boom than anywhere else in the country.
With a population of over 3 million and growing rapidly, Phnom Penh is the center of growth. For the most part, anything of commercial or political importance happens in the capital.
Travelers and long-time residents of Southeast Asia will tell you that Phnom Penh is reminiscent of Bangkok some 30 years ago.
Today, Bangkok is a modern metropolis of 16 million people, a regional business center and the most visited city by tourists worldwide. Savvy investors should take note.
While many people are buying real estate in Singapore or Bangkok, perhaps investing in “the next Bangkok” or “the next Singapore” would generate better returns?
Phnom Penh has a lot to offer any visitor – from the very authentic French cuisine to its casinos and street markets. The city’s temples are among the most ornate in the world and are only surpassed by the size of its ever-growing financial district.
- Daun Penh
- Daun Penh is the most central district of Phnom Penh. It is home to the city’s central market and main commercial district, many government offices, the riverfront and Wat Phnom.We believe it is the first of the three districts in Cambodia’s capital that is expected to experience the most long-term growth.The Phnom Penh waterfront boasts some of the highest property prices not only in Daun Penh, but in the entire country. Of course, property values are still only a fraction of those of riverside apartments in Bangkok or Saigon.To the west, Phnom Penh’s tallest buildings are in the financial district, and more are under construction. Street 110, the focal point of the CBD, sometimes has apartments for sale. They have the potential to be sold at a premium to large developers in the future.This part of the city will not remain as it is for long. It is only a matter of time before office buildings and shopping centers replace the remaining colonial apartments.
- Chamkar Mon
- Located in the southern part of the city center, Chamkar Mon enjoys some of the most upscale residential areas in Phnom Penh.The areas known as “BKK” (specifically BKK1, BKK2 and BKK3) are famous for their large villas, wide selection of luxury restaurants and top international schools.BKK is also home to Aeon 1, the largest shopping center in the city center. Chamkar Mon is becoming Phnom Penh’s most sought after area for living and shopping.Chamkar Mon also has the largest casino in Cambodia. Even hotel brands such as Shangri-La are moving into this part of the city and taking advantage of the tourism boom.
- 7 Makara
- West of Daun Penh and Chamkar Mon, farther from the shore, 7 Makara is not as central (or as expensive) as the other two. Some predict that this is the area where much of Phnom Penh’s future expansion will occur as urbanization continues.Many retailers are already beginning to set up shop here. International brands like Cold Stone Creamery, Burger King and Krispy Kreme are opening stores here.You can easily see why 7 Makara will probably be swallowed up by the downtown area in the next decade. This would drive up values at the downtown level.Some properties further west of 7 Makara also have potential. Consider looking at the Tuol Kouk and Por Senchey neighborhoods closer to Phnom Penh airport.
Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure in the world. Today, it is also one of the most visited attractions in Asia, attracting more than 2 million tourists each year. Siem Reap is located on the edge of Angkor Wat and is the second largest city in Cambodia.
The city will naturally benefit from the tourism boom in Cambodia. The city’s airport has just completed a major renovation. It needed it because arrivals are increasing by about 10% every year.
There are many apartments in and around the city center. So your first idea might be to create a restaurant or hotel to take advantage of a tourist boom.
However, this is very difficult if you don’t live in Cambodia and probably not the best way to invest in real estate in Siem Reap either.
Instead, the Siem Reap area is an excellent place to cater to the local middle class market. More and more Khmers are entering the tourism industry as it grows.
Many of these jobs are in Siem Reap and pay well by local standards. Therefore, the abundance of employment opportunities means that it is possible to rent to Cambodia’s rising middle class.
Yet the city center is, with rare exceptions, the only area where foreigners can own residential units.
The outer parts of the city are mostly land and houses. But these are good choices for investors who don’t mind a complex title structure and development work.
Four hours drive from Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville has some of the best beaches in Asia. They are mostly unknown and often not very popular.
This is likely to change soon and in fact is already happening. The boom in Chinese foreign investment has allowed Sihanoukville’s property prices to double between 2016 and 2018.
Sihanoukville still has some of the cheapest beachfront and beach view properties in Asia. It is possible to find beachfront land for less than $30 per square meter.
Once you are out of the coastal areas and heading east, the city of Sihanoukville is not very interesting. Even here, there is long-term growth potential. All of the major real estate markets in Cambodia are developing rapidly.
A perfect example of a growing city, Battambang is ideally located in the center of Cambodia’s most important rice-producing province. It has been a commercial center for centuries and still serves as a gateway between Phnom Penh and Thailand.
Cambodia’s population and influence are growing at a rate rarely seen in the Western world. Although it is a small country of just over 15 million people today, its total population is expected to reach over 20 million by 2035.
It is often the small and medium-sized cities that benefit from urbanization, as they start from a lower base. In less developed cities, you can “create something out of nothing” in a way that you can’t in the capital.
The center of Battambang is, for the most part, the only place in the city where it is easy to buy property as a foreigner. The suburbs have some attractive houses, while the outskirts have good value land.
However, both options require the creation of a land company. In addition, you must immediately develop any unused land to avoid paying a 2% tax on its value each year.
Poipet is similar to Batttambang in that it is close to the Thai border (even closer, in fact). It is a second-tier city that will benefit from continued regional trade and urbanization. The difference is that gambling contributes to Poipet’s economy much more than agriculture and markets.
In Thailand, gambling is illegal just across the border. Of course, many Thais want to gamble and Poipet is the closest city to Bangkok where this is possible.
Hordes of Chinese tourists are increasingly choosing Cambodia over Macau for their gambling adventures – a major boost to Poipet’s economy.
The city’s borders are also constantly expanding, in line with its growing population. Real estate investments on the edge of Poipet’s central core are expected to increase in value and perform well in the long run.
The city also has many apartments and houses in the suburbs north/northeast of the city center. Many of these could be a good investment if you are willing to pay attention and manage them.
How to do renovation work in Cambodia
The best way to make money in real estate in Cambodia is often to buy an unrenovated apartment, then spend money to repair it and bring it up to modern standards.
But you need a contractor if you’re doing renovation work. Let’s face it: it can be hard to find an honest contractor in developed countries, let alone in developing countries.
Contractors in developing countries in Asia are not always up to international standards, or they may simply be trying to rip you off.
It is essential to find a contractor based on references and local contacts. There are honest and fair contractors in Cambodia. But you absolutely must know the right people and have a good knowledge of the local market.
Be aware that if you buy the upper floor of a shophouse in Cambodia, you own the roof of the building and usually the right to build on it. However, you must get approval from the district.
Recruitment of real estate agents in Cambodia
For those new to the Cambodian real estate business, it is essential to use a real estate agent. This is another one of those types of services that are sometimes not up to international standards in frontier markets.
It is unlikely to find a quality agent outside of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap or Sihanoukville. This is because locals don’t really use real estate agents in Cambodia. Khmers usually find properties for sale through local circles and word of mouth.
Real estate agents only simplify the process if you are a foreigner. For most investors, going through a Cambodian real estate agent is probably a great idea. Unless you speak Khmer and don’t mind dealing with the local bureaucracy.
It should also be noted that some properties will not be available if you use an agent. Whether it is convenient or not, many Khmer people prefer to market their property themselves and save 3% of the sale value.
Sellers usually pay the full brokerage commission when you buy a property in Cambodia with a real estate agent.
As a result, many “listed” apartments are simply marked outside with a sign in Khmer characters stating that the property is for sale, along with a contact number.
These opportunities require speaking or knowing someone who speaks Khmer. Still, some of the best deals are made by riding around on a motorcycle and taking notes on the properties for sale.
That said, the best real estate agents in Cambodia provide a valuable service, especially for newcomers and the uninitiated.
Other things to know about property in Cambodia:
The rules of Cambodian law are not necessarily those that apply in practice. Some of the advice in this guide may not apply to everyone or may be more nuanced than it first appears.
For example, the transfer of soft title is done at the district level rather than the national level. Processes and timelines vary depending on where you buy real estate for this reason.
Many “district chiefs” are infamous for their bureaucracy, demanding bribes unless you wait two months for the title transfer. Occasionally, you may run into a small problem. But usually people offer to “fix” small problems.
It is worth mentioning that the U.S. dollar is the currency of choice for any purchase over a very small amount (less than a few dollars). This is obvious to investors who are familiar with Cambodia, but it is probably new information for those who are not.
Buying real estate denominated in US dollars is a positive and unique aspect of investing in real estate in Cambodia.
Regardless of your own opinion on the future of the dollar, denominating your property in U.S. dollars is much better than most other Asian currencies. Some, like the Indonesian rupiah and Vietnamese dong, have performed poorly for years due to inflation.
Is buying a property in Cambodia a good investment?
This is not the usual investment recommendation. But that’s precisely why real estate in Cambodia has such potential. Simply put: you can benefit by investing in frontier markets that are not yet invaded by foreign capital and large investment companies.
The mainstream media like Bloomberg or CNBC certainly don’t talk about Cambodia much. This is a very good thing. While everyone else hasn’t even discovered Cambodia yet, its GDP continues to grow at over 7% per year.
In the meantime, you can buy a property in central Phnom Penh for just over $1,000 per square meter. That’s about the same price as in much less developed capitals like Karachi, Pakistan, and Dhaka, Bangladesh.
1,000 per square meter is considered a global “floor” for real estate prices, and it is unlikely that prices will fall much below this level.
Cambodia’s economy as a whole relies on internal factors, such as urbanization rates and population growth, even more than the vagaries of the global economy. The rise of the middle class is evident to anyone visiting Phnom Penh.
New roads, ports and other infrastructure are being built throughout the country. The process of economic diversification continues. Large multinationals, attracted by low taxes and business friendliness, are moving in and bringing with them highly paid expatriates.
More importantly, a nation once scarred by the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge is not only moving, but leaping forward. Cambodia’s best days are ahead.