The Taxation of Real Property in Asia

Alven Lam, Mayo 1, 1998

The recent fiscal crisis in Asia has affected systems of taxation and land use regulation throughout the region. The situation in Korea is typical. A series of collapses of large conglomerates led to a severe economic crisis, with 5.5 percent of total loans in default by the end of 1997. Currency and stock indexes fell to one-half their value within a year. Major measures to control the crisis, undertaken in cooperation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), include cutting government expenses by 10 percent and initiating a series of tax reforms to raise revenues.

In this context, a recent seminar on the taxation of real property in Asia provided a valuable and timely forum for the exchange of ideas. The seminar was hosted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Government of Korea at the Korea-OECD Multilateral Tax Center in Chonon in early March. Tax administrators from China, Korea, Singapore and Vietnam attended the two-part program, which included a four-day seminar on property taxation and a one-day workshop hosted by the Korea Ministry of Finance. My fellow instructors in the seminar were Michael Engelschalk of OECD’s Fiscal Division in Paris and Anders Muller of Denmark’s Ministry of Taxation.

Seminar Themes

The seminar addressed three major issues concerning local government systems for property taxation:

Local Revenues and Fiscal Decentralization:

Anticipating increased political and fiscal decentralization in many Asian countries, the seminar explored the role of local government within the national tax structure. These fundamental issues are particularly of interest to China, which is just beginning to develop a property tax system, and Korea, which is beginning to exercise stronger local autonomy.

Market Economy and Property Valuation:

For Vietnam and China, which are moving toward a market-based economy, establishing reliable sales information on property markets and developing effective valuation techniques are major challenges. Korea and Singapore, with their more advanced property tax systems, must be able to respond to a dynamic property market. Singapore’s annual value rating method and Korea’s market capitalization approach are very different systems, and the issue of improving valuation models remained a hotly debated subject during the seminar.

Taxation Administration and Enforcement:

Computerization, a collection process and legal procedures need to be developed and implemented in all governments to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of management and enforcement procedures. Political issues such as assignment of local and central government functions, determining ability to pay and the role of wealth taxation were also discussed extensively by the participants.

Tax Policy Issues in Asian Countries

Although China at present does not permit private ownership of land, three categories of taxes are applied to use rights:

taxes on land use (land use tax, land occupation tax and agricultural tax):

taxes on ownership of buildings (house tax and real estate tax); and

taxes on transactions (land appreciation tax, business tax, stamp duty and deed tax.)

Property tax reform in China is needed for two reasons: redundancy and out-of-date regulations. Even after the economic reforms of the 1980s, foreign investment in real property has been regulated and taxed according to a 1951 law. The central government has decided to reform and simplify property taxes by consolidating the domestic house tax with the land use tax for local people, consolidating domestic and foreign house taxes for foreigners, and possibly eliminating the deed tax.

Korea proposed a land value increment tax several years ago to capture the capital gains from land transactions, but the proposal was defeated. To capture land value increments and avoid speculation, Korea instead implemented a capital gains tax system that covers both real property and other asset transactions. To discourage land speculation, the tax rate will be fixed at 50 percent for property sales within two years of purchase, but owners who hold properties for more than two years will have a lower capital gains tax rate.

Korea’s GNP is expected to grow less than one percent in 1998 and tax revenues are projected to decline by US$4.4 billion. In response, the government designed a package to raise tax revenues by US$2.4 billion and to cut government expenditures by US$5.6 billion. In the tax reform package, minimum tax levels will generally be raised but capital gains taxes on land sales and value-added tax exemptions will be reduced.

Vietnam began reforming its tax system in 1990 with the introduction of uniform tax laws and ordinances across the country. Some examples are the 1994 Law on Agricultural Land Use Taxes, the 1992 Ordinance on Land and Housing Taxes, and the 1994 Law on Taxes on Land Use Right Transfer. Although Vietnam endorses a market economy, these central government regulations set the standard for all taxation administration. Property valuation (use value) is also defined by national law, although the taxable price is determined by the People’s Committee of the province or city, which is directly under central government power. In other words, the valuation is based on market value but must be approved by the People’s Committee.

In Singapore property owners pay an annual tax of 12 percent on the annual value of the property. The annual value for buildings is based on the estimated market rent per annum. The value for vacant land or land under development is derived from five percent of its estimated market value. The total annual tax in 1996-97 constituted six percent of the government’s operating revenue. Other property-related taxes include transfer taxes, inheritance taxes and development charges. Given the dynamic urban real property market and high land prices, the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS), which oversees the taxation system, is continuously developing new valuation and collection methodologies.

In summary, the demand for research on tax policies is critical in Asia. This seminar offered an educational environment where instructors and participants could share basic principles on the taxation of real property and learn from each others’ experiences.

Alven Lam is a fellow of the Lincoln Institute and academic dean of the Land Reform Training Institute in Taiwan.