Plans to allow foreigners to own Thai land hit the first brick

The wealthiest foreign investors might go freehold after 40 years of debate.

Government plans to encourage one million well-heeled foreigners to base themselves in Thailand with 10 year visas and the right to buy freehold land has brought out the expected anti-farang rhetoric. Chair of the privately-owned Agency for Real Estate Affairs, Dr Sophon Pornchokchai, criticized the proposal and said there was little to stop aliens from buying up Thailand on the cheap.

The government plan is to encourage wealthy foreigners in several categories to invest many millions of baht in Thailand in return for various perks. Currently foreigners are not allowed to own freehold land in their own name, but the tentative government proposal is to reverse that partially as early as 2022. However, working parties must now concentrate on the detail. It is likely that the freehold land available for outright foreigner ownership will be restricted to new housing developments in certain exclusive areas.

There’s a very checkered history of this whole subject. The 1979 condominium act allowed foreigners to own outright 49 percent of the total unit space in a legally registered condominium, with proof the cash was transferred from abroad. Foreigners interested in purchasing actual land must either go for a long-term lease or establish a limited liability company with the majority of shares owned by Thai nationals.

Prior to 1998 any Thai woman who married a foreigner lost her right to purchase land in Thailand, but she can now do so provided the foreign spouse signs an affidavit stating he has no claim. In 2014, an investment visa was introduced whereby a foreigner could put 10 million baht long term in a Thai bank or government bonds or property in return for an ongoing visa. However, some immigration offices say they never received the sign-off for this particular avenue of opportunity.

Owning your own luxury house freehold is on the cards for 2022.

There was much excitement in 2003 when the Thai Elite visa was launched. Pre-dawn publicity claimed that a major perk would be the concession to allow holders to buy one rai of land outright to build their dream home. However, this proved to be wrong and the Elite visa carries no actual housing benefits. However, government spokespersons have hinted of late that the wealthiest Elite card holders might be able to buy freehold after all and as well as avoiding a trip to the immigration bureau every three months to confirm their address. Wow!

Cynics steeped in Thai history believe that nothing will actually happen now. They are probably wrong. The quest to find wealthy foreigners out there has already been ratified by Cabinet and the government-backed Read Estate Information Center has predicted “targeted freehold measures” on specific areas and estates in time for next year. But it is very unlikely that most expats will be in a position to buy freehold land because of the requirement to be “wealthy”. If you have one million dollars US to back up your claim, that’s fine and dandy. In any case, the detail won’t be known much before Christmas.

Of the Southeast Asian countries, only Malaysia allows foreigners to buy “specified” freehold land as part of the Malaysia My Second Home initiative which has been suspended anyway because of the coronavirus pandemic. Cambodia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Laos all forbid the sale of land to foreigners, but permit condominium ownership with varying degrees of liberality. Thailand’s upcoming freehold land reformation is likely to be a minor deviation indeed, mainly of interest to Chinese and other Asian investors who already own the vast majority of foreign-registered condominium units.