Owning Property in Thailand

This article mainly covers ownership of property by a foreign individual by himself or by a company he sets up. It does not cover ownership of properties by very large companies.

The property ownership laws of Thailand are somewhat nationalistic, whereby foreign individuals can legitimately secure property only in certain ways. The main issue is real estate, but similar laws cover other items. If you are not legally established in Thailand and following procedures, then you will take risks.

Foreigners can own a condo freehold, as long as foreigners own less than half of the building space. Whenever a condo sells a unit to a foreigner, a document is required from the building stating that after the sale, less than half of the building will still be foreigner owned. (There have been some exceptions over the years, but the laws are back to this state.)

Foreigners cannot own land, except in some very exceptional cases for very long and well established foreigners. (A foreigner can own a house but not the land under the house.)

Foreigners can buy some things outright. Other things must be leased or bought properly.

The most common methods of properly securing land are:

  • Having signatory authority of a domestic Thai company which owns the property (and usually the largest shareholder, but normally you will own less than 50% of the shares, normally 39% or less, see discussion below); or

  • Sign a 30-year (or less) lease with a domestic company or Thai individual, with an automatic option to renew for another 30 years. This is called the 2x30 ("two times 30") way.

Many people follow these proper procedures and don't have problems.

There are other ways that people have gotten property, but these are often questionable, unnecessary in view of proper ways, and sometimes cause problems later. Businesspeople and lawyers often assert their own tactics in a very self-confident manner, but second opinions should be sought before you commit a large sum of your savings. The lawyers make their money now, and don't lose anything later if things fall apart; indeed, if problems occur later, then you may need to hire a lawyer again.

It has amazed me at how many people have not sought independent and professional second and third opinions. Some of these have had serious problems later.

In any country where you can't read the language, be it another European country or Asia, you have little choice but to rely on one or more lawyers. Respected authorities such as the Asia Wall Street Journal can usually, but not always, be relied upon, as journalists are sometimes incorrect and improperly influenced (as witnessed by letters to the editor which are actually published). The more respected sources you research, the better.

(Of course, even in people's own country, people often don't read the law in their own language, instead relying on one or more business agents and/or lawyers, but that's different because you are an established citizen of your own country and are familiar with the conventional practices of your family and fellow citizens. The first thing you must do here is get to know your rights in Thailand and the proper laws and conventions here.)

It's notable that I'm not the only foreigner who has received different opinions from different Thai law offices, and indeed sometimes from different lawyers within the same law office. Thus, I've listened to a LOT of opinions, and challenged some lawyers' opinions when they differed from others. Apparently, I'm a lot more careful in what I say and do than some lawyers and many businesspeople! Nonetheless, over time, I have found out what the most informed and careful professionals do, case after case, independent from each other, and based on laws cited from the multiple respected authorities, to secure property properly.

In this article, I cover only the ways that my research has found proper, and not the questionable ways. I must emphasize that there are many improper ways which have worked for other people in Thailand, and continue to work, but which I would advise you not to follow. Just because it's worked for someone else so far doesn't mean it would stand up in court if challenged. Many ways appear to exist simply only as long as they are not being prosecuted.

There are guys who have lost property to wives and associates, fallen victim to outright scams, and experienced extortion for rectifying vulnerable arrangements. In every case, it was clearly avoidable from the start, if they had only researched independent additional opinions and followed standard procedures.

The proper ways are simple and straightforward. You should avoid both convoluted ways and shady shortcuts.

This Is Thailand

As a simple example of a common but questionable kind of arrangement, a British guy named Kevin arrived on a tourist visa with a few million baht (a little under $100,000) saved, no Thai wife or other serious relationships with local people, and an interest in living and travelling in Thailand and perhaps establishing his central base in Asia here. Kevin wanted a car. Rather than rent or lease a car, Kevin decided to buy one he wanted. Technically, this was illegal with just a tourist visa and a Thai driver's license.

Nonetheless, the vendor took Kevin's money, issued a receipt and signed paperwork, gave Kevin the keys, license plates, insurance, registration sticker, and paperwork in Thai that Kevin couldn't read, and over the next few weeks processed the paperwork for Kevin. It's not uncommon for officials to received bribes and then "overlook" technicalities. Two years later, I crossed paths with Kevin again and all was still fine, as I expected. Kevin risks problems if someone raises the issue, now or anytime later, but who would prosecute such a case, and why? The chances are that nobody will raise the issue, and Kevin will be fine.

However, when it comes down to securing a piece of land and a house, the chances of having problems later are significantly higher than for buying a vehicle.

Foreign Ownership of Real Estate

Due to the 1997 economic crisis, caused by a real estate glut in Bangkok's office, condo, and housing estate markets, the IMF applied pressure to relax laws restricting foreign ownership of property. This was an effort to bring in foreign investment, particularly to the nonperforming real estate investments which were causing the liquidity crisis.

These new regulations would have also helped many powerful Thai individuals who own real estate but were burdened with debts due to not being able to sell it to other Thais after expensively developing it. As of early 2000, the most far reaching reforms regarding foreign ownership of property that were hammered out during the IMF presence were still pending in Parliament, watered down, and still not sure to pass, and those aren't really very far reaching anyway. They were politically unpopular. The main details are discussed a few paragraphs below. The Thai economy picked up and recovered, and it mostly came to naught.

If the pressures of the 1997 economic crash couldn't push them thru, what could?

However, they're not necessary in order to have and control property.

The present situation is likely to continue as a natural state of political affairs as long as foreigners are much richer and have far more buying power than Thais. The argument is that if the property market were opened wide to foreigners, then the prices would skyrocket out of the reach of the vast majority of indigenous Thais, and foreigners would take over too much of Thailand whereby the Thais would lose significant sovereignty and cultural integrity, instead being exploited in colonialist fashion.

Foreigners in the press commonly argue that Thais are free to buy property in the U.S. and other countries, and thus the reverse should be allowed as well, instead of continuing "outdated anti-colonial" and "xenophobic" policies. The same argument could be made regarding travel visas, whereby any poor Thai prostitute could skip going down to the US Embassy for a visa rejection and instead just take a plane flight to the U.S. and get a visa-upon-arrival at the U.S. airport, just like Americans can come to Thailand without a visa. The reality is that the U.S. would soon become about 10% Thai in the form of illegal workers, who would in turn far outnumber immigration officials and police forces after their one month visa-upon-arrival expired. So major relaxation of laws regarding foreign ownership of property will probably occur around the time that Thais are given "fair treatment" as regards travel visas. (I've never seen this counterargument acknowledged when foreigners and their government representatives argue for greater property ownership rights in Thailand, of course.)

In my writings, I must first start with a disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, all Thai law is in the Thai language, I cannot read Thai law, I haven't tried to read Thai law to date, I am not an authorized translator anyway, and I cannot guarantee the accuracy of the following. Use at your own risk.

These are general problems that people run into when dealing in any country whose language they cannot read. (At least the Thai language is phonetic, not hieroglyphic.) Even in one's own country, people usually depend upon their lawyers rather than read the law themself. The problem in Thailand is dealing with the nationalistic laws.

There are some great deals on inexpensive and abandoned luxury houses out here, but you'd better know the laws and procedures.

In short, here is a summary of the current status of foreign real estate property ownership in Thailand, as I've perceived from my research:

  • A foreigner can own a condominum as long as less than 50% of the condos or apartments in the building are owned by foreigners. (This is an old law, except it was 40% before, though some buildings differ depending on some exceptions.)

  • A company can own property such as land and a house (and hence the foreigner can buy land and a house via their company) as long as no one foreigner owns more that 39% of the company (recently amended from 33%) and total foreign ownership of the company does not exceed 49%.

  • The Thai wife of a foreigner can own property (a recently changed legal status due to gender equality in the new 1997 constitution revision), in her name only. This is fine as long as you don't have marital problems. (The same, of course, goes for a Thai husband, but the law was changed recently for Thai wives due to the new constitution guaranteeing equal rights.)

  • A foreigner can lease land for 30 years, with an option for another 30 years, according to articles in the press and as confirmed by every lawyer I've asked. (If you live longer than 2x30 years, consider yourself lucky in another regard.) This is referred to as the 2x30 ("two times 30") option.

The 2x30 option has been mentioned in "this is how I did it" circles, but you are advised to check with a lawyer, and ask about what proposed laws were actually passed in Parliament over the past few years. After the 1997 economic crisis and IMF intervention, plans were written up to amend the property laws so that a foreigner could lease in their individual name up to 1 rai of land for up to 30 years (1 rai = 1600 square meters or about a 40 meter x 40 meter plot, or 1 acre = 2.5 rai), on which the foreigner could build a residential property. Before the foreigner could do this, the foreigner must deposit 10 million baht of hard currency from overseas into a bank in Thailand. This amendment to the property law had been pending in parliament for a long time, but I didn't keep up with it. Lawyers say it was passed, but I didn't read that myself in the newspapers, not that I never miss a day.

Many foreigners have "secured" land and houses in Thailand, in addition to condominiums, in various ways and I haven't heard of any horror stories to date from those who followed the procedures mentioned here. The only horror stories I have heard are those where the foreigner put everything into their wife's name with no lease or any other contract, and were subsequently kicked out. I've heard lots of those horror stories.

Notably, when the registered Thai wife of a foreigner buys property, she must state that the money is hers, not her husband's. For example, one farang guy said that the provincial official asked his wife this, and when she said it was her husband's money, he shook his head and informed her that she could not purchase and register the property under the law, in an explanatory way. Then he asked her again, in which case she changed her mind and said it was her money, and everyone then smiled and the transaction was allowed to go forward to completion.

I should note that I've seen illegal property transactions on the books for years, which continued to be honored simply because nobody challenged the transaction. Thai society has been easygoing to date, in general, with local officials usually deciding what's OK or fair or whatever. I've seen some tricks pulled by lawyers and real estate agents which other lawyers have said are illegal, usually in regard to matrimonial arrangements other than those mentioned here (i.e., not a simple and clear lease).

However, I've occasionally seen some transactions challenged years afterwards by someone on a mission, nearly all these unpleasant challenges based on matrimonial technicalities in the pre-1997-constitution era. Since I'm not a lawyer and haven't seen the legal text in Thai myself (with my limited Thai reading abilities) regarding foreigners owning property, I can only recommend that you find a good Thai lawyer. I can recommend some Thai lawyers to rely on if you don't have any good referrals. You can read the text yourself and interpret it yourself, all of it, back to the Constitution. Otherwise, you can believe the lawyers, the market, and how quiet it is as regards property invalidations.

Set Up A Company To Buy Property?

It is a commonly advised tactic to set up a company for the sole purpose of buying property, e.g., a majority Thai-owned company with "nominee" directors, whereby some of the directors are strangers unaware of what their name is on (to prevent a conspiracy) and/or provide signed documents selling their shares which are held by the farang as security (again, against a conspiracy of shareholders).

You should be aware, however, that bogus companies for the sole purpose of property ownership and nominee directors are not legal. They exist insofar as they are not being prosecuted. People will point out that they are rarely prosecuted, but prosecution is possible. If you can live with that risk on your investment, that's up to you.

The way this is often pitched is as follows:

"Put a few hundred dollars worth of baht in your pocket. Get all the forms for shareholders in your company. Go onto the street and find some strangers. Pay them some tens of dollars to sign a shareholder document, sign another document selling their shares (leaving the date blank), and go photocopy their ID card. These are your six Thai shareholders. They don't even know what company they are shareholders in. Even if you get a big problem and someone traces down these shareholders based on their ID card, you already have their signed document selling their shares so that you can immediately backdate and transfer these shares to a trusted person."

Another way this is pitched is by lawyers who say "Leave it up to us, we will handle all of the above".

The option, of course, is to find trusted shareholders who know exactly what they own (say, 61% of your company split among 6 shareholders). These shareholders may be a combination of employees, relatives, friends, other associates, shareholders of other companies you are involved in, whatever, whereby you are fairly sure of their ethics, and/or these people are of very different walks of life and unlikely to all come together as part of any conspiracy, and/or it is against their greater interests to form a conspiracy for reasons of reputation or other interests of theirs which could be affected (some lawyers even set up collateral arrangements). This is not a sham company, but it's a company you must set up carefully and manage.

A hybrid option is that the latter company owns the property and issues a 2x30 lease to you. The same applies to the Thai wife -- she owns the property but leases it to you.

To many, the main benefit of company ownership of property is that a company can own or lease a lot more property than can an individual without getting into questions of where the wife's money came from in case it comes up again, and even if the money for the company is clearly due to the foreigner, it's not as clear cut a legal issue.

Of course, you should be careful to have in your personal will that your shares will go to somebody else, so that there is not incentive by your shareholders to see you pass away. There are a lot of evil people in this world, and Thailand is not any exception.

Get a Mortgage?

If you decide to buy property one way or another, then you will discover that the banks in Thailand don't have the same attitude as the banks in western countries as regards new mortgages to foreigners. Too many foreigners have skipped town and left others to sort out the mess.

Some banks have started offering mortgages to some foreigners based on certain criteria and up to a certain percent, but this changes from time to time and what I write today may change tomorrow. The two most active banks in this regard have been United Overseas Bank (UOB) and Bangkok Bank.

Leasing Land

A foreigner can lease land for 30 years, according to the laws of Thailand.

If your spouse is Thai, then you may want to buy the land in your spouse's name and then lease it from your spouse. This way, even if your marriage becomes rocky, you can't get kicked out of the house, especially if you're paid for the entire 30 years and have a formal receipt tucked away in a safe place. Your spouse inherits it after the 30 years.

All leases longer than 3 years must be registered. The good news is that it helps verify the legitimacy of your lease. Also, a registered lease doesn't die with ever the lessor or the lessee. (Don't make your wife's family want to kill you!) The bad news is that you pay more in taxes.

If you are leasing land, then you must pay taxes on the lease amount. One source states that, for example, if you lease land for 30 years and pay for the entire period in advance in order to get a receipt, then you must also pay 1.5% of the total value of that lease for the entire 30 years ... in advance.

Taxes have varied widely from time to time in the past 10 years, as the government has tried to sometimes stimulate and sometimes cool off the property sector, or just be populist for voters.

Scams and Complications

Some real estate agents run advertisements saying that you, the farang, can now own "property" in Thailand, and that "the laws have changed". This is often just a ploy to get you thru their door first, before you get hooked by any competing real estate agent, as if they are more on the ball and know something their competitors do not. Yes, some foreigners can own property in some very exceptional situations, just like you could 10+ years ago, and yes, the laws have changed ... a little bit ... but there have been no major changes in the laws and the signs are misleading.

There are scams out there. Make sure that the land coordinates on the deed of the property you buy are accurate, and that you're not signing to buy a swamp in another location than the one they've been touring you in and around and negotiating a price on. This is a scam that is simple to protect yourself against, but it's happened, and not just once. The land title deed is a public document available from the Land Registry, so it's straightforward to verify, for those of us who can read Thai.

If you are considering buying a condominium, rather than renting, then you should be careful about great deals on high rise condos that are sparsely populated. There are many stories of condos which have not been kept up because the building owner and management company are out of money or have decided not to put any more money into the property at the moment. Stories include things like lifts (elevators) not being repaired, amenities like swimming pools being neglected, security disappearing, overgrown lawns, etc. You're left to deal with these matters on your own together with the other tenants, and it's probably less expensive and more productive to deal with the physical problems directly (and quickly) than to pay lawyers to deal with the owner and management company via the court system while you live for time without an elevator. Because labor is cheap here, this should not be as big a problem as in wealthy countries.

Likewise, if you are buying land with a house on it, there should be paperwork and deeds on both the land and the house. Sometimes, there is only for the land, not the house. Why is a mystery, but may have to do with taxes.

Make sure you get the full scoop on taxes before you buy.

Taxes

You have to pay taxes on real estate purchases. You should make sure that you know in advance what the total taxes will be, both at the time of the transaction, and what you will receive in the mail from the government later.

If your company is buying a house, instead of your wife buying it, then the taxes may be higher because corporate taxes are higher than personal taxes in Thailand. Check with your accountant.

If you are leasing land, then you must pay taxes on the lease amount. One source states that, for example, if you lease land for 30 years, then you must pay 1.5% of the total value of that lease for the entire 30 years ... in advance.

Make Money Off The Property Market?

In my home country of the USA, it was common for investors to buy a property and then rent it out, whereby the rent covered much of the mortgage, and often exceeded it. In Thailand, this is not true, i.e., rental prices usually do not come close to mortgage prices. This is the nature of the Thai property market and the values in the local economy.

However, many properties have been appreciating in value at a high rate in Thailand, whereby many investors have bought a property and simply sat on it for awhile before reselling it to turn a profit, the property having never been occupied. This is particularly true in Bangkok, Pattaya, and Phuket. Under those circumstances, the rent could be seen as pure profit, in view of the eventual resale of the property for profit.

In the latter case, rent collected in the meantime can be a bonus, if you consider the profit of both sale and rent.

However, every property and situation should be analyzed independently.

Additional Considerations

There are a lot of other considerations that go into purchasing a property, and the ThailandGuru is hesitant to go into further detail than the above. You can contact me for assistance specific to your needs.

Notably, in previous years, I recommended people talk with Dr. Leslie Wright, a well known international portfolio manager who lived in Thailand. Unfortunately, Dr. Wright passed away in February 2004, of cancer.

The laws in Thailand change from time to time, and it is not easy keeping a website up to date, especially this one originally written in 1999-2000. If you are looking to buy property, you should check with the latest laws. As I own a real estate company in Bangkok, Prado Property Co., Ltd. (see below), I and my staff can answer a lot of your questions about Bangkok. For other parts of Thailand, you should find a good real estate agency.

Links

For buying condominiums in Bangkok, or for renting houses and apartments, contact Prado Property Co., Ltd., at www.kkBkk.com




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