Market in Depth

Panama housing market heats up as country booms

Maria de Guzman | May 21, 2018

Foreign buyers are pushing up property prices in Panama. The average dwelling sales price surged by 21% from January 2015 to June 2017 in Panama's metropolitan area, according to the Panamanian Chamber of Construction (Capac) as reported by La Estrella de Panama.

Foreign buyers tend to be from the United States, Europe, Canada, and Latin America.

Yet at US$ 2,050 per square metre (sq. m.) in June 2017, the average price of residential properties in Panama still looks very reasonable, with metropolitan prices ranging widely from US$ 928 to US$ 2,892 per sq. m., according to Capac.

In Punta Pacifica, a collection of exclusive waterfront skyscrapers, high-end apartment prices are rising by 6% to 12% per annum, due to a shortage of available units. The average price in Punta Pacifica stood at around US$ 2,300 per sq. m. as end-2017.

Sales and construction were both up in 2017, says Maria Arias of TDI Real Estate. Arraiján and La Chorrera, where property prices start at around US$30,000, are specially active, due to infrastructure developments in Panama West and Panama East's constant growth.

It is a big turnaround. After the global financial crisis in 2008, Panama's dwelling prices declined by an average of 20% to 30%, according to Kent Davis of Panama Equity Real Estate. Only after 2012 did foreign buyers return to the market.

Now it is the opposite story. Many infrastructure projects are approaching completion, and Panama's economy will continue to accelerate in 2018 and 2019. Another boost to the market will be the new property tax law to be implemented from January 2019, which gives tax exemption to all primary residences worth more than US$ 120,000 (previously US$30,000), and generally reduces property tax rates.

Tourist arrivals rose by 7.5% to about 2.5 million people in 2017, says the Panama Tourism Authority, with European visitors up 8.1% (though tourist spending only rose 3.8% to US$ 4.5 billion in 2017). According to the Panama Tourism Authority, these numbers are expected to rise further when Air China opens direct flights starting March 2018, attracting Chinese tourists.

Foreigners can own real properties in Panama, and are accorded with the same property rights as Panamanians. However, mortgages can be difficult to obtain, especially for foreigners, and the purchase process can take two to three months. More than 80% of real estate transactions involving foreign buyers are in cash.

Analysis of Panama Residential Property Market »

Rental Yields

Panama: firm prices, yields good

Gross rental yields in Panama have declined somewhat over the past few years. But the gross yields in Panama - the rental return earned on the purchase price of a rental property, before taxation, vacancy costs, and other costs - are good, by international standards. Yields range from 5.7% to 7.3%.

There isn't much difference, in terms of yield, between beachfront and further back. Beachfront is more expensive, but you get a better rent. Smaller apartments do tend to yield more.

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Taxes and Costs

Taxes are quite high in Panama

Rental Income: Net rental income earned by nonresidents is taxed at progressive rates, from 15% to 25%.

Rental income is also subject to VAT at 7%.

Capital Gains: Capital gains realized from transactions not related to business activities are taxed at a special flat rate of 10%. Otherwise, capital gains are taxed at the standard progressive income tax rates.

Inheritance: Inheritance tax was abolished on 26 December 2002.

Residents: Resident individuals are taxed on their Panamian-sourced income at progressive rates, from 15% to 25%.

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Buying Guide

Total transaction costs are low in Panama

The total roundtrip transaction costs for buying and selling properties are around 7.30% to 9.30%, including the real estate agent’s fee at 3% to 5%. The seven procedures needed for the registration process can be completed in about 22 days.

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Landlord and Tenant

Panama's tenancy laws are pro-landlord

Panama’s rental market is generally pro-landlord.

Rents: Rents can be freely agreed between landlord and tenant. In general, lease agreements can freely incorporate increases in the rent every certain amount of years, as agreed between the parties.

Tenant Security: In general terms, the court systems works, although the caseload is substantial and it may take several months to finalize the evictions, says Patton, Moreno & Asvat, a Panamanian law firm.

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Panama Canal's cargo tonnage at historic high

Panama gdp inflationFor the second consecutive year, Panama was hailed as the fastest growing economy in the Central American region, with a GDP growth of 5.4% in 2017, based on the figures from the Comptroller General of the Republic of Panama.

"This increase is explained primarily by the behaviour of economic activities related to the external sector. Among them, those of the Panama Canal, air and financial services stand out positively," noted a recent report of the Comptroller General of the Republic.

The US$5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal, which began in 2007, has experienced delays and cost overruns amounting to US$1.6 billion . But the expansion, which started operations in June 2016, has doubled the Panama Canal's capacity, with wider and deeper lanes and locks, and a new lane of traffic allowing more and larger ships. This year's tonnage of 403.8 million Panama Canal tons (PC/UMS) was the highest in its history, and a 22.2% increase on last year.

"These record figures reflect.... the Panama Canal’s continued ability to transform the global economy and revitalize the maritime industry," says Panama Canal's administrator, Jorge L. Quijano.

Major infrastructure projects scheduled to finish this year or in early 2019 include Panama’s metro system, the first in Central America. Line 1 was completed in April 2014, while the second line is expected to be completed in 2018.

The port of Colon upgrade is expected to be completed by the end of 2018, while the construction of the second Tocumen International Airport is currently in its final phase.

All these major infrastructure projects will improve the country’s connectivity, and breathe new life to the economy and the real estate market.

The economy is expected to expand by 5.6% this year, and further accelerate by 5.8% in 2019, according to the IMF. After more than 10% annual GDP growth in 2011-2012, Panama’s economy slowed to 6.9% in 2013, 5.1% in 2014, 5.6% in 2015, and 5% in 2016, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC). The more moderate pace of recent growth reflects work delays at the Panama Canal (from August 2014, the completion date moved several times to June 2016), and the end of other public work projects, and the Colon Free Zone dispute with Venezuela and Colombia.