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The $10.7bn of Russian property in the UK will be slow to sell or seize

Russian money in UK luxury property is unlikely to flee the country quickly or, if linked to oligarchs, be rapidly seized by Westminster.

By Sebastian Shehadi

A spree of recent headlines have suggested that Russian elites may soon sell their UK properties, en masse, due to fast-growing anti-Russian policy and rhetoric triggered by Moscow’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine

The unprecedented slew of ‘Western’ sanctions have, to a very high degree, cut the Russian economy from the global economy, reducing Russians’ liquidity and increasing fears that their assets might be frozen. As a result, there have been rumours that the UK may soon see wealthy Russians flee the property market in a panic, not least since Westminster announced plans to seize the properties of sanctioned Russian oligarchs and reveal opaque holdings through a new register.  

Thus far, the highest-profile rumoured seller is the billionaire owner of Chelsea F.C., Roman Abramovich, who some claim is looking for buyers for his £150m Kensington mansion and Chelsea flat. 

Over the past 15 years, Russian elites such as Abramovich have been among the most active at the top end of the UK property market, with an overwhelming focus in or around London. 

Russians are deeply embedded in the UK 

Russians own approximately £8bn worth of property, businesses and other assets in the UK, £1.1bn of which is in London homes, spread across some 150,000 Russian owners. The richest of these reside, invariably, across Belgravia, Knightsbridge, Chelsea, Hampstead and Highgate.

Although two high-profile Russian purchases in Marylebone and Regent’s Park fell through in recent days, there are no signs of an owner or buyer exodus.

“Despite the Russian-Ukraine crisis and sanctions, none of my Russian clients – who are among the top five buyers by country of origin in purchasing London homes valued at more than £10m – have asked me to sell their properties in London or the Home Counties,” says Gary Hersham, founding director of Beauchamp Estates. 

“People forget just how embedded Russian investment is in London. Russians have been buying property in the capital since 2008 and many have children and relatives who have come for schooling here, and now live here as British citizens [with money that] is totally legitimate.”

Hersham says that his Russian clients are still looking to buy property in London, such as one £15m purchase in central London that he is finalising. 

“But all the media headlines and government announcements are making my Russian clients want to keep an extremely low profile at present,” he says. “For property tours, for example, they are first sending a representative so that the purchase doesn’t draw attention personally to them. If sanctions and pressure get more serious, then it is possible that we may see some Russians deciding to sell their London homes – but when their children and grandchildren live here, why would they?”

Seizing oligarchs’ homes is no easy feat

Hersham also balks at the idea that the UK government will be able to sweep in and seize dozens of homes from Russian oligarchs. 

If the British government wishes to seize a mansion, townhouse or penthouse in London from a Russian owner, it will first be required by law to issue them with an ‘unexplained wealth order’ – which is issued by a court on behalf of HM Revenue and Customs.

The owner then has to provide the court with evidence that proves that the property was acquired using legitimate funds. Only if the court is not provided with legal paperwork can the government then seize the property, explains Hersham. 

Only nine unexplained wealth orders have ever been issued – and only four have actually been successful in the courts in proving that the properties were obtained using monies for which there was no satisfactory paperwork.

In short, if the UK government wishes to seize Russian real estate, the court first needs to be convinced that there is a good possibility of the case being successful; more specifically, that the owner does not have the legal paperwork to prove the legitimacy of the property purchase.

It remains to be seen, however, whether new government legislation will give the aforementioned process more, or special, teeth in light of the Ukraine invasion. In any case, since much of Russia’s elite (oligarchic or not) is so deeply embedded in London, a grand exodus does not seem likely any time soon. 

More coverage of the Ukraine invasion from Investment Monitor:

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