For reasons ranging from unaffordability to over-supply and unmotivated sellers, many residential buildings, especially at the high end property market, are vacant. UDO OKONJO, Vice Chair/CEO, Fine and Country West Africa, in this interview with CHUKA UROKO, Property Editor, highlights the implications of this to both the buildings and the investors. She also speaks on emerging opportunities in the real estate market. Excerpts:
We are well into the second quarter of the year. Looking back to the end of last year to now, tell us about the state of the real estate market?
In the upper tier of the residential market which is our point of operation including Ikoyi, Victoria Island, the Oniru axis and, to an extent, Lekki, if you segment those areas, you see that in Ikoyi, for instance, 40-50 percent of the high rise buildings appear to be vacant. There is a very high vacancy rate in this area.
Some of the buildings that appear to be 100 percent empty are generally old buildings which appear to be completely abandoned. The question to ask here is who owns those buildings and why are they abandoned? I think that some of those buildings have the challenges of the tension between the federal government title and the Lagos State regularization.
We have, therefore, to recognize that lack of enabling environment is playing a key role in business people’s inability to create opportunities for people to own homes. In spite of the state of the market, especially at the high end, people still need quality properties that are well priced.
I continue to maintain that there is still market for good location, good quality and good pricing for properties. Old or new, if a property is over-priced because the owner is not interested in what the market is saying in terms of pricing, maybe because he is using it as a means of storing wealth, then for us at Fine and Country, that is not our market.
This is why we advise before we sell. Our strategy is to offer advisory service from the first stage. We prefer to start to give advice first because that enables us to determine the objective of our client. If the client is one that is not interested in what the market demands and requires, then such a client is not for us. We call clients like that unmotivated sellers and we advise buyers to avoid such sellers. These are also part of the reasons you see a lot of empty buildings in that segment of the market.
Investors should recognize that there is always cost to leaving buildings empty. Such cost comes in terms of maintenance, depreciation, decay, etc. It is always good to have people in a building. Any serious investor recognizes that markets come in cycles and so make all the adjustments they want to make and when they do, they bid their time and wait for the cycle to return.
For us, what is fundamental is how you acquire a property and why you are acquiring it because that will determine what you are going to do when things go wrong. If you are in for a long term which is what real estate investment is all about, the fact that there is a downturn should not make anybody feel that the world is about to end.
Given the state of the economy, do you still see people who are looking for houses at the high end market?
There are still clients looking for properties but the properties here are over-priced, but those that are adjusting to the market are getting results while those that are not remain where they are and this is happening in both rental and sales market.
We are now highly involved in creating market opportunities. These are real estate solutions and developments that speak directly to the market. This gives investors clear view and understanding of the kind of properties people want to buy and where they want them to be. It is no longer time for lavishness or supper luxury. At any point—whether it is upturn or downturn, the super luxury segment of the market is always a thin one because you don’t have many people playing there as buyers or sellers.
It is a tiny specialized market that is not for everybody. Our advice in the residential segment of the market remain the same: create products that people want; don’t over price the product; find a creative way of delivering convenience and luxury without breaking the bank because if you break the bank, you won’t get a return because people are not in a position to pay. Good quality remains a willing proposition any day but you need to find a way of delivering that quality at a sensible price. This is not rocket science but unfortunately a lot people don’t want to acquire it.
Even when the market was very dull last year, the low-middle market still upbeat with reasonable demand. What has changed in this segment of the market?
There are still first time buyers here including professionals, young families, returning professionals etc. Some of them are not necessarily first home buyers, but people who are investing in order to get rental income in what could be called buy-to-let investment. In many countries, a lot of professionals create wealth through buying real estate which they rent out to tenants. But the buy-to-let market in this country is not going to flourish because we don’t have a viable and proper mortgage system that can offer single digit interest rate. At double digit interest rate, taking a mortgage does not make sense.
The winning proposition is for the developer to work with younger buyers and their cash flow. He has to structure his development to match that cash flow. This proposition is already catching on because there are a few developers that are already doing it. It is very competitive but there are opportunities there. Efficiency is key. The developer has to be mindful of how seeks building materials, how he develops and sources capital. The development has to be standard, otherwise there will problems.
Businesses have not fared well in the last 12-18 months because recession which has reduced uptake in retail and office space. Looking at the commercial market generally, what is the story?
Grade A office space is still a very small market. Most of the people who play in that space are institutional investors and ultra-high net-worth investors. These people generally have long term horizon because they are astute investors and so they know that the market is in a cycle which will not last for ever. Most of these investors are ready to adjust because they are astute. They recognize that the market is what it is and so they become more flexible and that is what they should be if they want their property to be let. They give out concessions and vary their terms of payment.
Some are, however, still constrained by virtue of their vision even though they try to be flexible. Their vision is not always their financial. They are always bent on attracting the sort of tenants that will add value to their property. So, the adjustment they make is only for the right kind of clients but for other people they will remain rigid. There is however some sense in all of this because real investors don’t just adjust their vision because the market is down.
Where we see great opportunities emerging is the B-Grade and even below office space. If this Grade is within the range of $60 to $65 per square metre and above, there is still market for below $500 per square metres and this market is largely untapped and is now being filled by informal offices. But developers that build good quality, well finished and well priced, say within $250 to $300 per square metres, will find ready market.
There is a new wave in office space development that encourages small units of office space. What is driving that development and what opportunities are there for investors?
I think there is quite a number of emerging and interesting opportunities that are being driven by younger, more innovative investors and professionals who are riding on the wave of digital technology. Lots of companies don’t need as much space as they used to have. People are now renting smaller work spaces and converting their spaces into smaller units so that emerging entrepreneurs can come and take up those units. There is also big opportunity in that space created by informal investors. If there is a way investors can formalize and scale up that, there is an opportunity there.
Lekki, for instance, is becoming one big retail hub because people are renting houses and converting them into shops. There is a bit of a challenge here because this is a bit untidy and informal. I foresee Lekki becoming a bit like Victoria Island and most of the people living there now will, in future, start looking for residential enclaves or havens where there is sanity, order, orgainsed systems such as power, security, etc. These havens will never be like government areas such as Lekki where anything goes.
The emerging residential havens like Orange Island, Imperial City, Gracefield Island, Mayegun Beach Resort etc, will begin to do better because people will come to Lekki to do business but will retire to those communities where life is organised.
We at Fine and Country are very bold and bullish about promoting those enclaves because they are the future of residential development where you have virtually everything including schools, lifestyle, hospitals, retail shops, worship and recreational places, etc.
Since many people, especially young families and professionals, are no longer looking for large-size houses, where exactly do opportunities exist the most for investors?
We feel that opportunity now exist in smaller residential units because the young professionals we are talking about are no longer looking for 4 or 5-bedroom apartments because they can’t afford them nor do they even need them. What they need is one-bed and two-bedroom for those that are planning of getting married. These days, room-sizes are getting smaller because of the cost of materials such that where we used to get three-bedroom of 250 square metres, we now have between 250 and 300 square metres. It all now depends on design which makes such rooms efficient and functional.
There is now a good number of developments going on in places like Lekki where you get studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments targeted at young professionals and families. There was a project we did of recent that comprised just studios and one-bedroom and they sold out. Similar developments are now coming up in Victoria Island and Oniru axis.
We think there are opportunities for similar developments in Ikoyi which is a highbrow area. Families are downsizing and there are young families looking up to their parents to help them to buy properties in good locations such as Ikoyi where they have grown up. Currently however, these smaller units are being built in the outskirta of town but there is an opportunity for them in the city centre and also in the highbrow areas.