Old may be cheaper, but it’s harder to sell

Home buyers in Lebanon presented with options

To Rita Fakhoury it was the find of a lifetime. The three-bedroom apartment in Beirut proper was on the market for just $80,000. It was a little higher than the budget she and her husband Nadim had set but the prospect of a 160m2 home right in heart of the capital was a dream. In any case, they hoped to bargain the price down a little.

The 42-year-old building in Ras El Nabeh is solid but run down. Their new home on the third floor needs rewiring, replumbing and redecorating. But, having spent weeks trying to bring the price down – it finally went for $76,000 – they calculated on renovating the place at a speed they can afford and without piling up massive debts. To the young couple and their two small children, it was a passport to the Lebanese dream. To own their own home with no mortgage and no bank loan for restoration.

The flip side will come only if the Fakhourys ever want to sell the place. According to real estate experts, they are highly unlikely ever to get their money back. Indeed, they will face considerable difficulties in finding a buyer at any price. Rita Saade, a real estate consultant with The Landmark company in Riad Al Solh Street downtown, said even if the figure sought was very low, most buyers would not rush in. Price was a much lower factor among buyers than the amenities offered and the overall condition.

She said around 80% of the market was in new homes – “new” being defined as anything up to ten years old. Most of the rest is taken up with home-hunters seeking traditional Lebanese dwellings, with high ceilings and character, leaving minimal demand for everything in between.

“The attraction for young couples in a new building is that is likely to contain all the facilities that make life easier,” said Saade. These include parking space, a heating system and a standby generator. The properties in Sodeco, for example, don’t have underground parking because it wasn’t a requirement at the time the area was developed. For Rita and Nadim the lack of underground parking is the least of their concerns. They don’t even have a lift. Their bit of heaven is reached by a stairway.

The current trend, Saade added, is for people to move in from the suburbs and seek apartments in Beirut because of the increased potential for both work and entertainment in the capital, as well as the happy avoidance of the daily commuter battleground known as the feeder roads into the capital.

The benefits come at a price. Modern properties in Beirut rarely come at less than $1,000/m2 and can easily be double that figure. And even those numbers refer only to buildings outside the Beirut Central District (BCD) area, where $4,000/m2 is closer to the mark. It was a swift retreat from the high prices and an abiding fear of the never-ending process of repair and replacement involved in an old building that encouraged Christine Haddad to buy a home in Mansourieh. For $18,000 less than the Fakhourys paid for a wreck in the city, she bought a new three-bedroom apartment directly from the builder, who also helped to fix the financing. The 180m2 ground-floor home has a small private garden, an uninterrupted view down to the sea and the advantage of having a few minor defects fixed free-of-charge by the builder.

“My two girls go to school locally and happily I don’t need to travel regularly into Beirut,” said Haddad. “There is no way we could have afforded this level of comfort in Beirut itself and, in any case, I am confident that if in the next few years we need to sell the house and move we would be able to find a buyer.”

Saade confirms that view. “There is definitely a market for modern apartments and there is even a possibility that the seller may make a 5% 10% profit on the deal, depending on overall confidence in the economy at the time,” she said. The prospect of making a killing out of soaring property prices – as in, say, Britain, where values have increased by more than 500% in the past eight years – doesn’t exist. BCD is seen by people in the real estate business as the only area in the country where values may double over a period.

“In any case,” said Saade, “buying property in Lebanon is most often done on the basis of buying for a lifetime. Chopping and changing every few years is a phenomenon that doesn’t exist.”

Selling up and moving on was never in Farida Khazem’s mind anyway when she opted earlier this year to buy an old home in Sanayeh. “I know that almost no one else would want it, but that’s irrelevant to me,” she said. “I bought what I could afford in Beirut to be free of negligent landlords and to be close to all the amenities.” What is of “no value” to anyone else is, after redecoration and some repairs, a priceless palace for Khazem.

What consistent small demand there is for old homes that don’t quite fall into the category of “charming period Lebanese home” depends on the location and the fact that the apartment does have at least, as Saade put it, “some cachet.” It’s not enough to say Ashrafieh in this regard; it depends on which bit of Ashrafieh. Sassine down to Abdel Wahab, Tabaris, Monot and Gemmayzeh is a much easier sell than Jeitawi. Sioufi falls somewhere in the middle. Most difficult of all is to try to sell a soulless home in a place like Sin El Fil or Jal El Dib. What emphasizes that difficulty is the fact that some buildings were very poorly constructed and may even be illegal in respect of both planning applications and building standards.

“At the time, these cheap apartments in the suburbs were attractive for people with very limited budgets who wanted to move down from the mountains and be nearer to Beirut,” said Saade. Nowadays there are very few takers for these homes. Even some of the newer apartments suffer from questionable construction practices but since the amateurs have been squeezed out of the building market in the past three to four years, average standards have risen.

An added difficulty to modernizing older blocks was highlighted by Mark Morris Jones, a real estate consultant at Michael Dunn and Company. “The chances of getting a collection of existing owners in a building to share equitably the installation of a generator or the provision of parking facilities is often so small as to be negligible,” he said. Even where agreement was reached, the improvements would be solely for the benefit of the owners since it would have little effect on the resale value of the property.

One section of people on the move that form an increasingly significant factor in the residential real estate market is the Lebanese diaspora and other Arabs. While an image exists of the mega-wealthy moving in, exemplified by the reported $12 million paid for the downtown Park View penthouse by Mohammed Sleiman, chief adviser to Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd, the bulk of the market is much more mundane. The demands of Lebanese expatriates – and most other Arab buyers – are predominantly similar to those of the domestic market. They want modern apartments with modern facilities.

“The budgets of expatriates tend to be a little higher than those of people already living here,” said Saade. Their choices of what to go for are unaffected by the reason for buying – either as a personal home or as an investment to rent out. Just as it’s more convenient to move into a home where everything is both clean and functional, so it’s easier to find a tenant for a modern apartment than for an old building. The percentage return is also better and, with reasonable tenants, the income from a new lease can make it a sound investment.

Cheap old houses bring in much smaller rents and much larger headaches as far as maintenance is concerned. But the Fakhourys didn’t enter the market to make money. They see the mountainous list of tasks to be done to convert their decaying acquisition into a home fit for the family more as a labor of love than a headache.