Properties a click away

Does the Internet help or hinder buyers in Lebanon’s real estate market?

Could online real estate take off in Lebanon?
Could online real estate take off in Lebanon?

Lebanon’s real estate market is not the most transparent for property buyers. But expats and foreigners looking to buy or rent assets in the country can turn to the internet to at least get an initial idea of what to expect and where to buy.

Although almost all of Lebanon’s competitive real estate agents accept the importance of the internet — at least to attract potential clients — many are still reluctant to share details of the properties they market online. Despite this, some attempts have been made to launch comprehensive online portals, giving viewers the opportunity to see what different sellers are marketing in the country.

Last July, Dubai-based online real estate portal propertyfinder.ae acquired Lebanese counterpart realestate.com.lb as part of a plan aimed at extending the firm’s activities across the Middle East.  “We enable users in Lebanon and abroad to see what properties are on the market,” explains the company’s director of international business development Ainsley Duncombe. The website does not facilitate sales directly, but acts as an intermediary between sellers (including brokers and developers) and property seekers.

“We have over 60 brokers and developers registered on the portal in total,” Duncombe tells Executive, without specifying how many such partnerships the company currently maintains in Lebanon versus the United Arab Emirates, where it was launched in 2007.

Duncombe’s mission is to manage propertyfinder’s expansion after the company established offices or country portals in Egypt, Qatar, Bahrain and Lebanon last year. Although Lebanon may not be the strongest among these markets, Duncombe says that it features some peculiarities which make it interesting to real estate market operators.

“Each market is very different,” Duncombe says. “But different markets give different opportunities. In Lebanon, for example, developers are now looking to build small apartments, which are in high demand. In other countries apartments remain big.”

Data gathered by propertyfinder.com.lb show that the highest demand is for 3-bedroom units, and that the most sought after locations are in and around Beirut. This is led by Ashrafieh, followed by the Mount Lebanon villages of Mansourieh and Bsalim and then Ras Beirut and Hamra in West Beirut.

Most visitors to propertyfinder.com.lb — 28 percent of searches — are looking to buy. 11.1 percent of searches are for rentals, and 28 percent are not specified. The propertyfinder.com.lb group offers fee-based posting to agents as well as general advertising on all its country portals, but refused to disclose its fees and rates for posting units or advertising on the website. For property seekers, browsing is free.

Total leads on propertyfinder.com.lb were up 57 percent in February this year compared with the last quarter of 2013, the company says, without revealing the number of leads in the first two months of 2014. Page views were up 65 percent in the first two months of 2014 — reaching 210,000 — whilst the number of listings grew by 85 percent. Time spent per user is double in the first quarter of 2014 when compared with the fourth quarter of 2013, which was the portal’s first quarter of operations under the propertyfinder brand.

Although Duncombe could not provide an exact percentage of users searching Lebanon’s properties from abroad, he says the figure was high.

“We have many expats who love their country,” Duncombe says. “They want to be able to see what is available and buy properties there. The internet helps in this sense and we are one spot for that.”

The website, which gives users the opportunity to contact sellers via email or phone, in February saw around 5,000 click-throughs on buttons for email and phone contact information that are displayed with all posted properties, and around 75,000 since the start of its operations in Lebanon.

Duncombe declined to say whether new partnerships with agents and brokers had been established since the launch of propertyfinder.com.lb and nor did he say whether they were planning to enlarge their local business through new hires. He says, however, that the team of realestate.com.lb had remained the same. “They had a good management and we saw significant benefits in acquiring them [rather than starting a new company] coming from their business model as well as from the relationships they had.”

Banks onboard

By purchasing its Lebanese subsidiary, propertyfinder also acquired the former website’s partnership with Bank Audi, which powers an online mortgage calculator for all Lebanese properties displayed on the website.
Audi, as well as several other Lebanese commercial banks, have adopted online mortgage calculators as a way to attract clients.

According to Audi’s head of retail banking in Lebanon, Grace Eid, online mortgage calculators are proving extremely effective in attracting loan subscribers.

“Many leads are generated from these calculators, be it through the bank’s website or the partners’ website,” she tells Executive. “Since borrowers can perform simulations anywhere and at any time of day, results show that they are increasingly using these calculators while continuing to visit the bank’s branches.”

According to Eid, internet services in the housing loan sector are increasingly requested and are likely to develop further in the coming years. Audi also has a partnership with Lebanese online banking portal bnooki.com, where loan searchers can compare the mortgages offered by different banks.

Other online real estate websites in Lebanon limit visitors’ action to the property search and do not offer any possibility to calculate loans online. Despite that, the number of websites listing properties for sale and rent in Beirut and in the rest of the country has increased over the past few years.

Agents of old

Most of them are the websites of agencies that have physical offices and operate on the field, such as Ashrafieh-based MetreKarre. Others are online real estate magazines and businesses which also offer their visitors an online research tool to look up properties in order to attract readers and clients. Other websites, such as properties-lb.com, let sellers list their own assets online for free.

In the case of MetreKarre, which has been operating in the luxury property market for the past five years, the online real estate portal serves as a way to promote the actual agency based in Ashrafieh, says agent Zeina El-Jouhary. “People find us online and we have so far had a very good traffic.”

The agency, which covers Beirut districts of Achrafieh, Gemmayze and Downtown, also lists properties outside Lebanon, in Paris and Cyprus. Many of its clients are also based abroad or are foreigners. “Most of them are foreign buyers, journalists or UN people, who work or will have to come to work in Lebanon and want to buy a house here,” Jouhary explains. “Some of them search our website and make the first contact when they are still abroad; others do it once they are already in Lebanon.”

Although many real estate agents are providing their websites with free online search tools, some of them prefer to limit this possibility to paying users. When he started his property agency and management business in Achrafieh ten years ago, Christian Baz waited for one year before he launched a website. “I wanted to be sure of what people wanted,” he explains.

In 2005, the founder of Baz Real Estate decided to put his entire database online and make it available to viewers, but, he says, rival agents in Beirut soon started taking information from his website and marketing the assets to their own clients. He then decided to make access to the database available only to registered users, who now pay $12 for a six-month subscription and $36 for one year. “It is not much but it made me as much as $1,000 in just one year, and other agents stopped taking information from me.”

Baz says that most of the money he makes from registration to his website is absorbed by the initial $10,000 fee he had to pay for the software, and the $500 he spends yearly on maintenance.  According to Baz, Lebanon is too small for an online real estate platform to work. “I would never upload my database in one of them,” he says. “These people want to make money with real estate as they sit in their office but real estate is a business that happens on the street and I don’t want anyone to earn money on my back.”

Baz thinks that websites are still mainly a complimentary tool for real estate agents in Lebanon. “Brokers here use the web for marketing purposes mainly and it’s fair enough: we are real estate agents not website developers and we should focus on what we do best.”

Tiziana Cauli is a Lebanon-based Italian journalist specializing in real estate and business

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