This year saw the launching of Beirut Terraces in Minet el Hosn — developer Benchmark’s second high-end project in the capital, with one of the highest prices per square meter in Beirut starting at $7,200. With more than $1.4 billion invested in residential projects, both in Lebanon and the region, the four-year-old firm is one of the key players in Beirut’s luxury property market. Executive sat down with Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bassim Halaby to chat about the current and future state of Beirut’s property market, with a special focus on the Beirut Central District (BCD).
E Were the rises in the price of property in Beirut over the last two years expected or even healthy?
Since the 2006 to 2008 period, the spike in prices made Lebanon seem brighter than it was. It’s the gap between the retraction in the world economy with the growth of Lebanon’s property market that made us look very good. But we all knew it was just a one or two-year phenomenon. Now, 2010 to 2012 is a time where solvency is expected to take place in the market. Most stock of housing should be absorbed by the market. If it [isn’t], it will take one additional year. Developers work on a pre-sale basis, so my sense is that in 2012 the market will stop witnessing mushrooming of new projects and there will be a major slowdown in the construction industry. Sell-offs will not happen at rock-bottom prices, but at good value for money.
E What about prices outside of Beirut?
The price of land doubled in the last five years in BCD and more than tripled around Beirut. So the BCD was already leading [the market] and hit a ceiling quickly. Beirut [areas outside of Solidere] has grown irrationally to the extent that prices around Beirut are very comparable to Solidere, without having the level of accessibility, the level of organized environment, control and zoning. It’s a fixed, regulated, predictable neighborhood. This is why people buy in BCD, because they know what they will view from their office or home. I would say prices have reached stabilization— a normalization of the market.
E Is infrastructure improving to be able to absorb the increase in construction?
Beirut infrastructure is a disaster in progress. The BCD has been planned on the basis of density, size of roads and anticipated traffic. But the moment the spillover of traffic of [greater] Beirut goes into BCD on the port roads, the BCD closes down.
E We have seen more demand for smaller apartments. How are developers responding?
Beirut’s property market is not homogenous; there are 17 micro markets each behaving differently. Small apartments — 90-150 square-meter (sqm) — are not a new trend in some of these markets, particularly on the outskirts of the city, but would definitely be a novelty in BCD.
People have been buying small apartments, crowding themselves into spaces they believe they can live in and then closing off balconies with glass, meaning that the indoor space was not enough for them. That’s why one of the concepts of Beirut Terraces was to create an indoor/outdoor living space. But in general, the smaller the apartments, the more a developer has to provide costly parking space. For a 300 sqm apartment I have to provide two spaces. If I build three 100 sqm apartments, I have to provide three. Outside Beirut, the municipal law is not as strict on amenities and services provided.
E From your building experience in the BCD, what are buyers’ preferences shifting toward?
Having tried Wadi Hills, where people wanted townhomes with gardens, we came to the conclusion that we could do the same concept of townhomes, yet stacked vertically. They feel private yet close to each other, like in a village.
E More developers are claiming to build “green” projects. Are buyers more aware of environmentally-friendly construction?
Today, “green” is not a selling item. LEED certification [the United States Green Building Council certification system] is not a valid draw for a buyer. But buyers are becoming more and more concerned about long-term running costs of their unit. The reason to buy is still location, size and quality of life offered.
E What draws investors to Lebanon in spite of the political instability?
Politics, security and stability have never been a reason to stop Lebanese from investing in real estate. The market is led by at least 66 percent demand from [local] Lebanese, 20 percent from Lebanese expatriates and 14 percent from non-Lebanese demand. So Lebanese are always interested in having an apartment for themselves or their kids.
E Have developers’ profit margins changed over the last few years?
Today we don’t have a project in Beirut that exceeds $130 to $150 million in [construction] costs, unless it’s something like City Mall or a commercial project. A project value of $500 million [such as Beirut Terraces] means you’re talking about $150 to $170 million for the cost of land, $150 million on construction cost and the rest are revenues that you have to pay taxes on, so it’s not [all] profits. Developers are operating on profit costs ranging between 10 to 30 percent.
E How will the BCD area change in the near future?
The landfill area [reclaimed land on the seafront adjacent to Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure (BIEL) center] consists of available plots in BCD. BIEL is a temporary structure to be replaced by a tower, which might be 200 meters high, which Solidere is planning. Whereas the height of Wadi Hills is 110 meters, the height of towers on landfill plots is going to be around 180 meters.
E Looking towards 2011 and beyond, what cost issues are developers facing?
Developers do ‘land banking’ and therefore buy land in anticipation of the next project and not because we hedge on whether there is stability or long-term peace. There is always a project in the pipeline. Construction cost fluctuates depending on demand, but it has stabilized due to the financial crisis. China is no longer building by the billions and thus increasing raw material prices. Gulf countries are no longer experiencing high growth potential. So we are working with a normal situation where construction cost is predictable. The value of real estate has normalized.
E What about the recent influx of “nonprofessionals” in the real estate market?
This is an unregulated business and anyone can become a developer. That’s why we saw so many entrants. People think that you can bring the architect and make him the project manager, architect, builder and everything. You [can] bring a contractor who would subcontract everything else. Some people get together, build a project, distribute shares or units among themselves and sell the remainder, which brings in some profits.
The problem is when these same people get into another project, but now they have to sell all of it off to market. Without the right calculations, they build the wrong product for the wrong market. In Beirut, approximately 30 percent of stock has been built with substandard quality and is wrongly priced. The market regulates itself so they will eventually close down their shop.
E Is choosing the right architect for a major project in BCD becoming more important because of the construction boom and subsequent competition?
We want Beirut Terraces to be an award-winning design at the global level. We want to put Beirut on the map of quality of architecture and quality of life and match what Solidere is trying to promote: ‘Beirut as a reborn city.’ By choosing Herzog & de Meuron [architects] we have been able to achieve, despite the market’s soft tendencies today, great interest and a demand that is resilient to market softness.
E What is the key ingredient that makes Beirut real estate vigorous?
Beirut has shown that cities are based on culture and not only services and economies. When I was doing my thesis back in the 1980s, I looked at cultural activities like jazz festivals that re-invigorated the economies of New York, Boston and cities in Canada. Beirut has all the ingredients of cultural activities, beyond the nightlife, beyond the food, beyond everything. The biggest ingredient is the people… this culture transcends to every single Lebanese, so big developers today are more or less targeting a diaspora that has the taste of globalization but has the real know-how of the local culture.