Joydeep Ghosh: Why real estate prices won’t fall!

There’s too much at stake for both builders and their lenders, as a correction would put both in a tight spot

It seems that everyone, except real estate developers, wants property prices to fall. But there is some serious doubt it will happen soon, or ever. What potential buyers can hope for at best, is a slow rate of growth in prices or a miniscule revision, especially in big cities.

The reason is quite simple: Too much is at stake. Most builders have borrowed from housing finance companies, banks and private equity players. The latter have lent at rates as high as 25-30 per cent a year. Yet, resistance to rate cuts is unlikely to come from them.

It is more likely to come from housing finance companies and banks that have funded both builders and borrowers quite aggressively in the past. They would be quite petrified at the thought of a real estate slump.
Though the Reserve Bank of India limited loan-to-value to 80 per cent and took registration and stamp duty charges out of the loan component a couple of years ago, enough players lent as much as 100 per cent before these guidelines came into place. Some gave even more than 100 per cent of the residence value, if one includes payment for stamp duty, registration fees and sometimes, even home improvement loans.

If there is a sharp correction – say even 20 per cent – buyers, especially those who own second and third properties, will simply dump them. Worse still, investors who are helping builders hold on to prices will exit at the first inkling of any correction. In such circumstances, both builders and financial institutions will be stuck very badly. The latter, as we know, are already saddled with non-performing assets in various sectors.

What else justifies an inventory of 80,000-plus flats (report by Knight Frank on July 2012), with an average price of Rs 1.2 crore, lying unsold in just one city… Mumbai? That is, flats worth almost Rs 1,00,000 crore have no takers, still builders are unwilling to cut prices sharply. In addition, another 50,000-100,000 flats are supposedly vacant, but not available for sale, suggest reports.

It’s not that bankers have not been wary of lending to builders. But builders raised money at obscene rates to repay debts as well as to hold on to prices. Like a private equity player said, “One builder wanted a loan of Rs 100 crore just for one month, after deducting interest, because he did not want to default on his bank repayment. The interest cost: Rs 5 crore for just one month.” In other words, he was willing to pay 60 per cent interest instead of selling his inventory.

A little chat with market players will tell you that some banks are helping builders raise funds to avoid any default or disaster. Many banks, through their wealth management arms, are roping in high-networth individuals with lucrative offers. Others are using their private equity arms to fund them.

Yes, there can be corrections, in fact sharp ones. But only if the Reserve Bank of India and the government step in. RBI can make loans for investors or second/third property holders very difficult. Also, if projects are not completed or delayed, financial institutions should be able to take them over and sell them, much like the Sarafaesi Act. This way they can protect themselves.

The government can put pressure on civic bodies to use powers vested with them to check a builder’s record before giving clearances. If a developer has delayed a project or sold more than 10 per cent of a previous building to investors, they should not be given clearances for the next project. But that is called… living in hope.

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Realty regulator will keep builders on a tight leash

A new law to give home buyers a better deal aims to ensure builders sell residential property on the basis of carpet area instead of ambiguous terms like “super area” while a regulator will ensure housing projects declare the status of important civic clearances.

The Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Bill, which the government plans to bring to Parliament in the budget session, has been framed under provisions dealing with property transactions in the concurrent list of the Constitution that applies to states, making the proposed legislation more than a model law.

In a bid to try and make sure developers stick to timelines, the proposed law states that realty players will have to park 70% of funds in a particular bank account so that resources are not diverted and buyers are not left in the lurch.

A real estate regulator in every state will make it mandatory for private developers to register all projects before sale of property and only after getting all necessary clearances, addressing a major concern of buyers about incomplete or fraudulent land acquisition.

According to the bill’s provisions, failure to declare status of clearances will invite up to a maximum three years imprisonment or fine that can amount to 10% of project cost.

Realty players will have to disclose project details and contractual obligations to ensure transparent, fair and ethical business practices. There can be a model agreement which is expected to reduce ambiguities in real estate transactions that not many buyers are familiar with.

Private builders are not comfortable with some of the bill’s provisions and voiced their objections at a meeting chaired by housing minister Ajay Maken and urban development minister Kamal Nath. Those who attended the deliberations included representatives of developers’ associations — CREDAI, NAREDCO and industry chambers CII and FICCI.

Builders maintain there is no need for a regulator as they are already subjected to clearances from multiple agencies. They felt the penal provisions hurt their interests, but the government might want to increase the odds in favour of consumers.

The meeting was called after the intervention of the Prime Minister’s Office which asked the ministries of housing and urban development to resolve differences and quickly finalize the long pending bill.

The government hopes that the move for a strong legislative protection for buyers, which will also rein in unscrupulous players, will help in gaining the appreciation of middle class voters who have drifted from Congress in the wake of a series of corruption scams.

Although realty developers have been asked to submit their views at the earliest, the government seems determined not to dilute consumer friendly provisions. “We are not going to compromise on any aspect of the bill that hurts the interest of common home buyers,” Maken said.

Real estate agents will also be asked to register with the regulator. “The agents, an important link between the promoter and buyer, have been unregulated. Once they are registered, it will be help in curbing money laundering,” an official said.

HC tells NHAI to maintain Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway

Punjab and Haryana high court on Thursday asked the concessionaire, Delhi Gurgaon Super Connectivity Limited ( DGSCL), the Gurgaon police and all others concerned to put their heads together to resolve all outstanding issues to smoothen the vehicular traffic at the toll plaza on the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway.

The high court directed the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) to improve the condition of the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway and service lanes near the Sirhol toll plaza in Gurgaon at the earliest for the smooth flow of traffic.

The division bench comprising justice S K Mittal and justice Amol Rattan Singh, hearing the petition filed by the concessionaire, Delhi-Gurgaon Super Connectivity Limited (DGSCL), also directed all the parties concerned in the case to convene a meeting before the next date of hearing and inform the developments to the court.

During the arguments of the case, the Haryana government’s counsel informed the court that the NHAI was not taking the case seriously and there was a need for the maintenance of road and service lanes near the toll plaza.

The Gurgaon police informed the court that authorities were conducting meetings at regular intervals to ponder over the issue and to make the toll plaza less congested for smooth flow of vehicles. Justice S K Mittal said that he would himself be making a visit to the Sirhol toll plaza in a day or two to get a first-hand account of the ground situation. He also cited an example where a serious patient could not reach the hospital in time due to the traffic jam at the toll plaza.

However, justice Amol Rattan Singh asked the Haryana government to also look at the condition of traffic snarls at Karnal toll plaza where sometimes the traffic comes to a halt for almost on a distance of one kilometre.

Mumbai, Kolkata top in adding new homes in 2012: Report

At a time when the real-estate sector across the country is witnessing a slowdown, Kolkata, Mumbai and Pune recorded significant growth in new residential units, in 2012.

According to study released by real estate consultants Cushman & Wakefield, the total new units launched across eight cities went down by approximately 16 per cent (to 162,000 units) in 2012 when compared to 2011.

Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata were the exceptions with 72 per cent, 34 per cent and 19 per cent increase.

The study was carried out across eight cities — Delhi & NCR, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, Mumbai, Pune, and Kolkata.

While Bangalore saw the highest decline of nearly 50 per cent (16,543 units), Mumbai witnessed the maximum growth of 72 per cent (22,423 units).

Of the total number of units launched, majority were in the mid-end segment, which comprised approximately 83 per cent of the total launches.

According to the report, a total of 8,900 units were launched in Kolkata in 2012.

Nearly, 62 per cent of these units were in the mid-end segment (5,535 units) and priced between Rs 36 lakh and Rs 60 lakh. This was followed by the high-end segment, priced upwards Rs 60 lakh, which accounted for another 38 per cent of the launches.

On a year-on-year basis, supply of mid-level homes increased by 26 per cent to 5,535 (from 4,372). Similarly, high-end home launches too increased to 3,360 units – 17 per cent up from the 2,863 units launched in 2011.

Interestingly, supply of luxury homes dipped drastically in 2012. The number of units launched dipped from 280 (2011) to just 23 (2012) — a near 92 per cent fall.

“Cash-strapped developers were not willing to take up projects that may fall short in interest from end users, thereby keeping their risk exposure minimum,” Sanjay Dutt, Executive Managing Director, South Asia, Cushman & Wakefield says.

According to the report, the short term outlook of the city suggests a cautious approach by end-users in the wake of high home loan rates coupled with inflation.

What does the new-age buyer want?

Vineet Relia of SARE Homes talks to Lakshmi Krupa about financial innovations, Chennai’s fascination for villa projects, and the city’s changing needs…

Customers almost always come with a checklist these days, especially in suburban areas where we do gated communities. In Chennai, proximity to schools, health facilities and security are of great importance. They are not looking for super luxury but a good lifestyle at a low ticket price.

How different is it being an FDI developer in a traditional market?

In some sense, in the real estate market, we see ourselves as game changers. The real estate market usually has family-run businesses or one-man businesses but being a corporate body with an independent board helps us remain objective. There is no personal agenda and our projects are all from the capital provided by funders such as Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.

You have announced a few financial innovations (such as pay nothing until possession after the initial 20 per cent). Is this your reaction to the current market scenario?

While we continue to believe that the market is as robust as ever, our innovation is an effort to reduce the financial burden on potential homeowners. Consider a typical buyer — a couple with double income, buying a home on loan. They apply for the loan and until possession they have to carry the burden of their rent and the EMI. Sometimes, projects are delayed due to approval issues and in these cases they save a lot of time with this offer.

There has been a marked increase in villa projects along OMR and GST over the last one year. What explains this?

We find that the Chennai customer wants to stay as close to the ground as possible. That’s probably why high-rises don’t catch their fancy as much as villas do. You own your own piece of land and it comes with the option of expansion later. In our projects, we are offering expandable villas that come with a pre-approved plan for expansion. Owners can build another room anytime they want to and not even necessarily through us but any builder.

Infrastructure-wise how does Chennai compare with other markets?

I don’t think a lot of people even know that Chennai has seen the highest amount of FDI in the last two to three years. A lot of activity is happening, especially around the Oragadam area, and a detailed Master Plan with more structure will take the city to a higher platform almost certainly.

Signs of improvement visible in real estate: India Ratings

India Ratings has revised its outlook for the Indian real estate sector to ‘negative to stable’ for 2013, from negative in 2012.

The rating agency sees signs of improvement in terms of stability of margins and the easing of liquidity pressures, with free cash flows turning positive since the second half of 2012.

According to the report, in financial year 2011-12, companies generated positive free cash flows and the trend continued into the first half of 2012-13. “Apart from stable demand, other efforts to improve liquidity included strategies like monetization of land and non-core assets, exercising prudence in new launches and adopting the JV route to developing projects,” India ratings, which is part of the international ratings agency Fitch Group, said in a report. Also, EBITDA margins, which steadily declined to 30% in 2012 from about 55% in 2008, stabilized at that level during 2012. “That this was possible despite increases in construction costs, signals a potential return of stability,” the report said.

However, demand remains subdued and EBITDA margins low, leading to weak credit metrics for companies in the sector, India Ratings said.
According to India Ratings, demand for residential real estate stabilized in 2012, with banks’ exposure to home loans growing by about 17.4% in November 2012 compared with the previous year. However, exposure to the commercial real estate sector increased by just 1.7%, during the first 11 months of 2012.

Also, according to the report, the sales of large players declined marginally in 2012. “Economic weakness continued with the associated apprehension of employee downsizing and salary freezes, which adversely affected consumer sentiments,” the company said in the report.
High inflation and high interest rates continue to reduce affordability, and high property prices will continue to hinder improvement in demand, according to the report. “Commercial demand will be hit by subdued job growth in the IT sector, where average quarterly net headcount addition in 2012 has been around 28%-32% lower than in the previous two years. Demand for retail space is likely to be muted in the near term,” the report said.

With funding options limited, the key to sustainability for real estate companies is growth in sales, India Ratings said. Private equity inflow, too, into the sector has been moderate. “The limited funding options imply a continuance of dependence on operational cash flows for funding growth and debt servicing,” the agency said in the report.

After National Green Tribunal order, Noida builders stop construction

Order prohibits them from drawing underground water for construction

After the National Green Tribunal order prohibited the use of groundwater for construction, builders in Noida and Greater Noida have stopped work to take stock of the situation. Builders said they would hold talks with the Noida Authority next week to understand the legality of the order, which was issued on Friday.

A representative of a company, which has several under-construction buildings in Noida and Greater Noida, said, “During the stage of structure building, water is a massive component and a lot of the underground water was drawn. We do not want to violate the order and are waiting for more clarity before we restart construction. All pumps that draw water from the construction site have been stopped with immediate effect.”

Other real estate developers said they were not drawing any more water and that they were just using water drawn before the order was issued. “But these stocks will not last more than a week,” one of their representatives said.

Builders said water will have to be bought from other areas, which will increase input costs. “We will have to buy a large quantity of water from other places. This means an addition of two costs — the water and the cost of transporting it. This will eventually trickle down to the consumer. We are working on an action plan to try and protect buyers as much as possible. We will finalise it next week. We hope that there are no further protests by buyers on this issue as the increase in costs is inevitable,” a representative of CREDAI (Confederation of Real Estate Developers Associations of India) Greater Noida said.

Buyers were worried about the halt in construction. Manish Sharma, who has booked a flat in Greater Noida’s Patwari area, said, “I am seriously considering cancelling my booking. There have been a series of problems with real estate in the area. First there were farmer agitations against the acquisition of land, which stalled work for over a year. Then the Allahabad High Court asked the Greater Noida Authority to get clearance for the Greater Noida Master Plan from the National Capital Region Planning Board. Now we hear that costs will go up because of this order. I understand that the rise in costs is inevitable because of the conditions on the builder, but I may not be able to afford the increase in rates. I am hoping that there will be no added payment for those who have already bought flats. The developer said he would only be able to tell me about their plan next week.”