What are the property peaks and pitfalls that could shape South Africa’s real estate landscape this year?
“The theme for 2017 is expect the unexpected and be ready for the unpredictable,” says Samuel Seeff , chairman of Seeff Properties.
Sentiment is a strong driver in the current property market
And it’s likely to taint 2017 unless consumer confidence is restored. Herschel Jawitz, CEO of Jawitz Properties, underlines the importance of restoring consumer and business confidence: “That’s the key to recovery of the residential market … confidence, demand and price growth. In 2016, caution around the residential market had less to do with the economy and more to do with the current political leadership crisis.”
Uncertainty may have affected the market negatively but it is resolvable
Says Craig Hutchison, CEO of Engel & Volkers SA: “Strong leadership and a clear economic strategy will smooth the road to an improved property market. South Africans have proven and will prove that ineffective government and state capture will not be tolerated. So, a bumpy ride in the short term, but long-term the outlook is positive.”
Still-slower housing market expectations are thanks to the lagged impact of four to five years of prior economic growth stagnation
Says FNB household and property sector strategist John Loos: “For the overall housing market – despite some expected improvement in economic growth in 2017 – our projection is for average house price growth for 2017 to be slower than the 5.1% projected average for 2016, to the tune of 3%, accelerating only in 2018 to 4.7% on an annual average basis.” Loos predicts 2017 economic growth at closer to 1% – it was 0.2% in 2016 – but says it’s probably too soon for any positive turnarounds in employment numbers and consumer confidence.
There are pockets of property strength
Says Seeff : “We have in all likelihood now come to the end of a three-year cycle of positive growth for the market, with 2016 having shown a notable slowdown compared to 2015, and of course, the 2013-14 mini-boom peak phase.” According to Andrew Golding, chief executive of Pam Golding Properties, “The overall housing market may well continue to lose momentum, but there will be pockets of strength where positive real growth will continue to be recorded.” Adrian Goslett, regional director and CEO of RE/MAX of Southern Africa, predicts only marginal price growth: “Property price growth will again slow in most areas. However, there will be pockets of brilliance, such as Somerset West, which is still providing a great return on investment. Other pockets such as Lakeside provide a lower entry level, but will soon shoot up in value due to growing demand in Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs.”
Ratings agencies could play havoc
The threat of financial agency downgrades continues. Goslett outlines the probable knock-on effect on property: “Access to finance will become more expensive and interest rates will soar. Financial institutions will need to hold more money in reserve, making it more difficult to obtain credit, and that which is granted will come at a higher cost. “Saving will become tougher but also more critical in respect of deposit requirements and the ability to negotiate better rates based on less exposure for the bank.”
“There is a recessionary market across most of the country and for the next while, property purchases will be made of necessity rather than desire.”
-Lew Geffen, chairman, Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty
And these could be the game changers
Seeff is concerned about possible tax hikes and a rush of HNWI/business entrepreneurs and their money leaving South Africa. “We’ve seen a rise in demand for Golden Visa-type destinations for those who can afford to do so, looking to hedge their bets with one foot in an off shore destination while they wait to see whether some sense and sensibility can again prevail,” he says. “Tax hikes are coming and these could include higher property taxes for top-end properties, a concerning move, since it is likely to have the opposite effect. These buyers will just walk away, perhaps rather electing to put their money into a Golden Visa destination such as Mauritius, Malta or Cyprus.”
Foreign demand for luxury property
Geffen sees an increase in foreign demand for local property but it will “most likely be confined to the super-luxury bracket as the rand floats out further on the back of poor central governance”. Says Geffen: “The number of foreign purchases annually makes up a tiny fraction of the national market, so buoyancy in that area is unlikely to balance the scales.” What about the local luxury market? Says Geffen: “Nationally the picture won’t be quite as rosy; the local market is sentiment-driven and at the moment sentiment is down. There is a recessionary market across most of the country and for the next while, property purchases will be made of necessity rather than desire.” – Lew Geffen, chairman, Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty
Political effect on property
Recent political events in the US and UK could impact South Africa but it’s early days. Says Golding: “Markets are currently predicting that a Trump presidency will be positive for US economic growth but that this will ultimately result in higher inflation and interest rates. It would probably be positive for the dollar and global commodity prices. “Stronger US growth will be positive for global commodity prices and both will support South Africa’s economic growth rate. However, a stronger dollar may hurt the rand, with negative implications for inflation and ultimately interest rates.”
“While there are still some boxes to be ticked in terns of the deal going ahead, it will be of concern to the industry that effectively the property portal space is now owned by one group.”
-Herschel Jawitz, CEO, Jawitz Properties
Investment is essential for job creation; jobs, in turn, are essential for entrance into the property market. Says Seeff : “The political instability that has crept in, the violence around service delivery and university fee protests, the poor governance and rise in corruption … the world is watching and so are investors. “Without investment, the economy cannot grow, job growth has stagnated – in fact we’re losing jobs – and the economy is therefore not supporting upliftment of the poor. That means even fewer people can get into their own homes and fewer can get out of informal housing.
“We need stability for economic growth and investment. Once that is in place, everything else will follow … business and job growth, more people in their own bricks and mortar homes.” Yet Golding is positive about the knock-on effect of government’s investment in infrastructure. Says Golding: “This is positive for economic activity and employment opportunities, which underpin the local housing market in each area.” This infrastructure is often focused on public transport, which can open new housing markets by making them more accessible.
Property portal space
Jawitz raises a flag about the recent acquisition of Private Property, South Africa’s second-largest portal, by the country’s largest portal Property24.com. Says Jawitz: “While there are still some boxes to be ticked in terms of the deal going ahead, it will be of concern to the industry that the property portal space is now effectively owned by one group. The industry will have to make sure that the consumer offering and the offering to estate agencies is both fair and market-related.” Lew Geffen, Sotheby’s International Realty chairman, calls the acquisition a “complete shocker” that has the property industry “concerned and irate”. Says Geffen: “We first created a monster with Property24, which we successfully counteracted by bolstering Private Property’s market share. Now both have bitten the hand that feeds them by creating a virtual online monopoly. “There will be steps taken to address this. But perhaps, most importantly, no marketing platform should forget that it’s the real estate companies that hold the intellectual property that underpins their business. We have stopped print publications’ property sections in their tracks previously when they’ve challenged the industry and online is no different.
“My view is that as an industry we should collectively revert to print advertising exclusively for a time and gauge how the market responds. I think buyers and sellers will follow where we go. “Every large real estate company in South Africa has a comprehensive website to market its own properties online and their social media channels are well supported. The reach of sothebysrealty.co.za combined with the global reach of sothebysrealty.com already gives us an immensely strong online marketing presence.”
Buy to let rental demand
Affordability and bond repayments will come under huge pressure in 2017, distressed sales will rise and more people will start renting. This should bode well for investors, according to Seeff. Adds Goslett: “Investors may not be as excited about the prospects of capital growth in the short term, but then again property was always designed to be a long-term investment.” Investors looking for good returns will need to be more discerning and wary of the untapped potential of up-and-coming areas. According to Goslett, “Cash will very much become king in the medium term. Buyers who have access to the necessary resources will likely benefit at the closing table.”
Paul Stevens, CEO of Just Property, suggests that investors should accept slightly lower rental increases and search harder for properties with good yields because they won’t be as readily available. Says Stevens: “Buy-to-let owners are battling to push through inflation-beating rental increases when new leases are up for renewal. Also affecting rental yields in 2017 will be further rate increases and tenants’ rental defaults, as they buckle under the pressure of inflation and being overextended. Nationally, the average escalation rate of 2.89% indicates just how price-sensitive South African tenants are currently.”
Stevens says the average rental achieved across Just Property’s rental book countrywide is R6,550, with the Western Cape showing the highest rental growth – almost 10%. Loos says the Western Cape has a “strong net inward migration” of repeat home buyers and renters, unlike other provinces. Unofficial reports suggest that almost 300,000 people have migrated to Cape Town in the past year. “Gauteng is a different picture,” says Stevens. “Historically, it has always been the rental hub of South Africa but over the past few years we have seen a decline in rental growth. This is mainly due to the increased supply of rental units in the Gauteng area where demand has now started to drop off and vacancies are climbing. The North West province and Mpumalanga have also been affected negatively by a depressed mining sector.”
Urbanisation and semigration
RealNet’s MD Gerhard Kotzé believes the effects of urbanisation will be felt especially in Gauteng, as thousands relocate from rural areas and smaller towns to cities in search of work or business opportunities. Many semigrants will be younger so keen on smaller, affordable homes close to city centres or commercial hubs, with shops, entertainment venues and public transport supplied. It should drive increased demand for flats and townhouses, leading to further subdivision and densification in old suburbs as freehold homes on large stands make way for multiunit developments. Everitt envisages increased housing demand in metros – especially Cape Town – driven by the search for education and employment, and a longer-term trend towards urbanisation and semigration to places perceived as being better-managed and/or offering an improved quality of life.
Unemployment and first-time buyers
Job creation impacts significantly on the property market, particularly first-time buyers. Statistics SA’s most recent figures show unemployment increased from 26.6% in Q2 2016 to a record 27.1% high in Q3, its highest in 13 years. South Africa has the highest jobless rate among more than 60 developed and emerging countries. Says Golding: “First-time buyers are a huge positive for the housing market, but only if they are able to find employment. A young population is a positive fundamental for any property market – a source of housing demand for a sustained period of time.” Seeff highlights a slow pace of developments for the entry-level end of the market as a “real concern”. Says Seeff: “We are not seeing growth in first-time home buyers. The lower sub-R500,000 end of the market is not growing to any significant degree to alleviate the lack of property ownership that plagues the country.”
Affordability is everything
Everitt notes improving macroeconomic conditions: “Expectations are that although the CPI will end 2016 at 6.3%, which is outside the Reserve Bank’s target range, it will slowly retreat to about 5.5%. Further good news is that economic growth is expected to rise from 0.4% to 1.3% in 2017. “While hardly stellar, this will be positive for property because it will bring about increased employment and improved consumer confidence. If properly managed, the R988bn allocated to state spending on energy and water projects, transport infrastructure and housing over the next three years will also assist in creating many new jobs – and potential home buyers.”
MD of Rawson Property Group Tony Clarke says affordability is the watchword, especially if interest rates rise: “By increasing repayments on all sorts of debt, higher rates make it difficult for first-time buyers to save the deposits they need in order to be approved for a home loan. I expect to see their numbers decline quite sharply over the next few months and to see price growth slow at the lower end of the market.” Everitt does not expect interest rate increases in 2017 so predicts that “home loan rates will also not rise. Consumers may find it somewhat easier to qualify for new loans and to afford the monthly instalments if their salaries increase and they do not have too much debt”.
Kotzé believes that in National Credit Act terms, “many South Africans have too much debt to qualify for a home loan, even if they believe they could afford the monthly instalments and would really like to become home owners”. They could struggle to pay off debt even if food prices decline thanks to more tax; if salaries increase less than the official inflation rate, and school fees, medical aids, electricity and water costs increase. Says Kotzé: “This means that the current oversupply of stock compared to financially able buyers is likely to persist – and that those who are able to secure home loans, or who can pay cash will be in a strong position when it comes to negotiating prices and keeping them down.”
“Buy-to-let owners are battling to push through inflation beating rental increases when new leases are up for renewal.”
-Paul Stevens, MD, Just Property
“In recent years, sectional title has been the stronger segment, especially the smaller sectional title one-bedroom and less size.”
-John Loos, FNB household and property sector strategist
Types of homes
Says Everitt: “Although repeat buying and second-home buying will be bolstered by the equity that existing home owners have built up in their properties and are able to use as deposits, we expect rising property rates and utility charges to significantly boost the trend among such buyers towards downsizing to smaller homes and luxury apartments.” He says certain areas within the metros will be more popular and likely to experience sustained price growth. According to Everitt, “It will also, we believe, give major impetus to the development of upmarket cluster or sectional title developments where affluent residents share the cost of land, luxury amenities and high-tech security provisions.” Loos believes it is almost time for full title to outperform sectional title. Says Loos: “In recent years, sectional title has been the stronger segment, especially the smaller sectional title one-bedroom and less size. I believe a period of relatively strong first-time/younger age buying was a key driver of better small sectional title performance. In a downturn, though, the full title market tends to weather the storm better it seems, although both classes have recently been slowing.”
Kotzé expects “considerable changes” in the real estate industry landscape over the next few years, along with some consolidation. “For starters, we expect agent numbers will decrease over the next couple of years largely due to retirement, as many of the current top agents are in their late 60s and 70s and young people are not coming into the industry in any great numbers,” he says. “Secondly, we expect to see more ‘property principal groups’ where strong independents in a particular town or city form localised alliances that do not impact on their daily business operations but give them purchasing power when it comes to training or advertising, for example, and enables them to share listings.” The knock-on effect could be squeezing out of smaller operators. “Thirdly, technology is increasingly enabling agencies to get more done and serve more clients with fewer agents, especially in areas where buyers and sellers are young and techno-savvy.”
On the technology point, Century 21 CEO Harry Nicolaides reminds us that traditional agencies should ensure that their digital offering is cutting edge to avoid falling behind. He says: “This digital phenomenon impacts only on the way properties are advertised and has no influence on the other intricacies of selling or buying a property.” Hutchison agrees. “The business fundamentals always remain the same. However, the platforms and how we achieve those fundamentals are rapidly changing with technology,” he says.
Says Nicolaides: “The most active sector among consumers in the property industry are not the HNWIs nor pensioners, who may require a more personal and discreet service, but those in the affordable price bracket who have demanding careers, young families and limited time. They require fast, efficient and ‘on demand’ services. For them, the convenience of interacting on digital platforms is ideal. “This convenience is a requirement for most consumers but especially for the millennial and X generations who do not want to meet agents physically from the onset of their property search and who are influenced by what’s trending in the property industry on social media, not by what an agent may or may not say.” Consumers of 2017 want greater choice and more control over the property process.
Words Anne Schauffer