By Anuj Puri
The year 2014 has been quite fruitful for the real estate sector in terms of business sentiment, although the real effect of many of the policies and amendments announced in 2014 will take effect only in 2015. Starting from Union Budget FY2014-15, where affordable housing was considered on par with infrastructure, to relaxation of rigidities in the Land Acquisition and Real Estate Regulatory Bill, the country’s new Prime Minister has been offering the real estate sector consistent doses of energy.
The winds of change are now blowing more perceptibly. Inflation, including the house price component, has now been reduced to the lowest level in recallable history. Property buyers are back in force in most cities as enquiries have rebounded, and developers are finally reading the writing on the wall more accurately and coming in with the kind of supply that is relevant to demand.
2015 will definitely be a good year for the real estate sector on two counts:
# The threat of inflation has completely submerged, and borrowing rates are sure to go down from the current levels. This will encourage potential buyers planning to avail of home loans to finally take the plunge. Also, with property prices staying stable and good deals being offered by developers in order to clear their inventory, fence-sitting buyers be further encouraged to press the ‘buy’ button.
# Economic activity is gradually picking up, and the Central Bank anticipates GDP growth to reach 6.5 per cent year-or-year in the next financial year (FY2015-16). Corporate India has already made it clear that there will be more hiring to help tackle rising business activity. Put together, this means a rise in jobs and incomes, which in turn is very favourable for both residential and commercial real estate.
Residential Real Estate
During 2014, new launches of residential units saw a consistent fall every quarter as a consequence of the subdued demand and high prices. While this was largely the case with high-end projects, the affordable housing segment definitely began to gain favour. This segment was firmly lodged under the priority schemes of the government and central bank, and buyers were seen finding comfort in investing in such projects given the smaller ticket sizes and improving connectivity in the suburbs of the major cities.
In the second half of 2014, many large developers who in the recent past concentrated on the mid-to-high segment due to better margins were seen eager to play the volume game and entering into affordable-segment projects in the deeper suburbs. This heartening trend began the ground work on bridging the wedge between demand and supply in our major metropolitan cities. Since developers are sitting on close to 30 months of unsold inventory in the mid-to-high-end segment, we also saw an increase in cash flows because of this new focus.
Completions, Net Absorption & Unsold Inventory – Residential
In 2015, developers will become more earnest about right-sizing and right-pricing their offerings. Smaller, yet better-designed and more efficient homes will define the residential real estate market in 2015, and selective corrections in some of the over-priced cities will help bring about faster sales for stagnated supply of larger configurations.
A large portion of the total unsold residential inventory is in the under-construction projects, while completed projects have only moderate vacancy. Home buyers looking for ready-possession property will therefore find limited room for negotiations when compared to buyers who can wait for some time to get possession. The attractive schemes that were doled out by developers in under-construction projects during the festive season of 2014 are likely to continue into 2015.
2015 will see home buyers benefiting from reduced borrowing rates, increased developer-focus on affordable homes, largely stable prices, and better job and income prospects.
Affordable housing will clearly be the flavour of the season in 2015. While the ruling government at the Centre and the Central Bank have clearly spelled out their intention to push for affordable housing, it is the State governments which will need to take the implementation initiative. The recently concluded elections have clearly indicated that better governance, planning and good implementation are factors on which performance will be evaluated, and this segment is an important yardstick for sure. While affordable housing is in itself not a difficult format to deliver, the challenging part for many developers will be to align this format with their existing brand image without impacting it. However, as long as the current momentum and orientation prevails, we will at least see some good headway being made on this front in 2015.
Commercial Real Estate
# Over the past few years until 2014, the supply of office real estate was higher than demand by 4 to 10 million sq ft. Developers had been too optimistic in their anticipation of a revival in economic activity. Though office real estate prices failed to recover from the after-effects of the financial crisis up to late 2014, we did see the beginning of a gradual turnaround. This can be attributed to the fact that commercial real estate developers began to strategically reduce the incoming supply to a new-normal level of occupier demand in the range of 27 to 30 million sq. ft. each year. In 2015, demand will remain in this range, marginally improving from the level seen in 2014. However, with the rupee weakening to below INR 62/USD at the current time and India’s GDP growth likely to strengthen further, the positive risk to this forecast of a sharp uptick in demand cannot be ruled out though.
Retail Real Estate
# In 2014, the retail real estate sector was one of the biggest casualties to market conditions that increasingly favoured the online retail community, with the exclusion of well-managed and leasehold organised retail malls.
2014 also saw a few of these malls either converting into Grade B office space or reeling under the compounding effect of rising vacancy rates. Vacancy in poorly-built and operated malls was as high as 20 per cent, while good quality malls were relatively better off with about 10 per cent of vacant space. The e-commerce frenzy that has been taking India by storm and now poses a serious challenge to physical retailers and mall developers.
However, a handful of mall developers have risen to this challenge by identifying key transitions that could help them sail through. The measures they have undertaken include a revamped tenant mix, adoption of the mixed-use format and delivering theme-based shopping experiences. These practices are now common in overseas markets, and Indian retail malls will be seen adapting to them more rapidly in 2015.
The author is — chairman & country head, JLL India.