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The Marbella Property Market Report 2009 – 2010

An up-to-date report on how the worldwide economic crisis is affecting the property market in Spain’s most important resort city.

April 2009

Marbella property demandBefore the critical events of September 2008 and the following months, the property market in Marbella was suffering severely, as throughout Spain and the rest of the world, especially in the lower end of the market, and especially with newly built properties.

As the year advanced, it became clear that Spain’s own economy was nowhere nearly as strong as the politicians were announcing before the March elections. The “easy credit” which was a primary factor in fuelling the Spanish property “boom” of the mid-1990’s to 2006 had virtually dried up. Property companies started to go bankrupt, affecting the entire economy. The Bubble burst, hard times began with a bang and the repercussions ran deep.

On the Coast, the market for “off plan” touristic properties peaked in 2004 and has been on a descending curve since then, reaching crisis proportions last year. Nationally, the demand for new homes hit its peak in mid-2007, according to national statistics. Today, (with reliable statistics still lacking from the Government) the Bank of Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria estimates that at the end of 2008 there was a glut of between 800,000 and 1,400,000 new unsold homes in Spain (19/12/08, http://prensa.bbva.com), including the Coastal properties, with an estimated 24,000 living units on the Costa del Sol (Diario Sur Domingo, 04/01/09). Added to what can easily be another 800,000 of resale properties, there is a glut of homes on the market in Spain, which will take years to be absorbed.

However, one cannot really analyse the market from the press reports which generally concentrate on new properties and the national market. There are different sectors belonging to different markets in different areas where there is a variance of some of the basic fundamentals at play, and one should not make the mistake of lopping every sector of every market in Spain into the same basket and reaching the same overall simplistic conclusion. For example, until September of last year, it went virtually unreported that the higher end of the luxury market, comprising mostly resale properties, had held up reasonably well, as elsewhere in the world, and the most expensive properties belonging to the Super Rich were even marginally increasing in value.

The World Financial Meltdown, starting in mid-September, changed the scenario

Marbella property demandThe rapid slowdown commencing in September began to affect buyers of Luxury Residences not only in Marbella but globally, exacerbated by the credit crunch and the difficulty in obtaining mortgages. A very low volume of sales has characterized the market on all levels in general in the last quarter of the year, picking up slightly in the first quarter of 2009, with purchases for the most part by bargain seekers. However, in the month of April, there has been a surprise spurt of sales in all price sectors, with bargain seekers leading the way. Easter week enjoyed an incredible record hotel occupancy of 85%, proving once again how closely property market activity follows the influx of quality tourism.

How much have prices dropped from their peak prices?

The percentages stipulated in the following paragraphs are intended to be indicative in nature and are based upon the first hand experience of seasoned agents in the Marbella area who deal daily with buyers and sellers, including property developers.

  • Properties most severely affected are the least expensive (under €700,000), comprising principally newly built properties but not excluding resales, in the less consolidated areas. They have gone down in price from their peak values in 2005-2006 (defined as real sales values, as compared with asking prices, of similar properties at their highest historical point) by generally 25% to 30%, but in some cases, even up to 40% or slightly more.Properties in this price range achieving the best prices in a shorter selling period are located in better areas, and are usually resales, have descended in value from 15% to not more than 30%.
  • Properties priced from €700,000 to €2,000,000 have seen a 20%-30% decline from their peaks (again, less so in the best areas) while those priced at up to €3.000.000 have suffered a lesser drop of 15%-25%.
  • In the higher price brackets: fewer properties are for sale and although owners may be receptive to reasonable offers, in general they have the financial wherewithal to “hold out” if necessary. There are and will be some very good buys as, in some cases, even very wealthy owners simply want to “move on”. It would be fair to say that prices in this luxury end of the market have descended in the area of 15% to 20% from their peak values as defined above.
  • Very special “one of a kind” properties, with unique characteristics, qualities and location, have not been substantially affected by the crisis, provided their asking prices are sensible, but this is, once again, a question of the seller’s desire to “move on” and even with this type of property, good deals can sometimes be available.

Again, the same is true for the most expensive properties as the less expensive ones: the better the location, the better the market, and the easier it is to sell.

The pricing of properties by their owners, in most price categories, is now far more realistic than in the past. This process has been complicated, as usual, by some agents who tell owners what they want to hear, rather than explaining the realities of the market. Most sellers, however, have already sharply reduced their original asking prices, but many potential buyers do not take this into consideration when they place an offer.

What is selling?

Marbella property demandBarbara Wood, (www.thepropertyfinders.com) in a well-written market report of Andalucia, stated recently “in the quality resale market it is not so much about over-supply but more a factor of how badly and how quickly does the seller need to get out that is driving the market.”

There have obviously been sales since last September, but generally at substantially reduced prices, with the notable exception of truly unique properties which cannot be easily reproduced, or which a buyer has not wanted to risk losing by delaying. Many potential buyers think that vendors will drop their already reduced prices an additional 25% to 50%, without careful analysis of either the current market, intrinsic value, historical value, reproduction cost, or comparable sales being made right now. The result is that such offers simply throw a bucket of cold water on most sellers, and do not engage their interest to negotiate.

Other sales have been made between reasonable buyers (looking for a very good deal), and reasonable sellers, (looking to make a sale and move on, often to another property). Further sales are being made by those willing to trade up or down. These types of sales will continue throughout this difficult period.

Warren Buffet, who ranked number one on the World’s Billionaire list in 2008, said in an interview last November: “I don’t worry about the things that I really am not going to understand anyway. I worry about what’s important and knowable.”

What is knowable about the property market in Marbella that will be important in the coming months?

1. The demand factor is still there. The number of potential purchasers enquiring about and visiting properties for sale in this area has not plummeted, as worldwide property market stagnation might suggest. Viewings have dropped around 25% over last year’s levels, as reported by the top agents in Marbella, coinciding exactly with Panorama’s statistics of its own activity. However, enquiries via the internet actually increased during the last quarter of 2008, with respect to DM Properties and Panorama. The difference is that very few offers are being made, and many of these are totally unrealistic, as mentioned above. What is selling is limited to either very sensibly priced properties or very special properties from the standpoint of location, quality of construction or architecture, where a willing seller is ready to sit with a willing buyer and a good agent and see if they can realistically come together in harmony.

Strong supporting evidence of the still-present demand factor can be found in the study published last December by the company Globaledge (www.globaledge.co.uk).Claimed as the “biggest ever” study into global demand for overseas property”, the study examined 1.4 million English-language searches on Google using property and real estate keywords.

In essence, the study measured curiosity and Spain was clearly more interesting to Web surfers than any other destination, beating France into second place by more than a two-to-one margin.

Marbella property demandClearly there is a continuing and increasing demand of people who want to buy property in Marbella, waiting for the right time to move, and some of them will unquestionably act in the coming months. More than a few potential buyers, having located “the right property” for themselves and taken the decision to wait, will be disappointed when they decide to take action and find that their ideal property not only has been sold, but that there are no similar properties at similar prices on the market to replace it.

What else do we know for sure?

2. The off-plan purchaser has disappeared, for the foreseeable future, and will not be missed. Speculators of this nature only distort the market place. The end-user has taken his place, a good sign of a healthier market to come.

3. Quality locations hold value best: The three most important words in buying property “location, location, location!” remain true. Prime locations in the Marbella area and everywhere in the world are holding property values and selling far better than non-consolidated and secondary locations.

An excellent illustration of the above can be taken with the Urbanization Marina Puente Romano, in the middle of the Golden Mile, beachside, and situated next to the famous hotel of the same name. There are a total of 248 apartments in this magnificent estate. Only 13 of them are for sale, at the date of this report. And of these, only two owners have shown clear signs that they want to sell quickly, have dropped their asking price and are encouraging offers. La Zagaleta, located just outside the Marbella municipal boundaries, representing a quality estate environment virtually unique in Europe, has just 200 completed villas, amongst which only around 25 are for sale. Therefore, those potential buyers who place all sellers in the same category, and are expecting a deluge of properties for sale in the very best areas at rock bottom prices, are in for an unpleasant surprise.

4. Buyer insecurity is history: With the recent provisional approval of the new General Plan of Marbella, which is due to receive definitive approval later this year, buyers will not be responsible for developer’s sins, or failings of prior Municipal governments. Less than 400 living units are considered illegal under the new plan (compared with 19,000 before), and this phase of bad press and buyer insecurity is now virtually in the past.

Marbella property demand5. Safe Haven seekers: Trust in banks and their investment products has declined dramatically. The stock market has burned so many people, that many will be unlikely to return. The logical alternative or “safe haven” for many will be that of well-located “bricks and mortar”, bought at rock bottom prices, as among the most effective medium for future long-term investment, especially when coupled with usage and the well-known life style factors which make Marbella unique in Europe.

6. After the crisis, inflation: Governments have embarked on immense deficit spending in an attempt to pump their economies out of recession. Along with other measures taken, this enormous amount of money just now starting to be spent will eventually assist in reviving economic activity. But inevitably, printing money, pump priming, will result in inflation, significant inflation, and the prime beneficiaries of inflation will be those who bought properties at prices which are now reaching lows never anticipated only a few months ago.

Sophisticated investor buyers who have seen the above rule work time and time again, are right now in the market, looking to pick up the highest quality real estate they can at the best price, and will continue to be present for at least another two years.

7. A concentration of Wealth: There is a tremendous amount of wealth concentrated in the Marbella area. Economically speaking, this area of Spain will be less affected compared to the rest of the country, due to the higher level of stability in the quality end of tourism, which is its number one industry, and in the so-called residential tourism resulting from the use of first and second homes by international part-time and full-time residents. Wealth attracts more wealth, and there are still lots of wealthy people in Europe who want to live all or part of the year in Marbella for well known reasons.

8. A multi-source market: Although the Marbella market includes a good percentage (easily over 30%) of Spaniards who represent the foundations of the market in the first instance, it is nevertheless substantially more international than it is national. It is a multi-source market. This diverse international market base is the biggest factor which distinguishes the Coast from the national market, and will provide strength for a quicker recovery.

9. British sellers are providing better deals: With the pound plummeting by over 25% of its value at the beginning of 2008, and over 40% since its peaks in the year 2000, many buyers are finding that the very best buys can often be found with British sellers, who count their assets in Pounds Sterling, and can afford to sell therefore for a lesser amount of Euros compared with Euro zone resident sellers.

What about the future?

Marbella property demandThe Coastal market will probably start to recover during the latter part of 2009, depending on the evolution of the current world situation, but certainly before the national market. There is definite indication of this commencement towards market recovery, beginning already in the month of April, with a notable increase in sales volume. However, this recovery will be very slow, and very gradual. One should anticipate at least three years minimum before the market can return to normal activity. In the context indicated, the beginning of a market recovery is defined as “a significant perception by the market of an increase in the volume of sales”. Price levels of course depend on the level of both supply and demand, and as buyers come back into the market in significant numbers, prices will gradually increase.

Why is it possible for a beginning of market recovery so soon?

When the last setback commenced in 1990, the beginning of market recovery took easily 4 years. The market then built up year after year, to a speculative fever commencing around the year 2000 and double digit annual price increases. However, Marbella today is not the Marbella of the early nineties, for the following reasons:

In 1990, Marbella was seasonal in nature and had a real population (i.e. “off-season residents” including the floating population of people living here but not officially registered), of around 120,000 people. But when recovery was well underway, between 1995 and 1996, there were at least 150,000 people really living in Marbella off season. It was this “core population”, or critical mass of residents in the winter months which allowed Marbella to convert to a 12-month season, where restaurants, nightlife and sporting facilities could have enough business to remain open all year round. Today, this real population off season is estimated to be in the region of 225,000 – 250,000 inhabitants.

A critical factor in making the above happen was the investment of hundreds of millions of Euros in infrastructure, improvements and new facilities of all types, both by the municipal government of the early Mayor Gil years, as well as by private investment which Gil was influential in attracting to the city. These were the “show business” years of the early Gil government. Such investments simply do not just disappear when the market drops. All of the reasons for Marbella’s outstanding life style and its attraction to the quality end of the market are still present. Big investment focus on this area of the world is not going to go away.

Events and their repercussions move today at lightning speed compared with just twenty years ago, due to “globalization”, interdependence of economies and the speed of communication. As the prices in Marbella reach their lower limits, which is happening already in some categories and in “distress sales”, the word will spread instantly and those who have been waiting to buy will come into the marketplace, which will be the start of what will no doubt be a long period before returning to normal market activity.

But the most important factor is that there is just not a great number of quality apartments and villas out there for sale in the best areas, i.e. there is a limited supply. Marbella is not, in terms of numbers of villas or apartments, the West End of London, or Paris, or New York. The last official statistics date from the year 2001 census of the Instituto Nacional de Estadística, just at the beginning of the explosion of growth and building fever in Marbella and throughout Spain, and estimate that there were 80,172 living units in Marbella in that year. Extrapolating by the number of building licences granted in the interim period until now, there are only about 105,000 villas, townhouses and apartments in all of Marbella today. Of these 105,000 dwellings, in very rough terms, about 25% would be rated in the luxury end of the market, let us say properties priced over €450,000, and in quality, homogeneous residential areas. And of these, how many might be for sale? Certainly not more than between 10% minimum and 15% maximum. If one takes an overall estimate of 15% on average for all of the quality end of the market in the previously mentioned price range, that would give us only around 4,000 units for sale. Compare that with the estimate of between 800,000 and 1,400,000 unsold new living units in Spain quoted earlier, and it is easy to see why we are talking about a different market sector.

It is for the above reasons, therefore, that it is probable that the market will start to lift off later this year. But, in the meantime, before this recovery commences, a gradually increasing volume of sales will be made, generally to buyers who have decided they do not want to postpone their plans further. Generally speaking, the type of properties they will purchase will be well-priced, or viewed as excellent buys for their location, price, condition and lifestyle factor, or rare and unique properties which cannot easily be reproduced. A good agent will have these properties on his books and the knowledge and skill to help the buyer negotiate successfully with the seller.

There are of course conditions to securing a solid, long-term recovery. Apart from the obvious financial liquidity necessary for the beginning of a world economic upturn, these comprise: transparent, corruption-free and efficient local governments (this is certainly happening now in Marbella with the brilliant management ability and transparency of Marbella’s new Mayoress Ángeles Muñoz and her team); better public services and communication along with increasingly good infrastructure, which has already been ensured by the Regional Government and recent municipal grants by the National Government to the Town Halls; and greater care of our environment for which, finally, all levels of government are bearing the responsibility, as is apparent in the new territorial plan and urban plans for this part of the Coast.

Provided the above comes to bear, and there is solid evidence to this end, Marbella will not only come out of the current recession stronger than before, but will set the standard for other quality resort cities worldwide.

By Christopher Clover
Copyright © 2009 Panorama Properties S.L.
All rights reserved.

Christopher Clover is graduate in Economics of the University of Virginia (1969); a permanent resident of Marbella since 1973; and the founder, owner and Managing Director of Marbella’s longest established Real Estate Agency, PANORAMA, with offices opposite the HOTEL MARBELLA CLUB and in the HOTEL PUENTE ROMANO.