Germany seen as a stable, long term option for property investors

Germany, which has always been regarded as having a stable but rather boring property market, is emerging as the number one target for cash-rich institutional investors who want to invest in the long term.

Few individual property investors have been tempted into the German property market. Many have been put off by the stringent rules for landlords and Germany has never been popular with holiday home owners.

But those who have bought property in Germany have not done so to make money quickly. Prices have remained roughly stable in the residential sector over the last year.

Also in contrast to other European countries like the UK and Spain Germany did not experience a major housing boom in the late 1990s, early 2000s. Indeed just 42% of the population own their homes.

But there is strong evidence that companies and funds are already investing heavily in German property and that is about to expand.

Sales of commercial property in Germany surged to record levels last year but slumped in the first half of this year as the credit crunch began to bite and fears about the economic outlook dampened investor appetite.

But according to analysts this has opened the door for cash-rich investors like Sovereign Wealth Funds, banks and institutional funds to jump into the German real estate market.

In particular SWFs from China, Singapore and the Gulf are hovering. 'You have these big state funds considering acquisitions. The Russians may be making strategic investments too as Germany is still considered a stable option,' said Christine Schaefer, an analyst at DZ Bank.

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These kinds of funds can be secretive and often buy via specially created holdings. Peter Starke, head of real estate firm Aengevelt's investment division, believes they are already investing in Germany.

'They don't exactly walk around with signs around their necks. But I can think of two players from the Gulf region whom I strongly suspect are backed by wealth funds,' he said.

Some analysts think the SWFs are more likely to buy stakes in property management firms rather than investing directly. Some of these firms are strapped for cash due to the credit crunch and may wish to sell assets.

'I think there will be deals with owner-occupier retailers who are pushing the margins and keen to sell their real estate,' said Iryna Pylypchuk, of CB Richard Ellis.

To understand the nature of property in Germany it is necessary to look at the country's history and try to understand the people, according to Jonty Crossick of Ready2Invest which specialises in spotting emerging markets and believes in analysing the market before recommending it.

'If you look at the history of Germany it was very fragmented before 1862 and even after re-unification it never lost its federal nature. Cities have their own economic power bases. From a property point of view it doesn't have one city dominating like London in the UK,' he said.

This means that prices and rental yields can vary from city to city and also that each city has different attractions. Frankfurt is regarded as the commercial and financial centre of the country whereas Munich is seen as the cultural capital.

'Also the mind set in Germany is less entrepreneurial and more cautious. The Germans are much more averse to risk and borrowing and more anti-inflation than other economies like the UK and the US,' added Crossick.

One result is that Germans tend to rent rather than buy. This has positive and negative outcomes for potential property investors.

The main negative is that rents are set by each municipality and rental contracts are often for indefinate periods. Germans think nothing of staying in the same rental for 10 years or more.

'There are plenty of rules and regulations that limit the potential of returns,' said Mark Bingham, managing director of Owner Invest, which specialises in buy-to-let investments and hotel rooms. 'The amount of rent you are able to charge is strictly enforced and landlords who go over the maximum rental value can face severe penalties. There are also limits to how much and often you can increase the rent.'

But there are plus sides too. 'Tenants are usually expected to pay the utilities bills, property taxes and most other costs associated with running the property and most are rented unfurnished. From an investment point of view yields of around 7% can be achieved,' added Bingham.

The company believes that one way into the German market for individual property investors is through the hotel industry. 'Germany is the largest country in the world when it comes to trade fairs, special events and festivals. It is the ideal place for attracting short term visitor,' said Bingham.

'In the domestic rental market you might be looking at a return of around 7%, with an hotel apartment you would be looking at around 14% based on 50% occupancy,' he added.

There is a healthy market in terms of German nationals buying property according to John Hitchcox, chairman of yoo, a design and investment company with projects in several German cities including Hamburg, Munich and Berlin.

Yoo project in Berlin In development terms there are good investment opportunities. The company's project in Hamburg sold ahead of construction and it is looking at potential sites in Dusseldorf and another in Berlin for next year.

'Germany does have poor housing stock that needs re-furbishing, especially the stock in what was East Germany,' he said. As a result a number of institutions are buying up whole apartment blocks.

In terms of buying individual apartments it is the Germans themselves who are buying rather than foreign investors. Yoo has found that most buyers are Germans although a Fulham footballer has recently bought in Hamburg.

One thing for sure is that the Germany economy is suffering along with the rest of the developed world. A few days ago Jorg Decressin, chief of the International Monetary Fund's world economics division, said growth in Germany is now predicted at zero.

'Even though Germany has not experienced the same run up in house prices as other advanced economies, it has been an economy that has been flying pretty much on one engine and that engine was exports. With world growth now slowing that engine is now running out of gas,' he said.

Any changes in the Germany property market are likely to be slow and unspectacular. 'The real estate culture in Germany is changing but it will not be radical. The Germans are more likely to have investments in sectors other than housing because they have not had the level of property appreciation that has occurred in the UK or the US,' said Hitchcox.