German property enjoys a boom

Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Cologne are leading the way. But even Berlin, where prices have long been stagnant, is staging a recovery. Foreign investors are attracted by the nation's strong economy and low interest rates.

From century-old villas in Berlin's exclusive Grunewald district to trendy penthouse apartments in Munich, Germany is fast becoming one of Europe's most attractive luxury property markets.

With competitive prices compared to the hot spots of London, Paris or Moscow, investors - including Arab buyers - are flocking to the country.

"The German market is benefiting from the strong economy, low interest rates and a low number of completions, which has made supply scarce," says Tobias Just, a property analyst at Deutsche Bank who expects average residential prices to rise by up to 2 per cent this year in major cities. "For security-oriented investors, Germany is very attractive because it is less volatile."

The euro-zone debt crisis has heightened demand for German property because high-debt nations such as Spain and Ireland, which have suffered sharp downturns in their previously inflated property markets, are now viewed as too risky by many investors.

In the first six months of last year, 518 properties were sold at prices exceeding €750,000 (Dh3.8 million) in the seven biggest German cities, a 9.7 per cent increase from the first six months of 2009, says Dahler & Company, a broker in Hamburg.

The volume of those deals totalled €700m, an 18.1 per cent increase year on year. The rise was even stronger, at 31 per cent, for the number of stand-alone houses and villas sold for more than €2m. Luxury apartments valued at up to €2m saw the biggest increase in sales, at 108 per cent, according to Dahler.

"There has been a veritable flight into real estate," says Henrik von Fehrn, a senior executive at Dahler.

"The German market is less satiated than other markets. It's still possible to get price increases here that aren't possible elsewhere. Many foreign investors, including institutional investors, find the German market highly attractive."

German property also become more lucrative compared with other forms of investment because interest rates and bond yields have been falling. The more expensive property investments are yielding more than 5 per cent a year, well above the interest rate on 10-year government bonds at just over 3 per cent.

"You used to pay €2,500 to €4,000 per square metre in the Hamburg district of Eppendorf," says Mr von Fehrn. "Now these flats are changing hands for €6,000 to €7,000. The rise has happened in less than two years, since the financial crisis."

Hanns-Joachim Friedrich, a director at the German subsidiary of the property consultancy DTZ, says: "The safety of the market and the stable economy are the core assets for investments in Germany. People see that in these days especially, real estate is safe."

The property sector is more regionally fragmented than in France and England, where markets are dominated by Paris and London.

The highest prices are fetched in the wealthy cities of Munich, the Bavarian capital that is home to BMW and an array of high-tech companies, and Hamburg, which has the nation's largest port.

Frankfurt, the financial capital, is also a major location for expensive properties, as is the city of Cologne.

The market is even starting to recover in Berlin, which has a chronically weak economy and where prices has been stagnant for years.

Berlin's "poor but sexy" tag, coined by the mayor Klaus Wowereit, explains its property revival. Prices are still low and the city has one of Europe's most vibrant cultural scenes, which is drawing in artists from around the world.

Luxury developers have been moving into fashionable Berlin districts such as Kreuzberg, which has an edgy, anarchic reputation, and Prenzlauer Berg, an eastern area popular with yuppies.

The projects include Carlofts, a patented design by two German entrepreneurs that incorporate a car lift allowing residents to keep their vehicle in their apartment.

The 11 Carloft apartments cost at least €450,000 and have been built in a rundown area of Kreuzberg, where they seem out of place in a street lined with fast food outlets and internet cafes.

"The high-price segment is becoming increasingly established in Berlin," says Mr von Fehrn. "You now get prices of up to €8,000 per sq metre. That was unthinkable just a few years ago."

The capital's market is also more open to foreign investors than other cities. Top properties in Munich and Hamburg are often snapped up by local buyers before foreigners can get a look in, say property agents. But that is changing.

"Most recently, we have noted that many international investors have moved Germany back into their investment focus," the property company King Sturge said this month, referring to the overall sector including commercial property.

Mr von Fehrn expects a further rise in luxury homes this year, "but much depends on how interest rates develop. Once rates start rising again and bank investments become more attractive, things will change again."

That may be about to happen. The European Central Bank has signalled that it will start increasing its key rates. But until it does, Germany's luxury property sector will continue attract investors.