Property fund managers go bargain hunting in struggling Spanish market

Prices have already dipped by about 10% in the Spanish capital

Sunlight hits residential apartments in the Sant Antonio neighborhood of Barcelona, Spain, on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. After seeing housing costs jump by more than 50% in the past five years, officials in Barcelona are moving to introduce Spain's most aggressive rent controls. Photographer: Angel Garcia/Bloomberg

The coronavirus crisis has halted a stellar recovery in Spain's property market and left most sellers floundering, but major investors have stayed active and poised themselves to take advantage of faltering prices.

Ever popular with foreign capital, Spain's real estate sector had almost entirely recovered from its 2008 nosedive – but in the first six weeks of lockdown, only 1 per cent of pending transactions went through, the General Council of Notaries said.

Spain's strict coronavirus confinement sparked legal and financial measures that stopped the vast majority of buyers and sellers in their tracks – in contrast to more flexible markets like Germany, which still allowed property visits and could rely on a better-digitalised sector.

But real estate agents say heavyweight, highly-liquid investors continued their activity in Spain during the crisis, asking for "opportunity lists" of bargains they may only have a small window to catch.

"I've seen investors coming cash-in-hand hoping to buy cheaply," said Kristina Szekely, a luxury real estate agent in Marbella whose crown jewel is a €32 million (Dh130m) mansion with 10 bedrooms, a pool and a heliport.

Ms Szekely said some thirty clients had called in past weeks requesting advice on opportunities. "It's a new situation for me," she noted.

Prices have dipped 10 percent in the capital Madrid, another agent said.

Opportunity lists often include new-development properties which investors favour, particularly when only a few units remain and developers are willing to sell at a discount.

In late April, one investor began negotiating for a pack of six such properties in central Barcelona, each averaging €600,000-€700,000, said Shirley Rhodes, commercial director at the real estate agency Lucas Fox.

The investor came to an initial agreement without viewing the properties in person, committing to sign deeds by the end of June.

"It was a deal 100 per cent initiated and concluded under confinement," Rhodes said.

Unlike most people requiring mortgages and seeking a single property, large investors can quickly mobilise funds, delegate tasks to local associates and forego in-person visits – as with new-build properties, office and retail spaces, or "do-uppers" destined for total renovation.

"That money never sleeps," said independent real estate agent Francisco Vazquez, 46.

Take French asset manager Amundi. By adjusting its own administrative processes and handing out powers to local representatives, Amundi acquired a €56m Barcelona office building in early April. It had visited the offices prior to confinement.

The group keeps looking for opportunities in Spain, mainly in the premium office market, said Jean-Marc Coly, director of Amundi's real estate fund, taking advantage of a buyer-friendly market.

"We have kept moving possible transactions forward despite the lockdown, and we have competition on biddings," said Mr Coly.

But for smaller fish, even transactions well underway before the lockdown had to pause, according to Fotocasa, Spain's second-largest property portal.

Measures to curb the coronavirus prevented individuals from conducting property visits, taking out mortgages, and relying on public notaries.

"We could neither buy, sell, nor continue works already underway – all our sales stopped," said Cesar Rivero, chief executive for real estate consultancy CDM Inversiones. "Funds haven't been affected like us, who sell single properties to individuals – we've been hardest-hit by the health crisis."

Household credit – both consumer and mortgage loans – has dropped sharply in Spain, something banks hope to offset with government-backed corporate lending.

Many hopeful house-sellers have been frustrated.

Robert J Edwards, a 48-year-old lawyer from Sacramento, California, was ready to cash in on his investment: a Catalonian farmhouse he spent three years remodelling.

The house – a 7-bedroom, 7-bathroom stone affair overlooking the hills in Baix Emporda listed for €1.5m – generated solid leads in January and he was aiming for a 20-30 per cent mark-up on investment.

"I had a couple of buyers who were definitely interested – to the point of having business plans for the property, trying to get financing," Edwards said. Then came Covid-19.

Spain has suffered one of the world's worst outbreaks, with more than 27,000 deaths so far. The economy, which relies heavily on tourism and real estate, contracted 5.2 per cent in the first quarter.

"What's clear is that there is no financing out there for individuals," said Arturo Menendez, commercial director for Madrid-based real estate agency Delagua Inmuebles.

"Whereas funds have cash specifically for this – they wait for these moments."