Sky is the limit for India's new rich

India Dispatch: As wealthy expat Indians earnings' continue to rise, the lure of upmarket housing is gaining traction, particularly in Kerala where luxury developments now pepper the paddy fields.

Villas at Sobha City in Thrissur. Ravindranath K / The National
Powered by automated translation

Set against a background of green paddy fields, just off one of the main highways in the district of Thrissur in Kerala, a gated community with looming towers of luxury apartments and modern, plush villas is under development.

The list of owners of properties in the upmarket project in India reads like a Who's Who of some of the most successful Indians based in the UAE, with the jeweller Joy Alukkas and Lulu Group's Yusuff Ali among them.

For the builders, India's Sobha Developers, the demand coming from the Arabian Gulf region, is crucial, with close to half of the sales in the 55 acre 8.5 billion rupee (Dh574.4 million) Sobha City development coming from the Middle East and buyers from the UAE being the strongest group.

"About 48 per cent of my sales are from people from the Middle East [in Kerala]," says P Ramakrishnan, the deputy managing director at Sobha Developers.

There have long been strong migration flows from Kerala to the UAE and the wider Gulf, with Indians heading abroad in search of business and job opportunities.

In recent years the flow of remittances to the southern Indian state and the desire of expats to own a house in their home country has helped to drive a property boom in Kerala.

The state is awash with billboards plastered with advertisements showing enviably luxurious villas with shimmering turquoise swimming pools and slogans promising "the key to the good life" and access to "a truly international lifestyle" or "the benchmark for luxury living".

Nisanth MN, the senior general manager for Sobha City, says prices of four-bedroom villas in the completed first phase at the development, built around a 6.5 acre manmade lake, have surged from about 23m rupees when they were sold off-plan in 2007 to a resale value of about 40m now.

Anoop George, a marketing executive at SI Property in India, says property prices have increased by 50 per cent over the past couple of years in Kerala. The fact that the Indian rupee has weakened sharply means expats can get more attractive prices on properties as they take advantage of the exchange rate, Mr George says.

But high interest rates on fixed deposit saving accounts in banks, mean expats are often opting to put their money in the bank to accrue interest rather than taking a risk on tying up their cash in property investments, he adds.

"The problem is that people are parking their money in the banks and that's a worry for us," says Mr George. "The banks have excellent offers."

Renil Venad is a marketing executive at Skyline Builders, a property developer. He says global economic uncertainty and some concerns about tax issues in Kerala are creating an unfavourable environment. About 55 per cent of the developer's clients in Kerala are non resident Indians (NRIs), he says, adding prices are extremely high.

"We have projects costing 7,500 rupees per square foot. Other developers are selling for 10,000 per square foot."

But in Kochi, Kerala's main economic area and a port city, high-rise apartment builders have flooded into the market to tap demand from expat investors in recent years, creating pockets of oversupply.

"In Kochi, the investors' market is slightly stagnant now but the end-user market is still there," says Mr Ramakrishnan. The developer is aiming to launch a project in Kochi this year in one of the less congested areas.

High prices in Kerala are largely a result of soaring land costs, Mr Ramakrishnan says.

"Most of the people are advertising the luxury projects in Kerala because the land cost is very high in Kerala. It's very small, there's a lot of forest, mining, coastal line and a very thickly populated state.

"It's better to position that into the luxury segment. Now all of them are looking outside, maybe the Middle East."

As well as demand from Indian expats, growing economic wealth within India is also a driving factor for such projects, he adds.

"Over the last year or so we are seeing a lot of real estate action … not only in major cities but also in other hubs in Kerala connecting these cities," says Ramachandran Nair at Nandanam Consultants.

"This has resulted in multi-storeyed buildings and villas that are coming up not only in the main cities like Trivandrum, Cochin and Calicut but in other major towns like Thrissur, Kannur, Palakkad and Kottayam, Kollam and also in several other smaller towns.

"The existing major builders are launching new projects and new builders are also coming to the field," he adds.

"At last count we interacted with over 70 builders only in Trivandrum covering over 250 projects with a majority of projects in pre-launch or pipeline phases."

He says the city of Kochi has already had a correction in prices because of its oversupply.

"A lot of unsold inventory, especially in Kochi, has now been sold out due to price reductions offered and the correction Kochi has seen in 2011 to 2012 phase."

Locals are increasingly accounting for more and more demand in the luxury segment in Kerala.

"We do witness NRIs investing in luxury apartments and also in budget apartments," says Mr Nair.

"The trend being seen is that instead of NRIs who typically bought luxury homes earlier, the local population is also showing keen interest in migrating to a posh lifestyle.

"The trend is that the business community significantly prefer moving to luxury apartments and the common Keralite who owns a budget home is showing a penchant for a luxury home."

The property sector is one of the most important parts of Kerala's economy, says Savio Mathew, the secretary at the Kerala chamber of commerce and industry.

"Each sector has got its ups and downs," he says.

"It had its down and now it's booming."

Mr Ramakrishnan notes that is one major disadvantage to selling to NRIs, who would only occasionally make use of their property.

"I don't want more than 50 per cent to be sold to the Middle East too. I don't want it to be a ghost [town]."