Small-town real estate gets a pandemic boost

Zirakpur is a strange location to have an office for a Gurugram-headquartered firm such as Usha. “If you want to grow your business, you need to be strategically located. Zirakpur has great connectivity and is close to national highways, and it is part of the (Chandigarh-Panchkula-Mohali) tri-city area,” said Manmohan Bhutani, sales administration head, Usha International.

What is left unstated is a set of new post-pandemic realities that have compelled firms to reconsider forgotten geographies. The persisting allure of ‘work from anywhere’, reverse migration of employees to their home towns and cost rationalization have all come together to push many firms to seriously consider a tier-2 strategy in recent months. The essential thrust of this strategy: diversify base locations, open smaller offices, hire local talent where possible and retain those who have relocated to their home towns. The ‘Bharat’ foray is temporary in some cases. Usha, for instance, plans to rent 50 seats from Awfis, a managed workspace provider, instead of acquiring any new real estate. The Zirakpur base will be the 85-year-old consumer durables firm’s first-ever managed office space.

Property analysts believe that as more firms walk down a similar path, the increased job creation and expansion will create a trickle-down effect in several tier-2 towns, leading to a rise in the overall demand for housing, workspaces and warehouses. This will inevitably bring big town developers to India’s small towns. A recent report on the future of workplaces by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (Ficci) and real estate services firm CBRE showed that the expansion of flexible workspaces in small cities, which was largely a tier-1 phenomenon so far, will be demand-led. Driven by the availability of local talent and infrastructure, Kochi, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Chandigarh, Indore, Lucknow, Coimbatore, Thiruvananthapuram and Nagpur will all see a rise in flex office stock, the report said.

Awfis’ founder and chief executive officer, Amit Ramani, said that in the next 6-18 months, a lot of firms will have some presence in smaller cities, even if the initial requirement is small. “It indicates a strategic shift. Companies want to leverage local talent in the so-called Bharat geographies. The requirement is (from) a broad mix of logistics, new-age fintech and healthtech firms and IT and tech employers too,” Ramani said. Awfis has recently opened a new co-working centre in Ahmedabad. The firm also plans to open workspaces in Indore, Chandigarh and Bhubaneshwar.

If offices shift, demand for new homes will inevitably crop up. Until now, India’s real estate market has been skewed towards just a handful of metros—Mumbai Metropolitan Region, Delhi-NCR, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad, along with tier-1 cities such as Pune and Kolkata. These seven cities account for about 70% of the overall organized residential market in terms of volume.

While a few real estate firms, such as DLF Ltd and Godrej Properties Ltd (GPL), have grown into pan-India developers with presence in multiple cities, a big chunk of their housing projects remain focused on a few core geographies. But this could change soon and smaller cities such as Mohali (Punjab), Mangaluru (Karnataka), Rajkot (Gujarat) and Ludhiana (Punjab) may very well be the new site of action.

Tier-2 dynamics

In Tirupur, a major textile and knitwear hub of Tamil Nadu, the covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, along with the work-from-home culture, have left behind a distinct mark on homebuying patterns.

Following the first covid-19 wave in 2020, the Union government announced several incentives, including an extended moratorium on loan repayment. Several industry owners in Tirupur promptly invested in land parcels, leading to a price bubble of sorts. Local property developers were forced to hike prices even though the buying power was limited. Only those who had bought land before the outbreak of covid-19 could afford to launch new projects.

The second covid wave in the spring of 2021 left an altogether different mark on the city, which is home to a large, floating population of about 850,000 blue-collar workers. Land prices in Tirupur moderated a bit and even though no government incentives were on offer, buying sentiment continued to remain high.

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Deepak Viswanathan, founder and chief executive director of Tirupur-based Merestone Properties Pvt. Ltd, said there is a visible surge in the demand for plots in Tirupur and the nearby city of Coimbatore among middle-class buyers.

“The work-from-home culture and the cost difference between metros and non-metros have made regional natives buy a home here (Tirupur) rather than, say, in Bengaluru. After being under lockdown for a year, the importance of a home is clear. Gated communities and villas are doing well, and those who can’t buy a home are buying plots,” Viswanathan said.

“Covid-19 has driven a lot of latent demand in tier-2 and -3 cities,” said Anarock, a real estate consultant, in a recent report. “This demand is driven by improved economic growth, infrastructure development, lower cost of living and more attractive real estate prices in these cities. However, it is the new work-from-home dynamic which has worked most strongly in their favour as they continue to attract migrant professionals riding on the work-from-home option,” the report added.

Bengaluru-based Puravankara Ltd has launched a plotted project in Coimbatore this year. A project in Kochi is also in the offing in Kerala. “Non-metro sales have seen continued buoyancy across markets. Ready-to-move in inventory has done very well,” said Abhishek Kapoor, chief executive officer, Puravankara.

Many home buyers are also exploring options in the peripheral areas of cities, as they tend to offer a larger floor space at a more competitive price.

India’s largest real estate developer DLF said that it has witnessed a sharp rise in the sales of residential projects in Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh), Indore (Madhya Pradesh), Shimla (Himachal Pradesh) , Kasauli (Himachal Pradesh) and the tri-city area in Punjab. “We are also getting inquiries from customers in metros who are looking to relocate and from non-resident Indians who want to buy a home for their families,” said a DLF spokesperson.

Data from the financial presentations of the top seven listed realty firms reveals that they are gearing up to launch nearly 92.5 million square feet of residential space within the next 1-2 years. A large chunk of this new footprint will come up in tier-2 and-3 cities, which are the new growth precincts, Anarock Property Consultants said.

The post-second wave recovery has also been much quicker in smaller cities, property analysts said. According to data from Liases Foras, a real estate research firm, housing project launches saw a 338% jump in the April-June 2021 quarter compared to the year-ago period. Sales rose by 55%, primarily led by cities such as Rajkot, Mangaluru and Ludhiana.

Metros vs non-metros

The pandemic struck after a prolonged lull in the residential sector. For several years prior to 2020, high home prices and liquidity issues had taken a toll on both developers and homebuyers. Surprisingly, however, the battered housing sector witnessed a sudden and sharp recovery from September-October in 2020, as people seemingly understood the importance of owning a home.

Housing.com, which has witnessed web searches for homes on its portal surge by 50-60% this year, is in the process of launching operations in 14 tier-2 cities. Based on search data, there has been a spike in demand in Jaipur, Lucknow, Indore, Coimbatore, Nagpur, Nashik, Vishakhapatnam and Goa, among others. Property consultants say that each of these cities has a unique selling proposition—Lucknow for its improved connectivity with Delhi, Indore for its civic infrastructure, and Coimbatore due to its medical facilities and because it is a base for many high-net worth individuals (HNIs).

“Fast digitization, post-covid work culture, and companies preferring local talent have all contributed to this trend,” said Mani Rangarajan, chief group operating officer of Elara Technologies which owns Housing.com, Proptiger.com and Makaan.com. “But are all tier-2 cities doing well? No,” added Rangarajan. The unique selling proposition matters.

Delhi-based Omaxe Ltd believes that there will be stiff competition in the months ahead as more metro-focused developers enter smaller property markets. The firm is in the process of launching and delivering projects in Indore, Chandigarh, Lucknow and Faridabad across the product spectrum—plots, low-rises and regular apartments.

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“Besides (the) unprecedented demand, we are (also) seeing consumer needs evolve in tier-2 and -3 cities at a time when many people expected these markets to shrink. Buyers want more refined products, not just essential homes,” said Rajan Gupta, vice-president of business development and corporate strategy at Omaxe.

“There is (a) shortage of supply compared to the demand, and prices in some cities have shot up by 12-13%. Rohtak, for example, has seen a two-fold rise in prices in just the last 2 years,” he added.

Post-covid realities

Based in Kochi, Kerala’s core property market, Najeeb Zackeria says that nearly 1.2 million Keralites have returned to the state from the Gulf region following the outbreak of covid-19. While this return influx resulted in a temporary spike in home sales post the lockdown in 2020, led by non-resident Indians (NRIs) and returnees from West Asia, the local demand has lagged.

“We haven’t launched any project since March 2020 but now we have a couple of new residential projects lined up in Kochi. But construction costs have gone up and along with GST, homes have become far more expensive. Meanwhile, the income level of buyers remains stagnant,” said Zackeria, managing director of Kochi-based Abad Builders Pvt. Ltd and executive committee member of the Kerala chapter of the Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India. “The ongoing second wave (which is more prolonged in the southern state) has dampened the spirit. We are waiting for the dust to settle,” he added.

Zackeria is, however, hopeful that the momentum will pick up. Like in many other cities, those who can afford to buy a home are looking at larger 2,500-4,000 sq ft homes in Kochi.

Bengaluru-based developers such as Sobha, Prestige Group and Puravankara are all present in Kochi and have had varying degrees of success. Sobha has ongoing residential projects in Kochi, Kozhikode, Thrissur (all in Kerala) and Coimbatore (in Tamil Nadu), and has plans to expand its presence in non-metro cities. “We are open to exploring new non-metro cities (too) if the opportunity is exciting,” said a Sobha spokesperson.

But despite all the buzz, major metros still retain their allure. And many developers expect that sentiment will revive quickly in the big cities. As a result, some developers such as Godrej Properties remain focused on the metro market, pointing out that there is enough and more demand in the top cities.

“The ongoing industry consolidation has led to a meaningful decline in (the) number of active developers over last few years. Therefore, we feel that the growth opportunity within metros is still significant,” said Mohit Malhotra, managing director and chief executive officer, GPL.

“However, we will be open to any unique business opportunity from a plotted or marquee development in the adjacent markets, which may offer geographical and operational synergies to us.”

Once covid recedes from memory and some kind of normalcy kicks in, analysts suspect that people may return to the metros. Smaller property markets, where project sizes and profit margins are thinner, would then have to capture the mindshare of large developers through some unique selling proposition.

For now though, smaller towns have their brief, uncontested moment under the sun.

“Very few branded developers have been actively present in tier-2 cities. But now, conversations have started and (many) realty firms are looking out for land,” said Prashant Thakur, senior director and head of research at Anarock. Whether the trend continues, and for how long, is the real question

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