Bargains galore for investors

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 June, 2011, 12:00am


It has a stunning coastline, rugged mountains and green and lush surroundings.

Want more persuading?

The province has a technically advanced labour force, a cosmopolitan lifestyle, an international travel hub and value-for-money investment opportunities.

So, with this kind of sales patter, why is it that so few foreign buyers think about investing in property in Northern Ireland?

Over the past few years the property market in Northern Ireland has taken a real pounding, with prices in virtual free fall. According to its latest report, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors says house prices have fallen every month since August 2007.

This has left a market where, if foreign buyers are willing to leap out of the comfort zone of mainland Britain and its southeast, bargains, especially in the prime market, abound.

A good example would be Mourne Park Country Estate, which is about halfway between Belfast and Dublin, and sandwiched between the mountains and the coast. Steeped in history, the house has played host to high society folk from Edward VII to the movie star Errol Flynn. It has 17 bedrooms, its own lake, arboretum and championship golf course next door, but a price tag that is surprisingly modest: you will get change from GBP7 million (HK$90 million).

Beth Robinson, agent and senior partner at Templeton Robinson, which is marketing the property, says: 'This is an amazing place, and currently is on the market at GBP6.5 million. In 2007/8, this property was on the market with guide price of GBP10 million. It does indeed represent excellent value for money.'

The agents have fielded interest from developers in Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. But Robinson says: 'All the parties who have expressed interest have a connection or family link with Northern Ireland.'

It is an experience mirrored elsewhere.

'I have been selling houses and property in Northern Ireland for 15 years,' says Mark Brennen, who works for Northern Irish estate agency McAfee, which was until recently the biggest operator in the region. 'There is simply very, very little interest from overseas.

'When you do meet a buyer from abroad they tend to be people who were born here and then moved away to study or live for a while, before coming home. We get some interest from the United States because of that reason.'

The average prices in Northern Ireland are in the same ballpark as those on the mainland, with the average house in Belfast now costing GBP157,766. That is down 4.1 per cent year-on-year but, in a sign that things may not be as gloomy as some investors fear, up 14.2 per cent on the quarter.

At the top end of the market, however, there is very little to support high prices, and overall the market has nowhere to go.

Leading real estate agent Michael Burke, from independent firm O'Connor Kennedy Turtle, explains: 'Regrettably from a vendor's point of view, or fortunately from a purchaser's perspective, the recovery in the market in Northern Ireland is going to be L shaped, as opposed to many pundits' version, of a V form or more rapid recovery.'

He is selling the more than comfortable Carricklee House, in Strabane, which has 10 bedrooms, stables, paddocks, tennis court and orchard, for about GBP800,000.

There is a definite price discount because of the location, according to Burke: 'Despite the many attributes of this residential, holding the price is very competitive to reflect the currently inactive market, particularly for quality homes, and I guess to reflect the marginal location on the edge of the border between north and south of Ireland.'

Move the house to Britain, or even a little closer to Belfast, and the price tag would be well over GBP2 million.

In Northern Ireland's commercial sector, which is often a thermometer for how house prices will behave, the word used by the world's leading commercial real estate adviser, CB Richard Ellis, is: 'challenging'. Unemployment in the region is on the rise and, although the company reports that 20 per cent of international retailers now have a presence in the Belfast market, up from 19.5 per cent last year so far this year, there have been no new institutional buyers for any prime investment properties.

But perhaps this lack of activity is also a bonus, clearing the way for buyers to proceed at a more measured pace?

'The good news is that it is a much more stable market, and the opportunities for bargains are here,' Brennen says. 'You can get better value for money and, if you are looking for property to buy and then rent [out], the yields are very healthy. Just don't look at getting in and out of your sale quickly.

'Here in Northern Ireland, I think we are a bit more cautious anyway and careful with our money, which is a good thing.'

Burke puts a less positive spin on things: 'There are no apparent signs of the market picking up,' he says.

'That's because no one is sure whether property prices have bottomed out.'