THE corporate plunge into Indian real estate seems to have hit a major roadblock. Several corporate groups which had leaped on to the property bandwagon when real estate prices, especially in Bombay, were skyrocketing in the early 1990s, now regret their rash entry into a field about which they knew little. Property prices in Bombay, dubbed the costliest city in the world, have recently tumbled by 20 to 30 per cent in the elite western suburbs, in South Bombay's central business district, and even in New Bombay, the 'twin city' across the harbour. Four years ago, when property prices began their five-fold climb in value, talk of a slump would have been dismissed out of hand. The fall in prices has varied with location. The city boasts two different kinds of markets - one for end-users, where people buy flats or commercial space for their own use; and the other for investors who park their excess funds in property in hopes of making quick profits. South Bombay has, in recent months, been transformed from a seller's market into a distinct buyer's market. Speculative investors have been either squeezed out, or forced into a position of waiting for another boom. Indravadan Desai, a real estate agent, said: 'I estimate that there are something like two to 2.5 million square feet of premium office space available in this part of the city, for which there are no takers.' Even in fast-developing New Bombay areas, such as Vashi, Belapur and Nerul, prices of property purchased through CIDCO (City and Industrial Development Corporation) tenders by canny developers such as Hiranandani Constructions and Lloyds Realty have fallen sharply. The reacton to property auctions held by the Appropriate Authority (AA) of the Income Tax Department has also been lukewarm, with several properties failing to reach reserve prices. The AA was set up in 1986 to make pre-emptive acquisitions of properties which had been found to have been deliberately undervalued to save on purchase tax. Properties acquired in this manner are periodically auctioned off. Some corporate developers are putting on a brave face. 'What is a 30 per cent fall when there was a 300 per cent rise in the past two years?' asked Ghanshyam Sheth, executive director of Great Eastern Shipping Company, which has a property subsidi-ary. Great Eastern is only one of several top names in Indian industry - others are Reliance, Lloyds, Essar, Videocon, Godrej, Bajaj Auto and Mahindra & Mahindra - to have floated 100 per cent owned subsidiaries for real estate investment. Though major corporate developers described the downturn as temporary, given the ever-widening demand-supply chasm, their optimism rings hollow. Factors that would stem any further rise, if not depress prices further, far outweigh those that could push them up. 'In a market characterised by distress sales, buyers can be expected to wait and watch for a further decline,' said M. I. Usmani of Archana Real Estate Agents, which operates in the western suburbs. 'They unwittingly put additional pressure on prices.' One major problem facing middle class would-be homeowners is akin to the situation that exists in Japan. Prices in Bombay have risen to such unrealistic levels that owners may not be able to pay off housing loans within their lifetimes. Another factor that fuelled the property boom was the slackness in the stock markets. Money that would have gone into stocks was diverted into real estate. However, those who wanted to park their funds temporarily in the property market are stuck by the lack of demand for houses and forced to pay interest rates of 20 to 25 per cent on their loans.