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A cut above

A cut above

Oriol Font, CEO of Luxhabitat, explains the company's success in the UAE's premium properties sector

Words by Kirsty Savage in Company News · Oct 23rd, 2014

Luxhabitat has carved a reputation as a company with uncompromising standards and a boutique mentality. Having courted success in a relatively short period of time, the brand is now branching into interior design and even property development.

What differentiates Luxhabitat from all the other agencies selling luxury properties here?

 We deliberately launched the company in 2009, right in the middle of the recession. Before the downturn, the real estate market was driven by investors who did not care at all about the quality of what they were buying. They were flippers, without a care in the world about the layout of the property or the materials being used. Profit is all that mattered.

At that time, a company with our approach wouldn't have made sense, but we saw the market was going to change significantly and that the end-user was going to play a much more relevant role. So we launched Luxhabitat to focus on the higher end of the market.

We had a slogan attached to our brand, 'Presenting properties exclusively in excess of Dh5 million.' This ensured that people understood what we were trying to do. In Dubai everybody claims to sell luxury real estate, which is why we added the tagline - to state who we are. And it helped a lot. We no longer have it though as we've established ourselves in the market.

Which areas do you cover?

We operate in about ten areas, but the most important ones for us when it comes to villas are Palm Jumeirah, Emirates Hills, Al Barari, Jumeirah Islands, Arabian Ranches, The Lakes and The Meadows. When it comes to apartments we focus on large units in Dubai Marina such as at Le Reve, which has always been one of our babies, and we have sold quite a few penthouses there. In Downtown Dubai, we cover the Burj Khalifa and The Address hotels, plus a few other towers in DIFC such The Index Tower and Burj Daman. When we take up an area we are not covering the entire community. We go to specific buildings where the quality is up to the standard our clients expect.

What challenges have you faced?

The key issue we have faced from the beginning was that Dubai grew extremely fast and in many areas there's lack of quality. It is a matter of expectations. Dubai has done a great job marketing itself, so people come here not only expecting to find something similar to what they are used to, but some- thing even better. People come here expecting the exceptional and although we source the best properties in the market, we can't always meet the expectations of the client, simply because it is not always available.

We have seen definite growth in the past three years, but I don't expect a huge [price] correction because right now, the market is in a very different situation. Developers are protecting themselves better, and people are not allowed to sell in specific developments until the property has been completed.

Who are your clients?

Our client portfolio is a perfect match to Dubai's current population. They tend to be business owners or high-net-worth individuals looking to buy a holiday home in Dubai or a permanent base. We have wealthy Indians and Pakistanis who tend to buy in Emirates Hills, Russians who go for Palm Jumeirah, people from the Gulf who are interested in penthouses, and Europeans and Brits who have varying tastes.

In the past year, we have also seen a trend of wealthy clients who come from African countries such as Nigeria and Congo and who are buying very nice properties. We are also seeing an increase in Chinese buyers, which is why we decided to launch a Chinese desk. There is a bit of a language barrier with them so we have someone in- house who can manage those clients. We also launched a website in Mandarin.

The company does a lot of business in Palm Jumeirah. What is the status there right now?

We are pretty focused on villas built on the fronds, and tend to go for bigger units such as penthouses along the trunk. In the real estate market in Dubai, The Palm has been one of the most successful stories. The concept is great and brings to life what a lot of people expect when they come to Dubai - a beachfront property. It is really the only place where someone can own a villa facing the sea, and I believe this is extremely attractive.

Luxhabitat deals in high-end properties, such as this villa on Palm Jumeirah
Luxhabitat deals in high-end properties, such as this villa on Palm Jumeirah

Do you think it has maintained the wow factor and global status it enjoyed a few years ago?

Yes, it still has no competitor as such. You cannot compare it to any other area. The other palms in Dubai (Deira and Jebel Ali) are still on hold for now. It may not be new anymore but in terms of a product, it is always going to be a success.

One of the most glamorous areas you operate in is Nurai Island in Abu Dhabi. What makes it so special?

The development lifestyle, which is very unique for the UAE, makes it most special for us. It offers a Maldivian resort-type of lifestyle, but from a property point of view what makes Nurai different is the quality of the construction, materials, layout and finishing. Quality-wise, it is probably the best finished product in the country.

However, one of the big problems we face selling residences there is the location. For starters, it's in Abu Dhabi not Dubai. The fact that it is on an island makes it attractive as a holiday home, but as a permanent base it is not ideal because accessing the mainland takes time.

Properties on Nurai Island in Abu Dhabi will be handed over in a few weeks
Properties on Nurai Island in Abu Dhabi will be handed over in a few weeks

Who is buying there?

Right now, not many people. In 2008, it was nearly sold out, and there was a mix of people buying off-plan for themselves. Investors saw the potential of the development. The key selling points were the concept and quality.

But after the crisis, some investors stopped paying and there were many financial issues. The planned development was downsized by around half as there just wasn't the same demand. Since then, the developer has been restructuring the whole development and with the real estate market having improved significantly, it is nearly complete. Handovers will be in the next few weeks.

I have been there recently and it looks very nice, even though it has been a bit of a nightmare for the buyers who bought property there six years go and have waited so long for it to be complete.

Water villa on Nurai Island surrounded by turquoise waters
Water villa on Nurai Island surrounded by turquoise waters

Do you have concerns about another real estate bubble in the UAE?

My view is that we are going to see a correction at some point. In fact, I think it is happening already - the market is now slower than last year. The measures the government implemented last year such as the mort- gage cap and the increase in transfer fees are helping the market to cool off. Of course, as with any real estate market there are always ups and downs but I think any correction now will just be a healthy one.

We have seen definite growth in the past three years, but I don't expect a huge correction because right now the market is in a very different situation from 2008. Developers are protecting themselves better, and people are not allowed to sell in specific developments until the property has been completed.

Is the industry improving in terms of standard?

It is getting better but we are still very far from where we should be. In our business, which is brokerage, there are regulations in place to try and keep things professional - such as you can only work if you have the relevant license. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean that there aren't unlicensed real estate professionals who are working freelance and basically damaging the entire market.

Anything interesting on the horizon?

We have just launched a high-end interior design service to refurnish and renovate properties based on client needs.

Our focus is on very high- end projects. This is all part of our value proposition, and it is going well.  We are also looking at property development. With interior design we can only change what is inside the box, but with development we can think about how spaces are organized and designed. We're looking at a few options and hopefully will get going soon.

Article published in Property Weekly, Gulf News, September 17, 2014