Page last updated at 22:12 GMT, Thursday, 13 August 2009 23:12 UK

Property auctions take hold in Dubai

By Ben Thompson
Business reporter, BBC News, Dubai

Women bidder at Duabi property auction
Many people still assume auctions automatically mean cheap prices

The four-bedroom villa in the leafy Dubai suburb known quaintly as The Meadows could be an advert for "The Dubai Dream" with its marble floors, spacious gardens and outdoor swimming pool.

As little as 12 months ago, buoyed by an influx of expatriates on tax-free incomes, developers could not build villas like this fast enough to meet the demand.

Even the $2m (£1.2m) price tag did not put people off, so for estate agents like Raymond Kuceli it meant their job was easy.

But today he has to work harder.

In the wake of the global recession, mounting job losses and growing debts have forced many would-be buyers to pack up and leave.

"People are still interested in property," says Mr Kuceli.

"But they're just not moving as fast as they were before and there aren't as many buyers. It takes a lot of negotiating."

Cheaper properties

As demand falls, so too do the prices - in Dubai, the cost of property is down 40% in 2009.

Another 40,000 new villas and apartments are expected to flood the market in the next few months, which would put even more pressure on prices.

These developments, planned to meet the soaring demand in the good times, are now going on sale in the bad times.

With such an oversupply of property, one estimate suggests prices could have slumped more than 70% by 2010.

That means agents are looking for new tactics to entice buyers back and Mr Kuceli's firm, Madania Real Estate, is experimenting with the idea of auctions.

Although it is a tried and tested concept elsewhere, it is a first for Dubai.

Innovative idea

After years of rampant speculation and artificially inflated prices, the idea of letting supply and demand determine the price takes some getting used to.

With only five registered bidders and just eight properties on sale at a recent auction, it was never likely to spark a bidding frenzy.

The auctioneer's attempts to liven up the bidding raised laughs, but not bids.

Estate agent and auctioneer Raymond Kuceli
Both sides are experimenting to find the correct price, there's likely to be frustration on both sides
Estate Agent Raymond Kuceli

"You're nodding the wrong way," he says to one bidder who is shaking his head, declining to raise his offer.

But with all the properties failing to meet their reserves, none sold.

So was the Dubai auction experiment a failure?

"No," says Mr Kuceli, "It's just that buyers still aren't sure how all this works. We need to educate buyers and sellers about where the market is," he says.

"At auction, people can tell us what they think the property is worth, because property only sells for what people will pay for it."

The market has changed. There is now a market price and that is what needs to be found.

But finding that price is proving difficult. The perception that distressed property is going cheap means buyers are holding out for bargains and sellers, still reluctant to lower their prices, are struggling to make a sale.

"There is a re-education process to go through" says Nicholas Maclean, managing director of CB Richard Ellis in Dubai.

"Some ridiculous prices are being offered that are not acceptable and never will be acceptable," he adds.

"Both sides of the equation are experimenting to find the correct price and until that is balanced out, there's likely to be frustration on both sides."

Bargain hunting

For the first time in a long time, Dubai is now a buyer's market, but as a result of heavy job losses and a shrinking population, there simply are not many buyers.

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For Mr Kuceli, changing how he does business could be starting to pay off.

The four-bedroom villa in The Meadows, that failed to meet its reserve at the auction, now has a buyer.

"This sale is a real milestone for us," he says.

"It reconfirms our belief that the auction method will work in Dubai.

"The biggest myth we're trying to dispel among bidders is that they'll get rock-bottom prices simply because it's an auction."

And perhaps that message is getting through. The villa sold for more than $1.1 million.

Not exactly cheap, but around 50% less than last year.

It seems that the Dubai dream is still on sale, and this year it is at half price.

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