Page last updated at 00:51 GMT, Monday, 23 November 2009

Property market in Afghanistan capital bucks trend

By James Melik
Business reporter, BBC World Service

Property in Kabul
Many properties have 'safe' rooms in the basement where families can hide

It is hard to imagine anyone wanting to live or invest in a city wracked with violence, but the capital of Afghanistan is experiencing a boom in real estate prices which defies the downward trend for property in many other parts of the world.

According to local estate agents, prices in some parts of Kabul have risen by 75% in the past year.

Part of this increase is due to the prices that international agencies are willing to pay to acquire properties in the best locations.

But wealthy Afghans, who have seen their property portfolios in Dubai plummet over the past year, have also pulled their investments out of the Gulf to plough back into Kabul.

Most of those Afghans earned their money from contracts they have with the military and construction projects, although some acquired it from proceeds of the drug trade and buying property provides them with a means of laundering illicit gains.

Security concerns

One person taking advantage of this growing market is Richard Scarth, who was a naval reservist in London when he was posted to land-locked Afghanistan five years ago.

There is danger but a lot of it is just a question of being in the wrong place at the wrong time
Richard Scarth, Property Consulting

He was the only qualified chartered surveyor in the country and began his own company, Property Consulting, dealing with the buying and leasing of real estate.

He does not appear unduly concerned about the security situation in Kabul, and dismisses the fact that he might himself be in danger because he has knowledge of where rich people live.

"Most people in the know, know who owns what and where," he says.

"But we do know people who have had children kidnapped - which is very sad," he concedes.

"Sometimes there is danger but a lot of it is just a question of being in the wrong place at the wrong time," he says.

'UN economy'

Richard Scarth with Afghans
Understanding local customs and culture is crucial for doing business

According to Richard Scarth, day-to-day life in Kabul remains relatively unaffected despite the global downturn.

"That is because the economy is UN-driven," he says. "Money just keeps coming in regardless of what is happening in the wider world."

He believes, however, that little of that money reaches the ordinary citizen.

"The average Afghan doesn't see any benefits of that money - other than the products such as a road or a power line which has been installed," he says.

Local partners

According to the constitution only Afghans can own property, so for every transaction there has to be a local partner.

Mr Scarth has also trained and mentored his own local staff.

"My Afghan partner Torialai Bahadery, who was never a property broker or an estate agent before, runs the business day-to-day with five other colleagues in the office."

I am always hopeful because I know what my colleagues have done and are capable of doing
Richard Scarth, Property Consulting

He believes more local people should be trained to handle programmes, run offices and become the head of businesses, but that is not happening.

"Afghans working in organisations for five or six years know the job better than the international who comes in every six months," he says.

"It is time that we trained those guys and sent them off on appropriate courses and also respect the fact that maybe they know more than some of the internationals who are coming in," he asserts.

Out of reach

The majority of Afghans living in Kabul arrive from neighbouring provinces and areas where there is insecurity.

With a population of three million, Kabul does not have the capacity to absorb them which, in turn, increases the prices for every property.

A four-bedroom house will often cost $10,000 or more a month to rent, and about $500,000 to buy.

"I have seen five families sharing a house, with five people living in each room," says Mr Bahadery.

He mentions that there is an expression in Afghanistan which sums up the people's resolve.

"We are not living, we are surviving."

Mr Scarth is optimistic however. "I am always hopeful because I know what my colleagues have done and are capable of doing," he says.

"Afghanistan has been experiencing hardship for 30 years and they always come out in the end somehow."

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