Despite the pandemic home prices in Romania are increasing. But why?

Written by Dr. Sebastian Sipos-Gug – Ebuild srl, EECFA Romania

Spectrum Residences, Constanta, Romania. Source: re-act.ro

One year later.

In January 2020, the World Health Organization started issuing the first warning of a novel coronavirus emerging, and on 26 February the first case was confirmed in Romania. Measures taken to try and contain it led a state of emergency and a lockdown introduced on 16 March. One year later, we can look back at how the residential real estate market reacted to the pandemic and the economic crisis that accompanied it, and we can make an attempt to understand where the market might go next.

To start with, prices on the residential real estate market in Q1 2020 reached their highest value in the past decade and an unease started to permeate the market with flashbacks to the 2008 credit crunch and the massive drop in prices and transactions that followed. This made many developers rush to complete projects before the market collapse, a trend we described in a previous blog post.

Prices did indeed start to drop slightly by Q3 2020, but they remained at a level higher than that of the previous year and by the end of the year the early indicators pointed to a return to growth. This has been pointed out in other markets as well and seems to have impacted a large number of developed and developing economies. However, each country is different, and in the case of Romania, albeit some of the causes of this phenomenon are shared, the outcome and forecast might be different.

Residential forecast is available in the latest EECFA Construction Forecast Report Romania that can be purchased on eecfa.com

Everything is relative and so are prices.

One can wonder if these prices are too high, and if they might grow further or if we’re looking at a potential bubble that will burst in the near future. We previously addressed some of these questions in (yet) another blog post.

Since then, the main factors have changed in light of the pandemic, but it might still be useful to look at the same ratio between income and home prices that we analyzed then and bring it up to date. In 2007, the average net monthly income could buy you approximately 0.20sqm of an average located two-room apartment. By 2017, when we last ran this test, one could buy 0.46sqm with the average wage. For 2019 and 2020 alike, our estimates place this indicator at 0.50sqm and so home prices relative to income actually seemed to be relatively stable.

Why some prices were expected to fall and why they haven’t.

While in general there might be a plethora of reasons for residential prices to drop, in the case of the pandemic-related economic downturn we were initially looking at several factors, somewhat similar to those we saw in 2008, such as unemployment, lower income, higher mortgage default rates, stricter lending criteria, higher interest rates and/or a rush to sell off properties by underfunded developers. In the case of the pandemic, some of these did indeed happen:

  • Employment did indeed decline between March and November 2020, but only by 2%-3% compared to the same months of the previous year (source: NSI). This was largely due to the employment protection measures taken by the government, which provided incentives to furlough personnel rather than firing them.   
  • Average income rose during the pandemic. Even in April and May, the months worse hit by the lockdown, net wages actually grew by 2% over the same months of 2019 (source: NSI). This was also maintained by the furlough scheme that provided payments of up to 75% of wages for the employees of companies affected by the pandemic.
  • Loans past due declined. By November 2020, the share of loans past due in total loans was 4.83%, down from 5.46% in November 2019 (source: NBR). Granted, this is still far from the 1.24% average we saw in 2008 but is well within the general descending trend of the previous three years. There was some government support in this segment as well, with the possibility of postponing loan repayments for those negatively impacted by the pandemic, and some banks also took their own measures in this direction.
  • Lending criteria and interest rates. Lending conditions remained relatively stable while interest rates for mortgage loans declined slightly by November 2020 over November 2019 (-0.5pp, source: NBR). This was partly due to the impact of the tax change in late 2018 that raised interest rates in 2019 over their trend and was later reversed.
  • Developers had a more secure line of financing. While during the previous recession in 2008 a lot of development was carried out through credit, by early 2020 many properties under construction were pre-sold, and down payments on these provided the necessary cashflow to continue building and even wait longer to find buyers in order to sell at a better price.
  • Furthermore, due to the reduced spending possibilities with the shutdown of non-essential travel, in-restaurant dining and entertainment venues, spending habits changed. Despite income slightly growing (on average), the saving rate went up and thus by end 2020 the population had a lot more money saved on their accounts, even if the term deposits didn’t go up as much. This high level of very liquid capital can be used to fund residential investments, be it renovation, construction or purchasing a new home.

Where the market is heading.

The longer-term trend of price increases on the residential market continues to be the most likely scenario as demand continues to outpace supply in many of the larger cities like Bucharest or Cluj Napoca. Some potential events would bring merit to a more pessimistic outlook:

  • Changes in employment and income might be ’ticking bombs’. As said, a lot of the market stability is due to government intervention in preventing mass unemployment and ensuring a minimum income. Once these braces come off, there are genuine concerns that the labor market might see a correction, which would have a negative impact on the residential real estate market. The risk of this is somewhat low, though, since a large portion of those furloughed have returned to work (with some notable exceptions in the hospitality industry), but a small correction could still happen.
  • Medium- and long-term changes in work trends. With the surge in remote work due to the pandemic measures, one can wonder if this would lead to more structural changes in the way people work in the future. If remote work becomes more common for a significant proportion of people, this will have a massive impact on the residential market. It would lower demand in large cities and increase it in metropolitan areas and smaller cities. This would be somewhat limited in the case of Romania, though, as the country still has relatively large economic segments being less prone to remote work such as manufacturing and construction.
  • We are already noticing some changes in home buyer preferences. After spending more time at home, either in lockdown or from working at home, home buyers now focus on larger homes, preferably with a yard or at least a large balcony.

Case in point: Cluj Napoca.

Taking Cluj Napoca as an example, the local real estate market is seeing massive demand increases as young people, mainly in the IT field, move to the city to study and take up work. They enjoy higher-than-average income and living in the city gives them proximity to various entertainment and services options, access to a booming labor market, entrepreneurship, and business opportunities. But they also have some major downsides: high rents and residential prices that chip away at their income, gridlocks, light and noise pollution and many other disadvantages of living in a city. With the advent of the work-at-home scheme, they might be more interested in relocating to homes in the neighboring rural area (even more so than they are now) and thus retain a higher share of their wages without the downside of commuting. This would put less pressure on the residential market in the city itself, and lead to lower rents and prices. The city thus becomes less interesting for developers and construction might slow down.

The conclusion.

Despite the pandemic, home prices are seemingly growing. While this might seem strange at first, the actual impact of the current recession on home purchases is limited since the average individual still has their job with a similar or even higher income and is actually spending less of their income on goods and services and thus can afford to save for a down payment. 

In the shorter run, the market shows some signs of overheating, but is far from brittle. If the pandemic recovery turns out to be lengthy and there are major changes in the way work is done, it could limit prices and drive them down temporarily. However, if you are holding out in buying a home waiting for prices to collapse, you might be in for a bit of a disappointment.

Growing too fast? The stability of the Romanian residential construction market

As the housing market in Romania is seeing a rapid expansion, this rings the bell to some experts: there is a growing concern that the 2008 turmoil might repeat itself. Can the 2008 crunch be back in the Romanian housing market? This article is looking at the probabilities of this to happen.

Written by Dr. Sebastian Sipos-Gug – Ebuild srl, EECFA Romania

High-end residential project, Herastrau, North of Bucharest, Romania. Source: http://www.ascendproperty.ro

For almost a year now, concerns have risen regarding the Romanian residential market. Any instabilities in this field would have major implications across the whole construction sector, since residential construction accounted for approximately 1/3 of the yearly construction output of Romania in 2016.

Opinions emerged regarding the similarities between the 2007 and 2017 market dynamics, and reports by the National Bank (BNR), National Statistics Institute (NSI) and real estate agencies indicated unusually high growth rates of residential prices.

So, how likely is a correction event?

To answer this, we must look at the idiosyncrasies of the Romanian construction market, the similarities and differences between the collapse in 2008 and the current status.

The residential construction market in Romania is a mix between large projects, run by speculative developers, small projects contracted to construction companies and projects built by the owner.

Romanians are generally home owners, with 96% living in a house they own. They are also very fond of building homes themselves, mainly in the rural areas. This trend of self-development, mainly in the rural areas, is relatively untouched by macro-economic phenomena. Any disposable income is invested into construction materials that are used to build up or expand the home, leading to very low construction costs.

The main source of instability, however, is that of speculative urban (or suburban) development. With profit margins boosted by the real estate price increases and high demand, investments into residential construction are attractive. This has been evident in the years leading to 2008, as the number of homes in multi-unit buildings completed in 2008 was nearly three times that of the previous year, and the number of permits for this building type doubled yearly between 2006 and 2008.

The current status of the market is optimistic. Two-digit growth rates are estimated for 2016 and 2017, with EECFA’s forecast being positive until at least 2019 (the latest EECFA Romania Forecast Report can be purchased here).

Those who express concerns regarding these growth rates look at the similar results of 2006-2008 and expect another collapse of the market to take place. Other concerns are that much of recent growth has been backed by government subsidies. Under the ’Prima Casa’ Program, the mortgage market has considerably grown since 2010. Continue reading Growing too fast? The stability of the Romanian residential construction market

Dealing with construction permits in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania

The World Bank has prepared its first Subnational Doing Business report on Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania entitled Doing Business in the European Union 2017: Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. The report is based on the surveys conducted last year by involving respondents from 6 cities in Bulgaria, 7 cities in Hungary and 9 cities in Romania, measuring 5 indicators: starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting electricity, registering property and enforcing contracts.

Source of table: World Bank. 2017. Doing Business in the European Union 2017: Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. Washington, DC: World Bank. License: Creative Commons Attribution CC BY 3.0 IGO.

In this subnational research in Hungary, Ebuild Hungary (the parent company of Ebuild Romania, EECFA’ s Romanian member) was responsible for choosing the respondents from the private sector in Hungary on 2 of the 5 Doing Business indicators: dealing with construction permits and getting electricity. EECFA Research, Buildecon, was responsible for coordinating the project on these 2 indicators in the private sector in Hungary. Buildecon also completes the World Bank’s National Doing Business survey on dealing with construction permits in Hungary every year; a survey regarded as a benchmark for investors.

Here we are going to take a look at the key findings on the dealing with construction permits indicator* in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, what regional variations are, how the processes could be improved according to the report, why Germany is so efficient in getting building permits and how Hungary is trying to follow suit.

Key findings on getting construction permits

It has been concluded that overall, it is in Hungary where it is the easiest to obtain a construction permit for a warehouse (18 procedures) compared to Bulgaria (19 procedures) and Romania (26 procedures). However, all countries are lagging behind the EU average of 13 procedures.

In terms of the length of the permitting process, it is in Bulgaria where the process is the quickest: on average 141 days, and it is in Romania where it takes the longest time: 256 days. In Hungary it is 164 days, though it is better than the relative EU average of 169 days. There are 2 EU member states, the Slovak Republic and Cyprus, where the process is very long – 286 days and 507 days, respectively.

As far as costs of the construction permit are concerned, it is in Hungary where it is the cheapest to get a permit (0.5% of the warehouse value) and it is in Romania where it is the most expensive (3.4%). Bulgaria is only slightly cheaper (3.2%). By comparison, the EU average is 2.0%.

All three countries have been found to make building regulations available online and clearly specify the requirements for a building permit. Also, it has been concluded that all three countries have strong building quality control mechanisms and strict qualification requirements for professionals responsible for permitting approvals.

On the other hand, in comparison with the EU, the report has found that in all three countries the construction permit procedure is much more burdensome than in most other EU member states. Continue reading Dealing with construction permits in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania

EECFA 2017 Summer Construction Forecast and Revision

We have released our summer construction forecast on 16 June 2017 on Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, Turkey and Ukraine. This post intends to summarize the most important projections for these construction markets for the years 2017-2019. These are our main findings; for a deeper understanding, please consult our reports. You can contact us on eecfa.com.

Outlook for the EECFA regions

The highly optimistic outlook for South East Europe is maintained by EECFA. Leaving behind the transitory 2016, when the absorption of funds available in the new EU programming period (2014-2020) was still at a low level, the upcoming years are characterized by a bigger expansion of the construction market than that of GDP. Building construction is predicted to well outperform the total market, with a yearly average rate of 9% over the horizon. The small growth in the region’s total civil engineering market is attributed to the negative expectations in Romania.

Sideway moves, no further market expansion on the horizon are what we consider the most probable scenario for the 3 East European markets together. Turkey and Russia, being far the two biggest markets we cover in EECFA, is expected to show some similarities. In both countries our forecasts are moderately optimistic in the civil engineering market. While in the building construction market the outlook is clearly negative for Russia and neutral for Turkey. In Ukraine, the recovery experienced in 2016 is predicted to be sustained until 2019. Both building construction and civil engineering could expand further with a relatively good pace. Continue reading EECFA 2017 Summer Construction Forecast and Revision