High service charges hit rental yields
Service charges for some properties in Dubai range between 18 per cent and 48 per cent of annual rents, according to a recent report by Investment Boutique (iB). Further, falling rents coupled with high service charges are contributing to lower rental yields for an investor in Dubai.
Real estate analysts also said that developers in Dubai were not necessarily following the service charges set out by the Real Estate Regulatory Agency (Rera). "We don't see all the developers abiding by the service charges set out by Rera. For example, the rate for luxury-serviced apartments should be around Dh50 per square foot yet some luxury projects in Downtown Dubai are charging Dh63 per square foot," said Mohanad Alwadiya, Managing Director, Harbor Real Estate.
Meanwhile, iB in its latest fourth-quarter report – Market Pulse – said developers of some properties in Dubai continue to charge high service fees despite the Rera regulating service charges in the emirate.
"A 1,000 square feet one-bedroom unit in Discovery Gardens at Dh24 per square foot amounted to service charges of around Dh24,000. Current average rents are Dh52,300, which means that service charges constitute an exorbitant 46 per cent of rents. What this does to an investor's rental yield is but obvious," said Heather Wipperman Amiji, CEO, Investment Boutique.
According to Alwadiya, high service charges coupled with falling rents can reduce the rental yields for an investor. "High service charges can burn up the capital appreciation and annual rental yields for end-users and investment buyers."
Elaine Jones, CEO, Asteco Property Management said: "Currently Although we have seen rents stabilise over the past three months, it is also possible that as developments settle and the true level of maintenance and upkeep is determined that service charges will soften. Different owner occupiers also have varying levels of expectation with regards to security, common area cleaning, landscaping etc. and whilst initially the most cost effective route is chosen in the medium to long term a recognition of the added value that a well cared for and maintained property can bring or add to the sale or rent value is significant."
She said that property in New Dubai is subject to master community charges in addition to local community service charges and property maintenance.
The impact of service charges has been felt throughout Dubai with developers facing concerns from property owners on the high service charges and perceived low quality of service.
In the case of apartments, service charges constituted between 15 per cent and 32 per cent of rents in the first quarter of 2008. Downtown Dubai and The Green Community charge the highest service fees in the apartment and villa category respectively, with Jumeirah Lake Tower (JLT), Arabian Ranches and Emirates Living being the cheapest.
According to the report, service charges also vary substantially from community to community with JLT currently the most attractive to investors as service charges are between 21 and 23 per cent of rents. Developments such as Dubai Marina, Palm Jumeirah and Burj Khalifa have relatively higher service charges.
With charges remaining more or less stable and rents declining substantially, service charges now constitute between 18 per cent and 48 per cent of annual rents.
Discovery Gardens, a mid-end development with modest facilities called into question the rationale behind high service charges. Owners organised themselves in an effort to force the master developer to reduce the charge. However, they met with limited success as the final rate was reduced by Dh5 per square foot.
Previously in 2008, there were increases across the board with Emaar's Arabian Ranches doubling, Union Properties' Green Community also witnessing a 50 per cent rise. The reasons cited included initially subsidised charges, rising labour costs, increasing costs of utilities, such as electricity and water, and inflationary pressures on raw materials.
In December 2008, Salwan, a subsidiary of Dubai Properties and the property management company for Jumeirah Beach Residence, upped service charges at the beachfront community by 129 per cent from Dh9.5 per square foot to Dh21.75 per square foot. In February 2009, Salwan reduced the service charges to Dh15.32 per square foot. Soon after this, owners of units in Nakheel's Discovery Gardens also realised that their own service charges were well above market rates at Dh29 per square foot, almost double of Jumeirah Beach Residence, with fewer facilities.
Lack of clarity
According Investment Boutique, there continues to be a lack of clarity and solutions with respect to service charges in Dubai. The Strata Law has yet to be ratified, owners' associations are slow to set up, developers and property management companies continue to charge unjustified rates even with Rera trying to control the increases. Owners and tenants continue to be dissatisfied with the level of service received.
The iB report said some MEP (mechanical, electrical and plumbing) and facilities management professionals speculate without reference to any specific project that the high service fees quoted may be the actual cost of the service provided, but they are unnecessarily high due to poor selection of equipment and materials at project inception as well as a poor maintenance programme.
Including facilities management (FM) consultants at the design stage helps save substantial costs over the life of a building. As the market begins to open to investors, more are interested in the rental yield than capital appreciation. These buyers should also invest in FM advisory services to ensure that running costs to date have not been kept artificially low.
Analysts outlined the various reasons for service charges for villas to be higher than those of the apartments. According to Harbor, service charges for villas are low mainly due to the fact that service charges for villas are calculated based on the plot area of the villa. "In addition, villa communities have less MEP and other common elements in villas compared to apartments," said Alwadiya.
Jones said: "District cooling, housing tax and Dubai Electricity & Water Authority (Dewa) costs are usually borne by the occupier. Traditional Dubai property that we have managed as full block management will have cost between 20 per cent to 30 per cent of rent income, dependent on air-conditioning, age of building etc. New Dubai property is a little higher due the additional Master Community Charge."
"Rera reviews and approves the service charge assessed by the home owners association. Rera is also involved in the apportionment of area charges where there is a mixed-use development. The costs that make up the service charges are transparent and the home owners association will usually collect three quotes for each service line so as to ensure that the most competitive rate is secured - bearing in mind always that cheapest is not always best."
Utility costs will be estimated in the first year based on advice from consultants. The second year's service charge may well be more accurate than the first as the level of service required and the actual consumable costs are defined. "Service charges are for the common areas of which villas have far less of. Most villa plot and property maintenance costs are individual costs and not shared. The roads, street lighting, landscaping, garbage collection are the only shared amounts," said Jones.
In case of villas, the service charges are charged on the basis of the plot size. The case of villa service charges differ completely from the fees, accounting for between three and nine per cent of rents, except for The Green Community, which is relatively more expensive. The huge difference in the service charges between apartments and villas is due to a typical building budget.
Villa service charges are substantially lower when compared to apartments as there are fewer common areas to maintain. Security, landscaping and the upkeep of pools and lakes are covered by the service charges, but municipality fees are paid separately and maintenance of the individual villa is the owner's responsibility.
Chilled water for common areas accounts for a third of maintenance costs, other utilities account for one-sixth and the master community charge accounts for one-tenth for the average property.
A typical breakdown of other costs includes soft services such as pest control, façade cleaning and swimming pool cleaning and treatment, while subcontractor services and repairs cover the emergency lighting system, aviation warning lights, water tank cleaning, automated doors, building management unit (cradle) and its certification, building management system (BMS), fire alarm system, fire protection system, generator, CCTV, access control system, apartment intercom, public address system, lighting control system and gym equipment.
Majority of expenses are specific to apartment blocks and not to villas, which explains the difference. Variations in service charges needs to be taken into consideration by investors choosing between apartments and villas as this could impact both rental yields and capital appreciation. The report also called for more clarity from the developers and property management companies with respect to the manner in which funds are used. It is hoped that once the Strata Law is introduced, owners' associations will have a say in the matter and the resulting transparency will only benefit the Dubai property sector.
The last quarter of 2009 was when the optimists had predicted that recovery would happen.
"According to our analysis of the market, we still have some time to go before we see recovery in the UAE property sector, especially in Dubai,'' said Amiji.
The majority of transactional activity in 2009 occurred in the completed property sector. The off-plan market has seen very little transactional activity at all during this time period and as such has not effectively been re-priced.
If off-plan projects are completed and enter the market en masse there will need to be an asset re-pricing in terms of rental values and capital values, which will also have an impact on the local market. However, by the end of 2010, we expect some stabilisation as there will likely be more certainty in global markets and local exposure to bad loans. Over the course of the year, project stakeholders are likely to take stock of their situation and either cancel projects with little economic value in the new market of 2010 and absorb the write-offs or allow the supply to come on stream and let the market adjust accordingly.
Residential affordability is key
While rents and sale prices have suffered considerably in Dubai, declining by more than 50 per cent, Abu Dhabi has proven more resilient with rents estimated to have fallen by 23 per cent between the first and last quarters of 2009. Even though Abu Dhabi faces an undersupply, rents have fallen due to factors such as redundancies and job insecurity, the substitution effect of Dubai's more affordable housing market, and limited selection of high quality or easily accessible units due to the abundance of construction and infrastructure activity.
While sale prices have also been moving downward, properties close to completion on Al Raha Beach and on Al Reem Island have managed to trade at premiums to opening prices although these have fallen between 30 per cent and 46 per cent respectively from their 2008 peaks.
Downward pressure on rents
The greatest contributing factor to the downward pressure on rents in the Abu Dhabi market has been the mismatch between Abu Dhabi income levels and rental values.
There is a lack of affordable property for the majority of people in the emirate. Prices and rents will continue to fall until they reach the level at which the average middle income or upper income end-user can comfortably rent property, assuming an international benchmark of 25 per cent of income on housing expense, or comfortably purchase property assuming a benchmark of 30-40 per cent of income spent on mortgage payments.
As such, excluding the last two categories, which account for 29 per cent of Abu Dhabi's population, rents in Abu Dhabi are not affordable to the majority 71 per cent of the population, and thus there is a downward pressure on rents in Abu Dhabi given Dubai's substitution effect.
According to the analysis, affordable unit prices average around the Dh1,000 mark. While prices were reduced substantially in 2009, a further decline is required to bring prices in line with income levels, especially given the fact that average prices in the neighbouring Dubai are currently lower than the Dh1,000 mark.
Developers will need to keep this in mind while pricing new products.
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