Very private property

Bad news for property snoopers: the UK’s most desirable homes are disappearing from estate agents windows, adverts and online searches. They don’t have For Sale signs, let alone glossy brochures or online walkthroughs, and you certainly won’t find them at auction. Around the world, an increasing proportion of deals are taking place off-market, in private or “whisper” sales. Instead of publicly marketing a property, agents in this most exclusive of sectors use their contacts to discreetly match buyers and sellers. Only a handful of people know that a deal is taking place, and the rest of the market will only hear about it after the deal is closed, if at all. I spoke to agents in London, Dubai and Melbourne to find out the tricks of the trade in this cover feature for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

Nice work if you can get it

The “fluid” themed issue of Modus was too good an opportunity to pass up: I pitched a feature about surveyors working in the world of wine. Happily they went for it, so I went to meet a property-developer-turned-château-negociant in the Bordeaux vineyards, who talked me through the 50 questions every prospective buyer should ask, and why they should forget about making any money. I spoke to an Australian agrarian about the toll that climate change is already taking on the Riverland’s parched vines and the financial woes of its major exporters. And, closer to home, I interviewed a fine-wine auctioneer in Cambridge about snaffling a bargain as the colleges turn out their cellars – and how to avoid a very expensive disappointment.

Article about wine in Modus September 2015

Billion-dollar arguments

In good times or bad, wherever there is a building site, there is almost certain to be an argument about payment. Very low margins, long payment chains and “risk dumping” on subcontractors are common causes, but the complexity inherent in even the simplest building projects can lead to conflict. So perhaps it’s no surprise to hear of the rise of the “mega-dispute” where the sum contested is in excess of US$1bn– the natural consequence of the rise of the global mega-project, with firms from many countries working together to deliver massive infrastructure schemes. Whether conflicts are resolved swiftly or escalate into protracted court battles is down to specialists in dispute resolution, a dynamic and evolving field – and probably the most stable job in construction. In this article for Modus, the magazine of the RICS, I investigated why construction remains such a contentious industry and whether alternative approaches to dispute resolution could help.

Why some Nigerians won’t buy their clothes in Nigeria

South Africa has a population of 53m and at least 80 grade-A shopping centres over 30,000m2. Nigeria, on the other hand, has around 170m people and just two completed malls to the same standard, neither of which are larger than 25,000m2. This is the kind of statistic that makes real estate investors’ mouths water when they look at Africa, even if many have yet to bite. Foreign direct investment into the continent still accounts for less than 4% of global capital flows, but it has grown steadily to reach US$57bn in 2013. A resource-rich continent greater in size than the US, Canada and China combined, Africa’s development potential is staggering. But while its significant fossil fuel and mineral deposits may have been the main target for foreign investment to date, its real potential lies in its people. In this article for Modus, magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, I spoke to investors and surveyors across the continent about the opportunities – and whether Africa’s growing middle classes really want so many new shopping centres.

Travelling light

Fancy expanding beyond your home market? No problem. Just ask your research department to prepare a comprehensive report on the market and possible acquisition targets, get finance, legal and compliance to investigate local regulations and the money side, and send someone from business development out on a three-month scouting mission to build contacts in the region – your admin support can organise visas and make travel arrangements. But hang on – what if your company doesn’t have a research department, a business development function or large teams of support services, or indeed the cash to make foreign acquisitions? What might be a major undertaking for a large firm can sound impossibly daunting to a smaller one. But there are compelling reasons to take the plunge anyway: UK Trade & Investment says that 90% of the firms it works with fall into the SME category and that, on average, they go on to win £100,000 of new sales within 18 months. In this article for Modus, the magazine of the RICS, I spoke to small surveying practices that have managed to successfully expand abroad and found out how they did it.

Planes, trains and the information superhighway

Infrastructure is the world’s biggest growth market, with vast investment taking place in the transport, energy, water and communications networks that underpin every aspect of modern life. In developed countries, the emphasis is on upgrading crumbling facilities after decades of underinvestment. In the rapidly growing economies of the Middle East, Asia and Latin America, it’s about building new networks from scratch, even entire new cities, as the global population grows to a predicted 9.5bn by 2050 and mass urbanisation continues. A 2013 report from the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that it would take US$57trn worth of investment by 2030 just to provide the infrastructure to meet projected GDP growth – 60% more than had been spent in the previous 18 years. In this ten-page cover feature for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, I led a whistle-stop tour of the opportunities for its members: with so many sub-sectors in so many countries, the biggest challenge is working out where to start.

WSP Genivar Solutions magazine – high-rise special

My company Wordmule produced this 24-page magazine for global engineering consultancy WSP Genivar, exploring the trend for super-tall, super-slender buildings around the world. I planned and wrote all the content, interviewing experts from WSP Genivar and its clients and partners, and my colleague Nick Jones sub-edited the pages. Click here to read about why cities are building towers, the secrets of designing “iconic” buildings, the sustainability of high-rise versus low-rise, and whether there’s any limit to how tall we can go.

Solutions_high-rise special_cover

Is it worth having greater freedom to spend fewer resources? Discuss.

Whatever the result of the referendum on Scottish independence on 18 September, the balance of power between north and south Britain is undoubtedly moving in only one direction. From April 2015, Scotland will be able to set its own taxes and borrow up to £2.2bn to fund capital projects, as the Scotland Act 2012 transfers considerable fiscal power from Westminster to Holyrood. Even if Scots vote no to full independence, there’s almost certain to be further devolution, with the main UK political parties all publicly committed to greater Scottish autonomy. But how much more control over its own destiny will an independent, or more independent, Scotland actually have? I spoke to Scots on both sides of the debate to write this piece for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, about the potential impact on property and the balance of power across the UK. They pointed out that formal power and real economic power are very different things, that the Scottish government has never exercised its existing power to raise or lower income tax, and that while Scots like the idea of Scandinavian-style public services, they would be much less keen to pay the taxes to fund it.

BRICs and mortars

How worried should investors be about the apparent resurgence of the Cold War between Russia and the west? Was the dramatic slowdown in Brazil’s economy really just a blip? Is China about to suffer its own subprime crash, and how might a make-or-break general election in India affect its real estate market?

It’s now 13 years since the “BRIC” countries were grouped together by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill. Since his 2001 report, these emerging economies have indeed taken their place among the world’s powerhouses. Their combined GDP has grown more than five-fold and their share of the world’s wealth has increased from 8% to nearly 20%. Even a tiny blip in any one of them sends shockwaves through global markets. With 40% of the world’s population living on more than a quarter of the world’s land area, the BRICs’ growing prosperity made for an apparently unstoppable real-estate boom, barely checked by the global financial crisis. Their demographic momentum and structural undersupply still present undeniable opportunities, but are the rewards high enough to make the risks worthwhile? In this report for Estates Gazette, I examined the prospects for investors in Russia, India and China. (The Brazil section is by EG features editor Emily Wright.)