The Malta Independent 29 March 2017, Wednesday

The makings of a property bubble

Thursday, 16 February 2017, 09:52 Last update: about 2 months ago

Beyond the statistics regarding the construction sector, construction in Malta carries a far higher multiplier effect when one considers the host of secondary employment it offers not just to builders but also to a host of other persons, from property negotiators to carpenters, outlets selling furnishings etc.

The present government has taken many measures to incentivise the sector. It has slimmed down the time taken to get a permit, has found ways to get people to regularise their construction project where they were previously blocked. It has also helped by offering tax incentives.

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All this and probably more has kick-started construction in a big way. Malta's landscape is today covered by cranes and many developers have been buying up derelict properties (or in some cases perfectly good residences) and converting them to apartment blocks.

We are not talking today of the big construction projects about which public opinion mostly talks but of the small entrepreneur or group of say four or five persons who take on a project and finish it.

One can see examples of this everywhere, in all towns and villages. This glut of construction projects has greatly increased the normal everyday stress of living in a concentrated area such as Malta.

Beyond this stress, however, there lies a deeper reality. We do not know how many buildings are under construction at present nor do we think there is anybody who knows but we already have a huge stick of uninhabited buildings around and this spate of construction will surely increase the stock. The stock of uninhabited buildings is already unsustainable, let alone what will there be at the end of all his construction.

It would seem that the banks have cut down on their support for the construction industry, or rather that is what they say. Then you find that there is still a high percentage of their loan books that is dependent on construction. Still, many entrepreneurs or developers tend to depend on their own work, do not depend on banks and manage to move from one construction project to the other.

The question however is: who will buy all these properties that are being built, also considering that the big developers have taken on huge construction projects that will inevitably compete against the small developers? At the present moment, at least going by what is said on the streets, the biggest danger is not of banks being dragged under by a building bubble, but rather of small entrepreneurs ending up with a stock of unsold or unsellable properties on their hands.

There may also be another facet of the problem: many of the small entrepreneurs, although one must not generalize here, seem to be turning out very small, minuscule, apartments in an effort to maximise space. People will end up living at close quarters with each other, with no open spaces, no gardens, and almost camping out in a matchbox apartment. One can see examples of his all over Malta. It is these apartments that arte proving very difficult to sell.

Which is why many of these properties are ending up on the rental market which is experiencing a general levitation of prices. These prices are unsustainable, and they are especially unsustainable for young Maltese couples, single persons etc who are finding it impossible to rent at reasonable prices.

This is the real bubble that the construction sector is experiencing - not a bubble that threatens the banking system but a bubble that threatens the social fabric both of the would-be buyers and also of the would-be developers.

No one seems able to stop or at least slow this Gadarene rush, but people are warned the consequences will be very painful. 
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