India’s residential real estate market hasn’t had it easy in recent years. Short-term demand factors have stalled growth, and low consumer demand at current prices has accentuated the problem. Absorption rates have stagnated, causing high levels of overhang across all major cities, with Gurgaon and Mumbai among the worst hit. Developers, especially those with holding capacity, remain largely in “wait and watch” mode without lowering prices. Customers seem intent on waiting out the slowdown. On the other hand, developers who are cash-crunched or who have been unable to sell their products have either closed up shop or are borrowing money at high costs to survive.
Yet there are signs of light at the end of the tunnel. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is leading the way in initiating a virtuous cycle of consumption and growth. The Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Bill is expected to increase transparency, customer-centricity and process adherence. Required approvals have historically put extreme pressure on developers. Greater transparency should reduce approval charges and help lower construction costs. It will also help accelerate the construction process and reduce overall costs for consumers.
In addition, inflation rates appear to have stabilized and lending rates have started to come down. While quoted property prices have yet to correct for the overhang in supply, discounts (both up front and discreet) and innovative pricing schemes, such as possession-linked payment plans and subvention schemes, have increased.
And so, beyond the short-term demand factors, there is immense potential in residential real estate in India. Organised Indian real estate demand is estimated at roughly 880 million square feet. It is forecast to reach approximately 1.35 billion square feet by 2020, a 9% annual growth rate. Residential real estate is responsible for 85% of the demand. This growth is supported by robust underlying market drivers such as favourable macro-economic conditions, increasing affordability and urbanization, improved access to credit and the gradual shift from unorganised real estate construction to organised development.
Due to the confluence of these factors, the Indian real estate market is starting to witness a substantial shift. What it used to take to win in this space is very different from what it will take in the future. In this environment, we believe that real estate developers must understand five fundamental dynamics in order to succeed. Each dynamic carries a specific implication for businesses. We will discuss all five dynamics and their implications in this report. They are:
Emerging competitive forces giving rise to distinct business models. New business models are rapidly evolving. Focusing on land acquisition and effective management of regulatory bodies is no longer sufficient; developers must also focus on becoming strong local market leaders in order to build a platform for sustainable growth. They are doing this by being more thoughtful about the operating models they use to compete in different marketplaces.
The main implication for developers hoping to successfully weather changing competitive dynamics is to select the right business model. Due to the low overlap of costs and customers across disparate locations, real estate projects across markets are truly distinct businesses. Within each local market, there are a multitude of developer types. The key to building a sustainable business is to achieve local scale first, as most traditional players, such as Sobha and the Prestige Group, have done. Another increasingly common option for developers is to forge joint development agreements (JDAs), in which they partner with land owners and share profits. In addition to reduced upfront land costs, developers tend to benefit from land owners’ deep local knowledge.
Furthermore, developers must define the key priorities for their business models and assess their core competencies across the value chain. Developers can build strong businesses by focusing on certain core elements of their value chains and building effective outsourcing models for other activities. They must also be “intelligent customers”—possessing enough knowledge about outsourced activities to avoid getting taken advantage of by vendors.
There are certain activities across the value chain that help create value—typically these include business development, land acquisition and design. Other activities, such as planning, budgeting and project management, protect value. Businesses should focus on building critical capabilities when deciding which of these activities to undertake themselves and which to outsource. It is important to note that there are segments of businesses in which some of the value-preservation activities could be a competitive advantage. For example, a developer adept at strategic procurement will have a sustained competitive advantage over competitors in the affordable housing segment.
Complex market and regulatory environment. The new regulatory bill, combined with region-specific regulations across the country, means that real estate developers face higher levels of scrutiny and greater complexity than ever before. To stay afloat, businesses must actively manage risk through both internal and external processes.
The implication for developers is to drive excellence in process execution in the preconstruction phase, during construction and post-handover. Customers expect a level of maintenance and upkeep of the property post-handover. Indeed, the brand image of some developers has taken a hit due to suboptimal property upkeep and maintenance or because of consistent delays during construction.
To a significant extent, companies can drive improvement merely by focusing on processes and running a tight ship. Key processes to optimise include those related to change management, risk mitigation, cross-functional processes, key performance indicators and incentives, organizational setup, IT setup, optimal management information systems (MIS) and governance.
Developers can use tools such as project trackers to view and manage the many interlinked processes that make up a construction project. Trackers can alert companies to critical bottlenecks before construction initiation, allowing teams to take corrective actions before problems occur.
Shifting profit pools. There has been a tectonic shift in the Indian real estate market in the last 10 years. Costs of both land and key inputs (primarily steel and ready-mix concrete) have skyrocketed. Raw material prices have grown by a factor of 2 to 3 times since 2005. Land prices have increased even more dramatically. This means that while sales numbers may have increased, developer margins are lower than before.
This leaves developers with no choice but to focus on tight cash management by project and cash flow return on investment (CFROI). Fundamentally, a real estate business is the sum of its projects plus overhead and corporate expenditures. Cash is king in this project-based business, and it will remain so. The unique nature of the real estate business, which includes high peak investment levels, a long cash flow break-even cycle and inflows skewed toward the end of projects, lends itself to particular financial challenges. Yet traditional profitability metrics, such as EBITDA and PAT, can vary based on accounting methodologies. CFROI, in contrast, reflects the true cash generation ability of a project and, ultimately, of a developer. A critical way businesses can maintain a CFROI focus is by organizing around projects and empowering project heads to lead.
Increase in customer awareness and rapid changes in customer expectations. Buying real estate is often the largest, most significant purchase people make in their lifetimes. As such, customers have high degrees of involvement and investment in their decisions. There is greater emphasis than ever on word-of-mouth information, including online reviews. Currently, Indian residential real estate developers do not have a customer mindset. This has resulted in poor advocacy, with few customers saying they would recommend a developer’s projects to a friend or colleague.
Customers’ expectations of residential apartments have also changed rapidly. What was considered top of the line in 2010 is a base expectation in 2015. We expect this trend of fast-changing demands to accelerate over the coming years. Given that many residential projects take more than five years from conceptualization to handover, developers must anticipate what customers will want 3 to 5 years in the future—and then begin building that today.
There is a major opportunity for developers to tailor their brands to key purchase criteria, both current and projected. Creating strong product and brand strategies to match target customer preferences is more important than ever. Delivering key attributes, from pricing and payment to clear communication, requires managing key touchpoints with customers before, during and after purchase. Developers should also consider segmenting their customers and building their brands to position themselves for various customer types. Each of these changes requires developers to transition from a transaction-based approach to a relationship-based one.
Innovative selling approaches and channels. As inventory levels remain high, selling properties has become increasingly challenging, particularly in the post-launch phase. Once developers have their internal processes in order, they must turn their focus outward.
To best reach customers, developers have begun to employ integrated, multichannel go-to-market (GTM) strategies that include multiple channel pipelines. These channels could include direct sales, customer referrals, international initiatives, collaboration with channel partners, corporate sales and more. Indeed, major developers are already focusing on building this multichannel sales strategy and creating “excellence niches” where they can excel.
Many changes have taken place in the residential real estate market in India, with further changes still to come. While it is still too early to predict the outcome of new regulations and the impact of short-term factors, with these recommendations in mind, developers can better prepare themselves for whatever lies ahead.