Keuk Narin, vice president of Asia Real Estate Cambodia (ARC). Photo Supplied
In the often confusing world of Phnom Penh property, there are lots of half-truths, lots of misinformation, and lots of people with their own specific agendas. It is a relief, then, to talk to Keuk Narin, the vice president of Asia Real Estate Cambodia (ARC), a man who lives and breathes Phnom Penh property, knows what he’s talking about, and has the facts and figures to back it up.
We meet at the Royal Home Serviced Apartment, a gleaming new 16-storey block in BKK1, which Keuk is the agent for. He waves an arm expansively across the vast lobby, which still smells faintly of plaster dust and fresh paint, and says that he expects at least 50 per cent occupancy by the end of the year. I don’t doubt him.
Pulling out his laptop, within minutes we are deep into bar charts and graphs, tracking every aspect of Phnom Penh’s turbulent property market.
Perhaps the most surprising graph is the one showing Phnom Penh’s astonishing price bubble (see below) in 2008.
Keuk explains it thus: “During the time around 2004, 2005, we had political stability, and land prices started moving up. In 2006, foreign investors started to come in, especially from South Korea, with investors flooding into Cambodia.”
He continues: “In 2007 the market was very very active, with prices going up very fast – some locations soared overnight, with some places going up by 10 or 15 per cent in just a few days. And this went on until the second quarter of 2008, when the global economic crisis happened. But in the first half of 2008, prices went up by 30 per cent.
“The peak time, or the boom time, was in the second quarter of 2008. During that time the land market price went up to US$ 5,500 per square metre, in the main commercial areas, and for residential areas, on what we call the sub-roads, it was about $3,200 per square metre.”
Keuk isn’t entirely sure what brought so many South Koreans to the Kingdom. “No one really knows why the Koreans suddenly started coming to Cambodia – what we think is that because our economy was getting better, and was going up very fast, and that’s what they could see, but the Koreans are almost everywhere, they are very keen speculators, not only in Cambodia – in 2009-2010 they started going to Laos, and Myanmar but the Koreans came, and made prices go up very fast. Some of the Koreans are still here, but some have moved on, because they come and go very quickly.”
Keuk says there is still a lot of Korean influence in the city. “They still have projects here DeCastle Royal is moving very slowly, Gold Tower 42 and Camko City don’t have a concrete schedule to continue yet – But there are rumours that some of the projects will be restarting soon.”
“In 2010,” Keuk continues “the economic crisis was still active in South Korea, and some of the investors are having to use their money in other ways rather than developing the real estate projects in Cambodia.”
But while the money was flooding in, lots of people did well. “Some of the Koreans made a lot of money. Some Cambodian people made a lot of money. Some people started out poor, and moved up very fast and became millionaires in just a few years,” Keuk says.
Generally, Keuk believes the bubble wasn’t an altogether bad thing for the Kingdom. “Most Cambodian people learn very fast, especially from foreign investors or speculators. So they buy land, put up signboards, build some basic infrastructure, and then they make money. Overnight. Very easy. Quite unbelievable. But on the whole I think it was good for Cambodia, especially for a new generation. We got to see what the economy was based on, and consider all the factors when it comes to making money.”
I ask him how he did: “I didn’t make a lot of money. But I didn’t lose a lot either.” He laughs.
Keuk says that despite generally flat property values, there is a lot of building going on in the city now. “A lot of residential construction started in early 2011 until now, especially apartment buildings between the end of 2011 and now, its gone up by 22 per cent. There is huge demand for apartments, and it’s increasing. And in the first half of 2012 the amount of office space increased by 10 per cent.”
This may not be a bad thing for buyers and renters: “There’s going to be a lot of competition, and I think the owners will have to adjust their expectations, and adjust their prices,” he says.
So is this a good time to invest in Phnom Penh property? “I think investors should be very careful, and study the market carefully before they make the decision to do something. In terms of the infrastructure, the architecture, location, things are moving very fast, not only with high-rise buildings. They need to study carefully, in terms of price, location, architecture, design, maybe include some culture if it’s residential,” he says.
Gazing at his charts and figures, Keuk offers some predictions as to where investors might look: “I see in the east and in the north as being the up and coming areas. In terms of the government, and in terms of current trends, you can see in places like Sen Sok, most of the residential is moving over there. And to the north and along National Road Number 6, OCIC and GS Land are building large projects out that way and further out Ly Yong Phat will be building, so looking at current trends, it will be moving this way.”
So where precisely, I ask him? “If I was a residential developer, I’d move to Sen Sok. The international school is over there, the international hospital is over there, government offices are moving over there, infrastructure is developing very fast over there. A few years ago some areas there used to flood all the time, but now, they’ve dug channels for the water so it’s much better. And it’s connected to three national roads.”
Isn’t he being a bit casual about telling me everything he knows, I ask him? “We want to provide information for the public to be able to study it, so they can come to the right decision for them. We want to show trends and offer the public data because that’s better long-term business for us,” he says modestly. And again, I believe him.