by Patrick Gunti
Moneycab.com: Mr. Kähli, in the USA the market for single-family houses is booming like it has not been for a long time, from which sitEX also benefits with sitEX Properties USA. What is the reason for the strong demand?
Beat Kähli: Covid-19 actually leads to an escape from the inner cities and skyscrapers of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia etc. to Florida or from metropolises like Los Angeles and San Francisco to Texas, to the suburbs. In Florida and Texas it is still possible to buy a house with a garden and pool for $ 300,000. Life in the suburbs is similar to before, despite the Corona restrictions. Barbeque in the garden, distance to the neighbors etc. instead of crowds in the subway and in the high-rise buildings of Manhattan.
In addition, US home buyers benefit from the record-low interest rates. When I got my 1st single-family home mortgage in the United States with Bank of America 25 years ago, the interest rate was 10.5%. Today mortgages are given for less than 3%. While the Swiss real estate market has only known one direction for most of the time since the great real estate crisis in the early 1990s, namely upwards, the US growth markets, especially Florida in 2008 and in the following years, went through a major real estate crash. The market has since recovered, but Central Florida prices are still slightly below their 2006 highs.
“Covid-19 leads to an actual escape from the inner cities and high-rise buildings of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia etc. to Florida.”
Beat Kähli, CEO sitEX
In view of the uncontrolled spread of the corona virus, the polarization in the country and the tensions surrounding the deselection of Donald Trump, the boom is still astonishing. At least viewed from abroad. How do you personally experience the situation on site?
This year I traveled from Florida to Switzerland and back eight times. From my point of view, the polarization is mainly taking place in the press. I think I know the country and the people in the USA well. I don’t see a split like the one portrayed in the media. Members of the Democratic or Republican Party have been roughly in balance for decades, and this is also the case in my American family and in my businesses. You have to consider: The USA is a big country, the states are largely independent, Washington is a long way away. Since moving to America as a family man and an entrepreneur, I’ve seen four presidents, two Democrats and two Republicans. Washington’s influence on our real estate business has always been limited.
Avex Homes LLC, which is majority-owned by sitEX Properties USA Inc., also recently achieved record sales. How great was the demand in the sitEX core market of Central Florida?
Avex Homes sold over 300 homes in Central Florida this year, a record. The big US homebuilders all achieve record sales here in Central Florida. SitEX’s strategic US partner, DR Horton based in Arlington, Texas, had the best year in the company’s history this year. DR Horton is the largest US builder group in terms of house sales and sold almost 70,000 houses from October 2019 to September this year – another record.
What makes the region so interesting?
I was on the board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce when we decided 20 years ago that we had to build a second economic pillar for Central Florida in addition to tourism – Orlando alone receives 70 million visitors annually. We chose healthcare. With Advent Health and Orlando Health, two large hospital groups have their headquarters in Orlando. Today the added value in health care is greater than in tourism.
To put that into perspective: Adventh Health is a company with around 14 billion dollars in sales – over 4 billion of which in Central Florida alone. The University of Central Florida (UCF), on the other hand, is the largest university in the USA with over 70,000 students. Space also plays an important role in Cape Canaveral, which has been partially privatized over the past few years. Around eight million people now live in Central Florida between Tampa and Orlando. In general, Central Florida has developed from a tourism and retirement paradise to a diversified business location. The median age of the Orlando population is 33.5 years. By way of comparison: it’s been 40 years in Zurich.
What about the offer? Has there been enough construction in recent years to be able to meet demand now?
The supply on land is becoming scarcer. Florida is a peninsula and a large part of the country – protected wetlands, Everglades – cannot be built over. As a result of this shortage, prices will rise in the long term. It is the biggest challenge for homebuilders – even the big ones like DR Horton, Lennar, Pulte etc. – to find land at affordable prices. In the short term, the prices for materials have risen sharply, for example the price of wood has tripled since March. But I think this will calm down again.
The home builder industry and the banks learned from the crisis a good ten years ago that stockpiles are not built. At Avex Homes we only build what is 90% sold. America sometimes tends to go from one extreme to the other. In 2006 anyone who could spell their name reasonably correctly could get a mortgage on a house. Today there are strict regulations, for example the mortgage must not be more than three times the household income, the credit check must be correct, the employment relationship is checked.
“The home builder industry and the banks learned from the crisis a good 10 years ago that stockpiles are not built. At Avex Homes we only build what is 90% sold. “
The timing for the development of your major Avalon Park Daytona project couldn’t be better. In the summer, sitEX bought a plot of 10 million square meters of building land near the coastal city. What can you tell us about the project?
Avalon Park Daytona is approximately one mile from Interstate 95 and six miles from the Atlantic coast. It is one of the largest housing projects in Florida. At Avalon Park Daytona, we aim to sell around 500 homes a year. As in Avalon Park Orlando and Avalon Park Wesley Chapel (North Tampa), we are creating an actual city in which you can live, work and spend your free time – or as we call it: live, learn, work and play. Avalon Park Daytona differs from the rest of the offerings in the US suburbs, in which developers and builders either only build houses, an office park or a shopping mall, which are, however, a few miles away from each other. We are planning to build 10,000 residential units – 5,000 single-family houses and 5,000 apartments – as well as 100,000 m2 of commercial space. The total construction volume is approximately 3 billion dollars. In this project, we were able to win a partner in DR Horton, who will buy 2500 single-family house plots from us for a total price of 160 million dollars.
And when will construction start and when can the first properties be occupied?
We already have an approved zoning plan. We plan to start construction in 2021 and move into the first houses in 2022.
The “Avalon Park Daytona” is already the fourth mega project that you are realizing in the region. All of them together cover an area of 27.8 million square meters and, in addition to commercial space, provide for almost 18,000 residential units. What experiences with regard to urban planning can now be brought into the new project?
The four major projects are all in the Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando. The projects are each 1-2 hours away by car, so they don’t compete directly with each other, but allow our experienced team to work with local engineering offices, planners, lawyers, media, etc. that we have known for a long time. The real estate development business is local and political, we bring our reputation and experience from decades to the site. Avalon Park Orlando was Central Florida’s No. 1 residential development by sales for 2003-2006. Everyone in Orlando knows Avalon Park, the fire is now also helping us in Daytona, with house buyers, authorities and the general public.
“The four major projects allow our experienced team to work with local engineering offices, planners, lawyers, media, etc. that we have known for a long time.
Let’s talk about business in Switzerland, mainly north-west Switzerland, the second focus area of sitEX Properties Holding. In the area of existing properties, around 50% of the fixed assets are invested in office space. What developments are you observing here in view of the long-term trend towards home office?
At sitEX we are happy that over 90% of our development pipeline is residential. We think the need for run-of-the-mill office space will decrease. The demand will be diversified, going to the same individual office from 8 am to 5 pm and doing “office work” there is no longer in demand. Just like today you don’t just buy a phone to make calls. An office landlord has to be able to do more than just offer rooms. At sitEX, we have therefore implemented the 5th Floor product (www.the5thfloor.ch).
What are your expectations for “The 5th Floor”, which recently opened in the sitEX Powerhouse office and commercial building in Muttenz as one of the largest coworking spaces in the region?
We want to build “The 5th Floor” worldwide and will open another location in Avalon Park Orlando in the 1st quarter of 2021. The goal is to open 30 locations on all continents within five years. We are holding corresponding discussions in Singapore, Sydney and San Juan (Puerto Rico). In the Powerhouse Muttenz we are at the gates of Basel and right next to the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland, with which we have a close cooperation. We help with financing and advise startups. We allow this unbureaucratic access to our large, worldwide network. Here, too, the goal is not simply to rent offices, but to provide companies with tailored support.
Which residential projects in northwestern Switzerland are currently in focus?
We are currently working on several residential construction projects in north-western Switzerland, for example in Liestal a good 500 m from the train station on a new quarter with 86 apartments and an international school.
Mr. Kähli, thank you for the interview.
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