Lower oil prices and a new tax take a toll on construction in Trinidad and Tobago

 

A diverse real estate market exists in Trinidad and Tobago, focused on domestic home ownership and rental, tourism-related property sales and rentals, and commercial property and office space. There are several hundred active real estate agents operating across T&T. The central bank classifies these activities as part of the wider “finance, real estate and insurance” sector, which in 2015 represented 16.7% of GDP.

Residential Market

T&T has a mixed housing market in which public and private providers play an active role. Through a number of agencies, the government seeks to ensure adequate housing provision for lower-income sectors of the population.

While the country is considered well off by comparative per capita income standards, there are still significant pockets of poverty and housing need. A proportion of the population still lives in informal settlements. The government has been keen to enlist private sector help to narrow the housing deficit through a range of partnership programmes.

According to a study of six Caribbean countries, including T&T, conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank, the population of the twin-island nation grew by 4.9% to 1.3m between the two censuses of 2000 and 2011, while the total number of housing units in the country rose by 13.1% to 399,461.

The difference between the two growth rates is explained by a decline in average household size to 3.24 people in 2011, down from 3.64 in 2000. More than 75% of the population lives in single-family detached homes, and 44% are owner-occupiers.

There are a range of differing estimates of housing need, with the National Spatial Development Strategy estimating current housing needs at 100,000 new units in the next 10 years. Housing affordability remains a serious problem. The house-price-to-annual-wages ratio is nearly 10:1. Global studies of median prices and incomes suggest that anything above 4:1 denotes a serious shortage of affordable homes.

Oversight 

Housing provision, policies and overall planning are overseen by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. Eight other affiliated organisations include the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) and the Urban Development Corporation of T&T (UDeCOTT). The HDC manages government-owned housing that is rented to low-income families. UDeCOTT acts as the state’s primary developer. The government has merged the T&T Mortgage Finance Company (TTMF) and the Home Mortgage Bank to create the T&T Mortgage Bank, a state-owned institution now required to provide finance for new homeowners, carry out urban renewal and oversee the regularisation of squatter settlements. Increasingly, these state agencies are mandated to work with the private sector to accelerate housing provision.

While government efforts are focused on providing housing for lower-income groups, and upper-income groups tend to be well served by the private sector, there is a notable lack of provision when it comes to middle-income sectors. There is only a handful of private developers providing housing for this segment of the market. This has been attributed to a variety of factors, including a shortage of suitable building land and the perception that profits are not attractive enough in this tier of the market Another reason may be the relative decline of the largest private sector developer, Home Construction (HCL), which has not fully recovered from the financial crisis of 2008, and the collapse of its parent company. HCL owns a significant land bank with property suitable for residential housing, but has not been able to develop it.

Stable Housing Segment 

Sally Singh, president of the Association of Real Estate Agents of T&T (AREA), told OBG that the current state of the property market was “moderate to good”. Although she acknowledged that the local economy as a whole was going through a recession, the real estate sector had not felt the brunt of the downturn. Many developments were still going ahead, and property remained one of the better long-term investment vehicles on the islands.

The central bank made some comments on the state of the residential real estate market in its November 2016 Monetary Policy Report. Consistent with international conditions, there had been a gradual tightening of interest rates during the year. The mortgage market reference rate (MMRR) was increased by 25 basis points (bps) to 2.75% in December 2015, and then again by a further 25 bps to 3% in March 2016. With market rates up following the MMRR increases, residential mortgage lending decelerated slightly during 2016, but commercial sector mortgage activity remained comparatively buoyant. Total outstanding mortgage value growth had slowed from 9% in the first nine months of 2015 to 5.7% in the same period of 2016. New mortgage lending was weaker.

Property Squeeze 

While the government is focusing on the housing needs of low-income sectors, many AREA members believe there is significant unmet demand for housing among middle-income groups. A number of families in this income bracket are reported to be in rented accommodation because of a shortage in the availability of appropriate property to purchase. As described by Singh, if a particular property is put on the market at an unrealistic price, it tends not to sell. Properties priced reasonably will sell, and the general price trend remains upward. The only time in recent memory when prices came down was due to a combination of local and international factors in 2007/08. The introduction of a land-licensing system in Tobago in 2007, which excluded foreigners from the market for a period, adversely affected demand, forcing a downturn in prices. While this was an island-specific issue, T&T was then affected by the international financial crisis that began in 2008.

Real estate markets across the twin-island country later recovered. In 2016 the tourism-related Tobago housing market was stimulated by news that the Sandals hotel chain was considering plans for a 750-to 1000-room hotel in south-west Tobago. “We are optimistic about the outlook,” Singh said.

House Prices 

There is no single, widely cited indicator for prices in the residential property market in T&T. However, most estimates seem to suggest that growth has been continuing, though at a slower pace than experienced two or three years ago. An IMF report on international housing prices published in February 2017 said the global house price average had risen for the 16th consecutive quarter. Against that background it is estimated that average T&T house prices increased by 1.8% during 2015. An earlier IMF report, published in 2015, noted that prices in the twin-island republic ranged broadly between TT$1.5m ($240,000) and TT$8m ($1.2m), although super-luxury and low-end houses stood outside of that range.

According to Worldwide Group, a UK-based property consultancy, housing prices in T&T took some time to recover from the global financial and property crisis of 2008, with other Caribbean markets, such as Jamaica and Barbados, rising up more sharply.

Nevertheless, the consultancy estimated that prices in T&T had increased by 6% in 2015, which is higher than the IMF estimate, and remained in positive growth territory in 2016. Worldwide said the average price of a “modern home in a desirable neighbourhood” in Trinidad would be around $550,000, while an average condominium would cost $310,000. The comparable prices in Tobago were $550,000 and $390,000.

Most foreign buyers were from the UK, Germany, the US, Canada and Scandinavia. Another estimate of price levels came from Trinidad-based Saran Joseph of Sunrise Properties. She said a single-story home with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a two-car garage in Trinidad might start at around $310,000.

Patricia Phillips, broker and owner of Tobago-based Island Investments, estimated that prices had increased by 6% in 2015 and continued moderately upward. “The market is still on the road to recovery, and it is still a buyer’s market,” she said. Tobago is more of a tourism-related market, with property prices influenced by the level of tourist visits and airlift. While foreign buyers must still secure landholding licences, there are now specific areas designated for tourism development, including Englishman’s Bay and Bacolet Estate, where acquiring a licence is a relatively straightforward procedure that takes around 40 days, but can stretch to six months. In most cases, no equivalent licences are required in Trinidad, which tends to be more affected by movements in domestic supply and demand, the ups and downs of business in general and the energy sector in particular.

Softer Rental Market 

Given this business environment, there are indications that a stable or moderately growing home ownership market has been co-existing with a weaker rentals market. The upscale residential rental market has felt the impact of the slump in the energy sector rather more sharply than other property sectors. Jean de Meillac, director at real estate firm Terra Caribbean, told OBG that this market had been strong for two or three years before it began to deteriorate towards the end of 2015. “Business is not fantastic. It is now fair, moving to poor,” he said.

The essential issue is that major oil and gas and energy services companies had cut their managerial staffing levels. Consequently, there was an oversupply of upmarket property, with owners chasing a dwindling number of expatriate families as potential tenants. De Meillac estimated that rental rates had fallen by as much as 40% from their peak, and the rental market as a whole had become more volatile. He noted that landlords in this upper end of the lettings market remained cash-rich and were able to live with lower rental income, or even leave properties empty for a period as they waited for an upturn in the market.

The weakness of the rental sector has, however, fed through to the property sales side, and has had a cooling effect on prices. “Vendors at the upper end of the housing market have had to reduce their expectations and become more realistic,” de Meillac said.

Popular Investment

Estate agents agreed the stability of the home ownership market was underpinned by its attractiveness as a savings and investment vehicle. Mark Edghill, managing director of Key West Real Estate, told OBG wealthy families and individuals view property as a way of safeguarding their assets at a time of uncertainty and depreciating national currency. The gradual increase in mortgage rates was not expected to overshadow the attractiveness of property ownership. Despite a small increase in unemployment, there were no signs of increased repossessions. “We have not seen any significant changes in domestic home ownership,” Edghill said.

Commercial Segment 

In the commercial and office space sector there were also some signs of weakness. De Meillac believed both A- and B-grade property sectors were suffering a net loss of tenancies, although there was growth at the lower end of the commercial market. Office rents had come down 20-30% from their peak. De Meillac told OBG commercial landlords were now offering big incentives, such as initial rent-free periods, to attract tenants.

Registration & Security 

As Singh highlighted, one difficulty facing the industry is that there are no comprehensive qualifications or professional requirements for people operating in or entering into the industry as real estate agents.

AREA currently has approximately 150 members, while the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU), which was set up in 2009 to implement anti-money laundering and counter financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) standards and practices, has approximately 548 agents registered on its database. The FIU requires the registration of “any natural or legal person carrying on the business of buying, selling or leasing property”, According to Singh, there are approximately 600-800 individuals, who are neither AREA members or registered on the FIU database. One side effect of this situation is that comprehensive data, such as the total number and value of real estate transactions, is not accurate for the industry. The president of AREA maintained that the safeguard would be to ensure that anyone doing business in the real estate industry should ensure that the agent with whom they are working is registered with AREA and the FIU.

Sharon Inglefield, chief executive of estate agency Massy Realty, has argued a government-backed real estate licensing system. “Agents have been pushing for licensing for some time now. We need that, in these times of AML/CFT,” she told local media in late 2016. Members of AREA seek to implement best-known practices, including know-your-customer checks prior to concluding any transactions. Shane Correia, who runs TrinidadRealtor.com, a local property website, agreed there was a need to prevent a “wild west” approach where anyone could set up as an agent. Instead, he told OBG, there needs to be licensing, regulation and minimum standards of quality.

Property Tax 

Given the energy-related drop in its revenues, T&T has been looking at other ways to boost tax receipts. Presenting the budget for the year to September 30, 2017, Colm Imbert, minister of finance, confirmed earlier commitments to reintroduce a property tax, becoming effective over 2017. A Property Tax Act had been introduced in 2009, and the levy came into effect in the years immediately following. However, in 2011, at a time of high oil and gas revenues, the property tax was suspended. By early-2017 the full details of how the reintroduced tax would be calculated had yet to be revealed. The Board of Inland Revenue (BIR) was required by the government to assess all land in the country before end-March 2017. Estate agents, as well as retail and commercial companies, were monitoring developments closely. The government was also expected to make small modifications to the Valuation of Land Act. One issue of interest to business was the definition of land. It was not yet clear whether offshore installations – namely, oil and gas industry structures – would come under a widened definition of taxable land. There were reports that industrial land would be defined so as to include the installed cost of plant, machinery and associated buildings, and was likely to fall under a 6% tax rate. The T&T Chamber of Commerce said it was in favour of the reintroduction of the property tax, but expressed concern that a high tax rate, applied to non-energy industries, might be a disincentive to investment, particularly if it included machinery.

Outlook 

The real estate market has slowed somewhat during the course of 2016. The domestic residential market continues to show signs of relative strength, while the luxury and energy-related sectors have seen a cooling off. But estate agents and industry executives note that the sector has experienced these cycles before and is on track for recovery. “It will get worse before it gets better,” de Meillac told OBG. “But there could be a turnaround starting in late 2017.”

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The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2017

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