BRICKS & MORTAR: Arnold Investments finds niche in Central Europe's historic apartment buildings

BRICKS & MORTAR: Arnold Investments finds niche in Central Europe's historic apartment buildings
Vienna's Innere Stadt
By Nicholas Watson in Prague July 29, 2016

Advertisers have known for years that nostalgia sells. And Arnold Investments, a niche Austrian real estate investment outfit, has been playing on that to good effect since 2009.

Based in Vienna, Markus Arnold, the founder and managing director of Arnold Investments, saw at first hand how the Hapsburg-era buildings in the centre of the city became, as one lawyer at an international law firm once described it, “concrete savings books”. Thousands of offices in Vienna’s inner city districts have been converted to residential spaces over the last decade or so as wealthy foreigners, especially Russians, sought to stash away money, often of dubious provenance.

According to swish realtor Knight Frank, average home prices in the Austrian capital rose 56% between 2008 and 2013, but the greatest rises were seen in the Innere Stadt (first district), where prices range from €8,000 to €15,000 per square metre, and can even reach €25,000 per sqm in the more desirable buildings.

Keeping prices aloft is that these properties rarely come on the market again. “In Austria, nobody sells residential unless he must,” Georg Diwok of Baker & McKenzie told bne IntelliNews.

Of course, Vienna was once the seat of a mighty empire that stretched as far south as present-day Serbia, and Arnold now sees the demand for such historical buildings, which he describes as having “charm and sex”, rising in capitals such as Prague and Budapest.

“Over the last year in the Czech Republic we have the same development; not that strong as in Vienna of course, but we always knew this would change and now that change has already started,” Arnold tells bne IntelliNews in an interview from its new Prague office overlooking the historical Wenceslas Square. The real estate broker also opened a Budapest office in June.

“The big change is that there is a lot more money on the Czech market, from private people taking their equity and investing it in the same way as in a stable European country like Switzerland, by changing money into bricks,” he says.

What Arnold Investments does is simply described by its founder as “guiding people who are not real estate professionals to make an investment” in the old buildings of these capitals. That means more often than not servicing family offices looking to invest between €4mn and €7mn in an apartment building, using cash and not involving any financing from a bank, and with the idea of holding the building for generations rather than flipping it at a profit. “It’s more about owning than earning – at a yield of 1% you won’t get rich from this,” Arnold says.

Still, no one expects to lose money; Arnold says that in general if you bought an historical apartment building in Vienna 10 years ago, it has since doubled in value. And that’s expected to continue.

“One of the main arguments for prices rising is that fewer properties are coming on the market,” he says. “In the early 2000s a lot of investors bought big portfolios of properties, but you don’t have these big packages now. In Vienna we have always had over the last seven to eight years between €900mn and €1.4bn going into apartment houses, it doesn’t change, but the total number of houses that are sold gets smaller.”

What is also changing is where the investors hail from, with Russians now being replaced by the Chinese.

“Russia was a topic but is not a topic any more. Until two years ago Russian money was easily brought to Europe, but I think that’s kind of stopped. The topic now is more China, with 30% of our turnover this year seen coming from there –  and that goes for all markets, it doesn’t matter if it’s Prague or Vienna or Hungary or Slovakia,” he says.

So is an Arnold Investments office in China on the cards? “That would be the next obvious step.”