Being in real estate since he was a teenager has taught Lawrence Kreeve how to financially package, market and sell residential real estate.
He transforms good products into great ones by being a hard worker who does his homework. His most recent coup is The Houghton, that well-known residential landmark overlooking the Houghton Golf Club. Started in 2010, it is being developed in phases.
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Kreeve was asked to research the sales potential of the ambitious project, which had been stalled by the massive global financial downturn in 2007. It urgently needed a fresh perspective in marketing its exclusive lifestyle and location as the recession eased.
With Kreeve on board, The Houghton is now in phase four and on target, with 250 units sold, amounting to more than R1,5 billion. Kreeve, a CA by profession, certainly knows a thing or two about the numbers. We asked him to share some of the secrets of his Midas touch.
Describe some of the early lessons you learnt about property?
While I was a student, I bought a house in Boksburg with no money. I put down R1 000 as a deposit and rented it out to a tenant.
That was when I discovered that as a new landlord, you should never live more than 20 minutes away from your rental property. Within a few months, my tenant stopped paying the rent and by the time I arrived at the house he had taken the doors, the sinks and all the fittings that could be carried off.
I had to borrow money from a friend to settle with the bank, and it took a few years to pay him back.
I left South Africa in 1976 and landed up in Canada, where I worked for Deloitte Consulting. I got the opportunity to buy into an old hotel about 100km outside of Toronto. We turned it around quickly, and that experience taught me the value of finding properties that others might not notice, and making them attractive enough to bring a variety of different people in.
There’s a lot to be said for offering three or four attractions that draw different audiences; it’s about turning a place into a destination venue.
Real estate is a long-term investment that holds its value far more than any currency. With the money I made from the hotel, I bought an apartment block for US $132 000.
It was rented primarily to older people who liked being able to walk to the shops, which were close by.
The block was yielding about 11% per annum at the time, and I was delighted to have found what I thought was the start of a proper property portfolio. Then my partner in the hotel business told me he would like to come in as a shareholder and manage the apartments for me.
What I did not understand at the time was that one bad apple really can destroy the whole cart. He moved his girlfriend into one of the apartments and the party would start at her place every night at 1.00am.
All the older tenants started to move out. My solid investment had been contaminated by a single bad tenant. I had to pay a lawyer thousands of dollars to take the thing off my hands and sell it to somebody else.
Through the father of another investment partner, I was advised to look at another apartment block in Spadina Avenue, one of the most prominent streets in Toronto. But like some Joburg streets, it has a different character in different neighbourhoods. The side heading west was great, with lots of student tenants.
On the other side, where I bought the building, there were some rather undesirable people. I told them they had two months to move out and that I would be gutting the interior. Half of them refused.
I returned with a bouncer and we removed all the doors. Given that it was January and freezing, they soon departed. I had paid $92 000 for the building, but when I got a call from a developer who offered $125 000, I knew he had more experience than me, and I got out quickly. He sold that block a year later for $250 000.
So you had to go back to basics?
Yes. These early lessons actually taught me the basics: Don’t just do. I began to apply the principles I learnt in accounting from my mentor Bernard Herbert, who helped me through my studies and my board exam:
“Ascertain, assess, test, decide, do,” and keep repeating the cycle for as long as you need to. Do not just go with your gut.
Why do you believe local knowledge is so important for investors?
Local knowledge is essential in real estate. ‘knowing Joburg’ is not local knowledge, neither is ‘knowing Houghton.’
Local knowledge is knowing what happens on the street corners close to the property you are interested in. It’s developed over time and it’s based on experience.
What is the history? What are the demographics? What does the future hold for this area? Ascertain all the information you can, including the demand now, and the potential future demand.
Before you define what product you will offer in this location, ask your potential clients, “If I was able to offer you this, in this location, would you be interested?” They will tell you. That is what happened with The Houghton.
The development stalled initially and I was called in to help. The developers had predetermined what their market wanted, without doing the research.
It’s critical to find out everything you need to know about an area. What are the vacancy rates? What are the levels of rentals being achieved? Who are the tenants? What other competition is there? An area with 2% vacancy rates is obviously a great area to own an apartment block. Find out what other developments are planned. Is there a train or bus station? What universities, schools and hospitals are in the vicinity?
What are the negatives? Are bad elements encroaching on the area? Are there plans to commercialise it? You do not have to do all the work yourself – contact town planners and get the information from them.
Infrastructure is also important. Sandton today remains the best square mile in Africa because the infrastructure is largely supportive of the developments. In Fourways, on the other hand, infrastructure is way behind the rate of development, making it a difficult place to commute to and from every day.
Most importantly, remember that you are not buying today to sell tomorrow. Doing the research is your business.
How narrowly do you have to identify a target market?
A young property developer approached me with what he called a tax shelter real estate property development. He said his target market was doctors – medical professionals who have money to invest. He had done a good job in the past and he had a decent client base.
On looking at his marketing material, I advised him that he would sell more if people could better understand the product. I spelled out the offering and the sales came pouring in.
It was an experience that highlighted how important it is to select sites that are attractive to particular markets.
What has kept you focused over several decades in this business?
If you have a goal that you’ve determined is worthwhile, you have to want to pursue it for long enough to achieve it. To ensure success, it pays to keep reviewing your road map and your goals.
Step back and look at things in perspective to re-evaluate. Work out the critical path and keep reviewing where you’re heading and what you’re doing. Keep monitoring and keep measuring, as that will allow you to stay focused on the end game.