LAHORE: Pakistan’s real estate sector has never really won awards for its efficiency or transparency. Authorities and consumers have both known this for long, but even though it may have been acceptable in the previous century for a number of reasons, it just is not possible for the status quo to exist anymore. The simple reason for this is that over the last two decades, the country’s real estate industry has experienced an enormous transformation. Interestingly enough, a lot of it can be traced back to the introduction of new technologies into the property sector and the advent of online real estate portals.
The Two Decades and Dynamic Change
If you take a look back at the history of Pakistan’s real estate industry, you can easily identify the distinct undertones of each of the past two decades. The first decade, lasting from 2000 to 2009, maybe accurately identified as a period that established the groundwork for the country’s modern property market.
This foundation was built on a number of major transformations within Pakistan and the world over. At its heart were adjustments prompted by market forces and changing political dynamics. It was the overseas Pakistanis who provided the spark, as they started to look homewards in light of the Islamophobia, uncertainty and fear that gripped the world post 9/11.
This, in turn, created two different kinds of demands: one for information and the other for the property. The relatively rich upper-middle-class Pakistanis living abroad wanted secure investment opportunities in their home country, and it is no coincidence that some of the country’s largest luxury housing schemes started development during this time. It is also no surprise that Zameen.com, which would go on to become one of the most successful start-up stories in the global property portal market, burst onto the scene during this decade as well, perhaps as an answer to demand from beyond borders.
One advantage that came from all these events was that they helped shed light on the major issues that plagued the local property sector. One main problem that soon became apparent was the shortage of information on the industry. Data regarding the real estate sector – when it existed – was treated as a secret and kept out of reach of the general public. Often it was allegedly used as a means to purposely misdirect people in an effort to make undue profits for a relatively small group of individuals. It also became clear that Pakistan lacked the requisite laws and regulations to tackle the developing dynamics of the property business.
Finally, through no fault of its stakeholders, the real estate industry shifted its focus to the development of luxury real estate projects. All the prominent property developers and agencies directed their attention towards constructing and selling expensive and exclusive housing schemes and buildings; sparing no thought for the common man. Is it any surprise, then, that the decade saw property prices shoot up to unprecedented levels?
Where the first decade highlighted the cracks that had started to appear in the local real estate industry, the second decade would go about filling them in. Leading this charge to solve the long-standing problems of the property market was the Pakistan government and Zameen.com. The government’s efforts were necessitated by the country’s international commitments, while Zameen.com’s efforts were obviously more commercially oriented – though laudably long-term in vision and based on creating mutual benefit. It is noteworthy that a major chunk of the portal’s users comprises overseas Pakistanis, and relatively new, small-scale realtors, consultants and investors.
Mending What’s Broken
Consequently, the governments’ efforts have been aimed at documentation, taxation and regulation of property, while Zameen.com has fought the good fight on other fronts. To wit – and regrettably, considering the scope and scale of the property market – the only reliable source of data and information on the real estate sector remains Zameen.com, with its Real Estate Index and Search Trends, its dedicated real estate blog and news sections, and its myriad listings.
Real estate agents would have to admit (privately at least, if not publicly) that when they receive calls from overseas Pakistanis looking to make investments, the people living abroad sometimes know as much about the housing and commercial projects currently under development in the country as anyone else in the local property market. You might take that with a pinch of salt but it is clear that online portals like Zameen have been the largest contributor in facilitating the general population in navigating the local real estate industry.
The portal has also served to level the playing field for small-scale realty businesses, giving them direct access to much-needed clientele. Aside from the fact that the company has helped improve the livelihoods of these property agents and developers, it has also assisted in bringing more transparency to the sector for the general public, particularly overseas Pakistanis looking to invest in the country.
News has it that the company is now developing additional tools to add to its existing collection of facilities. Currently, its primary concern seems to be providing representation to listings on the website that go unaddressed. With just some help, these properties could also be moved in a timely manner.
If introduced, such tools could transform the way the real estate business is conducted in the country. The property sector has been lagging for the past three years, primarily due to problems caused by a lack of transparency — and private sector initiatives such as this have the potential to inject new life into it.