x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Property proves to be a happy hunting ground in Dubai

The Life: Michael Lahyani's online property portal, propertyfinder.ae, was just getting on its feet when the recession hit. Faced with a choice between sacking half his staff or limping on, he chose the latter.

Michael Lahyani is the founder of propertyfinder.ae. The portal aims to become the “global property portal of the Arab world”.Christopher Pike / The National
Michael Lahyani is the founder of propertyfinder.ae. The portal aims to become the “global property portal of the Arab world”.Christopher Pike / The National

Michael Lahyani was on his way to the Maldives when he decided to make a short stop-off in Dubai to check it out.

Intrigued by the emirate, which was just starting to boom at the time in 2004, the publisher, who owns an equestrian magazine, got in contact with his advertisers on his return to Switzerland.

"I said to them, 'This is the opportunity, what do you think? They all said do it," says Mr Lahyani, 31, a Swiss entrepreneur.

"So I decided to launch the magazine, Equestrio, here."

The magazine was an instant success in Dubai, so Mr Lahyani started looking around for a more challenging project.

And he soon spotted the potential in the rapidly expanding property sector.

He set up AlbAbWorld.com, a property listing magazine and online portal in 2005.

"Then in 2007 we got a phone call from the Australian consulate saying that an Australian company wanted to meet with us," he says.

That company was realestate.com.au, the country's largest online property portal and owned by the media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

The company wanted to enter the UAE market and bought a 51 per cent stake in Mr Lahyani's company.

"It was the right timing because I needed funds to grow. It wasn't too much a hard sell because Dubai was just booming. It was crazy," he says.

He used the money and the expertise the Australian company brought to launch a larger and more sophisticated online portal, rebranding it as propertyfinder.ae.

But then the recession hit and realestate.com.au got cold feet.

"They didn't want out. They wanted me to provide them with a business plan or with a budget that would make the company break even," says Mr Lahyani. "Obviously we were losing money at the time. It was the start of the business. We were investing heavily into it and that was part of the deal," he says.

The only way propertyfinder.ae could break even was to lay off some of its staff. And that was something Mr Lahyani was not prepared to do. So he bought the shares back from his Australian business partner.

"The scary part was not just acquiring back the shares, although I did pay some money for that, it was you are taking over a company that was losing money, so then it is your burden to finance it," he says.

But luckily Equestrio was still making money, so Mr Lahyani was able to fund propertyfinder.ae through that.

"It was a bit of a bet. We kept it tight for the whole of 2009 and beginning of 2010," he says.

The business only turned a profit last year but it appears to be out of the woods now.

And its future success could be further boosted by events in the residential property market.

"The market in Dubai is now close to the bottom of its cycle, with signs of values and rents increasing in selected locations, particularly in respect of villas in established communities, while average prices in Abu Dhabi are expected to fall further during 2012 in the face of new supply entering the market," says Craig Plumb, the head of research for the Middle East and North Africa at Jones Lang LaSalle.

And when rents fall, some people start looking to upscale, or move to a better area, says Mr Lahyani.

Propertyfinder.ae aims to become the "global property portal of the Arab world". But it is taking it one step at a time.

"We recently launched propertyfinder.qa. Qatar is a nice, small market to test our abilities to expand. We don't want to do this too quickly," adds Mr Lahyani.

Last year, the Abu Dhabi Government announced the launch of a database of all residential, commercial and industrial properties for rent, which will provide standardised contracts and require landlords to file rental agreements online.

The Tawtheeq site will also offer consumers the opportunity to search for available rentals, and monitor prices and could draw consumers away from portals such as propertyfinder.