Will the pandemic bring high rise service charges back to earth?

4 September 2020, The Financial Times

By Antonia Cundy and Hugo Cox

After one of his lectures at the Bartlett School of Planning in London, Peter Rees was approached by a student who was surprised when the professor did not recognise him. “He said to me: ‘My parents bought six apartments in the block where you live, but I’ve moved somewhere better now,’ so that put me in my place.” The City of London’s former chief planning officer did not mind the snub to where he lives — a 1,000 sq ft flat on the 27th floor of The Heron. But the anecdote is a telling example of how quickly once sought-after high-rises can be upstaged by new super-luxury developments. “Developers started thinking: ‘OK, how can we raise the bar?” says Chris Graham, a marketing specialist in luxury homes. “As opposed to just the standard things — the swimming pool, the wellness spas — they’ve started adding golf simulators, private cinemas, wine tastings, private entertaining spaces, a hobby room, and so on.”

As the supply of super-luxury homes has increased in recent years, developers have been locked into a race to outdo one another to attract buyers. But with costs escalating — and Covid-19 putting a damper on shared facilities — will residents still want to pay for them? For the upkeep of the building and its gym, pool, private cinema, and members’ club, as well as the 24-hour concierge team, Rees pays an annual service charge of £10 per sq ft. This is cheap compared with London’s priciest spots. At the Four Seasons Residences on 20 Grosvenor Square, residents pay £14 per sq ft for perks including a supervised children’s playroom, library, pool, a wine storage and tasting room and a network of car lifts to deliver residents’ vehicles to the deep-basement parking.

A decade after it was built, the service charge on a £30m, three-bedroom apartment in One Hyde Park, Knightsbridge, is £22 per sq ft — or £55,000 per year. Managed by the adjacent Mandarin Oriental hotel, it has underground parking, wine cellars, an “ozone” swimming pool (which uses O3 as a disinfectant), a squash court and golf simulator. Buyers have been “astounded” at the asking prices of these new luxury flats, says Roarie Scarisbrick, a partner at buying agent Property Vision. As for their service charges, he estimates that the going rate for London’s best spots is now £15-£20 per sq ft. Manhattan’s top-priced buildings command similar fees. At 432 Park Avenue, a 426-metre skyscraper overlooking Central Park, the amenities include a golf simulator, a private restaurant, multiple cinemas, a billiards room and a library — and, when the building was first finished, cost residents an annual $27 per sq ft in service charges. At 35 Hudson Yards, where the first homes went on sale in March 2019, the charge is $35 per sq ft per year — which may be Manhattan’s priciest, according to data from GS Data Services in New York.

Mounting maintenance costs

The rise in decadent amenities is not the only force driving service charges. Glass facades — common among today’s high-rise luxury towers — can make for high-energy costs and maintenance bills. The glass “skins” typically comprise a series of double-glazed floor-to-ceiling windows with strengthening laminates that can form the complete exterior. Rees estimates that these must be replaced every 40 to 60 years, at huge cost and major disruption, since residents must be temporarily rehoused. “Effectively you’re taking the walls away,” he says. “You’d need to rehouse the residents for 12 months at least. How do you compensate them?”

“While buyers of office buildings factor the costs of such re-cladding work when they come to price a building, residential buyers typically do not,” says Simon Sturgis, founder of Targeting Zero, a sustainability consultancy in London. Rees reckons the high costs associated with this work mean many of the new high-rise glass-fronted apartments may have a shorter life than the leases of the apartments they contain.  “From the leaseholder’s perspective they may have a depreciating asset, not in the short term, but in the future,” he says. “We’re talking about this conflict of 125-year leases in buildings where major parts of it only have a life of 65 years.” If the management companies responsible for running the buildings find themselves underfunded for such work, the result could mean large and sudden hikes in service charges when work is needed, he adds.

The cost of Covid-19

The arrival of coronavirus has further complicated matters as developers try to create buildings that are virus-safe.

“More elevator cores, wider corridors and doorways will help alleviate congestion but will increase cost and reduce usable residential space,” says Riyan Itani of Savills’ International Development Consultancy in London. “Developers will also need to consider how they can manage the density of usage through safety checks and implementing air filtration systems indoors.” Social distancing is curtailing the use of communal facilities. Regulating the number of swimmers in the pool is one of many new tasks of the top-end concierge manager; Itani reckons temperature checks could soon be added.

As Covid reduces the appeal of luxury apartments with shared facilities, developers in Hong Kong are increasingly experimenting with pay-as-you-go for core amenities such as gyms and pools, says Aradhana Khemaney of Savills’ Hong Kong office. “Not all residents want to use all of the facilities on offer,” she says. “Especially at the moment.” According to Camilla Dell, founder of buying agency Black Brick, London buyers are deserting luxury high-rises for their own four walls. “In the pandemic some weren’t even able to use those gyms and facilities but were still paying these charges,” she says. “In the world [post-Covid] the idea of sharing facilities really doesn’t appeal now.” 

Luxury living costs all under one roof But some fans of all-in luxury apartments disagree. In Singapore, owners of apartments at the Ritz-Carlton Residences in the Orchard Road district enjoy perks including tennis courts, two swimming pools, a library, three sky terraces — one featuring a manicured maze — as well as the usual fitness centre, coffee bar and hosting spaces. The price to residents is about $7.70 per sq ft a year. Plus, as freeholders rather than leaseholders, residents have control over how the building will be maintained.

Edward, who did not want to give his last name, a local who lives with his family in a top-end apartment block in Singapore’s Marina Bay, says that Covid-19 has done nothing to dent the appeal of his building’s facilities. “The day after government lifted social-distancing restrictions, the pool was full,” he says. Tot up all the additional expenses of living a life of luxury in your own house, meanwhile, and service fees may look like good value. “If they were living in a standalone home somewhere, they may require a house manager who might be on £55,000, a driver might be on £30,000, a childminder might be on £50,000,” says Gabriel York, co-chief executive of Lodha UK, the developer behind 1 Grosvenor Square, where the average home is between 3,500 and 4,000 sq feet, and the service charge is £15 per sq ft. For overseas clients with children at boarding school, a member of Grosvenor Square’s team will drop off and collect the child, for example. “In one of these developments their requirements for these household staff would be reduced,” he says.

Scarisbrick says that the convenience of lock up and leave will always ensure buyers will stump up hefty service charges. “The people who are buying these places simply don’t want to deal with the responsibility of their own house, they desperately want the security and convenience of these places.” For this group, the economics of fast-ageing glass and steel buildings may be less of a concern. Even Rees is sanguine. “At my age, having paid off my mortgage, if the thing depreciates it’s not the end of the world, to be honest.”

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