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Inside Dubai Sotheby's International Realty's office in Emaar Boulevard Plaza, a map on a wall displays the firm's international network, represented by a swathe of glowing pins across the globe. On another wall are images of jaw-dropping property, including a penthouse in Downtown Dubai, the under construction Palazzo Versace, a multimillion-dollar villa in Canada and a sprawling ranch in California.
The office, officially launched in March, wants to make one thing clear: it offers not only local expertise, but also access to a global network of luxury homes.
Billy Rautenbach, the firm's South African Managing Director, says global coverage is a key part of the company's proposition, which she constantly emphasizes to clients since the firm completed its first transaction in December.
''If you look at the other real estate companies, some are focused on luxury, but they're not international,'' she says.
As examples, she cites real estate firms such as Luxhabitat and Sloanes Real Estate, which are established in the UAE luxury property segment, but do not have the global reach that comes with being part of Sotheby's international network.
Sotheby's International Realty was launched in 1976 by Sotheby's Auction House. Now owned by an American holding company, the realty firm has around 670 brokerage agencies worldwide.
''Ours is a luxury brand and it's international,'' she says. ''We focus on selling Dubai properties and international properties to the Dubai market.''
Rautenbach first came to Dubai in 2002 when she worked for Al Futtaim Real Estate and then for Better Homes. She returned to South Africa and started her own company, but she would later be lured back to the emirate by the prospect of opening the Dubai office of the famed Sotheby's International Realty.
It was an opportunity to start an operation from scratch in a market that was changing rapidly. Dubai had just won the rights to host the World Expo 2020, while having Sotheby's on her CV appealed to her.
''It's not every day that an international luxury brand wants you to set up an office for them,'' she says.
Dubai Sotheby's now employs more than 20 agents and has traded close to Dh250 million since it started.
So what can Rautenbach's firm offer that others can't? At this point, she turns the tables on her interviewer and asks, ''What does luxury mean to you?'' I admit the first thing that comes to my mind is the high cost. Rautenbach parries this.
''People have different answers,'' she says. ''Quality and luxury are often synonymous. For some people, time is a luxury. For them, the benefit is if we sell quickly.''
What's clear is that the firm attempts to offer not just access to luxury homes, but a luxury service. What this means depends on the client: professionalism and efficiency are part of the package, but an equally important aspect for sellers is the firm's ambition to get them the best possible price for their properties.
Rautenbach says the firm can do this because all its marketing materials, from its brochures to its listing magazine, are of luxury standard. In addition, the benefits of the global network allow the firm to advertise properties across the world, including publications such as the New York Times, Bloomberg and Hong Kong Tatler, whereas most local realty firms would market in one or two UAE newspapers only.
Legacy of luxury
All this comes with the association with the Sotheby's brand, which by itself confers a sense of prestige.
''If you list your property with Joe Bloggs Real Estate and the marketing is average, people will see your property as average,'' she says.
It's unlikely anyone would see a property on display at Dubai Sotheby's International Realty as average. As we talk in Rautenbach's office, a TV screen behind her displays a series of prime properties, from mansions in Italy to huge beach villas in Thailand. That's plenty of options for a millionaire looking to spend a few million dollars on a new pile.
In Dubai, the firm has some impressive properties as well. It is working with developer Signature Estates, which is building The 118 in the Downtown area, and with the team behind the Muraba Residences, which is a luxury apartment on the Palm Jumeirah.
Rautenbach says these projects will not be sold on a per-square-foot basis. Instead, the developers ''are targeting an investor who wants to buy it because it's a quality product''.
''From all the people I've met here, the one thing that comes out time and time again is that they will pay more money for good quality,'' she says.
I'm curious to ask her about trends in the market. After growing rapidly in the past two years, prices of residential property in Dubai seem to have plateaued over the summer. According to Reidin, which provides data on the UAE property markets, residential prices in Dubai actually fell 0.6 per cent in August.
Of particular relevance is that, according to some analyses, luxury property price growth has slowed more than the overall market. A report by consultancy Knight Frank predicted that prices of luxury property would grow more slowly than prices in the mainstream market in the coming six to 12 months.
''In any country, real estate is cyclical,'' she says. ''You always have ups and downs.''
It has its own ways
Rautenbach says one of the reasons the market experienced a slow growth was the seasonal summer lull, which combined with Ramadan always results in a quiet period for businesses. She says a pipeline of transactions is starting to come through. Her firm's sales in October were 60 per cent higher than the average over the previous three months.
''Luxury has always performed differently,'' she notes. ''There will always be people who want to buy at the upper end. Their motivation for purchasing is not the same as for mainstream buyers. They often don't require a mortgage.''
That said, Rautenbach concedes some of her clients have unrealistic expectations of the sales value of their property. For these clients, the firm acts as a consultant, communicating the sometimes unwelcome news that their villas aren't going to fetch as much as they want.
This is an important task. Rautenbach says that for all the firm's glitz and glamour, it is at heart a firm that exists to sell houses. If it doesn't do this, it's not doing its job, no matter how flashy its marketing materials are.
''Anybody can get a listing,'' she says. ''A lot of brokers tell the client what the client wants to hear. They list the property and don't do anything with it. Our job is to sell real estate. If the property isn't sellable, there's no point in marketing it.''
Get a glimpse on the luxurious villa properties with water views in the UAE
Source: George Mitton, Special to Property Weekly