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French Version

To buy, or not to buy ? That is the question (Daily Star)

young lebanese must weigh space versus cost in determining whether to move outside beirut
Skyrocketing rents in Beirut are one of the consequences of the city's relatively

Owning your own place, even in an overly congested city such as Beirut, can be more challenging than trying to read the newspaper standing in the middle of a blizzard.

"I've been married for more than two years now and I still haven't found a place to live," said Anwar Assaf, a newly wedded 30-year-old school teacher.

"I guess that middle class people like us in this country are not allowed to own a decent place without being overwhelmed with debts."

Assaf said that right after his marriage, he and his wife moved in to live with his parents, but then, because of constant "mother-in-law and wife fights," they had to rent a house in Bourj Hammoud before moving to their "own" place - which they have not yet found.

"I just want a decent place, with a decent view, in a decent neighborhood, at a decent price," Assaf said, "the first three criteria, however, are easier to find than the last one."

The young groom said that of all the 140-square-meter "decent" homes he and his wife have "browsed" through in the capital, they could not find a single one costing less than - on average - $80,000 to $100,000.

"If I wanted something cheaper I had to get out of the capital," Assaf said, "which is really not convenient for me or my wife, because we both work in Beirut, and with the increasing gasoline prices ... well you know the rest."

Real estate agent Salim Chikhani said the country was obviously undergoing what he called as a "blooming houses" crisis: "You get to see new buildings and apartments 'erupting' every day and everywhere.

"But only a few people actually buy houses as many of them prefer to rent. So basically, Beirut is an over-consumed building area, but an under-consumed buying domain."

People, Chikhani added, preferred to own a property outside Beirut and rent a cheap house in the capital.

"And that's the common scenario of around 55 percent of the Beiruti population," Chikhani said, "I think no more than 45 percent of them own their own houses."

Those who owned a place outside the capital, he said, usually spent the weekend in it.

"The rest of the week, they would spend in their rented house in Beirut," Chikhani said, adding that renting a house in Beirut was a "must do" nowadays with the rising prices of gasoline.

"If you work in Beirut and live outside the capital, then it will cost you, on average let's say, around $300 as a monthly transportation fee to get to your office," he said, "and that number is on the increase because of skyrocketing gasoline prices, so you would rather rent a house for $300 and walk to work or drive a few minutes, wouldn't you?"

Anwar Farjallah, another real estate agent working outside Beirut said that "many of the young couples who come to see me and ask me to help them look for a 'nice property' outside the capital, already have a rented house in Beirut. People nowadays would rarely consider buying a space in the capital."

Farjallah explained that, for the same amount of money that someone was ready to spend on a house in Beirut, a larger property could be bought outside the capital.

"For instance, an average 140-square-meter flat in Beirut would cost you around $100,000," Farjallah said.

"Now for that same amount of money, you could build or sometimes buy a luxurious duplex and a piece of land in the Mount Lebanon or Metn areas."

Farjallah said that due to the country's current economic recession, an increasing number of banks are now offering house loans which cover most areas in Lebanon, and not only the capital.

"Around 60 percent of the people who ask for house loans are buying a property outside the capital and its suburbs," said Salma Achkouti, Achrafieh branch manager of Banque du Liban et d'Outre Mer (BLOM).

"This is mainly due to two reasons," Ackhouti said, "first of all, the moment you get out of the capital and its suburbs, the cost of a square meter automatically drops to half, so you can buy a bigger space outside Beirut for the same amount of money."

Second, Achkouti explained, some people like to go out of the city during weekends and to spend their time in a quiet area, away from "car horns and air pollution."

Economist Randa Silwan said skyrocketing apartment prices in the capital were only a logical consequence and indicator of the city's "more than expensive" infrastructure and utilities such as telephone, electricity and water supplies.

"If it costs a landowner $500,000 to install modern plumbing in his newly erected building, then he will sure sell you an apartment in it for half that price!"

The interesting part was that, Silwan said, an increasing number of unmarried couples were actually looking for a place to rent in the capital.

"If marriage will have men pay for the whole rent, then unmarried couples will have them split the price!" Silwan joked. "That must be the reason why ... men are going bankrupt these days."

According to Antoine Chamoun, general manager of the Lebanese Institution of Housing, the civil war was partly responsible for the "housing crisis" the country is currently experiencing.

"For 17 years young people wanted to get married and buy homes," Chamoun said, "however, there was nothing to buy, everything was completely destroyed."

However, Chamoun said, now the war has ended and the country is "over-blooming" with residential projects and buildings, people feel reluctant to buy because of the current economic hardships.

"What's wrong with renting anyway?" Chamoun opined, "I think renting projects should be fully supported. People should be encouraged to rent a house instead of buying it."

Beirut 19-07-2004
Jessy Chahine
The Daily Star

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