Montefiore: Patience a profitable virtue in CBD property game

If Adelaide’s streets were once rumoured to be paved with gold, today’s nuggets might be found in the bricks and mortar of old city buildings, with Sir Monty cashing in on a brief window of opportunity.

Sir Monty usually rises early at the club – around 11am. His delicate, brandy-marinaded state from the previous night is barely disturbed by the soft foot-fall of his butler bringing fine china tea to the upstairs bedrooms overlooking North Terrace. There follows a gradual ‘reactivation’ of his composure, enabling, for at least another week, his traditional pursuit of Old Adelaide Money.

These days, it is property reactivation that’s focusing his attention, driven by a recent tip that Adelaide’s city streetscapes might be lined with gold, ready to be plundered.

Anyone who has walked the CBD square mile and gazed skyward knows that some streetscapes feature old, narrow frontage shops and offices rising to upper storeys of empty windows. The only reason that Adelaide’s ‘D’ class stock, mostly vacant for years, has not gone the way of the bulldozer is because of the innate conservatism of mainly European landlords who purchased with time on their side many decades previously.

Sir Monty’s property advisor, Ursula Uplift, drew on history to note that many immigrants paid with hard-earned cash, because condescending 1960s South Australian banks wouldn’t take the loan risk. These properties lived on, pending that glorious day far into the future when the hard-working owners anticipated a rich flow of rent to cushion retirement. But in many cases, it hardly came. Except for their small, street-level retail spaces, many of these old buildings’ upstairs rooms have been empty for years.

In Europe, similar city buildings would be bursting with life, homes to generations of families. But not in Adelaide. As building regulations tightened, these never qualified as places to live – notwithstanding fantasies by some Town Hall councillors that they now should be reoccupied by creative hipsters turning out masterpieces while waiting for the Goddess of Artistic Fame to climb the narrow stairways.

As Ms Uplift’s tutorials emphasised, to make serious money in property it’s critical to keep one eye on the past, and the other on the future. To this effect, over recent times, Sir Monty has signed multiple contracts with a clutch of cash-poor, ageing owners of these properties, locking in fixed-price purchase options at low prices reflecting their non-complying status as places to live. One key criterion for selection applied – absence of heritage listing protection. Why the contracts? Sir Monty’s only guide was his investment intuition, shored up by Ms Uplift’s experience, that extracting the best value from anything often depends simply on good timing.

Even if the now very old landlords had the money to restore, they all knew about the Building Code of Australia. Five ‘reactivation’ hurdles blocked their way: no ‘green’ restoration potential, lack of access and egress for people with disabilities, fire safety risks, weak structures (no earthquake proofing) and insufficient toilet numbers and often no showering facilities. Who, but for the penniless bohemian, would want to live under those conditions?

It was not while Sir Monty was deftly potting balls off cannon shots at his club that he recently learned of the former Labor Planning Minister’s new Code for Upgrading the Health and Safety aspect of Existing Buildings. Instead, it was while he was lunching with a Town Hall planner (an Uplift associate) that he learned of a former government initiative ‘to assist in the activation or reactivation of existing buildings, by codifying work to ensure appropriate levels of occupant health and safety’.

The plan aimed to mandate as a ministerial standard the ‘adaptive reuse’ of old South Australian buildings. He then probed Town Hall’s new plans to extend building upgrade finance to owners who might seek to capitalise on the new code. Then came the state election.

Suddenly there’s a new game in town, as the new administration gears up to implement one of their core pledges – ministerial override of building code restrictions for buildings constructed before 1980. Major new speculator chatter will soon be music to the ears of Adelaide’s planners and architects, anticipating much business with ‘reactivation’ development applications. Sir Monty recently reviewed his building contracts with fresh interest.

What value the dust of ages? The value, as he has learned, is that Patience turns it to gold dust when a hungry property lobby keen on a conservative but reliable rent yield prevails, and political commitment to the rigidity of the code collapses.

Have you met Patience? She’s the sister of Prudence, Ms Uplift’s niece. Both girls went to the Glen Osmond School for High-Maintenance Fillies. But it was their mother’s Old Adelaide Money that really got them to where they are today, without ever having to actually work.

It’s a great old Adelaide tradition, and one that Sir Monty is about to tap as he prepares to trigger his purchase options, using club title equity just hours ahead of signing new contracts to sell at an inflated margin on 24-hour settlement. The club’s title will be back in the safe before the finance committee notices it went somewhere else, briefly. Ah, ‘reactivation’!

From bricks to bullion, it’s a time-honoured South Australian caper and, as usual, Sir Monty is in on the ground floor.

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