Georg Chmiel chats with Larry Kestelman about developing your first property

Georg Chmiel chats with Larry Kestelman about developing your first property
Georg Chmiel chats with Larry Kestelman about developing your first property

GUEST OBSERVER

Larry Kestelman (above) is an extreme embodiment of the Aussie success story: a Rich Lister who has made it in both property and business and has $750 million in personal assets — none of it inherited. 

Although he has made a fortune co-founding telecom provider Dodo, rebuilt the National Basketball League, and has no fewer than 18 companies in his portfolio at the moment, real estate is where Kestelman feels most comfortable. 

Developing Your Own Property

Kestelman was not born to wealth. A Ukrainian immigrant who came to Australia at age 12, he got onto the path of riches with his first property investment in his 20s.

Aspiring investors, listen up. Kestelman‘s first wasn’t an off-the-plan apartment but a patch of land where he developed a pair of townhouses while working full time as an accountant. He sold one and lived in the other.

“If a person sees their future as getting into property, developing a couple of townhouses is a great way to do it,” he told me. “I made a lot of mistakes in my first one, but at least it was small.”

“You have mitigated your risk because you yourself can move into one. Plus, from a tax point of view, if you manage to make a profit, you won’t have to pay capital gains tax.” That’s because personal homes are exempt.

More than 20 years later, Kestelman hasn’t changed, although his budget has. 

Today, he is once again building his own future home. This time, it is an apartment in the $700 million, six-star, luxury residential and mixed use project in South Yarra called Capitol Grand (below).

I have examined this project closely. I personally believe Capitol Grand will be the most beautiful building in Melbourne. It also will be the tallest outside of the CBD. What’s more, the apartments are designed to provide a great lifestyle. Kestelman himself plans to live in one.

Kestelman now lives in a 600 square meter Docklands penthouse, but he is looking forward to moving to his new building as soon as he completes construction. He tells me that 80% of the buyers so far are owner occupiers.

Georg Chmiel chats with Larry Kestelman about developing your first property

Build for occupiers or investors? 

Which raises an interesting point. Most developers today build for investors. That keeps the size and the quality of the units they construct relatively low. Kestelman thinks more buildings should target owner occupiers.

He said, “I want to live in South Yarra. The lifestyle I want is being able to go downstairs and choose from a plethora or restaurants and stores and cafes.”

“Melbourne is ranked as the most livable city in the world, but until the Capitol Grand there were few apartment buildings that offered you a residence as appealing as the city itself. This will be the standard.”

How to choose an investment property 

I’m a property investor, too, so I was curious whether Kestelman thought his Capitol Grand was a good project for investors to buy into — even if they don’t intend to occupy the apartment. 

“Well, I’m sure you would expect me to say that about my own building,” he laughed in reply, “but I really believe it is.”

Kestelman holds that the greatest capital appreciation comes from high-quality developments. That’s why he chose for Capitol Grand the architect who also designed another landmark Melbourne apartment tower, The Melburnian. Data from Core Logic shows The Melburnian has been among the city's best-performing buildings for capital growth.

Kestelman’s advice is this: “Invest in iconic buildings that will stand the test of time, can’t be replicated easily, and that stand out as places people want to be. If you can’t tell a reasonable difference between your building and the one next door, it’s probably not going to fare well,” he said.

Whatever you invest in, he wants you to understand the financial basics behind your asset. Since he started out in accounting, perhaps that is no surprise. 

“The numbers don’t lie. If they don’t add up, it’s not the thing to be doing. If you don’t understand numbers, that’s a problem. You need someone next to you to give you advice.“

Advice for first-time buyers

Kestelman practices what he preaches when he says it is high time Australians embrace vertical living — not just down-sizers but young buyers, too.

“I encourage the new generation to look at apartment living to be closer to work.” He thinks the lifestyle offered by a house on the suburban fringes is less desirable than an apartment close to downtown. 

“Sure, you can still get an affordable house in Melbourne,” he said, “but you will probably need to spend 45 minutes or an hour traveling into your job."

Reform negative gearing?

Some analysts blame negative gearing for making housing too expensive for young buyers. Kestelman feels that a shortage of rental property will be a bigger problem than affordability in Melbourne’s near future. And negative gearing, he says, is vital to keep a constant supply of rental housing under construction. 

“People buying for investment end up renting their property out, and lack of supply could really hurt the rental market.” 

Melbourne’s population will skyrocket past five million by 2021, according to demographers, and past eight million by 2050. A lot of people will need accommodation.

Interestingly, Kestelman is open to negative gearing reforms, as long as the policy’s role in making rentals available is not lost. “Maybe it’s just for new developments,” he said.

On another hot topic, Kestelman believes foreign buyers have been good for Melbourne. Because I am chairman of Juwai.com, that’s an opinion I was happy to hear. While overseas buyers have pushed up prices in some premium neighborhoods, he believes they have also provided a huge amount of desperately needed affordable rentals. 

“Half of the towers that are built are built on the back on investors from overseas,” he said to me. “Ultimately, they can’t take the towers home with them, so they have to stay here, allowing people to live in them.”

Charlize Theron’s dress

Kestelman obtained a gobsmacking amount of global attention for Capitol Grand by arranging for movie star Charlize Theron to serve as Brand Ambassador.

“She’s only ever done two sponsorships, Christian Dior and us.”

He relished telling me about the star’s surprise at the scale of the launch event at Melbourne’s Grand Prix. She was shocked at seeing herself in an 18 meter-tall poster. And that’s not all. 

“We had a 100 or so journalists there. She was completely taken aback — to the point that she even got the name of the development wrong. She called it ‘Capitol Hill.’” Kestelman laughed as he told me this story.

Perhaps the best part for Kestelman was getting Charlize Theron to take off her dress. (No, not THAT way.)

Theron wore a Roberto Cavalli dress and Lanvin necklace in the short film that Kestelman made to promote his building. At a launch event, the dress and jewelry were auctioned to raise money for Theron’s charity, the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Program.

Georg Chmiel, the chairman of Juwai, a Chinese website for buyers of overseas property, was speaking to Larry Kestelman in what will be a monthly insight into the leading minds of Australian property experts.

He has spoken with LJ Hooker agent Bill Malouf about the ins and out of the Sydney market and REINSW president Leanne Pilkington about women in real estate.

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