News - Northern Ireland

As we enter the second quarter of 2016, the long winter of 2015 is starting to thaw and the tender signs of growth are slowing springing.

This is certainly evident in the commercial property market where predictions once made in whispered tones are now being spoken with a more confident timbre.

The breaking of ground is fueling cautious optimism for an impending development cycle, particularly across Belfast city centre, which has more or less been at a lengthy standstill in recent years.

Several factors have been at play during the past 12 months each adding to the slow, but steady, momentum that the city has been gaining as a vibrant and viable location for investment, relocation and development.

Positivity, once an unspoken word in Belfast property circles, is being bolstered by a steady stream of good news in local and national media. Additionally, the success of trade missions, such as the presence of Belfast City Council and local developers at the well-attended, and equally well publicised exhibition by Belfast City Council and local developers at MIPIM in Cannes, France, have served to move Belfast more than a few rungs up the desirability ladder amongst the wider investment community.

This renewed confidence in the city by its residents, government and business community has been a long time coming with recent aims to secure £1bn of inward investment being but one headline-grabbing sound bite.

That said, the locals remain nervous. To come back from the blows received by every sector of the property market during and in the wake of the 2007 crash, takes gusto and a penchant for risk-taking that is, for some, too much too soon.

Getting back in the ring is great in theory, until you get a flashback of how hard the canvas was hit.

And herein lies what, now many a London based property fund, have seen as the real opportunity that Belfast provides.

The opportunity to take advantage of the perceived risk, and make a healthy return.

UK & international funds don't sport the scars of 2007 to the same extent as our local Investors and by comparison to the majority of deals being done by these heavyweights, the capital required to fund a purchase in Northern Ireland can be relatively small compared to transactions elsewhere in the UK. Their access to funding in many cases from their own resources allows them to have first mover advantage in our market. A notable example is the recent purchase of the Outlet in Banbridge and Junction One in Antrim by Tristan Capital Partners

The opportunities for investors right now are wide ranging; student accommodation, hotels retail and offices. Those who are less than familiar with the commercial property market may be surprised to hear that some of the prime opportunities across N Ireland have already been snapped up by funds that, to carry through the boxing metaphors, have beaten more hesitant fighters to the punch.

Ever changing market dynamics have created a window that private equity funds are sure to take further advantage of, changing the ownership and financing landscape of ownership across the city.

The question of how long this window will last remains to be seen and it is likely that before it closes we'll see more London based funds names featuring in articles about significant acquisitions.

Declan Flynn is Managing Director of Belfast-based commercial property agency Lisney, which works on behalf of many of Northern Ireland's most significant investors and developers as well as major retailers and businesses.

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