It made headlines around the globe when Dubai became one of the first in the world where residential real estate could be bought and sold in bitcoin or similar digital currencies. In September, the Aston Plaza and Residences development in Dubai Science Park began offering off-plan studios and one- and two-bedroom units starting from around 30, 50 and 70 bitcoin, respectively. This was at a time when one bitcoin was worth around $4,940 (Dh18,142.15).
After the massive year-end rally of bitcoin, the most expensive unit in the development, a 132.6-sq-m, two-bedroom residence on the 31st floor, had an off-plan asking price of just 21.97 bitcoin as of December 11, which is equivalent to $376,000. “Prices in bitcoin vary because they’re pegged to the US dollar and are updated in real time,” explains Michelle Mone, a businesswoman from the UK and partner in the project led by British property management and investment holding Knox Group of Companies.
This, in fact, makes her online bitcoin price list look more like stock market prices rising and falling continuously. However, Mone says that paying in bitcoin for this development is just an option for a limited number of apartments. The offer is meant to open an avenue for the cryptocurrency community to divest some of their bitcoins into tangible, physical assets. Depending on demand, there will be more units to be offered in bitcoin, says Mone.
For the developer, the risk of dealing with bitcoin payments is minimal as payments are converted immediately to US dollars after the deal is closed. The transactions for the Aston Plaza development are done via US-based bitcoin payment service provider BitPay.
More recently, MAG Lifestyle Development said it is ready to accept payments in Islamic cryptocurrencies, including OneGramCoin. The developer also announced last month a 5 per cent discount for “digital” buyers in any of its eight current real estate projects.
There are two drivers that open the real estate market for bitcoin. One is that more progressive cities all over the world are beginning to adopt laws to allow the technology to be used in property deals, or do not set regulations hindering digital currency payments at all. Apart from Dubai, these cities include New York and Miami, selected cities in Europe, particularly London, as well as Australia, New Zealand and some in the Caribbean.
The other driver is the emergence of brokers and bitcoin exchange portals where members now offer real estate for bitcoin. Some realty companies, primarily in the US, are also experimenting with cryptocurrencies for purchases and rent payments. Their main target are millennials or generally people who grew up in a digital environment, i.e. tech-savvy and those who own substantial bitcoin.
Lev Loginov, co-founder of family office London Wall in the UK capital, made headlines in November by offering a $23-million mansion near Portobello Road in Notting Hill, an affluent neighbourhood in West London, to be paid only in bitcoin. Requests for viewings came almost exclusively from people under 30 years old, most of them of Asian descent. “Most of them made money from mining cryptocurrencies and basically they’re looking to acquire assets,” Loginov told CNBC in an interview, adding that accepting bitcoin also helps attract young affluent millennials to property investment.
The first real estate broker to take up cryptocurrency in New York, sells condominiums in Liberty Toye, a new Lower East Side development, for between $700,000 and $1.5 million in bitcoin. Ben Shaoul, president of New York broker firm Magnum Real Estate Group, has no reservations accepting cryptocurrency, but admits it is mainly a progressive marketing tool to gain an edge on the competition. “Over the next five or 10 years, I could see up to 25 per cent of real estate payments being made in bitcoin or a similar digital currency,” Shaoul said.
Online portals that facilitate real estate purchases using bitcoin have been popping up, with one of the largest, bitcoin-realestate.com, marketing real estate payable either in US dollars or bitcoin and two other popular cryptocurrencies, ethereum and litecoin. The portal offers a wide range of choices, from a beach villa in Costa Rica to a city condo in Bangkok, a mansion in Scotland, a French chateau, a Hong Kong penthouse or an ocean view apartment in Curacao.
Advantages of bitcoin
That said, bitcoin has also emerged as a tool for buying big-ticket items, and as such has piqued the interest of the wealthy. Bitcoin has also emerged as a cheaper alternative to transfer large sums of money, avoiding fees and complicated and sometimes protracted transactions in traditional channels.
As bitcoin bypasses banking networks, transaction fees are as low as 1 per cent and transfer time is reduced to a few minutes. There is no paperwork and the transfer of value across the globe is frictionless and instantaneous, which means a buyer from Dubai could sign a contract for an apartment in London or a Tuscany farm mansion with a mouse click and without the need for currency conversions, banks and agents.
This convenience has awoken the interest of realty agents and real estate administrative bodies who are now looking closer into the advantages of blockchain technology, the nerve string of any cryptocurrency network. Some even believe that bitcoin will disrupt the entire industry when combined with smart contracts and blockchain-based data storage, which would radically improve transparency, speed and security of property transactions.
Here is where governments come into play to revisit the systems currently in place. The opportunity is that blockchain-based property transactions take away the need for third parties that currently make buying and registering real estate a cumbersome and costly process. As of now, real estate deals are paper-based and involve brokers, escrow agents, lawyers, notaries and banks; on the other hand, a blockchain-based process would allow people to transfer funds, property titles and data digitally, safely, reliably and far less costly in a convenient peer-to-peer manner. It also prevents forgery or malfeasance of any form as transaction records in blockchain are unchangeable.
“Blockchain will allow truly digitised property ownership and exchange, as well as data transfer,” says Ragnar Lifthrasir, founder and chairman of the California-based International Blockchain Real Estate Association (Ibrea), one of the driving forces in the global adoption of blockchain in the real estate industry. “It gives real estate stakeholders more transparency, liquidity and profitability and enables the next evolution of the real estate industry.”
In October, Ibrea presented at the World Blockchain Summit in Dubai, and the Dubai Land Department (DLD) is now developing a system that will record all local real estate contracts on blockchain, making the UAE one of the first two countries to do so, with the other being Georgia.
Dubai ultimately aims to secure all government documents on blockchain by 2020, and the DLD has been tasked with implementing blockchain to gain the confidence of global real estate investors. “Our aim is to unite all real estate and department services on a single platform,” said Sultan Butti Bin Mejren, director general of the DLD, during the launch of its blockchain initiative in October. “We hope to complete our project in 2019-20.”
The technology allows investors to verify property data that is backed by timestamp signatures, enhancing the transparency, accuracy and credibility of transactions, the DLD said. Buyers and tenants will be able to make payments electronically and not write cheques. The process would be completed in a few minutes at any time and from anywhere using a single platform, removing the need to visit any government entity.