Luke Comer on a €400 million Irish property spending spree
Comer brothers bought thousands of acres at a discount. This week they launch their first new homes scheme
Luke Comer is only half an hour late, which is good going by all accounts. The developer, who with his brother Brian, has built a £2.5 billion property empire between the UK and Germany over 30 years, says he stayed in one of the farms last night. The “farm”, it turns out, is Comer’s Dunboyne stud farm in Meath, while another “farm” of his is Castletown Demesne, a Georgian mansion on 400 acres in Kildare he bought in recent weeks for €10 million.
Understatement would be a strong suit for the Comers. Their rags to riches tale has been well documented, with far more emphasis on the rags (a tough upbringing in Glenamaddy, Co Galway, plastering walls in the cold until their fingers bled) than the riches (they are tax residents in Monaco; his brother, a keen golfer, bought a nine-hole golf course in Hertfordshire as a family home).
Since turning their sights on the Irish property market in 2010, they have hoovered up thousands of acres of property at a heavily discounted value. Often they buy at a 90 per cent discount on peak loan values, applying a general rule of thumb “if it cost more to build than the asking price the risk is minimal”.
“It’s been fantastic value the way it worked out. We bought properties valued at €2.5-€3 billion for about €400 million. A lot of it is probably worth more than double that now I suppose.”
It might look like prescient good sense that they waited until after the boom to invest here, but Comer says different: “We started talking first about [coming back] a good few years back but it seemed expensive then. We said we’d wait for it to slow down but then the global market went mad. By 2010 and 2011 we felt we’d never get a better time.”
Comer has agreed to an interview to mark the launch of their first new homes scheme here. Hersil Wood in Knocklyon (see panel) is a well-built scheme, and is likely to sell quickly given its popular residential location. It’s also a mere drop in the ocean of the Comer investment here. Two sons – Barry and Luke – now work full-time taking care of the Irish operations.
One that’s currently occupying their time is the Kilternan Sports and Leisure complex in the Dublin mountains. Bought last August for a knockdown price of €7 million, the vision of the late Hugh O’Regan was originally developed with loans of €171.5 million from Irish Nationwide. The Comers plan to complete the project.
“I can see a need for it. I wouldn’t have built it of course, but it only takes a few hundred thousand to get it open. And I expect we’ll lose maybe €1 million a year over the first couple of years, but after that I think we can start to make it back in spades.”
UCD veterinary site
Meanwhile, Palmerstown PGA Estate is operating as a venue for hire along with the golf course. So are they making a foray into the hospitality industry? “We would prefer to rent these to a hotel group eventually as they’re very time consuming. In Palmerstown it would be nice to keep the house like a Brocket Hall outside London [a historic house and golf course used for corporate entertainment].”
One of their biggest projects is the infamous UCD veterinary college site on two acres in Dublin’s Ballsbridge which they bought for €22.5 million in 2013. With planning for retail, commercial and 87 apartments in three blocks, the shell was constructed in 10 months as they raced to build before the existing planning expired. Work has now started on the two-storey underground car park. Comer says he’s confident they’ll achieve a rental of between €45 and €55 per sq ft from a big ticket anchor company.
A decision has yet to be made on whether they will rent or sell the apartments, though it would seem they are determined to become one of the biggest residential property landlords in the State.
“We would probably sell higher-end residential housing, and rent the bread and butter stuff, the apartments.”
If they build out what they have bought here – and the list is exhaustive (see panel) – they would have about 4,000 rental units here. “Land really is the only value at the moment. There are not that many unfinished developments left. And for the first time big international players like Cerberus, Lone Star and Blackstone are buying big tranches of land with plans to develop. That’s unheard of for them.”
The Comers have fuelled much of their investment here by selling off properties in Germany. Will they cash in in a similar way here when the profit has been made? “We’re not as interested in selling in Ireland, to us it’s a longer-term interest.”
The other big interest for Comer is horses, which he describes as his only indulgence. With Courtown Demesne the plan is to change the planning from a hotel and business park and set aside about 140 acres for residential homes.
A stud farm is planned on the other 300 acres, with an ultimate aim to have about 400-500 racehorses within a couple of years.
Currently Comer has about 200 breeding thoroughbreds, with 20-30 in training. At Kilternan he envisages building a track making a centre of racing excellence. He reckons the horses can be better schooled on the steep terrain over about a third of the distance, or risk as he sees it. If it’s a success it could employ a couple of hundred people.
“There are obvious advantages to having a couple of hundred yearlings of your own in that you don’t have to go to sales and compete against people who own entire countries.”
Comer took up residence in Monaco 11 years ago where he paid €1 million for a 100sq m apartment. Based in the old centre, 100m from the marina he says he “absolutely loves it”, enjoys the location and the good food, but doesn’t mix so much with the expat community.
The Comers’ UK and German experience has demonstrated that first-mover advantage, ie buying up land tranches early means they don’t need to sweat the small stuff.
Typically they build to rent so they always retain the land. And where they sell, the risk is usually taken on by partner developers who build out the sites. It’s a tried and tested formula that has stood to them so far.
Comer Group: Landmark purchases
Courtown Demesne on 400 acres in Kildare (February 2015) €10 million
UCD veterinary college site on two acres in Ballsbridge. Bought with other unnamed west of Ireland investors €22.5 million
Palmerstown PGA Estate, Co Kildare on 690 acres €8 million
Odeon site on two acres on Galway’s Eyre Square plus former Corrib Great Southern hotel €13 million
Gemini portfolio of 640 apartments and commercial space in Dublin and Cork, plus vacant Glashaus hotel in Dublin €75 million
14-storey Falcon’s View tower in Blanchardstown €11.3 million
Milner’s Square in Santry, Dublin €8 million
Sentinel building in Sandyford €850,000
Kilternan Sports and Leisure complex, Co Dublin €7 million
Comer development: New homes in Hersil Wood, Knocklyon
Hersil Wood is a small scheme of 24 four-bedroom houses off Knocklyon Road in Dublin 16. It marks the first residential housing development here by the Comer Group whose stock in Ireland to date has been acquired mainly from receivers, banks and Nama, and largely constitutes unfinished apartment blocks, commercial premises and land banks.
The Hersil Wood homes are for sale through Guardian New Homes for €595,000 and €625,000 (with study) and are likely to appeal to growing families in this mainly residential area.
They have been built to the latest building regulations and have a generous floor space ranging from 159sqm (1,710 sq ft) to 175sqm (1,885 sq ft).
They also come with efficient A3 energy ratings thanks to solar panels, triple glazed uPVC windows and heat recovery systems and gas condensing boilers housed in a small “plant room” off the master bedroom.
The kitchen and livingroom are finished to a high spec with quartz worktops, wood-burning stoves and Villeroy and Boch sanitary ware as standard.
Showhouses open Saturday, March 7th and Sunday, March 8th at 2pm-4pm.