Published June 5, 2007


Properties with an eye on design

UrbaneSpaces takes on the niche market of design-centric properties, reports CHARMIAN KOK

STEPPING into the two-storey shophouse represented by local real estate agency Urbane Spaces, one immediately feels the striking difference in the design and ambience. Urbane Spaces' owner Hajar Ali describes the property her company markets as 'very unique and architecturally distinguished'. More than that, the company takes niche real estate one step further by combining it with a tongue-in-cheek philosophy and approach.

'Intellectual' property: Ms Ali describes the property UrbaneSpaces markets as 'very unique and architecturally distinguished' and says her company has taken niche real estate one step further by combining it with a tongue-in-cheek philosophy and approach

'Our marketing and press releases have always had a slightly intellectual slant to them, and we see it not merely as a marketing tool but part performance art, part social commentary,' Ms Ali tells BT.

In its last press release, UrbaneSpaces blindfolded its clients before taking them to view the properties. 'A lot of Asians are really paranoid about revealing property so we used that as a parody,' she explains. 'It was also a way to tell our clients that they have to trust our taste to select the best properties for them.'

In fact, the company's philosophy borrows from the ideas of Situationist International - an avant garde philosophical movement in the 1960s which believed that art should be incorporated seamlessly into daily living.

UrbaneSpaces was founded slightly more than a year ago by Ms Ali, who saw the increasing demand for design-centric properties in the market. 'I felt there was a niche market which was not being met, while there was a growing awareness among home owners in design. At the same time, there was also an emergence of interesting architecture and design in Singapore with a lot more design-centric properties on the market,' says Ms Ali.

Her foray into real estate was somewhat 'serendipitous', as Ms Ali tells BT that she was initially between doing her degrees when she decided to give real estate a shot. After six months into the business, she chanced upon a uniquely designed property while searching for an apartment for one of her clients. It was then that she saw a growing number of well designed properties available in the market and decided to specialise in design-savvy properties.

However, after a few years into the business Ms Ali felt that she needed more control over the branding of the company and founded UrbaneSpaces. 'When I decided that this was what I wanted to do, I realised that there were no estate agencies that specialised in design. I thought that I had a pretty good eye for them, so I decided to start my own agency.'

Since then, UrbaneSpaces has targeted the niche market of the design-conscious in the real estate market. Being mainly Internet-based in the beginning, UrbaneSpaces slowly became a strong clientele-based company, mostly on referrals and the word of mouth. This is important for the company as Ms Ali prefers to know that both she and the clients have similar taste in design and architecture to prevent wasting each others' time.

Her client base represents an eclectic mix of people from all walks of life and even includes 'a young Middle Eastern royalty', according to Ms Ali. 'It is important for the company to stay small and niche,' she says, when asked about expansion plans for the future. Although not intending to grow in size or take the mainstream route, UrbaneSpaces will grow in other ways. To remain at the forefront of its business while staying niche, UrbaneSpaces is exploring the possibilities of offering marketing consultancy services.

'We hope to work with developers on the positioning of the property, developing marketing collaterals and conceptualising the show flats,' Ms Ali says. Traditionally, these would be done by an advertising agency which may not understand real estate market trends well.

Ms Ali believes that her firm will be more value-added to developers as 'we are attuned to what the market is looking for and abreast of trends. Furthermore, we have been constantly working with design-savvy customers who constantly give us honest feedback about marketing campaigns.'

In addition to expanding her company's services as a real estate agent, Ms Ali is also looking into bringing in an exclusive limited edition furniture line for her clients. 'This furniture will be designed by Casa Colombo and a Lebanese designer,' explains Ms Ali, 'and will complement the design-centric properties that we are marketing.' The furniture line will be available in two to three months, and customers will be allowed to 'experience' them in an informal cafe set-up.

The company also does not rule out expanding into other countries. Before the recent war in Lebanon, Ms Ali was considering the possibility of opening an office there. She also intends to team up with similarly minded estate agents in other countries to tap their domestic markets.

Having established itself as the boutique real estate agency with an eye for uniquely designed properties, UrbaneSpaces is now receiving calls from property owners who only want their properties to be marketed exclusively to the design-savvy market instead of being mass-marketed. As such, the company is getting access to properties that are not available on the open market. This is a testament of UrbaneSpaces' success in tapping the niche market.

'I believe our business is highly sustainable as the market demand for design-centric property is growing and is being propelled by both locals and foreigners. Increasingly, we see clients coming to us who want well-designed properties and are not scandalised by paying top dollar for it.'