Brussels is a city that splits opinion. Huge numbers of expat executives and civil servants are posted there every year and some, particularly those with families, enjoy living in the city; others don’t like what they see and take the first train out.
A decade ago the Belgian capital’s filthy streets were the most common gripe among both admirers and detractors. In recent years, they have been cleaned up a little but the centre is surprisingly shabby and the European quarter charmless and sterile.
Beneath the surface, however, a different, more comfortable and liveable, even refined, city appears – one that is gradually extending its high-end housing offering on the back of one of the world’s most stable property markets.
Giovanni de Paola, an Italian journalist and football writer, says: “Here in Saint-Gilles, the pace of life is very relaxed and there is a genuine community spirit, yet I am only 15 minutes by metro from the European parliament.”
Just to the south of the city centre, Saint-Gilles is one of the least prosperous of the 19 municipalities that make up the capital. There are pockets of poverty and dilapidation but Saint-Gilles is gentrifying slowly with modish clothing and design stores appearing along Avenue Jean Volders, a main artery in the district.
For the city’s property developers, it presents an opportunity. The most audacious development is Up-Site, a retail, office and residential space on the banks of the main canal on the city centre’s northern edge.
A 40-storey tower at the heart of the project will contain 252 lofts and apartments, with a further 106 homes in lower buildings along the canalside. When the tower is complete, it will be Belgium’s highest residential structure. Sandrine Jacobs, communications director for developer Atenor, says the project is “proving particularly attractive to people who moved to the suburbs but now want to rediscover urban life”.
Atenor will release a price list on February 29, with values for some units averaging €3,500 per sq metre, says Jacobs. Around 45 units have already been reserved, with the largest remaining unit, a 550 sq m penthouse, likely to sell for more than €3m. On top of that, the buyer will have to pay the 21 per cent VAT levied on all new-builds in Belgium (the transfer tax on second-hand homes is around 10 per cent). Residents will have access to a private cinema and spa once the project is ready in June 2014.
According to research by Knight Frank, homes in central Brussels cost an average of €2,700 per sq m, rising to €3,500 per sq m for high-quality units, and topping out at around €4,800 per sq m for the centre’s crème de la crème: apartments on and around the Sablon, a pretty square of gabled Dutch-style buildings that houses the city’s finest antiques shops and chocolate makers.
Statistics Belgium, a government agency, reports that property prices in Brussels are stable; its most recent data show a 1.7 per cent rise in the average price of apartments in the capital for the year to August 2011. Over the same period, the average value of houses stayed almost exactly the same (a rise of just 0.1 per cent). Prices did not crash in Belgium in 2008 as they did in much of the UK and elsewhere: high transfer taxes are a significant and long-standing deterrent to speculation here.
But they don’t stop Belgians and well-paid expats getting excited about one type of property in particular: art nouveau townhouses. Brussels became a key centre of this early 20th-century style and offers a steady supply of homes with art nouveau flourishes.
Built in 1903 for painter Georges de Saint-Cyr, Maison Saint-Cyr is a listed, partly renovated art nouveau house on Ambiorix Square, a green space on the edge of the European quarter. For €1.2m, the buyer gets 360 sq m of living space over four floors, a small garden, and a profusion of baroque ironwork on the house’s façade. (Movast, the seller, specialises in historic properties.)
Meanwhile, a 280 sq m townhouse with three bedrooms and period windows and ironwork is available for €750,000 through Logeurop. The property is located in Ixelles, a district with many art nouveau buildings.
Family homes on the eastern and southern outskirts of the city appeal to overseas buyers and wealthy Belgians alike. For instance, a five-bedroom, four-bathroom detached home with an indoor pool and grounds of 3,300 sq m in Rhode-Saint-Genèse – about 15km from the European quarter – has an asking price of €1.99m (through Best Home Consult).
Back in the centre, Sandrine Jacobs of Up-Site expects creeping gentrification will one day join up the dots between downtown Brussels’ rather isolated patches of prosperity and, in particular, connect Up-Site with the buzzing Rue Dansaert area.
“Two things happened to put Rue Dansaert on the map,” says Martin Cox, a British accountant who has lived close to Rue Dansaert for 15 years. “They revamped the Halles Saint-Géry, an old market hall, to give the area a focus like at Covent Garden in London. Then upscale restaurants and bars appeared along with a critical mass of trendy Flemish incomers.”
Giovanni de Paola advises new arrivals to hold back on judging Brussels too quickly “You can only appreciate it after a while unlike, say, Paris which is immediately striking. But if you give Brussels a chance, it will respond.”
● Good connections: two hours by train to London, around 1 hour 20 minutes to Paris
● Good-value family homes
● Forests close to the city
● Traffic jams
● Gentrification is patchy
● High transfer costs for new property
What you can buy for …
€100,000 A studio flat within walking distance of the European quarter
€1m A renovated four-bedroom art nouveau townhouse in Ixelles