Roman Chistyakov (@chistyakovroman) is the founder of the global IT platform SAORSA Real Estate and the owner of the European company Aeternum Smart Development, which deals in investments in property, development, redevelopment, architecture and construction. In February 2024 Roman’s company plans to stage a revolution on the digital property market with the launch of the global SAORSA Real Estate online platform. Wherever you may be and whatever your credit rating, this promises to make property purchases on credit in the most desirable megalopolises of the world as simple as using an app to order a pizza. Kommersant UK’s Head Editor Ksenia Dyakova-Tinoco finds out how this breakthrough is possible and who (and what) lies behind this highly promising development.
Roman, you have been in the property business for more than 20 years. How did you come to this field?
A love of beauty brought me to property. After we married, we started to think about how to make our home beautiful and when we had finished redecorating our home for the first time I decided to continue working in this area, so I opened a small construction company in Donetsk. Things went well because I was giving it my all, I put my whole soul into it. Businessmen are not all dry crusts, many of them are not entirely devoid of aesthetic sensibilities; there are businesses built around this and their owners are very demanding about how beauty is made. I probably could be counted amongst these entrepreneurs; I really love it when a space or property is aesthetically appealing. In the initial stages, my company worked with third-party architects, and in 2005 my beloved wife Anna joined us. Before she could, she first had to undergo full-time training as an architect (we had two children at the time). While we were living in Donetsk, we were also doing various international development projects, mostly for private clients and also for the heads of large companies and factories etc. Development, architecture, design, creating beauty and construction all became a passion for me.
For you, what architectural projects are benchmarks from an aesthetic perspective?
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed by the American architect Frank Gehry. Another building that looks practically identical to this museum is the Marqués de Riscal Vineyard Hotel in Rioja, Spain. I recommend everyone to visit it to appreciate the talent of the architect. He was able to create so much beauty in such a place. But, overall, London is beautiful too. The whole city excites and impresses me, both the historical legacy and the new constructions. I try to look at the city in its totality and not consider each building separately.
Have you restored historical buildings?
Of course, regularly. We’re currently living in a historical building in Barcelona which we renovated ourselves; my wife received several major international awards for her work on the house. Anna is an architect of a global standard. While we were still in Donetsk we were already completing international projects together. It’s just that the events of 2014 knocked us out of the cocoon of that life and we immediately moved to Saint Petersburg…a year later, the AnnaRomeo Studio, with more than a hundred completed projects, was present at Design Week Expo 2015 in the Northern Capital [St. Petersburg], where it received the Grand Prix for one of Anna’s projects (a beauty salon). For twenty years now, we have worked together and we create every business jointly.
One area of your company’s activity has become SAORSA Real Estate, an online platform for the purchasing of property all over the world. On your site, the acquisition of residential real estate is compared with making purchases on Amazon or ordering a pizza. Is it really that simple? What is the main difference between your aggregator and others? What benefits, if we can call them so, and what advantages do SAORSA Real Estate clients receive? And what does the name of the company mean?
Saorsa is a Scottish Gaelic word which translates as ‘Freedom’. Accordingly, we seek to give our clients maximum freedom. Of course, a personal interest has been there from the start and it will always remain; we have always wanted to have our own property in different locations around the world. We have never envisaged ourselves as living in just one place, we really love to travel. Each time we go to different places in the world, we like to be able to open the door of our own home in the evening. We thought about how we could become the owners of property in different countries in the world without spending all our money. Consequently, in 2020, when everyone was sitting at home during lockdown, I finally had the time to make a detailed model which would make this possible. The idea was simple; to buy property on credit raised from private funds, rather than state-owned banks. With this aim, we formed our own fund; it’s our project’s fuel tank and internal financing organisation which gives credit to our clients. This allows us to offer conditions both to residents and non-residents of any country, levelling out their chances. Secondly, the minimum down payment is 10% (of course, clients may pay more if they wish). The periods of loans are standard; from ten to 30 years. The interest rates are almost the same, although now, as we’re only getting started, they are a little higher than at commercial banks. Still, we have many other advantages because we use an interesting model (leasing), which allows people to optimise their tax liabilities by making monthly payments which include their taxes. Naturally, this project has a long backstory.
What funds were used to create your startup? Are you looking for investors?
We’re actually not a startup at all, we’re a business which can provide a stable income to investors as everything is grounded in property. As for investments, we have mutually beneficial offers for institutional investors such as financial organisations (commercial banks, family offices etc). We’ve stopped using venture capitalism at this stage. To a significant degree, we financed the initial period ourselves.
Usually, the purchase of property in Britain takes months, and even then, the deal may still fall through. How can these acquisitions still be so difficult in the United Kingdom, and yet so easy with you?
This is what our secret sauce is all about; we make decisions independently and take risks for our clients, investors (financial organisations) and also for public bodies, which is to say we assume an enormous responsibility. Our experience of working with developers and individual clients attests that these risks are entirely justified. We plan to start sales and the issuance of credit in Britain in February 2024. We’re beginning with the sale of new-build properties. We’ll launch pre-owned sales a little late (the sales model has already been developed), this is because there are some fine points to iron out related to price appraisals. On the development projects we are working on, the prices have already been finalised and the buildings are ready for use. They are in several countries, including England. We’ll start with cities of over a million people; London, New York, Miami, Barcelona, Paris, Vienna, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Why have you chosen London?
For the quality of the construction work and the speed of its development, London outpaces many European cities. London has a special dynamism; maybe its progress, in terms of construction times, is not as impressive as Dubai, but the skyscrapers of the City dazzle both architecturally and conceptually, with their energy, the infrastructure, and the combination of the ultramodern with the traditional. We have chosen cities in which I and my team see good growth prospects, both for our own project and for the megalopolises themselves; the same population growth, the high demand for property, new-build most of all. The list of cities will constantly grow. Some markets will remain absent due to an unstable political situation (we’re not considering going to the countries of the Former Soviet Union). Although Asia is now in demand (except for China and North Korea), we are not going to enter that market straight away. Currently, major investments are going to African countries so possibly we’ll also go there. So far, it’s difficult to predict how the situation will evolve over the next decade.
How can you gain access to SAORSA Real Estate? And how is the platform organised?
A mobile application has already been developed, albeit so far only for IOS, and we’re making it publically available. In the next month, we will launch a site and add an Android application (to develop it, more investment is needed to provide a secure online platform and protect clients’ personal information). The resource will be multilingual, in English (the main language), as well as Spanish and French. The procedure is as follows; you download an application, choose a location and then a developer. In Saorsa there will be complete information, with photos, a 3D tour, and quality of life ratings (for the neighbourhood, schools and establishments). We take this information from open sources. We will also have a degree of integration with various services. One of them is PandaDoc, an American IT company which helps automate document processing and track its progress. This is an interesting startup which has staged a revolution by creating one of the first relatively simple-to-use online document signing services. We will collaborate with MatterPort to create 3D tours and integrate verifiable ratings from open sources. We are genuinely creating a company for ordinary people, not just for the elite. We want it to offer things that we will use ourselves, as we aim to use our own service to acquire several properties in locations that interest us. That is how it all began. In the future, it will be possible to upgrade our services. Users will be able to increase the floor space of properties they have already purchased and conduct refinancing. Our clients will be able to buy properties without any unnecessary hassle in just 48 hours, this is the time from approval of the purchase to gaining access to the property. If their representative has notarised power of attorney they can receive the keys and the client doesn’t even need to fly to the location to pick them up. For the time being, keys are being handed out physically, but we anticipate that soon some new-builds will have digital locks installed and access to properties will be transferred via smartphone.
Does this only concern elite properties, or will those aimed at all segments of the market be available?
At the early stage, we won’t have any property costing over $2 million, (or pounds or euros, depending on the market), this is because we need a history of a high number of sales; the more buildings sold, the better. In London, for instance, £2 million is the standard price of quality properties such as a flat in Belgravia. Also, we will not be crediting purchases of the cheapest homes, in unfavourable areas, or social housing. I am a fan of the mass market because any global business is inevitably going to be focused on this segment. If a business has integrated the right monetisation, it should involve an enormous amount of people. The more people value our product, the more successful it will be for us and our investors. There are services aimed exclusively at elite properties; I recognise this strategy, however, personally, I favour giving value to a large number of clients.
Is it true that even those who have no credit rating can take advantage of your loans?
Yes, I’d really like people to stop fixating on credit ratings. If someone has either a clear, transparent business, an income as a company employee, savings or capital, this is quite enough. We’ll get out the calculator, but we won’t consult any credit ratings. The fact that we make decisions to hand out credit independently is highly valued. This is something between leasing and crediting. In the USA, for example, a credit rating of below 750 points is considered very low and someone with this rating can only receive credit at local banks at the minimum rate of 8.5%, and the initial down payment should be no less than 30%. If the property costs $1.5-2 million, there is a high chance that this sum could reach 50% of the value of the property.
Have you used the expertise of any of the major digital financial platforms?
I’m excited by the story of Nikolay Storonsky and his achievements. The name ‘Revolut’ is very fitting for the revolution they have instigated in the banking sphere. The lack of a banking licence is unimportant to the tens of millions of people who use their product and are happy to have such a convenient tool. We are doing the same but in a different area.
Entrepreneurs all over the world are complaining of the shortage of professional personnel. You have a large international team; on what criteria do you select partners and staff?
Most of our team, its backbone, is located in Barcelona (I won’t name all the partners). In September, Vitalii Tarangul (our CEO, with a PhD in Law), presented our project at the PropTech Show in London. The audience’s reaction was tremendous. We have already had some orders; negotiations are ongoing. There are also investment partners. The IT side of our team is made up of specialists from the Former Soviet Union (Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan). I value every member of our team and hold them dear, they are professionals with serious expertise and skills. We are always in touch and work on the project is constantly going on.
You work together with your wife Anna, who is the co-founder and vice president of Saorsa. You have six children, five of whom are boys. How have you managed to combine business and having a family?
We spend all our free time with our children. This doesn’t happen as much as we would like, because, when it comes to ambitious projects, I have to put my company first, and there are very few free hours and minutes. Our eldest, my daughter Anna, is 20 and she helps us. We have a surprisingly congenial family. Until this year, we all lived together, but now, my oldest son lives at a football academy in Barcelona. The youngest are two twins, both boys. They have a great time together, although sometimes it’s reminiscent of a rugby match.
What aspects of child-rearing come in useful in business and, conversely, how do business skills help you cope with problems in your family?
I’m not a fan of calling things problems, I believe you have to consider them tasks. It’s difficult to say which part of my life has influenced the other. It’s more likely that the influence goes both ways, because, naturally, our business helps to finance all the family’s expenses, which, in turn, stimulates us to build a larger-scale business. Having so many boys is the key to stress resistance.