Sandton's gracious Grande Dame

While Johannesburg increasingly succumbs to the neat parcelling of land into complexes and clusters of developers’ dreams, some suburbs remain anachronistically untouched, like a pair of bell-bottoms in a wardrobe full of skinny jeans.

That’s Atholl for you. Although the inexorable march of progress is undoubtedly leaving its mark on the neighbourhood, it’s still a piece of Old Johannesburg, a place where ivy lazily climbs the walls of homes comfortably settling into middle age and where sprawling lawns are the domain of large shaggy dogs. Even its name is satisfyingly old school.

According to Jayke Meneses of Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty, Atholl was named after the former district in the Scottish Highlands, now part of the Perth and Kinross Council Area. Formerly farmland, the suburb developed as more and more of these farms became subdivided into properties 1 acre (0,4ha) in size.

Remax Central’s Cameron Jansen says, ‘More of this movement took place in the 1960s, when Johannesburg’s residents started moving down from suburbs like Houghton. Atholl was very much part of the “mink-and-manure” belt.’

And its evolution continues. Cameron believes that Atholl could well be ‘the next big area for redevelopment.’That’s more than a hunch; before utilities supplies were restricted, subdivision was becoming more and more common, with many of the old 1-acre stands giving way to up to three smaller properties. Cameron says this carving up of the land, while sad, stands to reason: as Sandton, the financial hub of Africa, continues to grow, so too does the demand for land close to the new CBD.

In any event, like any gracious yet ageing lady considering a bit of a nip and tuck, Atholl is due ‘a renaissance’, in Cameron’s opinion. ‘The suburb must be one of Johannesburg’s best-kept secrets in terms of land value. It’s very similar to Sandhurst when it comes to location and prestige, but land costs a lot less.’ Cameron finds it ‘odd’ that more people aren’t eager to establish themselves here, but then again, those 40-year-old family homes are starting to show their age, and subsequently hold little appeal for younger buyers. All that will change, Cameron surmises, once electricity is once more freely available, and the modernisation of the suburb starts in earnest.

Who’s living there at the moment? Jayke says, ‘Buyers are mostly young, upmarket families in their 30s and 40s, whilst sellers are empty-nesters whose children have left home.’

But, says Cameron, from a sales perspective, Atholl is not a fast-moving suburb: during 2008 and 2009, only 15 units were sold, at a median price of R4,1-million.
That’s in stark contrast to the rentals market, which Jayke describes as ‘very active’.

‘That’s thanks to the corporates and foreign expats in South Africa on contract, who need to be near the numerous foreign firms operating in the Sandton and Rosebank CBDs, and the Melrose Arch business node.’ He reports rental prices are between R25 000 and R65 000, depending on the property, its location within the suburb, and its finishes.

What about the homes themselves? ‘Average Atholl homes are sized between 400m2 and 1 200m2 under roof, situated on erven from 1 000m2 to 6 000m2 in size, although some 2-acre properties remain,’ Jayke replies. This space usually offers you between three and five bedrooms, and many homes boast guest cottages and flatlets too. Swimming pools, well-tended gardens and tennis courts are other common features.

In terms of cluster developments, buyers are usually looking at properties of between 0,5 and 1 acre.

Price-wise, Jayke says an older home would fetch between R6 000/m2 and R16 000/m2, depending on its finishes, its address, and the size of the house and its property.

Clusters, on the other hand, may fetch between R8 000/m2 and R16 000/m2, again depending on size, finishes and location. Cameron notes that these properties are all about maximising house size on smaller land, so you’ll usually find the homes have around three bedrooms, with large windows and covered patios featuring built-in braais, as well as a plunge pool.

As Cameron and Jayke have indicated, it’s likely that we’ll see an increasing number of subdivisions and new developments coming up in Atholl.

Charing Cross Properties’ Marianna Toweel du Trevou (read her Property Profile on seconds their opinions. She points out that, as the existing properties become too large for empty-nesters, subdivision becomes a canny option. However, the increasing number of smaller homes available for purchase will probably change the profile of residents somewhat, drawing a younger crowd, especially since the suburb has a lot to offer in terms of quality schooling. ‘Excellent educational institutions nearby include St David’s Marist Brothers, Grayston Preparatory, Redhill and St Mary’s,’ Marianna notes.

The shopping opportunities are just as good. Sandton City is a 10-minute drive away at most, while Atholl Square, with its stunning lifestyle boutiques and irresistible eateries, is on the doorstep. Then there’s Melrose Arch and Blubird Square. And if you’re still not finding what you need, the highways are right nearby too.

It’s clear, then, that sheer convenience is a major draw card for the suburb. But there are plenty of others.

Jayke mentions its excellent security, as Atholl has numerous boomed roads. There are also CCTV cameras located at several points throughout the suburb, while guarded patrols roam around regularly. ‘Atholl also has a very active area residents and ratepayers association, which is not only responsible for maintaining the integrity and upmarket feel of the suburb, but also contributes to the sense of security.’

For Cameron, the suburb’s main attraction is ‘the sense of solidity and consistency that comes from years and years without major change. Drive down Central Road, and you’ll see what I mean – compared to other suburbs, there’s been very little transformation. That makes it comforting, because you know that it will always be familiar. Atholl has always been an old-school-ties sort of suburb. Perhaps you could describe it as ‘prim and proper’. It’s the sort of place where people still take pride in their gardens and tend to their flowering annuals. Its setting is exactly right – almost utopian.’

Marianna adds that much of the beauty of this setting is thanks to the suburb’s tree-lined avenues. ‘What’s amazing about Atholl is its tranquillity, especially when you consider that you are immediately outside Johannesburg’s major business hub.’

But will Atholl’s placid nature change once the predicted development gets under way? That’s a difficult question, but there’s no denying that the suburb is very attractive to developers, for several reasons.

For a start, Cameron observes, although it is of the same ilk of Houghton, its proximity to Sandton rather than the Johannesburg CBD means that it is unlikely to be affected by the urban decay that has started to set in at that part of the world.

Jayke points out that with the Sandton CBD and Melrose Arch business nodes mushrooming, the need for strategically located property is nowhere near satisfied. ‘Business tycoons and entrepreneurs need to live close to their places of business in order to avoid the extreme traffic congestion that plagues Johannesburg at present, which is why for pure convenience, Atholl can’t be beat.’

That is precisely why he’s confident in the opportunities the suburb offers potential investors. ‘It would be wise, for instance, to purchase a four-bedroom cluster and rent it out to foreign expats or corporate executives who require a two- to three-year lease,’ he counsels. ‘Another clever option is to buy an acre of property and develop it into clusters, as there is a shortage of this type of housing in Atholl.’

Or you could simply make the most of existing properties. As Marianna notes, the beautiful old homes, with their spacious rooms and high ceilings, are a true renovator’s dream.
‘Property developers looking to make a quick buck will look further north. Atholl just isn’t the type of suburb to support such housing. It’s possible that there may be developments of higher density on its outskirts going forward, but they will be very much on the sidelines,’ Cameron predicts.

‘Ultimately, Atholl’s cachet will remain intact. It always has been exclusive and elite, and it always will be.’

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