JANICE HENG

HDB prices, cooling measures and waiting game

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan gave little away on Tuesday when he was quizzed by two Members of Parliament about the lifting of property cooling measures during the scrutiny of his ministry's budget.

In replying to Ms Foo Mee Har and Dr Lily Neo, Mr Khaw was coy. "The property market is in transition and it is a time that calls for vigilance and nimbleness. We will be careful," he said.

He then gave an update on how housing affordability as a whole has improved.

Incomes have grown faster than new Housing Board flat prices. From 2009 to last year, prices of new flats in non-mature estates rose 15 per cent without grants, or just 6 per cent with grants.

In contrast, the median household income rose 38 per cent in the same period. Said Mr Khaw: "We can see that public housing affordability has substantially improved since 2011."

Prices are also well within expectations. A recent HDB survey found that buyers were willing to pay up to $300,000 for a new three-roomer. In fact, 90 per cent of three-roomers booked last year were sold for below $250,000.

The housing situation here today is better not only compared to the past, but also compared to other cities, he said.

He cited two foreign headlines from earlier this year: "Londoners queue overnight in sub-zero temperatures to buy one-bedroom flat for £400,000" - about S$832,000 - in British newspaper The Independent, and "Only 1 in 60 chance to win in Hong Kongers' rush for subsidised flats" in the South China Morning Post.

The £400,000 flat was in a private development. But the same article notes that the average age of a first-time buyer in London is 52, and the average house price is nearing £400,000, 15 times the average full-time annual salary in Britain.

The subsidised public flats in Hong Kong are about the size of two-roomers here but cost over four times more, noted Mr Khaw.

"As far as housing is concerned, young Singaporeans are many times better off than their London or Hong Kong counterparts. This is the reality," he said.

By setting Build-To-Order (BTO) prices, the Government can control affordability in general, said experts. Given the rosy picture of the new flat market today, it seems that Mr Khaw's concerns remain with resale prices instead. Though HDB resale prices have fallen since their peak in 2013, there has been less progress there than on the BTO front.

Mr Khaw compared resale affordability last year with two previous troughs: 2005 and 2009.

From 2009 to last year, resale prices rose 37 per cent. Median household income rose a shade more, by 38 per cent - meaning that resale flats last year were slightly more affordable than in 2009.

But looking further back to 2005, "there is still a gap", he added. Resale prices have risen 87 per cent since then, while household incomes rose only 72 per cent.

Was Mr Khaw implying that he wanted affordability to reach 2005 levels before cooling measures could be relaxed?

Market watchers caution against jumping to that conclusion. Mr Khaw could have cited 2005 simply to show that there remains room for resale prices to fall, without meaning for it to be a target, they said.

In any case, the 2005 affordability levels are not that difficult to reach. Barring significant shocks, that level could well be in sight this year, said OrangeTee manager of research and consultancy Wong Xian Yang. To close the gap which Mr Khaw mentioned, resale prices would have to fall by only 7 to 9 per cent from their current level, he added.

That is because if price levels in 2005 are represented as 100, resale prices are now at 187 and incomes at 172, after their respective rises. To close the gap, resale prices would have to fall to 172 - which is 8 per cent down from 187. Household incomes and resale prices would then have risen by the same amount since 2005: 72 per cent. In other words, affordability today would be the same as it was in 2005.

Moreover, that is assuming zero income growth. If median household incomes rise, say, 3 per cent this year, then resale prices would have to fall by less than 8 per cent - well within experts' predictions that resale prices will fall by 5 to 8 per cent this year.

Resale flats thus seem on track to become as affordable as they were a decade ago.

Whether that should actually be the target is a different question.

R'ST Research director Ong Kah Seng argues that 2005 prices were "depressed", so the higher affordability then might not be representative. "A good benchmark will be flat prices at the moderate level, maybe 2009," he added.

But others do not see a problem, pointing out that Mr Khaw is not aiming to get actual prices down to 2005 levels.

Rather, the overarching aim is to make sure that home price growth does not outstrip income gains.

That seems a reasonable policy, akin to the Government's focus on ensuring that wages grow faster than inflation.

Said OrangeTee's Mr Wong: "Income growth should at least keep pace with resale price growth so that the affordability is always there."

Given that this goal may be achieved within a year, why is there still no sign of cooling measures being lifted?

That's because cooling measures aren't just about affordability, said experts. They are also aimed at curbing speculation in private property and ensuring financial prudence in buyers.

So looking at HDB affordability may not help in predicting when the cooling measures will be lifted.

"As the cooling measures are used to dampen price speculation in the private housing market, the price declines and drops in transaction volume in private markets will be a better signal," said Associate Professor Sing Tien Foo of the National University of Singapore real estate department.

The message on Tuesday was that housing affordability has improved. But that does not necessarily say anything about cooling measures. Market watchers will have to wait a little longer for that answer.

janiceh@sph.com.sg