Is the Covid-19 pandemic a good time to buy a property?

Prices may be down but it's best to do your sums first

The Parc Canberra executive condominium saw 65 per cent of its units sold, even though it was launched in February. It was one of several developments that did well in the first quarter of the year amid the coronavirus outbreak. This suggests that, a
The Parc Canberra executive condominium saw 65 per cent of its units sold, even though it was launched in February. It was one of several developments that did well in the first quarter of the year amid the coronavirus outbreak. This suggests that, as long as projects are reasonably priced, buyers can be found in the local market. PHOTO: HOI HUP REALTY
MS CHRISTINE LI (above), Cushman & Wakefield’s head of research for Singapore and South-east Asia.
MS CHRISTINE LI (above), Cushman & Wakefield’s head of research for Singapore and South-east Asia. PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHRISTINE LI

The news sounds surreal in the face of a global pandemic - new private home sales in Singapore jumped 57.3 per cent in February.

Developers found buyers for 1,314 newly launched units that month, up 105.3 per cent from the 640 they sold in January and 187.5 per cent more than the 457 moved in February last year.

The property "bull run" also spilled over to resale condominiums, with about 700 sold in March, up 17 per cent over February.

While the coronavirus rampage continued to worsen across the world that month, it did not appear to have deterred families here from picking up 660 new private homes.

There will be a big drop in property sales in April and May though. But this is not due to potential buyers suddenly realising that it is a bit risky for them to buy big-ticket items during a downturn.

The huge drop will primarily be due to the fact that many people cannot buy anything when showrooms are closed and viewing postponed during the circuit breaker period.

But some sales are still expected to go through when sellers and buyers meet and agree on the price via virtual meetings, e-mail and phone calls.

This begs the billion-dollar question: Is Singapore going to experience another property boom in the middle of a recession, just like it did during the financial crisis in 2008?

While the collapse of various powerhouses such as Lehman Brothers then ravaged financial markets globally, Singapore suddenly saw an unexpected and rapid surge in the demand for residential property after prices hit the floor.

The huge demand was fuelled mostly by ordinary folks who began to see real estate as a safe haven after numerous reports about the failures of financial products made many investors lose confidence in such investments.

There were anecdotal stories at the time about elderly folks with grandkids in tow walking into showrooms to buy condominiums on the spot.

And how about this one - a property sales executive who took the trouble to give good service to a man in T-shirt, shorts and slippers hit the jackpot when the fellow turned out to be a tycoon who bought a few floors of condominium units.

Various experts around the world have warned that this recession is different from others because the pandemic has resulted in countries shutting borders, halting travel and closing cities in ways unseen even during wars.

Indeed, even gold refiners in Switzerland, who were open during World War II, have had to close this time for fear that their workers would fall sick.

Property expert Christine Li, Cushman & Wakefield's head of research for Singapore and South-east Asia, notes that while the 2008 financial meltdown was a deep crisis, other economic activities such as tourism, retail and many other sectors were still carrying on as usual.

The affected sectors then were generally confined to financial and insurance related industries and once the central banks took action, things started to calm down.

"This time is quite different. We have an invisible enemy and there is no vaccine yet. Because of the multiple lockdowns in various countries and cities, we see most economic activities coming to a halt," said Ms Li. "This starts to cause stress in many sectors.

"If retailers are unable to get customers, they will not be able to pay rents, and that impacts the landlords and subsequently the banks.

"There are a lot of implications around it."

The big worry is that if the situation does not improve over the next quarter or two, many businesses may not even survive.

Before the pandemic, residential property prices had been holding up relatively well, despite the uncertainties arising from the economic slowdown last year.

In fact, some new launches amid the Covid-19 outbreak in the first quarter still did well.

The M, which was launched in February, had sold 380 out of 522 units or 73 per cent by the end of March. Executive condominium Parc Canberra was 65 per cent sold in this period while fellow EC Ola had moved 31 per cent of its units.

This suggests that as long as projects are reasonably priced, you will find buyers in this market.

Ms Li said the upswing in sales of existing properties in March could be due to "recession fears" making sellers in the resale market reconsider their unrealistic asking prices that had resulted in a stalemate.

Resale transactions last year were 31 per cent below 2018's level and the lowest in three years.

Those in a hurry to sell ahead of the looming recession probably dropped their asking price, which in turn resulted in deals being closed faster here.

So what is likely to happen in the next few months?

Ms Li estimates that the circuit breaker period from April 7 to June 1 could see developer sales fall below 400 units in both April and May, as launches go on hold and buyers adopt a wait-and-see attitude.

She estimates that developer sales could range between 5,500 and 6,500 units for the full year, about 35 per cent to 45 per cent lower than last year's tally of 9,912. Developers sold 2,149 units in the first three months of this year.

So is it a good time for potential buyers who have been waiting on the sidelines to jump into the market?

Ms Li believes that the weak sentiment in the market means Singapore is unlikely to see a property fire sale this year.

After all, banks have started receiving applications by many borrowers to defer payments for both home and personal loans.

Moreover, unless owners are really cash-strapped, putting property up for sale at rock-bottom prices in this market will be the last thing individuals and companies will consider. So even if there is a price correction, Ms Li thinks it will be gradual, in the range of 3 to 5 per cent this year.

"If you can wait, I suggest that you wait until next year, or at least until the coronavirus situation starts to show some signs of improvement before jumping back into the market," she says.

Other things to consider will be whether a buyer's original budget for the purchase is still intact and whether their incomes will be affected in the next six to 12 months should the economy worsen.

If the finances are still strong, the weak market may give buyers an upper hand in buying the properties which they have long desired.

Ms Li notes: "I would advise the buyer to negotiate with the seller for a good price, and if that is the price you are comfortable with, and you like the location, the house, just go ahead and purchase it.

"Or else, you can always move on to another unit in the same neighbourhood.

"There is no point chasing after a unit that you can't possibly afford."

Before you buy a home...

Planning to buy a property soon? Ms Christine Li has these tips for three common groups of buyers.

Q I am a first-time buyer who has been waiting on the sidelines. What should I consider?

A A first-timer has no additional buyer's stamp duty (ABSD) to pay and qualifies for many housing grants. If you are buying an executive condominium (EC) and your monthly income is within the ceiling of $12,000, you are eligible for a grant amount of between $10,000 and $30,000.

Those with a monthly household income of more than $12,000 and up to $16,000 may buy an EC unit, but without housing grants. If you are buying a Housing Board Build-To-Order flat, you may be entitled to the Enhanced CPF Housing Grant if your combined monthly household income does not exceed $9,000. Many Singaporeans like to start with an HDB flat when they first enter the workforce as it is much easier on their finances.

If you are taking out an HDB housing loan, you can borrow up to 90 per cent of the value of the flat. The remaining down payment can be paid using CPF and cash. Taking a bank loan is not a bad idea now, as interest rates have reached a new low.

I would suggest that people who are more financially stable go for an EC if you qualify, because new ones are reserved for Singaporeans only. But when they reach the five-year minimum occupation period, you can sell on the open market to both Singaporeans and permanent residents. When ECs are fully privatised, foreigners are also eligible to buy them. There is no difference between an EC and a private condominium after 10 years.

Q If I am staying in an HDB flat and I want to upgrade to a condominium, what should I take note of?

A You might want to ask yourself a few questions before taking the plunge. Private properties tend to be more expensive but smaller in terms of living space compared with HDB flats. It might look good on the surface, but quality of life does get compromised somewhat. If you are moving to a more expensive apartment and compromising on living space, it may not serve your long-term needs, such as when you have a bigger family, for instance.

Since Covid-19 is affecting our economic prospects, you might want to exercise financial prudence in the event that there are job losses and pay cuts. A financial stress test might be useful to understand whether you can afford the upgrade.

If the upgrade is because of other factors such as wanting to be near schools, changes in family size or simply a rise in income, you can buy something within your budget and still be near transport nodes and amenities.

New home sales directly from developers might be convenient in this instance because you can choose to sell your HDB flat within six months after you take delivery of the new home and get back your ABSD. Or if you prefer to keep your HDB flat, do your sums to decide if it is worth keeping as the ABSD on a second property is 12 per cent now.

Q I already own a condominium and I want to pick up another as an investment property. What should I consider?

A This goes back to the basics on why you want to buy an investment property. Is it simply for rental income and future capital appreciation? If that is the case, you need to work out your cash flow to determine if it is indeed an investment and not a liability. People often buy a private property thinking that they will somehow reap profits in the future. They do not consider the possibility that they may not find tenants. This is a pitfall.

We have seen many soured investments in recent years because capital appreciation did not materialise and the investment units could not yield the expected returns.

So you should work out the realistic return after accounting for ABSD, mortgage repayments, property tax, maintenance and brokerage fees (for marketing the unit every one to two years), and miscellaneous expenses such as furnishing.

If at the end of the day you are getting better returns than stocks or real estate investment trusts, then go for investment property.

Otherwise, it is probably not worth the hassle. If the aim of the investment is to buy something for your children or for retirement purposes, then go ahead and get one, especially if you have very little or no loan obligations on your first property.

If you are a bit more adventurous, some overseas property may have better growth prospects such as in major capitals or growth cities in South-east Asia, or even mature markets such as London.

Q What to consider if you are looking for a property for yourself?

A I am probably more inclined to buy a landed property. Although it is a restricted market with no foreigner participation, it still presents a good value proposition in the current market.

First, landed homes are always limited in supply. With rising affluence and a growing population in Singapore, landed properties will likely not be short of buyers over the medium to long term.

Second, I am attracted to the development opportunity of turning a single-storey house into a three-storey terrace house or semi-detached house.

Being a real estate practitioner, I often dream of being able to design and build my own house and sell it for a profit. This could be a lot more rewarding than simply waiting for capital appreciation.

Personally I like landed enclaves that are near amenities and international schools, as they would have the advantage of having more potential tenants. That makes the asset relatively more liquid when you need to find a buyer or tenant in future.

The article has been edited for clarity.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 10, 2020, with the headline Is the Covid-19 pandemic a good time to buy a property?. Subscribe