News analysis

Buying fervour in housing market raises concern

Govt warning a tough sell amid optimism of developers, investors and homebuyers

The Singapore's authorities are concerned the property market could be setting itself up for a fall.

A series of aggressive land deals by developers, against the backdrop of rising apartment sales and the first quarterly rise in private home prices for four years, was enough to prompt a recent warning from the nation's central bank to lenders, homebuyers and real estate firms.

There should be vigilance about risks "including the impact of rising interest rates, geopolitical developments, and excessive exuberance in the property market", deputy managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) Ong Chong Tee said last month.

Persuading people to be more cautious could be a tough sell.

Local and foreign investors have waited years for signs that prices are bottoming out, and developers want to make sure they have a pipeline of projects.

Real estate investors' animal spirits have certainly been reviving.

Singapore is looking relatively cheap compared with some other major property markets in the region - where prices have been surging almost without a pause in recent years.

The property companies have been paying record sums to buy government land and existing apartment blocks, which they plan to knock down and rebuild with developments that have more units.

A November report by consultancy Cushman & Wakefield estimated developers paid a 22 per cent average premium for the top five residential sites this year over comparable sites in the past.

The authorities say recent sales could add 20,000 new private housing units, which will more than double the number of unsold units in the pipeline within the next one to two years. But developers are hungry for land because their unsold inventory is close to record lows, official data shows. And any physical oversupply is still some time away as apartments take four to five years to build.

The authorities' fear is that buying fervour will run ahead of an anticipated increase in housing supply, which could create an imbalance and lead to price declines with resulting losses for those involved. The Government followed up last week by restricting the amount of land it will sell in the first half of next year to about the same level it made available in the second half of this year, versus some expectations for a hike. While this risks helping to drive land prices up further it will at least reduce the chances of overbuilding.

"The Government is concerned about the manner and speed with which land prices are rising," said Mr Desmond Sim, research head for Singapore and South-east Asia at CBRE. "The Government wants to keep Singapore property affordable for Singaporeans."

For now it is all jawboning, but analysts say the Government and the central bank could intervene if they see market instability.

Potential measures could include more stringent terms for buyers, curbing bank lending to developers or guidelines that may limit the units in a development.

"There have been calls for relaxation of measures, but it could be the other way around now - tightening," said head of research at Knight Frank Singapore Alice Tan.

City Developments (CDL) and Keppel Corp's real estate unit told Reuters separately that they would continue to look for potential opportunities to buy land in Singapore.

"The underlying demand from owner occupiers will still be there and this will contribute to a healthy market," CDL chief executive-designate Sherman Kwek said.

The optimism can also be found among potential home buyers.

First-time buyer Rahi Shah, 30, has waited on the sidelines since 2014 when he perceived prices were "way too high".

He bought a three-bedroom condominium in August for over $1 million. "I got it at the right time; prices were the lowest I had seen."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2017, with the headline 'Buying fervour in housing market raises concern'. Print Edition | Subscribe