Private flat sales to foreign buyers fall to 17-year low

The number of private apartments in Singapore snapped up by foreigners fell to a 17-year low last year as travel restrictions and lockdowns in various countries deterred them from coming here.

Purchases of units fell to 742 last year, according to real estate consultancy firms ERA Realty Network and OrangeTee & Tie. This is the lowest figure since 2003, when non-permanent residents bought 671 units, based on analysis of government data as at Tuesday, that takes into account new, sub-sale and second-hand apartments.

Singapore's two-month lockdown last year put a stop to viewings and shuttered show-flats. Even as the country eased virus curbs, border restrictions are still largely in place globally, preventing foreigners from travelling to Singapore to purchase units.

"For the luxury market, many buyers prefer to physically inspect the premises or visit a show-flat before making a purchase," said Ms Christine Sun, senior vice-president of research and analytics at OrangeTee & Tie.

"Last year, many overseas buyers were not able to travel to Singapore to view properties in person, which may have resulted in a dip in foreign purchases."

Non-permanent resident apartment purchases last year accounted for just 4.1 per cent of total sales, the lowest in more than two decades, according to government data compiled by ERA Realty Network and OrangeTee & Tie.

Singaporeans currently form the biggest proportion of buyers, according to government data. The contribution from that group rose two percentage points to 80.2 per cent last year from 2019.

"Anecdotally, we have also observed more Singaporeans reducing their overseas investments," Ms Sun said, adding that many view Singapore's currency and economy as more stable than other markets.

Sales among foreigners could gradually pick up with vaccine roll-outs and developers launching more projects this year after holding back last year, said Mr Nicholas Mak, head of research and consultancy at APAC Realty unit ERA.

That is based on the premise that the Government does not issue another round of cooling measures, he added.

A spike in interest among locals pushed up sales and prices, prompting concerns that the authorities may issue policy curbs. One move they might consider is increasing stamp duties for foreigners, according to an analysis by DBS Group Holdings.

Mr Mak said that while purchases by Chinese nationals, excluding those with permanent residency status, fell to 215 last year from 339 in 2019, they are still coming to Singapore because of its political, financial and legal stability.

"Singapore is seen as one of the most friendly nations" for Chinese buyers, said Mr Mak. "Because the population of China's middle class is so huge, just a tiny fraction of them buying apartments in Singapore can cause a surge."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2021, with the headline 'Private flat sales to foreign buyers fall to 17-year low'. Subscribe