Swept up in condo frenzy

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 7, 2013

The uniquely Singapore smell of real estate anxiety is in the air.

Five hundred or so people are crammed in here today in a big white tent to buy a piece of the Singapore dream. But as with any part of that dream, there is competition.

A ballot will decide if these people get one or more of the 868 units here at Bartley Ridge, along with its shared amenities, which include a "play agora", a "bioswale" and "meditation pods". I have no idea what they are but the hefty brochure, the size of a coffee- table book, assures me that they are very nice to have.

This church-like temporary structure, vast and air-conditioned, stands on Mount Vernon Road. Its whiteness and newness is in contrast to the rundown brown building across the street, home to the cats, dogs and other creatures cared for by the SPCA. Soon, the gently undulating grassy ground around the Bartley MRT station, close to the home to unwanted animals, the Mount Vernon Sanctuary funeral home and the Gurkha police unit will be thudding with piling works.

Inside the tent, there is an army of men and women in navy blazers and ties, doubling the size of the crowd. These are property agents, most of them at the elbow of their customers. But at this tense moment, they are also counsellors, speaking in low, soothing voices, trying to put their nervous clients at ease. Here and there are attractive young women handing out name cards, selling bank loans.

The buyers' fate hangs on the lottery. It is a system that has largely replaced the first-come-first-served system in private home sales, a style that in years past led to the sight of people - many of them teens or odd-jobbers hired as placeholders - queuing for days in the sun and rain before the start of sales.

On this day in late March, the buyers, a motley lot in T-shirts and shorts, mainly Singaporeans with a smattering of Indonesians and China nationals, retirees and working couples with children, whisper and check and recheck their papers as numbers are read out over the speakers.

A few buyers shout with joy as their ballot numbers are called and trot happily to the registration counter at the front. Some cheekier agents shout "Huat ah!", meaning "success" in Hokkien, but it is delivered as a joke in an attempt to lighten the mood.

The atmosphere has been made more tense by the recent cooling measures, which include the additional buyer's stamp duty (ABSD).

Those buying today get a 15 per cent discount that nullifies the duty, but they are swimming against the tide of fear that government price curbs, current or upcoming, will cause a price dip and make them look like the proverbial fools who rush in.

I follow the lucky people whose numbers have been called. They have to go to another building to join another line. At the end of it, they will find out if the unit or units they want are still available.

The most popular units are the most affordable ones. These are one-bedroom homes, starting at 441 sq ft, costing around $600,000. They are tiny, about the size of the two-bedroom flats that the HDB used to build in the 1970s and 1980s. The largest design, a four-bedroom unit, costs $1.97 million for 2,120 sq ft.

But most of the buyers I spoke to will not live in them, regardless of size.

They are not buying a home; they are buying an insurance policy in a country where property values go in only one direction - into space. One retired couple I spoke to have a HUDC home in the Braddell area. Another couple in their 40s have a HDB flat in Bishan. Neither has plans to move to Bartley Ridge.

In the words of the commander of the blue- blazered battalion here today, Mr Mohamed Ismail, they are hoping to tap into "other people's money".

The chief executive of Propnex Realty ("He owned his first property at the young age of 22 and amazingly made his first million at 28", according to his biography on the corporate website) uses the phrase, which he shortens to OPM, to refer to rent income.

It is one week after the ballot. Mr Ismail is here giving a talk about his OPM principle, in the same white tent, to a crowd of about 50 people. More than 300 units have been sold in the preceding days. But there are many more left and Propnex is among the agencies charged by developers Hong Leong Holdings, City Developments and TID to move them. The second phase of the seduction campaign is in full swing and Mr Ismail is leading the offensive.

"Whether you buy Bartley Ridge or not is none of my concern," he says in his opening shot.

He is here to educate, he declares. The OPM rule applies even if you are buying a unit to live in. The audience perks up at this. They are here because they saw the advertisement in this newspaper promising a talk by Mr Ismail, or have been invited here by his salespeople.

Mr Ismail has a reputation for being an energetic, thought-provoking speaker and he does not disappoint. For the next hour, he delivers a foundation course on the property market. There are jokes. After a show of hands proved that an overwhelming majority wanted to wait for a post-cooling market correction before buying, he says in mock exasperation: "Then what the hell am I going to talk about today?"

He chides anyone who thinks that the bargains left are only in Johor or Myanmar, when there are good deals to be had in Singapore - in, for example, Bartley Ridge. He drops a tip on how to beat other landlords hoping to lure the male expatriate shopping for a rental unit ("Go to Harvey Norman, Courts or Mustafa, look for a display unit LCD TV, 55 or 60 inch, install it. For his English Premier League.")

But most of all, he does sums. He seems to know that his enemy is the wait-and-see attitude caused by the cooling measures and the cure for it is numbers - rent yield versus mortgage payable, inflation and loan interest rates, land bank statistics, recent transacted home prices and the projected 6.9 million population put forward in the White Paper. He scribbles figures furiously on sheets of paper. The audience is riveted.

Mr Ismail's talk roams through history, economics, politics and, yes, male expatriate psychology. He gives the right amount of information at the right time. It all sounds air-tight. Did he win over the sceptics? It is hard to say, but many remain behind to chat in earnest with their agents.

As I walk to the MRT station, on my way home to my HDB flat, his numbers dance in my head. I still have no idea what a bioswale or play agora are, but now, some days after Mr Ismail's talk, I catch myself wanting them.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 7, 2013

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