Strong and stable Singapore courts attention of HNWIs

With high-quality developments and strong price and value appreciation allied to the city-state’s trademark stability, Southeast Asia’s Mr. Reliable continues to sway investors

A conservation house in Singapore. diyben/Shutterstock

Singapore has recently welcomed some notable fresh blood to its billionaires’ club. Facebook founder Eduardo Saverin acquired a 7,900-square-metre bungalow in leafy Nassim Road, while British inventor James Dyson now roosts 64 floors up in the sky in a 21,108-square-foot penthouse in Tanjong Pagar.

Such purchases attest to the city-state’s omnipotence as a financial hub with solid fundamentals in physical infrastructure and workforce, ease of doing business, and stable political environment. They also speak volumes about Singapore’s property market.

According to Leong Boon Hoe, chief operating officer of List Sotheby’s International Realty Singapore (List SIR), which facilitated the sale on behalf of Dyson, super-luxury residential deals are hard to come by in today’s global property market due to uncertainty.

“Factors like Brexit, the U.S.-China trade conflict, and stock market movement tend to disrupt the real estate landscape. But Singapore is a safe haven,” he says. “Its property market is considered safe, both in terms of quality of the developments, as well as the prices and value appreciation of the properties.”

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Not that Singapore is short of Saverin and Dyson’s ilk—it has enough loaded property seekers to tide its market over. The city-state was home to 3,598 ultra-high-net-worth individuals (UHNWI) in 2018, estimates Knight Frank in its annual Wealth Report.

Singapore has always been a relative anomaly in Southeast Asia. While its neighbours outpace its economic growth—it grew just 0.1 percent year-on-year in Q2 2019, the slowest in a decade—this city-state has long transcended competition. It is the only developed nation in the region.

The inflow of high-net-worth property seekers into Singapore is even more impressive given the lengths its government has taken to ward speculators off its well-curated private home market. Spooked by the steady climb of luxury home sales and prices from the second half of 2017, housing authorities in July 2018 levied a five percent increase on the additional buyer’s stamp duty (ABSD) and a reduction of five percentage points on housing loans granted by financial institutions.

One year after those cooling measures, private home prices were on the upswing, inching forward 1.5 percent quarter-on-quarter in Q2 2019 and concluding two consecutive quarters of decline. “The cooling measures seem to have dissuaded buyers seeking to make a quick buck, with people now purchasing properties for their own occupation,” says Dr. Lee Nai Jia, head of research for Knight Frank Singapore.

Inspired by Mondrian architecture, luxury condo development 8 St Thomas won over critics with its themed sky gardens and viewing decks as well as proximity to world-famous shopping belt Orchard Road

Both new sale and resale markets have seen more demand in the second quarter of the year compared to Q2 2018, according to OrangeTee & Tie Pte Ltd. Thrusting price recovery were rising values of non-landed homes in the state’s Core Central Region (CCR) and Rest of Central Region (RCR): up 2.3 percent and 3.5 percent quarter-on-quarter, respectively.

“Property prices are gradually recovering a year after the cooling measures,” says Christine Sun, head of research and consultancy at OrangeTee & Tie Pte Ltd. “Developers have the confidence to launch at higher prices because sales have been streaming in steadily over the past few months. Many projects have already sold more than 30 or 50 percent of their units within a year.”

Values of luxury private apartments in the bustling CCR—priced at least SGD5 million and above—have largely defied the property curbs. While the sales volume of luxury apartments dropped from 232 units in the first half of 2018 to 139 units in H2, average prices soared from SGD2,657 to SGD2,806 per square foot. The first half of 2019 saw sales volume rebounding to 175 units and prices touching SGD3,071 per square foot.

“As buyers need more cash to transact, several held back, leading to a fall in volume. Foreign buyers are particularly affected. Nevertheless, prices of luxury properties continued to climb, helped by a limited supply,” explains Han Huan Mei, head of research at List SIR.

Legendary vacuum cleaner magnate James Dyson is among those to have purchased a unit in the super high-end Wallich Residence in Tanjong Pagar

Last year’s winner for Best Luxury Condo Development at the PropertyGuru Asia Property Awards, 8 St Thomas by Bukit Sembawang Estates Limited launched early last year with prices ranging from SGD1.5 million to SGD5.8 million. Dyson’s purchase, a three-level penthouse atop 2017 Best Luxury Condo Development winner Wallich Residence, set him back by SGD73.8 million, way above the development’s unit average of SGD3,310 per square foot. It had been one of only 11 “super penthouses” (those larger than 10,000 square feet) available on the global market, according to List SIR. Singapore had six of them.

“Because land is scarce, there are many skyscrapers in Singapore. More developers may plan to include a super penthouse at the top of their development to cater to the ultra-high-net-worth market. Owners of these super penthouses are likely foreigners unable to purchase landed properties, including Good Class Bungalows (GCB),” explains Leong.

Under the Singapore Residential Property Act, foreigners are forbidden from owning landed properties, excluding bungalows at Sentosa Cove, a resort island being master-planned to lure foreign HNWIs by 2030. Singapore currently has approximately 2,800 GCB plots, according to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). Permanent residents can get special approval from the government to buy GCBs, provided they can make exceptional economic contributions to Singapore and not leave the property empty. Having rescinded his US citizenship for a Singaporean one, Facebook’s Saverin was able to purchase the almost two-acre property encompassing an existing GCB along Nassim Road.

While Singaporeans comprise the majority of luxury home buyers, their share has dipped from 70 percent to 64.3 percent between Q1 and Q2 2019, according to OrangeTee & Tie. Over the same period, the number of luxury condo purchases (in CCR) by non-permanent residents (NPR) rose from 76 to 114 units. Foreigners and permanent residents (PRs) purchased 123 or 70 percent of 175 luxury apartments on List SIR during the first six months of 2019, compared with 66 percent and 59 percent in the first halves of 2018 and 2017, respectively. Top buyers hailed from China, Indonesia, the U.S., Taiwan and Cambodia.

Views towards the ocean are among the perks for investors looking to purchase a unit at Wallich Residence

Rental market indicators still bode well for the Singapore residential property sector at large. Mainstream residential prices actually grew 3.1 percent in the year to Q1 2019, Knight Frank figures show. “Vacancy rates have remained largely stable. Both the rental index and price index are up on a quarter-on-quarter basis,” says Dr. Lee. “The market has recalibrated, with rents reaching a new equilibrium. Most of the new completions in 2016 were absorbed in the market, and the completions in the past year were fewer than that in 2016.”

The government’s collective sales this decade also continue to pay off in the form of new luxury projects. Among the most anticipated is EDEN at Draycott Park: 20 ultra-luxury, low-density freehold apartments built on the former Hampton Court that had been sold en-bloc to Swire Properties for SGD155 million in 2012.

In June, the government cut the allowable supply of private homes in Government Land Sales (GLS) sites to 1,715 units, including 480 executive condominium (EC) units, for the second half of the year. Authorities cited a glut of 39,000 unsold private homes from GLS and en-bloc sale sites for the stunning move.

“As land supply from collective sales has dropped significantly after the cooling measures, we may see a supply crunch two years later. Therefore, it may not be necessary to cut the supply of private homes from confirmed sites under the latest GLS programme now as these new homes from these parcels will only be launched in the second half of next year,” Sun says.

The price gap between ECs, a housing type that is a cross between private homes and those subsidised by the Housing and Development Board (HDB), and non-landed resale homes has been closing. In Q1 2017, non-landed homes prices were 86 percent higher than ECs—in Q2 2019, they were only 62 percent higher.

Singapore’s economic outlook has been more subdued due to the uncertain global situation. Notwithstanding, Singapore remains a safe haven to many investors, which will help support demand for homes

Singapore is bracing itself for short-term headwinds attendant on a challenging global environment, what with the trade skirmishes between the U.S. and China, protests in Hong Kong, and the expulsion of Japan and South Korea from each other’s trade whitelists. Worse, the IMF has trimmed its economic growth forecast for Singapore this year from 2.3 percent to 2 percent.

“Looking ahead, the property market is likely to remain stable over the next 12 months. Singapore’s economic outlook has been more subdued due to the uncertain external environment. Notwithstanding, Singapore remains a safe haven to many investors, which will help support demand for homes,” Dr. Lee says.

Singapore’s iconic skyline acts like a beacon for UHNW investors attracted by the city-state’s stringent regulations and enviable infrastructure. Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

“While home prices in the wider market are expected to hold firm at current levels, luxury prices could still see some upside because of their haute architecture and bespoke attributes,” says Leong.

Singapore may have clipped speculators’ wings, but it remains accommodative to the wiles and needs of the moneyed class. Following his purchase of the Wallich super penthouse, Dyson reportedly forked around SGD41 million for a GCB at Cluny Road near the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Crazy rich Asians? They’ve got company now.

This article originally appeared in Issue No. 156 of PropertyGuru Property Report Magazine