HDB prices, cooling measures and waiting game

HDB prices, cooling measures and waiting game

NATIONAL Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan gave little away on Tuesday when he was quizzed by two Members of Parliament about the lifting of property cooling measures during the scrutiny of his ministry's budget.

In replying to Ms Foo Mee Har and Dr Lily Neo, Mr Khaw was coy.

"The property market is in transition and it is a time that calls for vigilance and nimbleness. We will be careful," he said.

He then gave an update on how housing affordability as a whole has improved.

Incomes have grown faster than new Housing Board flat prices.

From 2009 to last year, prices of new flats in non-mature estates rose 15 per cent without grants, or just 6 per cent with grants.

In contrast, the median household income rose 38 per cent in the same period.

Said Mr Khaw: "We can see that public housing affordability has substantially improved since 2011."

Prices are also well within expectations. A recent HDB survey found that buyers were willing to pay up to $300,000 for a new three-roomer. In fact, 90 per cent of three-roomers booked last year were sold for below $250,000.

The housing situation here today is better not only compared to the past, but also compared to other cities, he said.

He cited two foreign headlines from earlier this year: "Londoners queue overnight in sub-zero temperatures to buy one-bedroom flat for £400,000" - about S$832,000 - in British newspaper The Independent, and "Only 1 in 60 chance to win in Hong Kongers' rush for subsidised flats" in the South China Morning Post.

The £400,000 flat was in a private development.

But the same article notes that the average age of a first-time buyer in London is 52, and the average house price is nearing £400,000, 15 times the average full-time annual salary in Britain.

The subsidised public flats in Hong Kong are about the size of two-roomers here but cost over four times more, noted Mr Khaw.

"As far as housing is concerned, young Singaporeans are many times better off than their London or Hong Kong counterparts. This is the reality," he said.

By setting Build-To-Order (BTO) prices, the Government can control affordability in general, said experts.

Given the rosy picture of the new flat market today, it seems that Mr Khaw's concerns remain with resale prices instead.

Though HDB resale prices have fallen since their peak in 2013, there has been less progress there than on the BTO front.

Mr Khaw compared resale affordability last year with two previous troughs: 2005 and 2009.

From 2009 to last year, resale prices rose 37 per cent.

Median household income rose a shade more, by 38 per cent - meaning that resale flats last year were slightly more affordable than in 2009.

But looking further back to 2005, "there is still a gap", he added. Resale prices have risen 87 per cent since then, while household incomes rose only 72 per cent.

Was Mr Khaw implying that he wanted affordability to reach 2005 levels before cooling measures could be relaxed?

Market watchers caution against jumping to that conclusion. Mr Khaw could have cited 2005 simply to show that there remains room for resale prices to fall, without meaning for it to be a target, they said.

In any case, the 2005 affordability levels are not that difficult to reach. Barring significant shocks, that level could well be in sight this year, said OrangeTee manager of research and consultancy Wong Xian Yang.

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