Is Singapore's property market headed for a quick upswing?

Is Singapore's property market headed for a quick upswing?
PHOTO: The Business Times

After a long, plodding downtrend, Singapore's housing market may be gathering forces for a rebound.

Sigrid Zialcita, managing director for Asia Pacific research at Cushman & Wakefield, told CNBC's "The Rundown" last week that she expected a turning point in prices "very soon."

She pointed to the government's recent move to ease some of its curbs on the sector as the reason for the market's changing fortunes.

"That actually boosted sentiment in the market. We've seen an increase in foot traffic and it's incentivizing a lot of buyers," she said.

Others also noted that the government's decision to loosen the reins may be spurring more property activity.

Hari Krishnan, CEO of website PropertyGuru, pointed to more optimism, with the number of property listings in the first quarter rising 2.0 per cent on-year and 2.4 per cent in March.

"These increases could be indicative of an uplift in seller sentiment," he said via email this week.

That hasn't been reflected in prices yet. In the first quarter, overall private home prices fell 0.5 per cent on-quarter, the 14th straight quarter of declines. This time around, however, the bulk of the decline was in relatively small landed property segment, while non-landed prices were steady.

The city-state's housing prices surged more than 60 per cent from 2009 through 2013, propelled by rock-bottom global interest rates and quantitative easing in developed economies, even as the government enacted a series of cooling measures from 2011 to prevent a bubble from forming.

The measures, including an Additional Buyer's Stamp Duty which could add as much as an additional 15 per cent to the price, appeared to have eventually met with some success, with the property price index falling around 11 per cent from the peak in the third quarter of 2013 through the end of 2016, according to data from Deutsche Bank in January.

Now, the government may have a more sanguine view, taking moves in early March to scale back some of the curbs, including lowering the seller's stamp duty and shortening the minimum holding period to avoid it.

In a note late week, analysts at Citi also pointed to a sudden "sentiment uplift" after the policy easing, although it added that the "exuberance" might be overdone.

Indeed, the note indicated that while it would be more economically rational for potential buyers to wait for more substantial policy easing or for further discounts from developers running up against government-mandated sales deadlines, "the market sentiment in Singapore tends to work the other way - sidelined buyers rush back to the market at the first hint of easing, for fear of losing out."

Citi noted it was "impossible" to determine how much of an impact the move had on recent sales volume, but it pointed to one launch last week, of Park Place Residences, which sold its entire phase one, initially set at 40 per cent of the 429-unit total before being raised to 50 per cent, within a day.

To be sure, the development boasted a strong location and was arguably priced competitively.

Other indicators also suggested the pickup in interest from potential buyers may pre-date the policy easing.

Data released by Singapore's central bank, the Monetary Authority of Singapore, last week showed that consumer housing and bridging loans in February, before the rules were relaxed, rose 4.0 per cent on-year to 192.8 billion Singapore dollars, marking 12-straight months of on-month increases.

Property investor Alexander Karolik Shlaen, an economist and CEO of Panache Management, a luxury brands and investment adviser, said that while he'd noted sentiment toward the market had been improving for a while, he didn't expect the changes would affect most buyers.

But he noted that for a few buyers, specifically those who already hold a property and are looking to upgrade, only needing to wait three years, instead of four, to avoid the seller stamp duty may spur them into the market.

Shlaen also noted that while the easing could help individuals, the government had also moved to tighten loopholes allowing bulk-buyers of properties to side-step some taxes.

That could take those buyers out of the market, he said.

It wasn't clear how much further any sentiment pickup could run.

Citi noted that buyers betting the government may further relax property-sector curbs could run up against a negative feedback loop: If the recent easing pushes up volumes and prices faster than economic fundamentals, that would dampen the chances of further policy easing.

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