Dilemma for genuine home buyers

Published 28 January 2011
TODAYonline
By Ong Teck Hui

The Government’s latest round of measures to cool the residential property market was clearly targeted at short-term investors and speculators.

Dilemma for genuine home buyersEffective since Jan 14, they include the highly punitive stamp duties which apply to the resale of residential properties within four years of purchase, the reduced loan limit of 60 per cent for buyers with one or more outstanding mortgages, as well as the 50-per-cent loan limit for buyers who are non-individuals, for example companies and trusts.

It would appear that the measures have been applied to slow down the market to avoid the growth of a property bubble, as well as to allow genuine buyers the opportunity to purchase their dream homes without runaway prices.

Genuine home buyers do form a significant demand pool, and many have planned to make their purchases in the near term. The introduction of the fresh measures has led them to wonder whether prices would soften and whether it might be worth their while to wait. Some are hoping for a substantial price correction, “maybe 20 per cent or more”, before deciding to buy.

SEEING PRICE DECLINES IN PERSPECTIVE

But would the residential property market correct by that magnitude – 20 per cent or more – due to the measures alone? It would be useful for us to analyse past declines in prices to arrive at an informed conclusion on the price outlook.

The most recent price correction in the residential property market was due to the economic recession arising from the global financial crisis. From the peak in mid-2008 to trough in mid-2009, prices softened by 25 per cent, according to the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s residential property price index. The impact of the new measures will certainly be nowhere as catastrophic as that of the global financial crisis.

Another benchmark is the decline in prices following the announcement of the anti-speculation measures in May 1996. The very harsh measures, which included a 20-per-cent upfront downpayment in cash for all property purchases and taxes on gains from properties sold within three years of purchase, affected the entire residential market, bringing transaction volumes down by 75 per cent. Prices eased by 8.9 per cent over a one-year period before being dragged down by a further 40 per cent by the Asian financial crisis.

In contrast, the current measures have been calibrated to discourage shorter-term investors and speculators, leaving genuine home buyers relatively unaffected.

Barring external shocks or economic downturns, the measures by themselves are unlikely to drag prices down significantly, if at all. Under the present positive market conditions, sellers are on a stable footing and under no pressure to slash prices.

BUYERS’ IMPATIENCE

After the set of measures announced on Aug 30 last year, potential buyers retreated to the sidelines to watch how the residential market would pan out.

Last August, developers launched 1,165 units and sold 1,259. What potential buyers saw was a slightly slower market in September, with 1,058 units launched and 911 sold. Activity in October picked up, with 1,070 units launched and 1,066 sold, but that was the month when two new executive condominiums (ECs) were launched, generating much hype and interest. Including ECs, 2,049 units were launched in October and 1,596 sold.

The market also watched developers’ response to the sale of residential sites. Tenders for mediocre residential and EC sites were met with fair response and cautious bids, while the more attractive sites saw strong competitive bidding.

The URA’s property price index for 3Q2010 showed that residential property prices rose 2.9 per cent, although it would have captured primarily pre-measures pricing. Market behaviour and evidence would have led most potential buyers to conclude that the residential market was holding up well against the measures, transactional activity was resuming and prices were unlikely to soften.

By November, the residential property market picked up with a vengeance with several major launches and good take-up. Including ECs, 2,331 units were launched and 2,092 sold, making November almost the busiest month last year. The December figures for homes launched and sold (including ECs) were lower at 1,859 and 1,699, respectively, but this was expected as it was the typical year-end holiday period.

When the 4Q2010 price index was released, it showed residential property prices continuing to climb by 2.7 per cent, notwithstanding the effect of the measures. It only served to confirm potential buyers’ fear that prices would continue to rise.

TO WAIT OR NOT TO WAIT?

Potential buyers’ behaviour over the next few months would determine the direction of the residential property market for the rest of this year. If buying sentiment recovers in the short term, transactional activity would pick up, leading to firm prices with, perhaps, some upside. However, if the market slows without an improvement in sentiment, prices could eventually soften.

The dilemma that many genuine home buyers face is whether to continue with their intended purchases or to hold off in the hope that prices will correct significantly.

It would be worthwhile waiting if prices do eventually decline substantially, but delaying also runs two main risks: Higher interest rates and stronger measures imposed by the Government that may affect even genuine home buyers. On the other hand, higher interest rates and stronger Government measures could result in price softening, but that would mean postponing one’s purchase even longer.

Historical experience may show that prices are unlikely to correct significantly due to measures such as those recently introduced. But it is what potential home buyers believe or perceive that will drive their behaviour, which will, in turn, influence the market.

The residential property market may have been jolted by the Jan 14 measures, but market fundamentals remain favourable. Together with inflation concerns, the current low interest rates and expectations of long-term capital appreciation, it appears that buyers would likely be drawn back to the residential property market after an expected period of hesitation.

Ong Teck Hui is executive director of research and consultancy at Credo Real Estate.

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