Speculators – are they making a comeback?

Recent launch prices for condos in outlying areas way above existing properties

The confirmation of the positive numbers for the private residential sector in Singapore for 2Q2010 appears to have unleashed another wave of buying onto the market.

From landed homes to HDB flats, the market is awash with liquidity. My colleagues in the appraisal department tell me that the rising prices for properties not matched by their valuations have not scuttled too many deals.

In the public housing market, higher cash-over-valuation (COVs) on top of higher prices have also not slowed the rise in the HDB resale market.

With so much cash floating around, I have often maintained that the market is always waiting for a good excuse to renew its buying activity.

That excuse was provided within the past two weeks. The Scala, a 99-year leasehold project near Lorong Chuan MRT station attracted hundreds of potential buyers – or over a thousand according to one report – that balloting was needed to sort out who got to enter the showflat first.

Of course, it helped that a private preview held earlier for Hong Leong staff and other buyers meant that about a third of the units had already been sold before the official launch.

The timing of the launch was also spot on as it came after more stations on the Circle Line from Bartley right through to Dhoby Ghaut were opened for public use. This meant that most residents in the area have already had experience using the new line.

Because the Circle Line serves mainly lower population density areas, there is less overcrowding on the trains. This means that most rides are much more pleasant than rides on the older North-South or East-West lines. To be near an MRT station is already a plus, but to be near the Circle Line is a bonus.

In the following week, the preview of The Greenwich condominium caused a rare traffic jam in the quiet Seletar Hills estate. The showflat closed at 2am the following morning in order to cope with the demand.

It has been a while since we saw such frenzied buying activity. Who are these people who stayed up to the wee hours after midnight to book a unit? Are we seeing the return of speculators to the market?

All the signs are there. On a per-square-foot basis, the reported average selling price of about $1,150 psf for The Scala is about 1.5 times the prices of existing apartments in the area.

One buyer was quoted as hoping for a 10- to 20-per-cent increase in prices within two years. This sounds reasonable, until you realise that he is already paying 50-per-cent more than for existing apartments in the area.

The jump in prices are definitely going to flow through into the third quarter private housing statistics.

The launch price for The Greenwich was at $980 psf on average, rising to $1,025 psf over the weekend – a record for a location so far away from the city centre.

One consultant was spot on when he was quoted as saying “the buyers are those who really like this corner of Singapore”.

Yes, it is really in one corner of Singapore. You need to own a car to live there or it can be pretty troublesome. Most residents in the area prefer living in houses rather than apartments. And the reason why they opt to live so far away from the city is because it is the only way houses can be affordable for them.

Why would someone choose to live in an apartment there when there are more than ample choices of apartments closer to the city with a better public transport network.

By any stretch of reasoning, I cannot see how owner occupiers can justify their purchases at these launch prices. It is also a little too much for investors.

That leaves the speculator, someone who plays the odds in the hope that it pays off and pays off really well. By their own reckoning, they need not depend on other Singaporean buyers. After all, the Chinese are coming. And they are known to pay big. Really big.

By Colin Tan, head of research and consultancy at Chesterton Suntec International.

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