Your New Neighbours

From Bulgaria to Tonga, they’re buying property here as foreigners find S’pore an attractive place to call home; markets are smiling…
Five years ago, “For Sale” signs lined the lonely stretch of bungalows along
Berwick Drive. Even for a steal of a price, the suburban Serangoon Gardens area saw few takers. The economy, shaken by the terror attack in New York, hadn’t yet stepped out of the long shadow of the 1997 Asian financial crisis that crushed banks, businesses and home prices.

“Property was really in the doldrums and there were a lot of bankruptcies,” said Mr Seah Chiang Nee, who watched old neighbours leave one by one.

Today, his street is lively and bustling. The new neighbours bring a distinct colour to the surroundings: Mr Seah is now sandwiched between a French family and a Malaysian who has just arrived here following a stint in Hong Kong. Two houses down lives a Briton married to a Singaporean.

Foreigners are returning to the property scene in big way, making their presence felt with large numbers, a diversity of nationalities and a staying power that, at once, strengthens and calms the market.

Foreign purchases of private residences here hit an all-time high of 4,595 last year — about a third of the approximately 15,000 purchases made by Singaporeans — said property consultancy Colliers International.

Malaysians and Indonesians still form the biggest group, but they have been joined at the top by Koreans, Indians, and Chinese, said Colliers’ director of research and consultancy Tay Huey Ying. And since 2003, even Danes, Bulgarians, Egyptians, Tongans and Cambodians have popped up on the buyers’ list, Savills Residential’s data revealed.

“We’re becoming a city that is a lot more liveable, one that is more than just a place to work,” said DTZ Debenham Tie Leung’s executive director Ong Choon Fah.Mr Rajeev Malik, a 30-something Indian national who has worked here as an economist since 1994, vouches for this. Before moving to Singapore, he worked in Boston and says that professionals these days are like international nomads.

Even so, after renting for several years, he bought a condo in the River Valley area in 2005, saying it signalled his family’s preference of Singapore as a home base. “We are deeply attached to Singapore and there is no doubt in my mind that most other places will be a step down,” he said.

Buyers like him give muscle to the property market as they are not looking to make a quick buck from it. Even those who buy here to invest have pockets deep enough to hold on to their properties — they are what Colliers’ Ms Tay calls “specu-vestors”, who differ from speculators who tend to sell or “flip” the unit quickly because they may be financially stretched.

Many are like the one that Savills director Ku Swee Yong has been in talks with over the past two weeks. The client, flying in with his accountants and lawyers, has a personal net worth of billions. He is looking to invest and may build a house here to escape winter back home.

Such uber-rich, agents say, started showing up in late-2004 with the launch of unprecedented projects such as The Sail @ Marina Bay — the country’s tallest residential building — and Sentosa Cove’s waterfront homes. With yet more lifestyle developments planned for the Southern Islands, you may see more of them soon.

Mr Nicholas Mak, director of Knight Frank’s consultancy and research department, said that some of these foreigners push up prices in the high-end market. “They are generally more aggressive with their offer prices, thereby creating a bidding war in some properties,” he said.

But by no means can they be accused of creating a property bubble. Speculators who do that tend to be local. “We see more Singaporeans rather than foreigners participating in a few of the cases of pushing prices sky high,” said Mr Ku.

The spread of nationalities and the staying power of the buyers have brought a certain stability to the market — a contrast from 1998 when the foreigners buying properties here came mainly from Malaysia and
Indonesia. “When the South-east Asian economies crashed, our markets also crashed,” recalled property agent James Lee. There is little danger of that happening now.

Instead, away from the prime districts, one sees some clustering of different nationalities. An American presence is sprouting in Woodlands, close to the American School. Many Japanese families are in District 5’s West Coast area. Indian expatriates have built up a presence in the condos along Tanjong Rhu and River Valley Road, where dozens of families gather around barbecue pits and beer over the weekend.

“It’s the same everywhere in the world. It’s natural to want to congregate,” said DTZ’s Mrs Ong.

The question, some ask, is how locals are reacting to the growing foreign presence. Last year, the number of foreigners who settled here jumped 9.7 per cent — the biggest increase in six years — to 875,500, excluding Permanent Residents. Locals such as manager Valerie Lee, 28, have noticed more Caucasians renting units in her Upper Bukit Timah condo compared to a year ago.

“It’s something good. Foreigners are usually willing to pay a higher price than locals do,” she said. Rentals of private non-landed homes last year surged 15 per cent from those of the previous year.

These forays into the property market have not created any anti-foreigner sentiment, observers said. If it exists, it is likely found in those who feel their jobs are threatened, said Mr Seah, a political commentator.

Otherwise, as Mr Malik said: “Singaporeans and the foreigners living here generally appreciate that it is a mutually-beneficial relationship.”

Source: Weekend Today, 27 January 2007

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