Friday, July 10, 2009

Is Housing Market Recovery In Sight?

Source : The Business Times, July 9, 2009

The factors driving the rebound in private home sales are mostly short term but current exuberance could continue

AFTER being dormant for 17 months, the private residential market sprang to life in February. That month saw a burst of buying that took new homes sold by developers to over 1,300, against an average of less than 400 during the lull.

Since then, monthly sales of new homes have consistently stayed above the 1,200 mark, bringing total sales for the first five months to 5,478 units. This already exceeds the 4,264 new units sold for the whole of last year!

Why the sudden buzz in private home sales? After all, Singapore is suffering its deepest recession with job losses hitting a historical high of 12,760 in the first quarter.

Price weakness was what sparked the home buying mania in February. The pressure on developers to clear inventory, after months of standoff between buyers and sellers, finally saw them relenting by either launching projects at competitive prices or resizing apartments to keep the absolute cost affordable.

For example, February saw the launch of the 712-unit The Caspian in Jurong, where over 90 per cent of the 600 launched units were sold at an initial price of $580 per sq ft (psf). In the same month, the 293-unit Alexis in Alexandra Road sold out at prices ranging from $950 psf to $1,250 psf. Its popularity can be explained in part by the small apartment sizes; more than 70 per cent of the development comprises one- and two-bedroom apartments ranging from 366 sq ft to 786 sq ft.

These moves could not have come at a better time because there was a noticeable lift in sentiment at the time from the job-saving measures in the 2009 Budget, announced in January. This created a greater sense of job security among home buyers, allowing them to commit to long-term mortgage payments.

Then the stock market started to rally in early March, as the economic outlook brightened, with indicators pointing to a slowing contraction. All these encouraging factors, coupled with a bit of herd instinct among buyers, led to another month of strong sales in March, which saw 1,220 new units sold.

Also, private home prices had already dropped about 14 per cent in Q1, the sharpest quarterly decline seen in Singapore's housing market. This gave comfort to many that home prices might have finally bottomed or were close to it.

Encouraged by the good sales, developers reduced their discounts and incentives, while sellers in the secondary market started to raise asking prices. Panic buying set in as house hunters worried that they might miss the boat if they did not act soon. This contributed to primary home sales hitting 1,668 units in May - the second highest figure, after the last recorded peak of 1,723 units in August 2007.

The positive sentiment spilled over to higher-tier homes. Sales of new high-end units located in the Core Central Region doubled for two months running, from 133 units in March to 322 in April and 617 in May.

To a large extent, the buying was backed by affordability. The economic boom in 2007 had significantly raised the incomes of many Singaporeans. According to the Department of Statistics, the average household income of Singaporeans and permanent residents rose by a hefty 24 per cent in the past two years, from $5,720 in 2006 to $7,090 in 2008.

Singapore residents also saw their wealth grow exponentially during the 2007 property boom. Besides the billions of dollars owners realised from collective sales which reached fever pitch in 2007, substantial sums were also made through property investment and speculation.

Property investors/speculators are estimated to have made a total net gain of $2.8 billion between January 2007 and March 2009, going by caveats lodged for sub-sale transactions. Eighty per cent of the money was made in 2007.

This translates to an average gain of $390,000 per sub-sale transaction, a tidy sum that can comfortably cover a 40 per cent downpayment on an investment property costing up to $800,000. Alternatively, it could fund a 20 per cent downpayment for an owner-occupied property costing up to $1.7 million. So it is not surprising that homes priced under $1.7 million made up some 90 per cent of all transactions since January.

On the public housing front, the diverging price trends of private homes and HDB resale flats narrowed the gap between them and improved the ability of HDB dwellers to upgrade. As at March, HDB resale prices were up an average 5 per cent from the mid-2008 level, while private home prices contracted by a steep 21 per cent in the same period. The Singapore stock market's 50 per cent surge since its March low has also added to liquidity.

Does the rebound signify market recovery?

Market recovery is characterised by sustained sales momentum and prices, which calls for a continued lift in sentiment, and a return of fundamentals that support long-term as opposed to short-term affordability and liquidity.

However, market sentiment is fragile and vulnerable to adverse developments in the economy and stock markets, and potential disasters like a deadlier wave of the H1N1 flu.

The stock market is volatile and cannot be depended on to provide sustained liquidity for the property market. And affordability backed by wealth accumulated from the boom years is not boundless and will deplete if not replenished in time.

While buying by HDB upgraders might be sustainable, this group is extremely price sensitive, as can be seen from past behaviour.

There were two occasions in the past when HDB upgraders increased their presence in the private home market even after HDB resale prices had peaked. This was between Q4 1996 and Q4 1998, as well as between Q1 2000 and Q2 2002. HDB upgraders continued to increase their presence in the private home sales market even after HDB resale prices peaked in Q4 1996 and Q1 2000.

This took place alongside continued softening of private home prices. But buying by HDB upgraders trended down the moment private home prices gained strength.

Currently, given that private home prices are already creeping up as developers and sellers take advantage of the strong buying momentum, HDB upgraders may fade as a driver of sales as they see private homes becoming less affordable.

Hence, the factors driving the rebound in private home sales since February are mostly short term and are not supportive of a sustainable market recovery. Such a recovery would be possible only with growth in employment and personal income on the back of robust economic expansion.

For the luxury segment, sales would also have to be underpinned by the return of foreign demand. For now, foreign high net worth individuals are focusing their attention on more battered markets such as London and Tokyo where the prospect of capital appreciation is higher.

Where is the market heading then, in H2 2009?

Nevertheless, over the next six months, barring adverse developments, market sentiment is likely to stay upbeat. The current exuberance could continue, despite the weak rental market, as most buyers are looking to capital appreciation in the medium term. This could underpin demand and help maintain average monthly private home sales at above the 1,000-unit level till the end of the year.

Beyond 2009, sustainable buying momentum amid rising home prices would have to come about on the back of robust economic expansion. In the meantime, the impending completion of the two integrated resorts could boost confidence and lend some support to home sales, particularly for high-end properties located close to the resorts.

The writer is director of research and advisory, Colliers International

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