Monday, January 19, 2009

Read This Before You Rent A Place

Source : The Straits Times, Jan 18, 2009

There's no foolproof way to avoid rental scams but property experts have a few tips

The process of finding a rental home may be smooth for some but a nightmare for others.

Late last month, a Malaysian couple and a Japanese expatriate were duped by a conman posing as the property manager-cum-landlord of a terrace house in Serangoon Gardens.

He 'leased' the same house to both parties and then ran off with $10,300 of their money. The two parties have made police reports but there is no guarantee that they will get the money back.

Rental scams surface from time to time and many of them involve HDB flats, property agents said.

While there are no foolproof ways of avoiding one completely, there are precautions tenants can take to ensure they do not fall prey to a scam.

Dealing with agents

First of all, tenants should engage or deal with a property agent from a reputable or established company, said PropNex chief executive Mohamed Ismail.

While this is obviously not foolproof, it does provide a level of protection if anything were to go wrong. 'At least there is a company to go to for help,' he said.

Firms like his will carry out their own investigations and take appropriate action, such as helping the tenant to get his money back or terminating the agent's services if need be, he said.

Second, check with the agent's property firm or the website of the Institute of Estate Agents (IEA) to see if the agent you are dealing with is a legitimate one, advised Mr Ismail, who is also the IEA's first vice-president.

On the IEA website, click on Central Register Scheme and type in the agent's particulars. If the agent has quit or been terminated, his name would have been taken off the list.

But note that the IEA's list is not comprehensive as its membership is not compulsory. For instance, a major agency, HSR Property Group, is not on the list.

Thirdly, do not pay a property agent a large sum in cash. 'If you pay cash, he can misappropriate the money,' said Mr Ismail.

Instead, tenants should pay using a cheque or cashier's order which states the owner's name.

Before signing the lease

Property agency bosses also advise potential tenants to do some homework and find out about standard practices before committing to a lease.

There was a case last year where a 20-year-old student from China paid eight months' advance rental for a four-room Punggol flat to someone who claimed to be the landlord, but who turned out to be the sub-tenant of the flat and a conman.

The student told The Sunday Times on Thursday that she was chased out of the $1,600-a-month flat by the owner, who had returned home after a trip, the day after she moved in. The sub-tenant had disappeared by then.

What she should have done was to get proof of the property's ownership or ask to meet the owner, agency bosses said.

Property agents are supposed to do due diligence to ascertain the ownership of the property they are handling, so tenants can ask to see the documentation. The owner's property tax statement would be good.

If you are dealing with the managing agent, ask for documentary proof such as a power of attorney or a letter from the owner authorising the agent to act on his behalf, said C&H Realty managing director Albert Lu.

Minimising losses

HSR Property Group's executive director, Mr Eric Cheng, said the student would not have been cheated of so much money if she had known that it is the norm in Singapore to pay just a deposit and one month of advance rental.

Tenants can also negotiate for a lower deposit, he said. It is up to the landlord to say yes, although in the market, the norm is a one- month deposit for a one-year lease and a two-month deposit for a two-year lease.

Mr Lu said tenants should pay the advance rental only upon the handing over of the keys to the property, to minimise their risk.

But legitimate owners can sometimes be cheats too. Tenants should therefore pay their rent on a monthly basis, advised Mr Cheng.

He has encountered cases where tenants were happy to pay six to eight months in advance rental for a lower rent, only to find out later they had been cheated.

In one case, the legitimate owner sold his flat soon after the lease was sealed and disappeared, said Mr Cheng.

Tenants just have to be vigilant, said Mr Lu. 'If the rent is too good to be true, then you have to beware.'

Based on past instances, there is a high chance of a scam happening if the rental is too cheap, he said.

Get the keys first

Tenants should pay the advance rental only upon the handing over of the keys to the property.

Cheap trick

If the rent is too good to be true, then you have to beware. Based on past instances, there is a high chance of a scam happening if the rental is too cheap.

Squeezed Between High Rent And Poor Sales

Source : The Straits Times, Janu 17, 2009

Retailers feel the pain, the hardest hit being those who signed leases during booming 2007

A HOME-GROWN brand of women's clothes has decided to operate in Malaysia - and only Malaysia. Coral Isle, in The Centrepoint, will shut for good next week, before its three-year lease expires on Jan 28.

Slow custom is putting the brakes on owner Poonam Bhandari's ambitions in Singapore.

The $20 per square foot (psf) rent, or $18,000, she pays every month in The Centrepoint is too much to bear. Amounting to 90 per cent of her operating cost, it was 'killing'.

She had hoped for a reprieve when her lease was up. But negotiations with landlord Frasers Centrepoint came to nothing. They told her there would be no rent cut, she said, and that there was 'no room for negotiation'.

Frasers Centrepoint confirmed that they had a request from the owner of Coral Isle about rent but would not go into details.

They said, however, that they had offered Mrs Poonam assistance, in in-store promotions, to help her sales figures.

For Mrs Poonam and many other small businessmen like her, it is too little too late.

Of 45 small and medium-sized retailers and restaurant owners The Straits Times spoke to, five had wound up their businesses in the past six months, four had shut at least one branch, while another seven will close shop entirely when their leases expire this year.

One of them is Ms Amelia Pang, 39, who started Coziz Studio in International Plaza selling clothes imported from Hong Kong four years ago. Rent was then $1,491 a month. She poured in about $40,000 as start-up costs and running capital into her first business foray.

In 2004, turnover could be $10,000 a month. Last June, the landlord, the management of International Plaza, wanted to increase her rent to $2,200. She managed to stay it till October at $2,000.

But business is so bad that she has decided to call it a day. She barely makes enough to cover the rent. 'Sometimes we have no customers at all,' she lamented.

Whether in prime Orchard Road or a suburban mall, small businesses are feeling squeezed by falling receipts on one hand, and non-negotiable rents on the other.

Eleven tenants who renewed leases last year report at least a 10 per cent increase in rent.

Asked for specifics, CapitalMall Trust, which has 14 properties, said rents have gone up 4 per cent annually while YTL Pacific Star Management, which has stakes in malls like Wisma Atria, said renewals last year were 5 per cent above past contracts.

Different outlets, however, pay different rents. And tenants could be suffering or thanking their lucky stars depending on whether they signed the lease in a good year or bad, said Singapore Polytechnic retail management lecturer Sarah Lim.

The hardest hit are those who renewed or signed leases in 2007 or early last year, when rents were soaring, she added.

The Singapore Retailers Association, which has been trading words with landlords in recent months, reckons that rents have jumped by as much as 80 per cent in prime areas and 30 per cent in popular heartland spots.

Even those who lease space from the Housing Board are feeling the heat.

At Loyang Point in Pasir Ris, Mr Jeffrey Kam, 43, who owns shoe shop Rayna Collection, had his lease renewed early last year at $4,000 a month, a 12.5 per cent increase.

Six months later, he was losing $1,000 a month because of poor business. His landlord is the Housing Board.

In an e-mail reply, HDB said that new tenants bid for rents, for a fixed-term tenancy of three years. At the end of that term, rent renewals are reviewed by valuers appointed by the board.

Mr Kam said he had to assume the last tenant's rent when he took over the shop eight years ago. It was a mistake to renew his lease, he said. 'This is a dead end. We will close down when the lease ends.'

No one anticipated how last year would end. Many thought the good times had yet to come, especially with plans to attract more tourists here. The last time retailers felt the pinch was in 2003 when Sars scared away both locals and tourists from shops.

But with the situation set to worsen, can retailers hope for some relief from landlords?

Mr Turner Canning of real estate consultants Cushman and Wakefield said rent levels depend on benchmark properties in the area, demand and supply, as well as a landlord's profit margins.

Taking this into consideration, the average super-prime Orchard Road rent now hovers around $54 psf per month, higher than the $51.70 psf a year ago.

Two of the five major landlords The Straits Times spoke to said that they might give out rental rebates on a case-by-case basis.

But they said that such rent adjustments were rare, and preferred to find other ways to help tenants, like increasing traffic.

The five - CapitalMall Trust, AsiaMalls, Far East Organisation, Lend Lease and Frasers Centrepoint - peg rents to factors like floor level, rents in comparable malls and gross turnover.

According to AsiaMalls' general manager Stephanie Ho, rental adjustments have to be pre-negotiated and agreed on.

The HDB, which is landlord of HDB shops as well as 25 neighbourhood centres, said that to assist tenants, it has offered them the option of paying their rent in instalments. Tenants can also sublet up to 50 per cent of the premises, subject to HDB's approval.

In terms of rental renewal, it said tenants can get a second opinion from an independent private valuer to assess fair market rent. Tenants can also put the unit for re-tender.

Like the landlords of major malls, HDB also carries out upgrading to 'enhance...attractiveness and inject more vibrancy' to shops and complexes.

Retail management lecturer Sarah Lim said smaller landlords might give more leeway on rent.

This seems to be the case for landlords like the Goldkist group, which owns 40 units in the multi-owner Sim Lim Complex. Its director H. D. Gupta said tenants have been given up to a two week rent-free period, case-by-case and based on market conditions.

In 2007, when it had feedback from tenants that the computer industry was flagging, Goldkist absorbed increases in property tax even though rental contracts allowed it to pass them on.

The company, which has been in property rental for about four years, has increased tenants' rents by 5 to 10 per cent.

Mr Gupta said that a combination of maintenance fees, property tax and interest on bank loans are limitations on rent reductions. 'For any property owner, we are paying banks in instalments. Interest normally increases every year. All these costs have not gone down,' he said.

If landlords have obligations, so do tenants. They are typically locked into leases for one to three years. Some contracts do not include exit or subletting clauses.

Even if they did, shopping around for a cheaper place might not work out.

Said Association of Small and Medium Enterprises president Lawrence Leow: 'A change of location may mean death for a business, especially if their contact base has been built up over the years. The lesser of the two evils is to continue.'

That was what happened in the case of retail brand Leather Ark. When rent at its Parkway Parade outlet jumped 30 per cent to $7,000 a month and business at her other outlet stayed slow, owner Jean Yeo considered, but decided against moving out.

'We thought of moving, but dismissed it because of high fixed costs, and what about our regular customers who live nearby?'

Instead, the 49-year-old held back plans to open a third outlet at Tampines, and increased the prices at her shop by about $1 per item. She also decided to close her other outlet once the lease runs out in January 2010.

Tenants are doing all they can to stay afloat, like laying off staff and cutting prices to induce sales.

Mr Richard Suen, who owns a jewellery store at Central, now lets customers do the unthinkable - bargain.

'We still have a year left on our lease, and we just want to keep our heads above water,' said the 56-year-old. 'We cannot close shop and run away, can we?'

The Comforts Of Home Prices

Source : The Business Times, January 17, 2009

The residential property market has started to slide, resulting in more affordable homes.

WHILE many will be worrying about losing the roof over their heads, 2009 may just be the year for some to find a new one. From luxury to mass market offerings, homes are now more affordable to a wider and more diverse group of buyers.

And with diversity comes stability, says Jones Lang LaSalle South-east Asia research head Chua Yang Liang.

One of the few voices of optimism in 2009, Dr Chua says that affordability has improved by some 5-24 per cent and that in any market, 'there will always be opportunity'. 'While we do not deny that the market has to correct in the short term, the medium to longer term opportunities are looking brighter by the day,' he adds.

The market has already started to correct with the official property price index having fallen for three consecutive quarters.

Dr Chua adds: 'People should invest on their own terms and not try to plan based on market trends.

Those who insist on definitive evidence of market trends can look to business cycles.

Cushman and Wakefield managing director Donald Han says that the property market tends to lag some 6-12 months behind local economic growth indicators. While Mr Han says it is difficult to pinpoint when a cycle troughs or peaks, 'it is okay to buy or sell at some 10 per cent off from these levels'.

But Mr Han also pointed out that the average holding period for investors is between three and five years with owner occupiers holding for between four and eight years. 'And as market cycles get shorter over time, one's commitment to buy must include commitment to hold over and beyond these market cycles,' he added.

Property cycles are difficult to predict. Estimates for when the bottom of the current cycle will come are at least six months apart.

UBS Investment Research appears to be the most optimistic, saying that the property market slide may turn as early as in the third quarter of the year.

'In the last trough in Q3 '98, the URA residential price index - which tends to lag the market - had already weakened for six quarters and residential vacancy rates had risen for eight quarters before a recovery began. GDP growth also hit a trough of minus 4 per cent in Q3 '98,' UBS notes in a recent report.

But UBS also believes that sales volume could stay weak until vacancy rates peak. And it expects private housing vacancy rate to rise to 10-11 per cent by end-2009.

Goldman Sachs reckons the bottom of the market is more likely to be mid-2010, highlighting that since 1980, there have been three private residential property down cycles, each of which lasted between 2.5 and 3.5 years.

Expecting a further 26 per cent and 31 per cent declines in mass and prime residential prices respectively by 2010, Goldman Sachs says: 'At these new prices, affordability would improve to levels where we believe buyers would be lured back.'

Homes will definitely become cheaper but will they also become more affordable?

Affordability is generally defined as housing costs as a percentage of household income.

Goldman Sachs says that affordability needs to improve for volumes to recover too. 'We believe that even if the macro economy stabilises and confidence returns to the Singapore market, residential demand is unlikely to quickly recover, as the affordability ratio for the average household has dipped and is less favourable when compared to 2001 levels,' it added in a recent report.

Focusing on the top 30 per cent of households, it also notes that the current monthly mortgage payment for private mass residential as a proportion of take-home income is high at 43 per cent, compared with 33 per cent during the Q2-Q4 2001 period.

And affordability will further deteriorate if banks tighten credit on mortgages or loan quantum, and the government cuts employers' CPF contribution to stimulate the economy.

'Relative affordability' may have improved, but Chesterton Suntec International's head of research and consultancy Colin Tan asks: 'Does it change the market situation?'

'While some contend that affordability of the private residential market has improved, the reality is that the vast majority of properties currently on the market are still not affordable to the general population,' he adds.

As Mr Tan notes, CPF cuts could be a big deterrent for potential home buyers. Saying that any cut could have a 'psychological' impact, he adds: 'Right now, uncertainty over actual rate cuts - whether one per cent or 5 per cent, will deter people from buying. And when it happens, there will be uncertainty about future cuts. Although the government will probably do the cut once, this can play on the mind of potential buyers for a long time.'

Indeed, one does not have to look too far back to realise how irrational buying property really is, regardless of price and affordability.

'In the last two to three years, many people bought property thinking that prices would continue to rise,' remembers Chua Chor Hoon, DTZ Research senior director.

Interestingly, the opposite is also true.