Wednesday, January 28, 2009

US Housing Market May Have Turned A Corner, Say Analysts

Source : The Business Times, January 28, 2009

They point to rise in existing home sales, shrinking inventory in December

(NEW YORK) The coast-to-coast fire sale in the US housing market appears at long last to have caught a bit of a bid.

Yes, residential real estate remains in the throes of the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Yes, home prices are the lowest in six years and still falling. And yes, it still takes three quarters of a year to sell a house.

Why rent when you can buy? Home sales rose 6.5% to 4.74 million units in December from 4.45 million in November. Prices have dropped so much in some areas that monthly mortgage payments are comparable to rents.

Nevertheless, the market may have turned a pivotal corner last month, if a surprising increase in existing home sales is any guide.

Until now, plunging home prices have been keeping many potential home buyers at bay because they were leery of buying an asset that was all but guaranteed to lose value, at least initially.

Now, though, prices appear to have fallen enough in some regions to make buying cheaper than renting, particularly in the West. And with record low mortgage rates, demand has started to rebound.

'You can now own a home in several areas for less than it costs to rent,' said Mollie Carmichael, senior vice-president with John Burns Real Estate Consulting, an Irvine, California-based consultant to the real estate industry.

In Southern California, home sales jumped 50.5 per cent from the year earlier as median prices fell 34.6 per cent to US$278,000 and buyers snapped up foreclosed properties, MDA DataQuick said last week.

Home prices have dropped so much in some areas of California that monthly mortgage payments on single-family detached homes are comparable to apartment rents.

Ms Carmichael said that in California's foreclosure-plagued Inland Empire, Riverside and San Bernardino counties east of Los Angeles, the average monthly rent for an apartment is US$1,157 and the average after-tax monthly mortgage payment on a median-priced single-family detached home is US$1,154 - and is projected to decline to US$979 by mid-year.

And while distressed properties account for an abundance of sales around the country, the trend is nevertheless helping assuage one of the market's biggest banes: a huge supply of unsold homes.

Existing home sales across the United States rose 6.5 per cent to an annual rate of 4.74 million units in December from a rate of 4.45 million in November, a National Association of Realtors report showed on Monday.

That said, in 2008, existing home sales fell 13.1 per cent to 4.91 million units - the lowest since 1997.

The median national home price fell 15.3 per cent from the year earlier to US$175,400, the largest decline since the association started keeping records in 1968 and probably the largest since the Great Depression, Lawrence Yun, its chief economist, told reporters.

'The report confirms our forecast that sales have bottomed,' said Celia Chen, senior director of housing economics at Moody's in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

'The price discounting on foreclosures is helping draw down on inventories, particularly in the West where lower prices are helping pull in new buyers,' she said.

The lowest mortgage rates in decades are another driver.

Interest rates on the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 5.12 per cent for the week ending Jan 22, nearly one percentage point lower than where they were in late November, according to Freddie Mac.

A week before, mortgage rates were 4.96 per cent, which was the lowest since Freddie Mac started surveying them in 1971.

The National Association of Realtors said inventory of existing homes for sale fell 11.7 per cent to 3.68 million units in December from 4.16 million in November, translating into 9.3 months of supply.

'But, six months is the natural rate of inventories, so supply remains high,' Moody's's Ms Chen said.

'Nevertheless, the fact that inventory is shrinking is good news,' she said. -- Reuters

Asian Property Market Volatility Expected To Continue

Source : The Business Times, January 28, 2009

(HONG KONG) Asia property stocks are definitely out of fashion in 2009, but brave contrarian investors may find dabbling in Japanese landlords or Chinese developers could pay off.

Asia property markets are slumping in the same way they did after the 1997-98 financial crisis and probably will not recover until 2010, with home prices in Singapore and Hong Kong forecast to slide 20-25 per cent this year as the global economy weakens.

But a strong rebound in property counters across the region towards the end of 2008, even as developers reported slumps in home sales, suggests investors will buy if they see deep value.

More bad economic news in Asia, such as waning exports, would spark flurries of broad market selloffs, but also give investors with longer-term investment views a chance to hunt for bargains.

'The market's divided on whether stock prices will make new lows in 2009, but we expect volatility to continue,' said Adam Upton, who helps manage the JF Asia Property Fund in Hong Kong.

'In this environment the fund will look to take advantage of near-term trading opportunities.' The JF Asia Property Fund is keen to trade volatile Chinese property stocks, but is underweight on Australia and mostly neutral on other markets in the region.

Asian property stocks have risen more than 30 per cent from lows in late 2008. Chinese shares led the way with a 70 per cent surge after Beijing unveiled measures to aid the ailing sector, even though many analysts believe government efforts to build mass-housing will undercut listed developers.

Investment house CLSA is neutral or negative on all Asian property markets but likes Hong Kong property trust Link Reit and some property trusts in Japan, as well as office landlord NTT Urban Development Link Reit has been billed as recession-proof because many retailers in its shopping malls sell necessities ranging from rice to toothpaste, unlike swanky new malls where retailers are struggling as consumers cut spending on expensive items. Tokyo's office market, seen by some as the last stronghold for property investors in the recession-hit economy, is expected to stay resilient because of a shortage of top-notch buildings.

Even with vacancies creeping up, rents for existing contracts will decline only slightly, and not until 2010, according to CLSA. Landlords reacted slowly to a climb in office values in the last four years and are still able to nudge rents up this year. Asian developers learnt the lessons of overbuilding in the 1997-98 crisis, and only Singapore has a large supply of new office blocks coming onto the market in the next few years.

'We have less of an issue of supply,' said Frankie Lee, fund manager with Henderson Global Investor in Singapore. 'It's all about demand and whether the growth will pick up later this year, after all the government stimulus take effect.'

Analysts warn investors to steer clear of Hong Kong and Singapore office landlords as both cities will be hit hard by the global trade slowdown and upheaval in financial markets. -- Reuters

Help For Cash-Strapped Home Buyers

Source : The Business Times, January 28, 2009

But developers will be judicious in granting payment extensions, and even sue those trying to walk away

Some developers are considering granting payment extensions to their home buyers if they face difficulty paying up when the projects get Temporary Occupation Permit (TOP), BT understands. Buyers on the deferred payment scheme (DPS) will have to pay up the chunk of the purchase price then.

Developers may give buyers a longer period to pay, or work out an instalment programme for them to complete the purchase of their units.

It is still early days but BT understands a few developers are prepared for this eventuality for projects in Sentosa and Districts 9 and 10.

A seasoned developer said: 'I think if the buyer demonstrates good faith that he intends to pay up eventually (by committing to make regular payments), developers should try to be sympathetic. The whole idea is to get buyers to commit more than the 20 per cent they've paid so far under DPS. If they're able to do this, it's better than taking them to court.

'There's not much point taking financially-strapped buyers to court and suing them for specific performance to make them complete their purchase at the contracted price. The most is, we'll make them bankrupt. It doesn't serve our purpose.'

Some developers could already be letting buyers send in their payments late. A banker who handles property investments for overseas buyers said that in some cases developers were letting his clients send them cheques for their homes three or four months late. 'They are not chasing them for the money,' he said.

Frasers Centrepoint Homes chief operating officer Cheang Kok Kheong told BT the group has two residential projects for TOP in Q3 2009 - One Jervois and One St Michael's. 'Based on the prices at which we sold to DPS customers and the current market prices, there's still a comfortable gap in favour of our DPS buyers. If buyers have difficulty getting loans, from an economic viewpoint, the best thing to do would be to sell their units in the market,' he said. Frasers Centrepoint did not extend DPS to subsale buyers.

'Generally, I think most projects that TOP this year would have been launched in 2006 or early 2007 before the market peaked, so assuming developers offered DPS to primary market buyers only, the DPS buyers should still be comfortable. Of course a lot will depend on how home prices fare this year. But DPS buyers in projects that will TOP in 2010 may face some difficulty,' Mr Cheang added.

Analysts say not all developers may be able to help troubled buyers. If problem cases are few, developers may use existing cashflow to accommodate payment extensions. But if the incidence is widespread, developers may need the support of their own banks before they can give more breathing room to buyers.

Repayment plans will also have to be customised according to buyers' circumstances and they'll have to prove they're in financial difficulty.

Developers are entitled to pocket interest on any late payments from buyers beyond a 14-day deadline, under the prescribed Sale & Purchase Agreement for private properties. The interest is calculated on a daily basis at the rate of 2 per cent above the average of the prevailing prime lending rates of the three local banks. However, a spokeswoman for the Urban Redevelopment Authority said it is up to the developer to exercise his contractual right. 'That is, the developer may waive the interest for late payment, in full or in part, if he wishes to,' she added.

Developers say they'll be judicious in granting payment extensions. 'In some cases, we'll sue for specific performance, if the buyers aren't in financial difficulty and are just trying to walk away from the deal,' the seasoned developer added.

City Developments Ltd (CDL), which expects City Square Residences to obtain TOP this year, told BT that 'to date, only a small number of DPS clients have approached us for help'.

'While these clients have a legal obligation to fulfil the terms under the contract, for cases which are genuine, we've tried our best to help. We have referred to banks loyal CDL customers and those with good financial track records. We also offer other forms of assistance where appropriate on a case-by-case basis,' a CDL spokeswoman said.

DTZ's senior director (research) Chua Chor Hoon advises buyers facing hardship to inform developers early to try and work out some instalment schedule rather than keeping mum.

Developers are also weighing other options, including asking buyers if they'd like to exchange their units for smaller ones (if any unsold units are available) to reduce their financial commitment. Some developers are also prepared to help buyers find tenants to help them generate cashflow on their investment. Far East Organization, for example, has an in-house leasing team to find tenants for properties. The scheme was launched in 2006, and could well gain some impetus during these hard times. Other developers have been helping DPS buyers get loans by introducing them to their bankers.

Already, innovative financing schemes that mimic DPS (which was scrapped in October 2007) are aplenty as developers try to make their homes more appealing. At Roxy Homes' Nova 88, the developer has tied up with OCBC Bank to absorb the interest rate due from buyers during the construction period. Buyers, having secured a bank loan, need not make any payment to the bank until the TOP. Then, the buyer will have to start making loan payments.

'Buyers expect these kind of schemes now,' said Teo Hong Lim, chief executive of listed Roxy-Pacific, the parent company of Roxy Homes. 'Those projects that don't offer such schemes are at a disadvantage,' he added. A market watcher estimated that up to 90 per cent of projects launched in recent months offer some variation of this scheme.