Published July 25, 2007


Will property market see a repeat of 1996?

Industry watchers expect govt to take more calibrated approach this time round


THERE'S a sense of deja vu in the air for those of us who witnessed the last residential property boom in the 1990s. Record prices being reported by developers, an en bloc sale being attempted in just about every private estate, foreign buying at record levels, and subsales again in favour.

Even the government's approach to dealing with the situation seems reminiscent of 1996, according to some market watchers.

The Ministry of National Development and Urban Redevelopment Authority have been giving assurances lately that there will be sufficient supply of homes and that they will make more sites available, if necessary. And just like over a decade ago, MND and URA have recently been making public more information on the property market to provide greater transparency.

Flashback to the mid-90s. As far back as 1994, the government raised booking and forfeiture fees to curb speculative activity. But speculation picked up again and in January 1996, URA announced that the government had set aside enough land for 100,000 private homes for the five-year period from 1997 to 2001 - more than thrice the amount necessary to meet its target of releasing land for 6,000 private homes a year.

The following month, URA revealed the sales status (as defined by options granted by developers) of individual private residential projects, and said it would do this each quarter. This was to correct any wrong impression of high take-up rates.

Fast forward to 2007. Last month MND announced the biggest Government Land Sales (GLS) Programme with enough land for about 8,000 private homes.

Earlier this month, URA said that there were about 32,700 yet-to-be-sold private homes in uncompleted projects as of Q1 2007 - possibly enough to meet demand for the next three years.

On the transparency front, URA last week released for the first time information on the number of units sold for each uncompleted private residential project by price bracket, in the month of June. Such information will henceforth be released monthly.

But what if, like in 1996, such measures fail to calm the market?

The thing with the property market is that it is primarily sentiment driven. In a bull run, people may not heed reason and logic and are driven by fear and greed instead.

When the strategy of giving assurances of adequate supply and releasing more market information failed to stem speculation in 1996, the authorities were forced to announce a slew of measures on May 14 that year. These included taxing as income the gains made from selling properties within three years of purchase and introducing a sellers' stamp duty for those who sold residential properties within three years of purchase.

Financing was also clamped down. Banks could not make housing loans for more than 80 per cent of the purchase price or value of a property, whichever was lower. Permanent residents were limited to one Singapore dollar housing loan each while foreigners were denied such loans altogether.

All of the May 1996 anti-speculation measures were subsequently removed during the property doldrum.

To many market industry participants now, the writing is on the wall. They figure that the government may come up with measures to cool the market if the property bull run threatens Singapore's competitiveness.

However, the stakes are higher now. Many credit the current property boom to the government's efforts to promote Singapore, which have put Singapore on the radar screens of overseas property investors again, and its embrace of foreign talent and high net-worth individuals.

In short, many of the foreign investors in the local property market today were wooed by Singapore. Slapping a set of harsh measures might send out a negative message about Singapore as an investment destination as a whole.

Also, speculation is yet to reach the heady levels seen in 1996.

Some in the industry think a 'whisper campaign' by the government to tighten financing targeted at banks and developers may be less harsh and avoid a panic crash.

For example, banks could be asked to be more careful in screening housing loan applications. 'Maybe, instead of giving loans up to the maximum 90 per cent of the value of homes, they could limit this to 80 per cent. This will make people think twice before they pay record prices for homes,' reckons a seasoned industry observer.

Deferred payment schemes extended by developers could also be moderated or suspended, some industry players said. The ability to buy a property by making an initial payment of just 10 or 20 per cent of its value, with the next payment postponed to after the project is completed, makes things a whole lot easier for those thinking of flipping properties for a quick gain. Removing deferred payments should help take the froth from the market.

But there is a school of thought which believes that getting rid of the deferred payment, which often entails buyers paying 3 to 5 per cent more for the price of a home than under a progressive payment scheme, could crash the market.

Some suggest that taxing gains from selling properties within a short period of time may be a fairer way to contain the current exuberance. Those who make quick gains from flipping their properties should be prepared to part with a portion of their gain by paying income tax on it.

It remains to be seen if history will repeat itself.