Published September 29, 2008

Grade A office rents in CBD slide for first time in years

Average monthly rent at Raffles Place slips 1.4% to $17.64 psf in Q3


(SINGAPORE) Grade A office rents in Singapore's Central Business District (CBD) have declined for the first time since the office market troughed in 2004.

The average gross monthly Grade A rental value for the Raffles Place area slipped 1.4 per cent to $17.64 per square foot (psf) in the third quarter, from $17.89 psf in the preceding quarter, according to the latest data from Knight Frank.

The Suntec/Marina Centre/City Hall area led the declines in Grade A office rentals in Q3, with a 6.2 per cent quarter-on-quarter fall to $15.13 psf. In the Shenton Way/ Robinson Rd/Tanjong Pagar area, the drop was 2.8 per cent, followed by a 2.7 per cent decline along Orchard Road.

Knight Frank director (research and consultancy) Nicholas Mak said that he expects office rentals to continue declining by 14-19 per cent islandwide in the next 12 months (from current levels) as the global financial turmoil and possible mergers and acquisitions contribute to consolidation and reduction in office demand.

Giving her take on weakening office demand, DTZ executive director Ong Choon Fah said: 'Most companies are in cost containment mode and would be looking for ways to manage the increase in their accommodation costs. There has also been quite a lot of leakage of CBD office demand to business parks and vacant state properties converted to offices.'

Mrs Ong reckoned that headline office rents may not come down much but noted that leasing incentives like rent-free periods have started to reappear. Agreeing, an analyst said: 'Major landlords will try to maintain headline rents, because once rents come down, it affects their whole portfolio.'

Besides weaker demand for office space amid the financial turmoil, Knight Frank's Mr Mak attributed the softening rentals in Q3 to the government's efforts to increase office supply (including transitional office sites). 'In addition, landlords are more cognisant of the substantial supply of office space that will be completed from 2010 and have become more realistic and flexible in their rental expectation when it comes to lease negotiations; they want to hold on to their tenants and maintain their buildings' occupancy rates,' Mr Mak said.

The fall in the average Grade A Raffles Place rental value in Q3 marks the first quarterly decline since Q2 2004. This incipient weakening follows a rapid escalation in office rentals over the past two years on the back of tightening supply and strong demand from occupiers, including global financial institutions expanding their operations in Singapore. Average Grade A Raffles Place rents surged 82 per cent last year and that was on top of the 67 per cent gain posted in 2006, according to Knight Frank.

But it's a different story now. 'Since Q1 2008, there appears to be a crack in the growth momentum for office demand in the Downtown Core area due to external factors such as the US sub-prime crisis that began in the second half of last year,' said Mr Mak.

The slowdown in demand in the Downtown Core area - which includes the key office districts like Raffles Place/Marina Bay, Shenton Way and Marina Centre - and tapering off in rentals in Q3 does not come as a surprise, he adds. 'The tenants in this area are primarily financial institutions, many of which had already completed their expansion or consolidation plans over the last 24 months and some are adopting a more cautious approach by putting any further expansion plans on hold,' Mr Mak observed.

Knight Frank's data showed that Grade B offices in Singapore also experienced downward pressure on rentals in Q3. The biggest fall was in the Orchard Road location, where the average rent decreased 7.8 per cent quarter-on-quarter to $10.70 psf a month in Q3. Raffles Place and Shenton Way/ Robinson Rd/Tanjong Pagar Grade B offices were less impacted by easing office rentals and dipped by 1.8 per cent and 2 per cent quarter-on-quarter respectively.

As a whole, offices in non-CBD locations also mirrored the general slowdown in rental in Q3. Rentals continued to weaken for the Beach Road/Middle Road area, with a 3.4 per cent quarter-on-quarter drop. Suburban areas too met a similar fate with quarter-on-quarter rental decreases ranging from 1-8 per cent.

Looking ahead, Knight Frank said that in the short term, the beleaguered financial markets are expected to lead to many firms either postponing their expansion plans or consolidating their space usage. Restructuring at some organisations could lead to sub-letting of excess space to ease cashflow problems.