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Inside Singapore's most extravagant homes, where fortunes are at stake

The outlook for Singapore's most exclusive properties is leaving property analysts and top agents at odds as market conditions and initial data points paint a conflicting picture.

Statistics collated by Singapore's Urban Redevelopment Authority and data from real estate services provider CBRE show high-end sales in the city-state have been modest for the first three months of the year, with just three Good Class Bungalow (GCB) transactions taking place, worth a combined 95.3 million Singapore dollars ($68.3 million).

"It's not really a surprise statistic," said Desmond Sim, head of research at CBRE Singapore and South East Asia. "Usually the first quarter is a little bit slow. It tends to run up a little bit more after the second quarter."

Good Class Bungalows are the most elite type of Singapore property and typically go to local magnates and ultra-high net worth Singaporean families. In fact, the government doesn't allow foreigners to own the properties.

This year's transaction figure is markedly down against the same quarter 2016, when nine GCB properties changed hands for a combined 208.7 million Singapore dollars ($149.6 million) in value.

"It might seem a little bit slow this year with only three. We remain relatively confident that the transactions will come in," said Sim.

The priciest transaction on available records occurred in February when Singapore's largest private property developer, Far East Organization, spent 43.8 million Singapore dollars ($31.4 million) to acquire a 39,000 square foot site at 16 King Albert Park.

February also saw 28 Jalan Kampong Chantek change hands for 27.59 million Singapore dollars ($19.8 million), and a local tycoon purchased a GCB along Garlick Avenue for 23.8 million Singapore dollars ($17.1 million).

The good life

With approximately 2,500 GCBs available for purchase on the island, the restricted supply of prime land means GCB properties typically command a higher price even in weaker market conditions.

"It's the crème-de-la-crème," said Sim. "It's always something that Singaporean's would yearn for."

The government has allocated 39 precise areas on the island for the luxury landed properties and stipulates strict planning and ownership rules to safeguard the exclusivity of the estates.

Interior of a Singapore GCB, address withheld. Source: Dan Murphy | CNBC

"You can't have new supply," said Sim.

"We are seeing big size GCBs being chopped up into smaller sizes. So to have a relatively good size, more than 15,000 square feet, is a rarity."

GCB prices will flatline 2017, according to CBRE Research, which forecasts 30 to 35 such homes will be sold during the year. The firm said home-owners and investors will be more motivated to preserve capital and wait for market sentiment to improve.

"Investors will be cautious in 2017 as the market anticipates more uncertainty around employment, interest rates and the global economy," CBRE said in a recent note.

The sale of GCBs accelerated in the second half of 2016, with investors taking advantage of softer prices. A total of 37 GCBs were sold that year, accounting for 788.53 million Singapore dollars ($565.3 million). It was the best performance in four years, according to data from CBRE.

In fact, GCB sales are still below the record level reached in 2010, when a total of 132 properties changed hands, worth a staggering 2.36 billion Singapore dollars ($1.69 billion).

Source: CBRE

The largest deal in 2016 was the sale of prime sites near Eden Hall, the official residence of the British High Commissioner, located near the exclusive enclave of Nassim Road. Developer OUE Limited paid 56.58 million Singapore dollars ($40.6 million) with the possible intention of developing two GCBs onsite.

Show me the money

While CBRE called for flat prices at the top end of the landed market, luxury agents like Samuel Eyo of Singapore Christie's International Real Estate said investors are still taking note of big ticket items outside the GCB market.

The top agency is currently listing a six bedroom, seven bathroom home on Singapore's exclusive Sentosa Island. Dubbed the Copper House, it sits on more than 18,000 square feet of land and boasts panoramic ocean views.

The Copper House on Sentosa Island.
Courtesy Singapore Christie’s International
The Copper House on Sentosa Island.

"The asking price isn't very high, it's only Singapore dollar 48 million ($34.4 million)," Eyo said.

The local businessman who owns the property isn't in a hurry to sell, but won't settle for a low price, the agent said.

"He's asking a very reasonable price," said Eyo. "We are not struggling to find a buyer."

Eyo said he's seeing a lot of foreigners come into Singapore to view the property, which is advertised as far away as Russia through the Christie's International network. Since the property came to market last year, he estimates seven groups of people have come to the house for a viewing.

The Copper House on Sentosa Island.
Courtesy Singapore Christie’s International
The Copper House on Sentosa Island.

The Copper House has boat facilities, a massage treatment room and a private putting green. A core feature of the home is the wine cellar on the second floor, which is accessible only via a passcode lock and has enough space for 2,000 bottles.

The big chill

Singapore's efforts to curb property speculation in an environment of low global interest rates have been effective, with house prices falling in each of the last three years and housing loan growth slowing steadily since 2011, according to Fitch Research.

"The impact contrasts with Hong Kong, where macro-prudential tightening began around the same as in Singapore, but prices have continued to rise and mortgage growth has shown no clear downward trend," the firm said in a recent research note.

Private residential property prices in Singapore decreased by 0.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2016, according to the URA. For the whole of 2016, prices fell 3.1 percent, compared with the 3.7 percent decline in 2015.

Here's what property prices have looked like for Singapore, according to the URA:

Local property firms have felt the pinch of the cooling measures, but realtors said they are encouraged by the most recent review to the government policy.

"The cooling measures had lowered demand and curbed speculation, resulting in less transactions," said Markus Tay, managing director at the Singapore-based Luxe Property Group, which lists GCBs and luxury condos for sale across the island.

"Before the introduction of [Additional Buyer's Stamp Duty] and Sellers Stamp Duty (SSD), there were more transactions. Now, sales volumes are lower," he told CNBC in an email.

Tay said he believes more buyers will be entering the market to pick up good deals.

"Recently, the government lowered the seller's stamp duty by 4 percentage points for each tier. This has helped to improve market sentiment, as many believe that more cooling measures will be eased," he added.

Tay said he made five deals between January and the end of March in the upmarket district of Ardmore Park, each worth at least 8.5 million Singapore dollars ($6.1 million).

"This is a very high number in a quarter. 2017 will be a very good year for high-end property market with demand picking up," he said.

Despite that optimism, Fitch Ratings still predicts home prices are likely to continue falling amid oversupply and rising interest rates.

"The latest changes are unlikely to have a significant impact on Singapore's housing market. Macro-prudential settings are still tight, while high vacancy ratios, a slower pace of immigration, subdued economic conditions and a weakening labor market are all likely to continue weighing on prices," the firm said.

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