Real Estate

Singapore rents driven lower despite rising numbers of foreign workers

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Singapore's residential rents are falling at a precipitous rate - and the reason could be a sea-change in the make-up of the city-state's expat workers.

The drops in Singapore's residential rents has - mistakenly - being attributed to the government turning off the spigot of foreign workers flowing into the country. In fact, the number of foreign workers continues to rise, with the figure, excluding domestic helpers, up more than 22,000 last year, according to data from the Ministry of Manpower. While the growth rate has certainly tapered down from a peak of nearly 149,000 added in 2008, those fresh additions will still be looking for housing.

But there's no mistaking that rents have come down, with the official rental price indexes showing declines in the neighborhood of 10 percent since 2013, while anecdotally, much larger drops are bandied about.

One landlord is citing a bigger drop. Alexander Karolik Shlaen, an economist and CEO of Panache Management, a luxury brands and real estate investment adviser, said a unit he owns has seen a rent drop of 40 percent, from 13,000 Singapore dollars (around $9,400) a month in 2008, down to under 8,000 Singapore dollars now.

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The sharp declines may be because while foreign workers are still flowing into the country, they don't appear to be quite as flush with cash as the previous waves.

"We are seeing more foreigners looking to rent," Kelly Tang Robinson, an agent with Land Vista Property Network told CNBC.

But she noted that their work has changed, with more workers from the pharmaceutical and chemical industries and far fewer from the well-paid financial sector.

"There's almost like zero relocation here [among bankers]," she said, noting that she's generally seeing some bankers already here seeking new apartments, but many are leaving the country.

The Ministry of Manpower declined to provide data on professions and salaries of arriving foreign workers.

But other agents have seen a shift in the makeup of arriving workers.

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At the high end of the market, Chandran V.R., managing director at luxury property agent CRE, said that previously, he saw more expatriates coming from the financial industry, but now "they're from everywhere."

Chandran also noted that he's seeing few expatriate clients with "packages" of benefits, which generally include paid housing, from their employer.

Rikvin Singapore, which helps companies set up shop in Singapore and apply for work permits, is also seeing fewer bankers.

"Banks themselves have cut out foreigners," said Satish Bakhda, chief operations officer at the company, noting that there has been signs the government has been pressing the sector to use local workers.

"With the banking economy not doing so well, it's better to use locals as they have to pay more for foreigners."

Several big international banks, such as Barclays and Nomura, have also been laying off workers globally, with some of those job cuts touching Singapore's financial sector.

Additionally, Bakhda noted that more workers are "leaving than coming" in Singapore's hard-hit oil sector amid the long downturn in crude prices.

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Bakhda believes new work permits for foreigners may be concentrated in the lower paid "S Pass" category, rather than the "employment pass" category. The minimum salary for an S Pass is at least 2,200 Singapore dollars a month, but employers must pay a levy to obtain one for their employee, while for an employment pass, the required monthly salary is at least 3,300 Singapore dollars or more if the employee is more experienced.

At the same time that the numbers of well-paid prospective tenants are growing more slowly, the number of housing units hitting the market is surging. Around 20,000 private residential units are set to be completed in the last three quarters of 2016, with around another 15,000 each in 2017 and 2018.

Rents are set to head even lower, with the numbers of new units exceeding the number of new arrivals, Chandran noted. Additionally, with some of those units' developers likely to rent the apartments if they can't be sold, tenant-seeking "owners are going to be competing with developers," he said.

While some top-end properties, such as landed bungalows, have held on to premium prices, landlords are offering "attractive prices" to keep units occupied, he said.

For example, Four Seasons Park, a condominium in tony District 10, saw a 2,200-2,300 square-foot unit rent for 7,800 Singapore dollars a month in April; that's down from some similarly sized units garnering over 10,000 Singapore dollars a month in 2013-15.

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—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1