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You'd be forgiven for being confused by Singapore's residential property market.
Home prices are still falling, rents are tumbling, there's a substantial pipeline of new units in the works and vacancies are near a record high.
At the same time, developers are ponying up record prices in hotly contested land sales and this year, en bloc deals – where a developer buys an existing building with plans to demolish and redevelop – have already exceeded 2016's level.
So what gives?
Winston Lee, regional head of special projects for property website PropertyGuru and a Singapore landlord, said recently that the market was humming toward an inflection point, just with some notes out of sync.
For one, he noted transaction volumes were rising, with some new launches meeting with strong demand.
"Usually in a property cycle, in a down-cycle, the indicator of a bounce back does not start with price. It actually starts with the volume," Lee said. "So that volume bounce back sent a certain signal and also gives a confidence booster to the property developers that the market in Singapore might have a bottomed out."
Developers sold 2,962 units in the first quarter, excluding executive condominiums, which are a unique hybrid of public and private housing for Singaporeans with incomes exceeding public housing limits.
That total was up nearly 28 percent from 2,316 units sold in the fourth quarter, the highest take-up rate since 2013, while there were 2,170 resale transactions in the first quarter, up nearly 12 percent from 1,944 in the fourth quarter, government data showed.
One recent launch, Park Place Residences, sold its entire phase one, initially set at 40 percent of the 429-unit total before being raised to 50 percent, within a day.
Tay Kah Poh, head of residential services at real-estate consultancy Knight Frank, said last week that after three to four years of slow property sales, potential buyers likely were just tired of waiting on the sidelines.
Once the government moved in March to scale back some cooling measures, people jumped on the news, he said.
To an extent, that mirrors the experience of Singaporean Denis Gan, a chef, who picked up the keys to his public housing flat in January.
"Prices are quite reasonable and I found a place I liked," he said, noting that one key driver of his decision was that he just turned 35 years old, the age at which unmarried people are allowed to buy public housing flats on the secondary market.
While he still expected prices would fall further ahead, he didn't think it mattered for him because he would be living in the apartment and because he wanted to lock in a lower interest rate on a mortgage. Interest rates in Singapore are likely to rise in tandem with the U.S. Federal Reserve's expected interest rate increases.
In May, re-sale prices of public-housing apartments, which are restricted to Singaporeans and some permanent residents, subject to income caps, fell 0.1 percent on month, but the number of units sold in the secondary market climbed 8.1 percent over the same period, according to data from property website SRX Property.
Analysts have noted that many of the new buyers in the market appeared to be end-users, rather than investors.
At the same time that sales are rising however, prices continue to flounder.
In the first quarter, overall private home prices fell 0.4 percent on-quarter, the 14th straight quarter of declines, government data showed. This time around, however, the bulk of the decline was in relatively small landed property segment, while non-landed prices were steady.
In tiny, land-starved Singapore, there are relatively few single-family houses, with most housing units in multi-story buildings.
PropertyGuru's Lee said stagnant prices were a sign developers are pricing to sell in hopes of attracting buyers on the sidelines.
Developers will need to do a lot of attracting: At the end of the first quarter, there were nearly 37,000 of uncompleted private units in the pipeline and nearly 16,000 of those haven't been sold yet, government data showed.
The vacancy rate for completed units remained high at 8.1 percent at the end of the first quarter, although it had improved from the 16-year high of 8.9 percent touched in the second quarter of last year.
Those are figures that would seem to argue against developers plonking down high amounts for new sites.
Instead, land prices were hitting highs, suggesting developers were betting on a price recovery ahead, although some analysts weren't sure how well that gamble would play out.
In May, a joint venture between Hong Kong-listed Chinese developer Logan Property and China-based Nanshan Group Singapore put in the top bid, out of 13 offers, of 1.003 billion Singapore dollars ($724.8 million) for a site at Stirling Road, marking the first time a purely residential government land sale topped the S$1 billion mark. Nanshan Group didn't immediately return an emailed request for comment.
Suzie Mok, senior director for investment sales at real-estate services provider Savills, said that's because developers have largely refrained from buying land since the government introduced cooling measures on the sector, starting from 2011.
"Developers are very land hungry," with very little land-banking and very few government land sales set for this year, she said.
But Mok also noted that developers were likely to see thin margins, potentially falling below 10 percent, compared with the previously typical double-digit rates.
Analysts at Citi estimated that the net margin for the Stirling Road site at around 5 percent.
"Such risk-reward could only be justified on an assumption of higher selling prices. However, this assumption may be called into question should the government ramp up land supply in the second half of 2017," the Citi analysts said in a note last month.
However, a representative of Logan Property disputed Citi's margin estimate, pointing to an alternate analysis suggesting a 20 percent net margin.
"We reckon our bid is reasonable given the excellent location and the quality land site," the representative said via email.
Citi expected the government would increase the land supply later this year, given the "ferocity of bidding," which would also pressure development margins.
Analysts noted that some of developers' recent land-banking efforts suggested they were betting on significant price jumps by the time the developments were completed in several years.
For example, last week, Savills Singapore brokered an en bloc deal for a 1 Draycott Park, a building near the tony Orchard shopping area, for buyer Champsworth Development, a unit of Malaysian company Selangor Dredging.
The break-even price for the new development was expected to be around S$2,700-S$2,800 per square foot, Savills Singapore said. Selangor Dredging didn't immediately return an emailed request for comment.
The average per square foot price for Singapore units sold in May came in at S$1,281, with the upscale Orchard area seeing transactions for uncompleted units at around S$1,967-S$2,283 per square foot, according to data from Squarefoot Research.
For another recent en bloc sale, the Rio Casa development was purchased last month by a consortium of developers for S$575 million, which analysts at DBS noted was around 27 percent above the reported asking price.
In a note last month, the DBS analysts estimated that the breakeven price was around S$1,100 per square foot, with the sales price potentially above S$1,300 a square foot, compared with units in surrounding developments trading at S$700-S$1,030 a square foot in the first quarter.
Knight Frank's Tay said investors may expect higher land prices will re-rate the prices of existing properties in the vicinity higher.
"Will the market tolerate [the higher prices]? Time will tell," Tay said.
There are some nascent signs that prices could begin to recover, after falling more than 10 percent from their peak in the third quarter of 2013, but that doesn't guarantee the magnitude of gains that developers may be counting on.
SRX Research, part of SRX Property, a property website under the umbrella of Singapore Press Holdings, said on Wednesday that its preliminary data for May showed prices for private non-landed residential properties rose 1.5 percent on-year and 0.4 percent on-month.
Those price gains were concentrated in central areas, with prices in other areas still falling, the data showed.
That came along with a surge in resale volumes, with 1,235 non-landed private units changing hands in the secondary market in May, up 17.4 percent on-month and nearly 58 percent higher on-year, SRX Research's preliminary data showed.
In the public housing market, resale prices fell 0.1 percent on-month in May, but sales volumes rose 8.1 percent on-month, SRX Research data showed.
Knight Frank's Tay noted that one of the reasons for the high land and en bloc prices was the presence of foreign developers in the market.
He said foreign players are considering Singapore land prices in comparison with other global cities, such as London, Shanghai, Hong Kong and New York, which makes the city-state look relatively cheap, even as land prices rise.
Tay also pointed to Singapore's currency, which has remained fairly strong, making it an attractive bet for Chinese developers facing a at home.
A similar dynamic may be playing out with Malaysian developers, as the ringgit has also taken a hit over the past three years.
Eli Lee, an analyst at Singapore-based OCBC Bank, said the entire en bloc process may help to bolster prices.
"Under a typical en-bloc sale, homes are taken out of the physical supply for an extended period (as the old development gets demolished and redeveloped over four to seven years) while previous home owners, flush with cash and credit headroom, often re-enter the market rapidly to re-establish their exposure," he said in a note on Wednesday. "The general dynamics of collective sale transactions are systemically positive for the market."
He expected home prices would reach an inflection by 2018.
But even with improved property sales, analysts expected the ball would remain with tenants, not landlords for some time to come.
"As a landlord, I had my good run where I just raised rental every interval, but now I'm getting my payback by having to reduce the rental every renewal, " PropertyGuru's Lee said, noting that rental yields in the city-state were likely less than 2 percent.
"I still do not see the end of the tunnel," he said, noting that the government hasn't been allowing as much immigration into the city-state as it had previously, with the segment of the market's renters who are Singaporean "definitely not big."
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