Even though sales are healthy, prices are far below the peak last year
A YEAR after it started, the recession to end all recessions has yet to hit bottom officially.
But private home buyers in Singapore don't seem to care. Since February, they have been snapping up almost as many homes each month as during the frenzy of 2007.
The strong demand has caught even property veterans by surprise, and set off furious discussions among property-obsessed Singaporeans.
Their million-dollar question: is this rally for real?
Opinion is divided. For every analyst proclaiming a sunny recovery, there is another warning of a false dawn.
To recap: after a hiatus of several months following the credit crunch last year, the property sector came back to life in February with unexpectedly healthy sales of new condominiums.
Even the stock market collapse in March didn't deter buyers of new homes, who picked up more than 1,000 units that month for the second time in a row - 10 times what was sold at the low point in October last year. The buying momentum has held steady since then, despite more doomsayers predicting anew each month that the numbers are unsustainable.
Interest in new homes has spilled over to resale homes in the secondary market - which clocked a 70 per cent increase in sales in the second quarter over the first - as well as the harder-hit luxury home segment, where sellers are starting to turn a profit again.
As confidence in the property market builds up, boom times seem to have returned to the showflats. At the recent launch of One Devonshire in Somerset, the two-bedders were so much in demand that buyers had to ballot for them.
Agents for the upcoming Ascentia Sky project in Redhill have begun to take orders - and cheques - even before the showflat opens in the coming weeks.
There is certainly no denying that the property market is faring much better than expected, given that in the first quarter of this year, the economy contracted a record 10.1 per cent and shed the most number of jobs since Sars in 2003.
But some industry veterans, such as Knight Frank managing director Danny Yeo, are reluctant to call the increased buying activity a true rally. Even though sales are up, prices generally are not.
Between April and June, even as buyers returned to the market, the price index for private homes dropped 6 per cent, according to estimates released by the Urban Redevelopment Authority on Wednesday. Prices have now fallen for four straight quarters and are about 25 per cent off their peak last year.
Experts say that demand for private homes is returning precisely because prices have nosedived. They plunged a precipitous 14.1 per cent in the first quarter, the biggest drop in history.
This is a far cry from 2007's property boom, when some developers raised prices for their projects multiple times in a single weekend.
Some consultants believe the price index is lagging and will show a slight increase when all the second-quarter sales are taken into account at the end of the month. Wednesday's estimates are mostly based on deals done in April and May.
But even if this happens, the index isn't expected to keep rising. Analysts say a sustained increase in the price index that develops into a full-blown rally by the end of the year is unlikely.
A more probable scenario is a plateau: prices and sales stabilising at their current levels for the next few months, with occasional moderate dips or increases, until there is more certainty about the economic outlook next year.
Would-be buyers hoping for another crash in the market are likely to be disappointed unless a major shock takes place, such as a delayed economic recovery, a stock market collapse, or the H1N1 virus turning more deadly, analysts say.
In fact, many dire predictions trumpeted by bears have failed to materialise. Fewer expatriates have left the country than expected. Unemployment is below the all-time high in 2003.
Home-owners and buyers are still able to afford their properties, especially as they have lowered their debt levels and increased their savings. The surprisingly low level of mortgagee sales so far this year - half of that during the Asian Financial Crisis - seems to bear this out.
Concern about oversupply of new homes crashing prices have abated in the light of the robust take-up of recent launches. Instead, low interest rates are encouraging buyers to take up mortgages.
The gravity-defying rise in HDB resale flat prices, which hit an all-time high in the second quarter, provides a firm floor for prices of mass market condos and helps support all the other price levels.
On the other hand, sellers who hope to hold out for a marked improvement in prices, could end up waiting a long time.
For one thing, the stock market resurgence appears to be tapering off, as sentiment gives way to the sobering fundamentals of an uncertain economic recovery, underscored by still-rising unemployment in the United States.
Anecdotally, buyers are also still price-sensitive, a further sign of the fragility of their confidence, although more seem willing to jump on the buying bandwagon for fear of rising prices in future.
Demand may also be limited. Most buyers now are owner-occupiers who were shut out of the 2007 market surge and are unleashing their pent-up demand. When this runs out, sellers and developers will be relying on investors and foreigners to pick up the slack, which may not happen as rentals are expected to continue falling with more homes being completed.
Then there is the deferred payment scheme. Properties sold via the scheme reach completion this year and next, and analysts fear some buyers will dump their units when full payments are due.
In the near term - say, six months - the market should be stable, given that supply and demand factors seem more or less balanced at this point.
But Singapore's sentiment-driven property market has seldom been rational and hardly predictable, as the last six months have shown.
So it ultimately comes down to which typical Singaporean home-buyer behaviour wins out: the panic of being left out of a property boom, or the fear of buying now and being left high and dry if there is a slump.
Source: Straits Times, 4 July 2009