Thursday, April 30, 2009

Will DC complicate the green push?

Reverting to the 50% formula might be timely

NEW incentives rolled out this week to support the greening of Singapore's buildings have once again put the spotlight on the formula for calculating development charges (DC).

For instance, the Building and Construction Authority and Urban Redevelopment Authority will offer bonus Gross Floor Area (GFA) of up to one per cent of total GFA capped at 2,500 square metres to developers that construct new buildings which attain Green Mark Gold Plus rating.

For new projects that achieve the top Platinum rating, a higher bonus GFA of up to 2 per cent capped at 5,000 sq m will be granted as incentive.

The bonus GFA is not free; DC is payable.

URA has also announced a new incentive to promote skyrise greenery. It will allow additional GFA for existing buildings within key activity corridors in the Orchard and Downtown Core planning areas.

The additional space can be used for outdoor refreshment areas on the rooftop level if owners provide rooftop landscaping for their developments. Again, DC is payable for this bonus GFA.

Unfortunately the way DC has been calculated since a formula change in July 2007 could diminish the attactiveness of these incentives. The current DC formula creams off 70 per cent of the appreciation in land value that arises from changing the use of a site or putting more GFA on it.

The previous DC formula, which was effective between 1985 and July 2007, creamed off 50 per cent of the enhancement in land value. A point to note is that prior to 1985, DC rates had also been based on the 70 per cent formula, until they were adjusted to 50 per cent during the 1985 recession.

With Singapore in the throes of a slump currently, many property industry players have called on the government to reinstate the 50 per cent formula.

After all, in 1985, the authorities deemed it fit to cut the DC rate to 50 per cent because of the recession and the same should apply now as Singapore is going through its worst recession.

Another reason to argue for a restoration of the 50 per cent DC formula is that sharing the appreciation in land value equally between government and private land owner - instead of developers being forced to surrender 70 per cent of the enhancement to the state - would be a fairer policy. Developers have to be given sufficient incentive to bear the risk of development.

Now, there's an extra reason why it would be timely for the government to reinstate the previous DC formula: to spur developers to attain higher Green Mark ratings for their buildings and promote skyrise greenery on the island. According to BCA data, it costs 2-8 per cent more to develop a building to attain the top Platinum standard and the payback period for this is between two and eight years.

For developments built to the second-highest Green Mark standard of Gold Plus, the green cost premium is 1-3 per cent and the payback period is 2-6 years.

Having to pay a lower DC rate on the bonus GFA would lessen the cost burden to developers keen on building new projects that attain the top two Green Mark ratings.

Some observers have suggested that even if the government refuses to restore the old 50 per cent DC formula, it should at least consider using this formula for computing DC for the bonus GFA under the new schemes announced this week.

But having different DC rates for different purposes may complicate things. Retaining the current uniform DC rate would be desirable but a reversion to the old 50 per cent formula would be a timely move for the government to give developers more bang for their buck to invest in green buildings.
It will also allow the government to get maximum effect from its newly minted schemes to promote Sustainable Development in Singapore.

Source: Business Times, 30 April 2009

Rooftop landscaping gets $8m boost

NParks launches 3-year co-funding scheme; URA starts landscaping for urban spaces plan

(SINGAPORE) Hot on the heels of a sustainable development blueprint released on Monday, the National Parks Board (NParks) yesterday announced a three-year $8 million scheme to co-fund rooftop landscaping in the city.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) also launched its landscaping for urban spaces and high-rises (Lush) programme to help meet the blueprint's goal of creating another 50 hectares of 'sky-rise' greenery by 2030.

'Despite Singapore being land scarce, greenery can be pervasive in our urban spaces,' said URA chief executive Cheong Koon Hean. From September this year, NParks will give cash incentives to owners who install green roofs on existing buildings in the downtown and Orchard planning areas. The scheme will first target low- to mid-rise developments that are highly visible, and those surrounded by little street-level greenery.

NParks hopes to create nine hectares of green roofs over the next three years. The incentives will cover up to half of installation costs, capped at $75 per sq m. According to the agency, the typical cost of installing a green roof ranges from $150-$180 per sq m.

Gardens on the roof cost more than those on the ground for every square metre, said Singapore Institute of Landscape Architects' president Henry Steed. 'But once you have built it, the asset is there and the land usable, whereas a plain roof is not.'

In conjunction with NParks' scheme, URA will offer owners who install green roofs bonus gross floor area (GFA) above the master plan permissible intensity. The additional space - limited to half of the roof area or 200 sq m, whichever is lower - can be used for outdoor refreshment areas.

Developers will have to pay a development charge (DC) or differential premium, but URA believes the bonus GFA offer is sufficiently attractive.

The current DC calculation formula creams off 70 per cent of the enhancement in land value, but 'there's still a 30 per cent gain for developers,' said URA's urban design deputy director Cheng Hsing Yao.

The GFA incentive scheme is part of URA's Lush programme, which includes other existing and revised measures to enhance the urban landscape.

For instance, developers applying to exclude sky terraces from GFA computations now have to submit detailed plans on landscaping and communal facilities at the terraces.

Developers housing car parks within raised decks must also put up earth berms for plants on at least 60 per cent of each side of the deck wall, and should surround the area with see-through fences rather than solid walls.

In the strategic areas of the Downtown Core, including Marina Bay, Kallang Riverside and Jurong Gateway, new developments also have to put in place 'sky-rise' greenery or ground-level landscaping equivalent to the site area in size.

For very small plots where buildings have to be tall to maximise the plot ratio, 'replacement is typically not too difficult,' said Singapore Institute of Architects immediate past-president Tai Lee Siang.

Both Mr Steed and Mr Tai believe more can be done to promote urban greenery.

Mr Steed, for instance, envisions it will ultimately be possible for all roofs to have green features ranging from gardens, water catchment areas and even mini-farms.

Source: Business Times, 30 April 2009

MCL Land net profit 72% down

MCL Land yesterday reported a 72 per cent dive in its net profit for the three months ended March 31, amid subdued market sentiment.

Its net profit was US$1.4 million (S$2.1 million), down from US$5 million a year earlier, even as revenue rose from US$400,000 to US$8.3 million.

The developer's revenue was mainly due to the sale of five high-end units at The Fernhill, which was completed last month.

Its revenue and profit would have been US$31 million and US$9.3 million higher, respectively, if the en bloc buyer of the remaining 20 Fernhill units had paid in full by the due date.

Under the sale and purchase agreement, it has to wait a few more days for the China investor to pay up before it can serve him notice to repudiate the agreement.

'The outlook for the residential property markets in Singapore and Malaysia remains uncertain, despite the recent pick-up in sales of mass market residential properties in Singapore,' said chairman Y. K. Pang.

Still, it expects to benefit from the completion of Tierra Vue in the second quarter and Hillcrest Villa by the fourth quarter.

Waterfall Gardens and D'Pavillion - where 28 per cent of the 50 units has been sold as of March 31 - should be completed next year. The Peak @ Balmeg, which has sold 25 per cent of its 180 units, will follow in 2011.

The firm's net debt fell from US$181 million at the end of last year to US$161 million. Earnings per share were 0.38 US cents, down from 1.36 US cents a year earlier. Net asset value per share was at US$1.01, down from US$1.06 at the end of last year.

MCL Land had already written down the value of its development properties for sale by US$180.2 million when it posted a net loss of US$107.3 million for the year ended Dec 31, 2008.

Yesterday, its shares closed four cents up at $1.14.

Source: Straits Times, 30 April 2009

More 'sky gardens' set to blossom

EXPECT to see more 'gardens in the sky' in Singapore, especially in areas like Orchard Road, Raffles Place and along the Singapore River.

A new plan launched yesterday by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) makes it a must for new developments coming up in several areas from December to have landscaping.

This can take the form of rooftop gardens, planter boxes and sky terraces on the upper levels.

Developers will also be encouraged to landscape their grounds.

The areas affected by this new ruling are the Downtown Core - which encompasses Raffles Place, Shenton Way, and Marina Centre - along the Kallang River, and Jurong Gateway, the upcoming commercial hub in the west.

Existing buildings will not be left out.

Those in Orchard Road and the business district will be allowed to open outdoor refreshment areas on their rooftops. To do this, they will be given additional gross floor area of half the roof area or up to 200 sq m.

This complements a programme launched on Monday by the Building Construction Authority (BCA) and URA. Under it, private buildings which are eco-friendly enough to achieve high standards under BCA's Green Mark scheme get additional gross floor area.

The new URA initiative, launched yesterday, is called Landscaping for Urban Spaces and High-Rises (Lush), and is part of a national sustainability blueprint launched by an inter-ministerial committee on Monday.

The blueprint sets national targets for pollution standards, energy usage and green areas over the next 20 years, and aims to create a more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient nation.

In addition to the Lush programme, the National Parks Board also announced yesterday an $8 million fund that developers can tap to create rooftop gardens on existing buildings.

To be launched in September, the fund will offset up to $75 per sq metre for landscaping costs - about half the $150 to $180 per sq m usually charged by gardening companies.

Landlords in the Orchard Road and downtown areas can apply to the fund.

In announcing the plans yesterday, the URA said that encouraging private developers to include greenery in their buildings is becoming increasingly important as Singapore becomes more built up.

Developers that The Straits Times spoke to yesterday welcomed the moves, but had suggestions to make the scheme more attractive as URA had said that the the usual development charges (DC) would apply.

The DC rate is pegged at 70 per cent of a building's enhanced land value.

Managing director of City Developments Kwek Leng Joo felt that while developers can make use of the additional area, they would have to grapple with the additional costs.

'We would suggest that the DC rate be pegged at the previous rate of 50 per cent instead of the current 70 per cent, which most developers find too high.

'This could make the incentive more attractive and effective to help the policy take off quickly,' he said.

Source: Straits Times, 30 April 2009

Huge demand for flats at The Peak

DEMAND for flats at The Peak @ Toa Payoh, a condo-like public housing, has been overwhelming.

When the developer closed its office at 6pm yesterday, there were already 2,900 applications for the 1,203-unit project.

This means there were roughly five applications for every two units. The final number might even be higher as electronic applications closed only at midnight last night.

The project at Lorong 1A Toa Payoh comes under the design, build and sell scheme (DBSS), and offers premium condo-like fittings.

This project by a Hoi Hup-led consortium is being sold by ballot. Unlike private condominiums, these projects do not have facilities such as swimming pools and gymnasiums.

Observers say the demand is surprising given that for the same price, buyers are spoilt for choice in the current lacklustre market.

Source: Straits Times, 29 April 2009

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Work begins on S'pore's 10th expressway

Completion due 2013; it is first road tunnel under the sea

(SINGAPORE) The Land Transport Authority (LTA) broke ground yesterday on the construction of Singapore's first road tunnel under the sea, the Marina Coastal Expressway (MCE).

The new expressway, slated for completion in 2013, will connect the Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway (KPE) and the East Coast Parkway (ECP) to the Ayer Rajah Expressway (AYE).

'The MCE underscores the government's commitment to continue investing in Singapore's road network,' Transport Minister Raymond Lim said at the ground-breaking ceremony.

'The MCE will be our 10th expressway, after the KPE which opened last year. We will continue to invest in road infrastructure for the future, within the constraints of our limited land space. By 2020, we will complete the North South Expressway (NSE), which will provide an additional route from the north to the city.'

The 5 km MCE is the most ambitious project undertaken by the LTA and involves the widest road tunnel in Singapore, with five lanes going in each direction.

A 420 m section of the expressway will be beneath the sea bed. At its deepest point, it will be about 20 m below mean sea level. Some 13.1 ha of land will be reclaimed for the project - 9.1 ha at Marina Wharf and 4 ha at Marina East.

Singapore's 10th expressway is also notable for another superlative - it will be the country's most expensive expressway, with the value of contracts awarded so far coming up to $4.1 billion.

Exceeding a budgeted figure of $2.5 billion, based on lower construction and engineering costs in 2006, the contracts awarded so far comprise six major civil contracts and four major system-wide contracts. One minor civil contract and three other system-wide contracts are still to be awarded.

In comparison, Singapore's second most expensive expressway, the KPE, cost $1.8 billion to build.

According to LTA, some of cost of the MCE may be recovered if the prices of materials fall, due to a price fluctuation clause in contracts.

Apart from higher tender prices, construction of the MCE in difficult ground and soil conditions, as well as additional safety requirements for the sub-sea tunnel, added to the overall cost.

Construction will take place in soft clay that runs as deep as 60 m in some places.

'Soft clay is not very good for construction,' said Chuah Han Leong, LTA's director of the MCE project. 'It is like working with toothpaste. So we have to conduct extensive ground improvement to enhance the safety of the excavation.'

Planning for the MCE was done with an eye on property values. To increase the development potential of prime land in Marina Bay, the section of the ECP that runs through Marina South will be realigned and downgraded to an arterial road.

'The MCE will add to the long-term growth of Singapore and increase accessibility to the Marina Bay downtown area,' said LTA chief executive Yam Ah Mee.

Source: Business Times, 29 April 2009

Developers meet valuers in search for common ground

Finger pointed at banks as some buyers struggle to raise enough loans

(SINGAPORE) Developers last week held a meeting with valuers amid recent complaints in some quarters that conservative valuations have derailed some home sale deals as potential buyers could not secure the required loan quantum from banks.

BT understands that the valuers disagreed with the developers that their valuations had been too conservative, and that it was the banks that were just not lending.

'Generally, if there are transactions, we'll match (with valuations). It's the banks that are more cautious about lending to certain profiles of borrowers like investors, especially if they are foreigners,' a valuer told BT.

The valuers also raised issues that they had been facing in recent months, such as a dearth of comparable transactions, and explained the methods that they use to arrive at valuations in such situations.

'We explained that some banks require valuers to look at three comparable transactions, and how we generally do not take into account outlier transactions that may perhaps reflect 'depressed' prices,' another valuer said.

Sources say that the meeting was amicable, drawing more than 20 valuers and heads of property consulting groups and the executive committee members of the Real Estate Developers Association of Singapore led by its president, Simon Cheong.

When contacted, a Redas spokesman said: 'We wanted to better understand issues that valuers may have in their day-to-day valuation and what else the profession may need from developers to enable them to give (as) updated and relevant (a) valuation as possible.

'The discussions were general in nature and discrepancies in valuations in some instances were highlighted and analysed. Valuers shared with us some of the constraints they are facing such as the lack of or insufficient comparable sales data and other issues.

'The session was fruitful as it helped us understand one another better and we agreed to look into areas where communication and interaction could be improved upon.'

A property consultant told BT that he found it odd that the same banks that were willing to give a 75 per cent or 80 per cent loan on a high-end residential unit when it was priced at $2,000 psf (thus assuming an exposure for about $1,500 to $1,600 psf) are now reluctant to give even 50 or 60 per cent loan when the property is going for a much lower price of $1,200 psf (which works out to $600-720 psf exposure for the bank).

'It's particularly difficult for foreign buyers, even PRs in some instances, to get loans for investment properties. Banks are more willing to lend to Singaporeans buying residential properties for owner occupation.

'Some of the bigger banks should take the lead and be more proactive in lending to property buyers, not just for entry-level but also luxury homes, given that spot prices have already come off about 40 per cent.'

Agreeing, another valuer said: 'We provide the valuations. It's up to the banks whether they want to lend, and how much. It's a commercial decision for them.'

Giving his take on the challenges facing the profession, a senior valuer said: 'We have to be as level headed as possible and (assign) a sensible value. Valuers play a very important role in the financial system and economy, as we're marking everybody's asset values.'

This was the first time Redas has met valuers as a group, at least in recent years, and this follows its maiden meeting in November with analysts in stockbroking research houses covering the sector.

Redas also holds regular dialogues with government agencies such as Urban Redevelopment Authority, and Building and Construction Authority. 'Such dialogues provide learning opportunities for Redas and promote better understanding across the industry leading to a healthy property market,' the association's spokesman added.

Source: Business Times, 29 April 2009

Singapore is Asia's most liveable city

It also boasts best infrastructure in the world: Survey

SINGAPORE has risen six places in a global ranking of cities with the highest quality of living, overtaking cities such as Paris in France and Honolulu and San Francisco in the United States.

At 26th place, the Republic also surpassed all its Asian neighbours to be the region's best performer in the latest Worldwide Quality of Living Survey by human resource consultancy Mercer.

As the icing on the cake, Singapore also topped Mercer's list of cities with the best infrastructure in the world. It proved superior in various areas, including electricity and water supply, telephone and mail services, public transport, traffic congestion and range of international flights from local airports.

Although it is often taken for granted, infrastructure 'has a significant effect on the quality of living experienced by expatriates', said Ms Cathy Loose, Mercer's Asia Pacific global mobility leader.

The development of Marina Bay and Sentosa Cove as new waterfront living areas appear to have boosted Singapore's position in the rankings.

'Singapore already has excellent housing, but now its new ocean-front and seafront living options have allowed the ranking to move even higher,' said Mr Derrick Kon, Mercer's Singapore global mobility leader.

He added that the 'high-quality houses and apartments' that are available for rent and the 'excellent selection of appliances and furniture' for residents definitely helped elevate Singapore's quality of life.

The other factor that contributed to Singapore's higher ranking is the presence of 'many good schools' in the city, said Mr Kon.

'Singapore has always had a lot of good schools and international schools, but now there are also more private schools offering university degrees,' he said.

'If expatriates come here with their children, this is one area they would be looking at, and in Singapore they would have a lot of options, with international programmes and university programmes.'

Singapore's strong position in quality of life rankings such as these could stand the nation in good stead in the current financial crisis, said Mr Mark Ellwood, managing director of Robert Walters, another human resource consultancy.

With companies looking to cut costs, many are reducing the number of international assignments and localising their expat compensation packages where possible, which means not giving out the 'hardship' allowances or benefits that are offered to expats who have to live in cities with a lower quality of life.

'There is perhaps less of an argument these days that Singapore is a hardship posting, so you don't have to give many expat benefits in terms of additional bells and whistles,' said Mr Ellwood.
Singapore is the only Asian city on the top 100 list that managed to increase its ranking this year, with the rest largely maintaining their previous positions.

China's capital, Beijing, moved up three places from 116 to 113 due to public transport improvements stemming from the Olympic Games last year, but Bangkok in Thailand and Mumbai in India both dropped in the rankings amid worsened stability and security.

Globally, the Austrian city of Vienna overtook Switzerland's Zurich to boast the best quality of life this year. European cities continued to dominate the top positions in the ranking, amid a sprinkling of Canadian and American cities.

Mercer publishes this list annually to help multinational companies determine an appropriate amount of compensation for expatriates sent to work in difficult locations.

Source: Straits Times, 29 April 2009

Work begins on Marina expressway

The 5km road will be the most expensive in S'pore, costing $4 billion

WORK on Singapore's 10th expressway, and its most complex and expensive one to date, started yesterday.

The Marina Coastal Expressway (MCE) is meant to deal with traffic expected at the new attractions, offices and residences going up in the Marina Bay area.

These include the new integrated resort, the Gardens by the Bay and the Marina Cruise Centre at Marina South.

With five lanes in each direction, it has the capacity to move up to 10,000 cars per hour each way, compared to the 6,000 cars per hour each way on the Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway (KPE).
Once completed in 2013, the MCE will link the KPE and East Coast Parkway (ECP) in the east, and with the Ayer Rajah Expressway in the west.

Motorists who are not headed downtown can also use the MCE to bypass the Marina Bay area.
There will be four exits and four entrances along its 5km length.

To ease congestion, the ECP stretch just after Benjamin Sheares Bridge will be converted into a network of normal arterial roads to serve the area. Currently, this portion of the ECP splits the Marina area into two unlinked sections.

Said Transport Minister Raymond Lim at the launch of the mammoth project yesterday: 'The MCE will be a valuable addition to our expressway network. It will improve our road connectivity and help to support the future development of our city.'

Of its 5km length, 3.6km will be underground, including a 420m stretch parallel to the Marina Barrage which will duck 20m below the mean sea level.

It will be 120m wide at some points, almost three times the width of the KPE.

The project is so massive that civil works have to be carved up into six portions so that the construction crews are not overstretched.

So far, the cost of the project has come up to $4.1 billion - far exceeding the $2.5 billion estimated in 2007.

In comparison, the 12km-long KPE, which has 9km of road underground and some parts under the Singapore River, cost $1.7 billion.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) said that it considered alternatives like building a network of bridges to link the area, but decided against it as it would 'devalue' property in the area and 'look messy'.

Reasons for the high costs include:
  • Large-scale excavations of up to 25m deep and 120m wide;
  • Difficult soil conditions - the soil is made up mostly of soft marine clay;
  • The need to drill up to 59m - or 20 storeys - in some areas of the seabed to get to solid ground for piling work;
  • Reclamation of 13.1ha of land at the Marina Wharf and Marina East area;
  • High raw material costs when tenders were awarded. A clause in LTA's contracts ensures that if raw materials are purchased by contractors at lower prices, the Government will be reimbursed the difference; and
  • The cost of Electronic Road Pricing gantries at the entrances and exits, which is included in the construction cost.

Despite the technicalities of the project, Mr Lim assured the public that all work will be done safely.
Among the safety measures employed for the MCE is an SMS alert system that will send continuous alerts to engineers on data like ground movements that is collected and analysed on a regular basis.

Professor Robert Mair, who is on an international panel of consultants called in to review the MCE, noted that the complexity of the project was 'right up there with the toughest in the world'.

Similar projects include Shanghai's Yangtze River tunnel and Japan's Tokyo Bay Aqua Line.
The head of civil and environmental engineering at Cambridge University added, however, that LTA is well-equipped and experienced to handle this project.

Said Prof Mair: 'Looking at their robust structures, soil investigations and monitoring systems, they have taken on board the lessons learnt from Nicoll Highway.'

Source: Straits Times, 29 April 2009

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Clean, green blueprint to redefine S'pore

$1b to kickstart plan for energy-efficient buildings, lower emissions, cleaner transport, other solutions

(SINGAPORE) The government yesterday unveiled a blueprint for sustainable development for the next 10 to 20 years, adopting a 'light-touch' approach for now to spare businesses and households from higher costs at a time of economic hardship.

Even so, there will be huge implications for developers, the transport sector, oil refineries and even makers of airconditioners, refrigerators and clothes dryers.
A key target is a 35 per cent reduction in energy consumption per dollar GDP by 2030 (from 2005 levels), which is projected to potentially generate about $3.6 billion annual savings (net of the cost of investment).
New buildings in Singapore will be more energy efficient while existing ones will be retrofitted to conserve energy.
Electric vehicles and diesel-hybrid buses will be tested out. Minimum energy performance standards for household air-conditioners and refrigerators will be introduced by 2011. In short, the moves will touch all aspects of life in Singapore.
The government will provide 'incentives, information and educate the public, as opposed to other policy options of say legislation or even disincentives such as taxes' as National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan, co-chair of the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Sustainable Development (IMCSD), said at a media briefing yesterday.
For a start, the government has set aside $1 billion for the next five years - this was announced in the January Budget statement - to help implement plans in the blueprint.
Part of this sum will go towards helping businesses reduce the upfront costs of investing in resource-efficient buildings, systems and processes. The $1 billion sum includes $100 million set aside for the new Green Mark Incentive scheme to retrofit existing private-sector buildings to boost energy efficiency.
'The temptation is to slow down our efforts in the area of sustainable development while we tackle the immediate economic challenges. However, the two are not mutually exclusive. Even as we tackle the short-term challenges, we must build capability for our long-term development,' Mr Mah said.
The blueprint keeps open the option of mandating changes in the longer term. For instance, the government will study the experiences of countries that have legislated minimum energy-efficiency standards for major energy-consuming equipment and systems and see if it needs to use the law for this.
The 128-page document, available at www.sus, also elaborates on plans to build new R&D capabilities.
Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Yaacob Ibrahim, co-chair of IMCSD, highlighted that the 'concrete targets' set in the blueprint for 2020 and 2030 'reflect how serious we are about sustainable development'.
The targets will be reviewed every five years. 'These targets will be reviewed regularly, as technology improves and the cost-effectiveness of measures changes,' he added.
Energy-related benchmarks will be set for key industrial sectors.
Other specific targets include reducing daily domestic water consumption per capita from 156 litres currently to 140 litres by 2030. To improve air quality, ambient sulphur dioxide levels will be capped despite economic growth. Air emission standards for industry and transport will be regularly reviewed and Singapore will be benchmarked against top Asian cities - without imposing prohibitive costs on the players.
There will also be 50 additional hectares of skyrise greenery, and 900 hectares of water bodies and 100 km of waterways open for recreational activity by 2030.
Another important target set is for at least 80 per cent of Singapore's stock of buildings to achieve Building and Construction Authority's (BCA) Green Mark Certified Rating by 2030.
The government will promote more efficient pollution-control equipment for industries and the use of more efficient sulphur recovery systems for oil refineries.
Singapore will be positioned as an international knowledge hub in sustainable development solutions. Solar technology will be piloted at 30 public housing precincts across the island.
Singapore will invest early in solar technology to prepare for using it on a larger scale when its cost falls closer to that of conventional energy.
BCA will develop prototype energy-efficient building designs that can more than halve energy consumption.
Clean energy and water technologies are projected to provide about $3.4 billion economic value-add per year by 2015 and to create a total of 18,000 jobs by 2015.

Source: Business Times, 28 April 2009

UK home prices fall 10.1% in April

(LONDON) House prices in England and Wales fell by 10.1 per cent in April compared with a year ago, while prices declined at their slowest monthly pace for a year, property data company Hometrack said yesterday.

April's annual fall is a modest improvement from the 10.3 per cent decline recorded in March, which was a survey low, and leaves the achievable price of a home at £155,600, it said.

Hometrack said the slowdown in the monthly rate of decline to 0.3 per cent from 0.6 per cent in March reflected an increase in optimism from estate agents driven by increased levels of market activity.

However, it said it was too early to call a revival of the housing market, and warned the improvements in April's survey may be seasonal.

Recent housing market data have been mixed: official figures suggest that approvals for home loans have edged up from record lows, but surveys from mortgage lenders Nationwide and Halifax sent opposing signals on house prices last month.

Analysts reckon the housing market will remain under pressure for some time yet as rising unemployment and tough borrowing conditions deter people from entering the property market.

'Only when first-time buyers feel confident to enter the market in significant numbers can we really start to claim any 'real' green shoots of recovery,' said Hometrack director of research Richard Donnell.

'This suggests to us that the recent pick-up in demand is largely seasonal and unlikely to be sustained over the rest of the year.' Still, the survey did show improvement in a number of indicators.

The number of sales agreed in April rose by nearly 15 per cent after a rise of 18.6 per cent in March, while the number of prospective buyers registering with estate agents rose by 6 per cent in April after an 8.5 per cent rise in March.

'The increase in demand, together with a move to more realistic pricing, has supported a growth in the number of sales,' according to the survey. -- Reuters

Source: Business Times, 28 April 2009

Britain's approved mortgages fall by a quarter in March

(LONDON) The number of mortgages approved for house purchases in Britain fell by a quarter year-on-year in March, the British Bankers' Association (BBA) said yesterday, casting doubt on a sustained pick-up in home sales.

The number of mortgages approved slipped to 26,097 last month from 28,024 in February, and were 25.3 per cent lower than the same month last year.

The total was lower than many analysts had expected.

Approvals hit a record low of 17,574 in November but had recovered steadily at the start of the year.

'The banks' figures also show it would be unrealistic to expect the mortgage market to recover in a steady and consistent way in the current economic environment,' said David Dooks, BBA statistics director.

A separate survey from property data company Hometrack yesterday showed house prices in England and Wales fell by 10.1 per cent in April compared with a year ago, while prices declined at their slowest monthly pace for a year, Hometrack said the slowdown in the monthly rate of decline to 0.3 per cent from 0.6 per cent in March reflected an increase in optimism from estate agents driven by increased levels of market activity.

There was an even sharper drop in the number of people remortgaging, down 58 per cent year-on-year, as people reverted to standard variable rates rather than moving to new fixed-rate products.
Overall, there was £3.7 billion (S$8.06 billion) of net mortgage lending in March, less than February's £3.9 billion on a seasonally adjusted basis.

House prices have lost a fifth of their value in little more than a year as the credit crunch forced banks to cut back on lending.

Although mortgage availability has risen slightly in response to government initiatives, higher unemployment means demand is likely to remain weak.

Figures last week showed Britain's economy contracted by 1.9 per cent in the first three months of 2009, casting serious doubts over government forecasts for a recovery by the end of the year.

'The relapse in the BBA mortgage data for March highlight the fact that the most likely scenario is that the pick up in housing market activity will be both gradual and prone to relapses,' said Howard Archer, chief UK economist at IHS Global Insight.

'The overall evidence is that housing market activity is still very weak by past norms.' The BBA figures also showed lending to non-financial companies fell by around £1 billion, largely reflecting the unwinding of takeover finance. -- Reuters

Source: Business Times, 28 April 2009

Solar test bed scheme on wider scale by 2015

SOLAR panels will be fitted on the roofs of residential blocks and multi-storey carparks in 30 HDB precincts by 2015 in the largest solar trial rolled out here.

The $31 million trial will provide 3.1 megawatts peak of solar capacity in 28 existing HDB precincts and two new ones.

HDB is testing solar technology in preparation for greater use when the cost of it is closer to that of energy from traditional sources.

Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry S Iswaran said industry players expect to see returns from investments in solar technology in five to eight years.

But there are systemic issues involved in harnessing solar energy, he pointed out. 'It's not just about the cells being able to convert solar energy into electrical energy. Even if you're able to do that, after that, how does that integrate with your energy system, your electricity grid - those are important issues too.'

Last August, HDB installed rooftop solar panels on blocks in Serangoon North Avenue 3 and Wellington Circle, as part of the Energy Save Programme it is working on with the National Environment Agency and Energy Market Authority. Results so far show the panels installed on seven residential blocks and one multi-storey carpark in each precinct can generate about 220 kilowatt hours a day - enough to meet the common services power requirements in a single block.

HDB's first eco-friendly public housing development, Treelodge@Punggol, is designed to incorporate rooftop solar panels that are expected to generate enough energy to meet 40 per cent of the precinct's common services requirements. HDB said testing on a wide scale of 30 precincts will enable it to better assess the feasibility of different solar technologies in Singapore's environment, and gather technical knowledge on their installation and maintenance.

HDB also expects the programme to encourage global manufacturers to set up base in Singapore for R&D on solar panel technologies, which will help to drive down the cost of the panels.

Last year the government set aside $20 million for its Solar Capability Scheme to encourage the installation of solar technology in new building projects.

Source: Business Times, 28 April 2009

More can be done to boost energy efficiency

THE first-ever sustainable development blueprint launched by the Inter-ministerial Committee on Sustainable Development (IMCSD) won support from various quarters yesterday, but a few observers also felt that more could be done to push the green agenda.

The plan has outlined various programmes for Singapore's sustainable dev elopment and is 'a very good start to the whole process', said the Singapore Environment Council's executive director Howard Shaw. But he felt that it could have gone further to include caps on carbon emissions.

The blueprint set several goals in improving resource efficiency, such as a 35 per cent cut in energy consumption per dollar GDP from 2005 levels by 2030, but carbon emission caps were not part of them.

Environment and Water Resources Minister Yaacob Ibrahim, who is also co- chair of the IMCSD, shed some light on this at a media briefing yesterday. According to him, Singapore is constrained by the lack of alternative energy sources and the best strategy so far is to be resource-efficient.

'If you ask us whether we can really change our economic structure and replace all the fossil fuels that we import with alternative energy - not possible,' he said.

The plan has outlined various programmes for Singapore's sustainable development and is 'a very good start to the whole process', said the Singapore Environment Council's executive director Howard Shaw. But he felt it could have also included caps on carbon emissions.

There were also questions at the briefing on whether Singapore is spending enough on sustainable development. The government committed in this year's Budget $1 billion over the next five years to this area.

To this, National Development Minister and also IMCSD co-chair Mah Bow Tan highlighted that it was more important to invest in measures that will yield the best results. 'We are not throwing money at the problem . . . If the $1 billion gives us results and it starts to show, we will be going back to the Finance Ministry to ask for more.'

The blueprint also rolled out a mix of rules and incentives for buildings to become more energy-efficient. BT understands that the idea for one scheme - which offers bonus gross floor area for new private developments which attain the Green Mark platinum or gold plus rating - came from CapitaLand boss Liew Mun Leong at a BCA event last year.

City Developments managing director Kwek Leng Joo said: 'With the public sector taking the lead in raising the standard of greening our buildings by some mandatory requirements coupled with strategic incentives, developers and building owners are likely to respond positively.'
Mr Kwek also suggested that the government look into 'greening' the existing stock of around 1.2 million public and private housing units in Singapore.

Air quality also came to the IMCSD's attention and it has set caps on levels of sulphur dioxide and fine particles in the air. ExxonMobil's Singapore refinery manager Darrin Talley said that the company shares the government's desire for good air quality.

Source: Business Times, 28 April 2009

S&P Global Property Index falls 19.8% in Q1

(LONDON) Standard & Poor's Global Property Index tumbled by a fifth in the first quarter of 2009, after a rally in emerging market real estate stocks failed to offset a lingering depression in more mature markets.

According to a report released yesterday, the S&P Global Property Index fell 19.8 per cent between January and March, as whispers of a property market revival were drowned out by worldwide recession worries. The S&P Developed Property Index, a large constituent of the global index, dropped 22.2 per cent on the back of big market declines in North America. Europe and Asia Pacific suffered falls of 18.2 and 15.6 per cent, respectively. Austrian property stocks posted an extraordinary quarterly return of 20.3 per cent, largely due to volatility in the share price of Immoeast AG , whose price has soared 123 per cent in Q1.

The picture was somewhat healthier in emerging markets, with the S&P Emerging Property Index posting a 7.8 per cent return. Israel was one of the strongest performers in this sector with a 33 per cent return. 'It has been a tough first quarter, with the comeback in emerging market indices providing little relief overall,' said Alka Banerjee, vice-president of S&P Index Services. -- Reuters

Source: Business Times, 28 April 2009

Most buildings to go green by 2030

Property owners can look forward to annual energy savings of $1.6b

IT'S a red-hot target in going green - the government hopes to put the Green Mark stamp on at least 80 per cent of buildings here by 2030, and has come up with a slew of new measures for building owners to help meet this goal.

Not only does the environment stand to gain, property owners can look forward to annual energy savings to the tune of $1.6 billion in the long run. More jobs dedicated to the development and care of green buildings may also emerge. The new target was revealed by the Inter-ministerial Committee on Sustainable Development yesterday, as part of its 10-to-20-year blueprint for Singapore's growth. In conjunction with the plan's launch, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) rolled out its second green building master plan to improve the environmental friendliness of buildings.

Existing buildings, in particular, came under the spotlight because they consume a third of national end-use electricity. To entice owners of some private non-residential developments to carry out retrofitting works, BCA will offer cash incentives through a $100 million Green Mark incentive scheme for existing buildings. The National Parks Board will also have a new 'sky-rise' greenery incentive scheme to encourage existing developments in the city centre to green up their roofs.

The government will play its part by requiring all large existing buildings owned by its agencies to attain the Green Mark gold plus standard by 2020, at an estimated retrofitting cost of about $500 million over the next 10 years. Gold plus is second to the top platinum rating, and ranks above the gold and certified ratings.

New buildings are also on BCA's radar, and the agency is working with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to offer bonus gross floor area (GFA) for private developments. Those that attain the Green Mark platinum or gold plus rating can receive up to 2 per cent or one per cent more GFA beyond the URA master plan gross plot ratio control respectively.

The bonus GFA, however, is subject to caps and the payment of a development charge (DC) or differential premium. While City Developments managing director Kwek Leng Joo believes the additional GFA will help developers defray some investment costs in green technology and features, he suggests 'the DC rate be pegged at the previous rate of 50 per cent instead of the current 70 per cent' to 'make the incentive more attractive and effective'.

New buildings in strategic growth areas will come under greater scrutiny. Those in the Marina Bay and Downtown Core area will have to meet Green Mark platinum or gold plus standards as part of land sale conditions, while those in the Jurong Lake District, Kallang Riverside and Paya Lebar Central will have to attain the Green Mark gold plus rating.

For Marina Bay and Jurong Lake District in particular, URA will introduce a landscape replacement policy to make up for greenery lost from ground development. New projects have to put in place sky-rise greenery or ground-level landscaping equivalent to the site area in size.

The government has also set a high benchmark for new public sector buildings - all medium or large air-conditioned ones have to achieve the Green Mark platinum rating.

'BCA's second green building masterplan will not only result in more of our buildings being able to achieve substantial savings in energy costs, but also provides a boost to the green-collar job market,' said BCA CEO John Keung.

According to BCA, the masterplan will reduce energy costs by $1.6 billion a year when it is fully implemented. Some 18,000 professionals, managers, executives and technicians may also be trained over the next 10 years in the development, design, construction, operation and maintenance of green buildings.

Source: Business Times, 28 April 2009

Solar power to light up 30 HDB precincts

SOME HDB residents across Singapore can soon look forward to solar energy coming to their estates.

About 30 Housing Board precincts - 28 old and two new estates - are set to get a total of $31 million worth of solar panels installed over the next five years.

The locations are still being chosen and will be announced soon, said HDB yesterday. It added that the solar capacity will help build up the capabilities of local firms and workers.

The project will enable HDB to study the effects of location and different block configurations on solar electricity generation.

It also aims to reduce the energy usage of common areas in HDB estates by 20 per cent to 30 per cent within the next five years.

Source: Straits Times, 28 April 2009

80% of buildings to be eco-friendly by 2030

More than a year in the making, the new blueprint for a sustainable Singapore sets out three key areas for a cleaner, greener environment

GREEN buildings make up a paltry 1 per cent of buildings in Singapore today, but come 2030, that number will grow to cover 80 per cent of all buildings.

This is one of the most ambitious of the many targets outlined by the Inter- Ministerial Committee on Sustainable Development in its inaugural report released yesterday.

To help achieve this, property developers will be offered a carrot - free extra floor area if their new buildings are built in a way that meets high Green Mark standards. The Government has also set aside a $600 million fund to green existing public and private buildings.

Launched in 2005, the BCA Green Mark Scheme is a system that rates a building's environmental performance.

When fully implemented, all these initiatives under the Building and Construction Authority's (BCA's) second green building masterplan will help Singapore achieve annual savings of $1.6 billion in terms of energy cost reductions.

BCA's second masterplan expands on the first one, which focused on greening new buildings. A total of 245 buildings met the Green Mark standard.

But public feedback had urged BCA to do more with existing buildings, which make up majority of Singapore's physical landscape, said BCA's chief executive John Keung.

Under the new masterplan, the public sector will drive the transformation by requiring all new, large air-conditioned public buildings to achieve the highest Platinum standard from now on.

In addition, the Government will pump $500 million into greening all its public buildings to the GoldPlus standard - just one level below Platinum.

For the private sector, BCA will hand out $100 million in cash incentives to building owners to help them retrofit buildings to be more energy efficient.

Land sales to builders in strategic growth areas such as Marina Bay, Jurong Lake District, Kallang Riverside and Paya Lebar Central will also now come with a condition: Buildings constructed on the sites must achieve either a Green Mark Platinum or GoldPlus rating.

To provide incentives to the private sector, BCA is handing out free gross floor area (GFA) for new private buildings - a suggestion made by industry players during the report's feedback sessions.
Developers who build Green Mark GoldPlus buildings will get an extra 1 per cent of GFA, capped at 2,500 sq m; while Platinum buildings will get an extra 2 per cent, capped at 5,000 sq m.
Industry players such as City Developments' managing director Kwek Leng Joo have welcomed the move. Mr Kwek adding that this will 'help developers defray some investment in green technology and features'.

Even smaller developers, such as executive director Lim Yew Soon of Evan Lim & Co, said they would 'happily build green buildings despite the cost' if there were some incentives available.
Dr Keung said the masterplan will 'not only result in more of our buildings being able to achieve substantial savings in energy costs, but it also provides a boost to the 'green collar' job market'.

About 18,000 green specialists are expected to be trained over the next 10 years in the development, design, construction, operation and maintenance of green buildings.

In the longer term, BCA is considering mandating energy labelling for existing buildings so as to encourage building owners to green their physical assets to a high level of efficiency.

Source: Straits Times, 28 April 2009

Govt outlines resource, environment goals in $1b blueprint

SINGAPORE'S policymakers have unveiled a sweeping blueprint, 15 months in the making, to help build a greener, more energy efficient and sustainable nation.

The $1 billion plan, to be implemented over the next five years, will change everything from the cityscape and landscape here, to the way Singaporeans live and the way businesses are run.

If successful, it will make energy usage here more efficient, reduce pollution and expand the nation's green spaces - even as the demand for resources rises along with economic growth.

The report of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Sustainable Development (IMCSD) - co-authored by five different ministries - also pledges to advance Singapore's ambition to be a clean technology and urban environmental solutions hub.

This sector is set to add an estimated $3.4 billion to economic output and create 18,000 'green collar' jobs by 2015.

Speaking at the launch of the 130-page report yesterday, National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan acknowledged that the document comes amid Singapore's worst recession since independence.

'The temptation is to slow down our efforts in the area of sustainable development while we tackle the immediate economic challenges. However, the two are not mutually exclusive,' he said.
'If we want to face the challenges of the future, we really have to start now, today. It's going to take us a long time... but we're financially committed to it.'

The report outlines the findings and recommendations of the IMCSD, which was set up in January last year to look at ways to create a sustainable nation in the wake of increasing global awareness of the world's dwindling natural resources and climate change.

Over the past year, more than 700 people including members of the public, leaders of non-governmental organisations, businesses, grassroots organisations, academics, and media figures offered views through various focus group discussions.

Members of the public also submitted more than 1,300 suggestions in the process.

The feedback has resulted in some aggressive targets, including a 35 per cent improvement in energy efficiency from 2005 levels, as well as a recycling rate of 70 per cent, by 2030.

Singapore also wants to increase its proportion of environmentally friendly 'green' buildings from 1 per cent currently to at least 80 per cent by 2030.

Industry observers yesterday called the report 'comprehensive and impressive', but some also highlighted critical gaps.

Dr Geh Min, former president of the Nature Society, said the report was a 'a good reflection of extensive intra-governmental as well as community dialogue'.

She applauded the attention given to solar energy, alternative transport such as cycling, and biodiversity conservation.

Singapore Environment Council executive director Howard Shaw said the report was 'holistic in nature, capturing key areas'.

However, he said that it failed to include discussion of carbon emissions and 'cap-and-trade systems', a form of carbon trading where polluting industries have to buy carbon credits for the right to pollute.

The other IMCSD co-chair, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Yaacob Ibrahim, said yesterday that Singapore, which lacks natural renewable sources such as wind and geothermal energy, cannot realistically take on such emission targets.

However, the nation is 'betting big' on solar energy and is investing heavily in the sector, and will not rule out mass adoption of solar power when it becomes cost-effective to do so, he added.

In any case, the report is an 'evolving document' which will be reviewed every five years, said Dr Yaacob.

Responding to the recommendations, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that he was encouraged by the participation of so many Singaporeans in the report.

'This issue concerns not just one or two ministries, but the whole country. Hence we will tackle it using a whole-of-government approach,' he added.

Source: Straits Times, 28 April 2009

Monday, April 27, 2009

Bringing back the neighbourly spirit

DRIPPING laundry, thumping music and trash left in the common corridors of estates are just some of the 34,000 residents' complaints town councils and the Housing Board have to contend with annually.

These issues were raised by MP of Holland-Bukit Timah GRC Liang Eng Hwa in Parliament in February last year, and led to a workgroup being formed to tackle unneighbourly behaviour and
poor social habits.

From anecdotal feedback, the workgroup has seen a rise in friction between neighbours.
MP for Jurong GRC and workgroup member Halimah Yacob said: 'People have become quite faceless, they don't know each other, so they don't feel comfortable talking to each other and addressing some of their concerns.'

Another possible reason is residents having higher expectations of their environment and having lower tolerance towards disturbances, observed the workgroup.

Yesterday, new initiatives to improve relations between neighbours were launched at the HDB Hub in Toa Payoh.

And to reinforce the message, a guidebook on how to be a perfect neighbour will be delivered to the more than 800,000 HDB households islandwide.

Residents can also start nominating their neighbours from next month for the newly minted Good Neighbour Award.

The award, organised by HDB and the People's Association in partnership with the Singapore Kindness Movement and Singapore Press Holdings, will serve to recognise exemplary neighbours.
HDB is also looking to implement a system of warnings and fines for recalcitrant neighbourhood nuisances from the third quarter of this year.

However, Senior Minister of State for National Development Grace Fu, who led the workgroup, emphasised that public education on gracious behaviour should be the way to go instead of punishment.

'A penalty system is not and must not be the first resort to shape Singaporeans' behaviour,' she said, adding that the penalties will apply only to a small minority of people who have remained uncooperative.

Source: Straits Times, 27 April 2009

Bedok unveils new look for next year

New mall will liven up town centre while shops there get facelift

BEDOK Town Centre has changed little over the past 30 years, but that is all set to change when it opens its first mall in the third quarter of next year.

Frasers Centrepoint is developing the five-level mall of shops, eateries and entertainment outlets to compete with popular malls in Tampines and Pasir Ris.

Opening next month is Spageddies, an Italian casual dining restaurant, which is moving into the town centre to compete with fast-food stalwarts Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's. A new karaoke lounge took up residence last month.

Bedok's younger crowd is excited by plans for the centre, which is currently a more popular hangout with the older residents. Student Bryce Tan, 16, who has lived near the centre all his life, hopes it will be the new 'heartland hangout''.

He said: 'Tampines still has more to offer than Bedok, but it is getting too crowded. Bedok is still closer to home, so it will be great if I can hang out here.'

The older folk are less effusive about the changes, but they welcome efforts to do something for the long-time shops there.

Madam May Liaw, 53, a retiree, said: 'Princess Cinema ceased operations late last year and the site is now occupied by a karaoke business. Progress is important, but you can't help feeling nostalgic sometimes.'

Since January, the Housing Board, East Coast Town Council and Bedok Town Centre Merchants Association have rolled out a scheme to renovate 163 shop units at the centre.

The shop owners are involved in a pilot project to protect themselves and their products from fire hazards.

Shop awnings made of composite metal will replace the existing fabric ones, which can catch fire easily.

Vertical blinds with heat sensors to protect goods displayed outside the shops from rain will also be installed. A first for Singapore, the blinds automatically roll up if a fire starts, which means walkways will not be blocked.

Shop owners will pay half of the costs - about $10,000 - while HDB and the town council will cover the remainder.

Other works-in-progress include a plaza area where residents can gather, a precinct marker, new drop-off areas, ramps, footpaths and linkways. In addition, nine blocks will get new lift shafts and lifts.

All works should be completed by the first quarter of next year. HDB said it will spend $9 million on the upgrading programmes.

With the works still ongoing, businesses have had to contend with slower sales.

A Straits Times check with 10 shops affected by the renovations revealed that business for them has dropped 20 to 30 per cent since the beginning of the year. To counter the drop, they have resorted to lucky draws and renovation sales.

Mr Ching Kwang Meng, the chairman of the Bedok Town Centre Merchants Association, said there are plans to hold promotional activities later this year.

'We don't want Bedok to be forgotten. We want people to know they can get everything they need at affordable prices in Bedok.'

Source: Straits Times, 27 April 2009

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Good time to buy?

Real estate worldwide has been hard hit by the global downturn.

Home prices in some foreign cities have fallen sharply, as a result of tighter credit and the difficulty some owners face in servicing their mortgages. Their fall, coupled with the relatively strong Singapore dollar, has made it more attractive for Singaporeans to land their dream home overseas.

Investing in a property overseas involves a fair amount of risk. But for those who have the stomach for it, this may be a good time to scout around for a holiday home in Sydney, a retirement villa in Penang, an investment property in London, and more attractive buys in other cities.

Source: Straits Times, 26 April 2009

Queuing 36 hours for a home

Since we got married two years ago, my husband and I have resisted applying for any random Housing Board flat.

We wanted to preserve the privileges and priorities awarded to us as first-time applicants. Under HDB's computerised balloting system, a first-time applicant gets double the chances of regular applicants.

Flighty buyers who send in frivolous applications only to pull out later are pushed to the back of the queue the next time they apply.

So you can imagine that the first application for an HDB flat is a precious trump card for any couple. And we wanted to save it for the right flat and the right project.

However, when the right HDB project did come along last week, I found to my dismay that my trump card was useless. Instead of relying on a trusty computerised balloting system, I had to physically queue alongside hundreds of others for a flat at the Design, Build and Sell Scheme (DBSS) project in Simei.

The queue lasted two days. The fatigue, however, lingered on for the rest of the week.

Unlike the case of normal HDB projects, the developers of DBSS projects have the flexibility to decide on the sales terms, which include how the flats are sold.

I have been eyeing the Simei DBSS project for some time and thought that unlike other DBSS projects, this one was in a neighbourhood with unrealised potential.

Although Simei is a relatively quiet neighbourhood now, the area is expected to come alive when the fourth university comes up in 2011. Parc Lumiere, as the Simei project is called, is also a more exclusive project with only 360 units.

So when developer Sim Lian Group advertised in the papers two Fridays ago that it would be launching Parc Lumiere the following day, I was worried after reading that units would be sold on a first-come, first-served basis. With only 360 units up for grabs, the competition was going to be tough.

While the showflat was scheduled to open for viewing on Saturday, April 18, sales would begin only on Tuesday, three days later.

But, as though tempting people to queue, Sim Lian added a caveat that sales might begin earlier if there was 'overwhelming demand'.

I knew then that I would have to compete with some over-eager Singaporeans. I didn't have an inkling of just how over-eager they were.

The first interested buyers began queuing up at 8am on Friday, the very same day Sim Lian's advertisement was published and four whole days before the sale date.

Busy at work, I didn't know that a queue had begun snaking outside the Parc Lumiere showflat. According to media reports, by 9pm that day there were more than 200 people in the queue.

I found out only when I got home at midnight and read the online news. By the time my husband rushed down to the showflat, we were the 318th in the queue, a woeful figure considering there were only 360 units available.

Both of us do not have much patience for queues. I would rather give up a freebie than stand in line for 15 minutes. I would forgo the most exciting roller coaster ride at the world's best theme park if it means having to queue for an hour. I think there are better things to do in life than stand in line.

Which is why I think HDB switching to a balloting system in 2007 was one of the best things that ever happened to Singapore society. Under the balloting system, a computer ballot will determine when the first batch of applicants get to book a flat of their choice.

The system is fair. First-timers get twice the chance while first-timers with kids are four times more likely to be successful compared with the rest.

No more week-long queues at the HDB Hub. No more squabbles and fights over who came first. No more exploitation of old, retired parents who stand in line for their working children. No one needs to queue and everything is done in an orderly manner.

That first night, my husband offered to queue outside the showflat alone since I had work the next day. He spent the night on a plastic chair in a humid and crowded tent.

Although Sim Lian announced soon after that it would bring forward its sale date to Saturday, there was no chance of leaving after securing a queue number. The developer's marketing agents created frequent excuses to get people to stay. We were herded from one queue to another.

First, there was the queue to indicate our interest in entering the showflat at 8am on Saturday. Then there was the queue to get into the showflat proper. After which came the queue for a blue file into which applicants had to insert their documents. This was followed by the queue to file an HDB application online. Only after all that came the queue to book our unit of choice.

If you were not there when your queue number was called, your name would be struck off the list.
So for more than 18 hours, some 400 tired and sleepy applicants were moved from queue to queue.

Sim Lian probably wanted to keep people physically in the queue because of what happened at the Tampines DBSS sale of 121 leftover flats two years ago. The developer had issued queue numbers and asked people to go home.

What they didn't count on was another group of interested buyers turning up to queue about two hours later. A fight almost broke out in the morning when those with queue numbers turned up.

This was not the first time fights almost broke out in a queue for an HDB flat. In February 2007, things got ugly outside the HDB Hub building among people who were queuing up for flats in mature estates. The queue had begun an entire week before the sale date.

With Singapore's blemished history of queuing for HDB flats, I wonder why HDB allowed Sim Lian to sell the Simei DBSS flats on a first-come, first-served basis.

DBSS flats are essentially HDB flats and their sale is still governed by HDB rules. Buyers' incomes cannot exceed $8,000 and the ethnic quota still has to be fulfilled.

If these aspects of the sale are done the HDB way, shouldn't the way the flats are sold be done the HDB way too?

The balloting system is not only more convenient, it is fair as well because it ensures that everyone gets an equal chance, not just those who can take leave from work at a moment's notice or those who have retired parents who don't mind queuing for their children.

After a 36-hour wait, my husband and I managed to get a high-floor unit of our choice.

Although we are happy and relieved, we do wish that our first experience of buying an HDB flat could have been a lot less stressful and tiring.

Source: Straits Times, 26 April 2009

Overseas land: Getting a foot in the door

Investing in land overseas used to be the domain of the extremely wealthy, but landbanking companies have put an end to that.

The main attraction of investing in land overseas is the hefty payouts investors can expect to reap, with some firms promising returns of around 20 per cent.Such firms buy large parcels of undeveloped land that they feel has development potential. They keep part of the land for themselves and divide the rest into smaller plots for sale to individual investors.

The hope is that the land later attracts the interest of developers. The company then sells the plots on behalf of individual investors.

Companies like Edgeworth Properties offer sites in Western Canada while Profitable Plots deals mainly in land in Britain. The minimum investment for a plot varies but usually ranges from $10,000 to $15,000.

The main attraction of these projects is the hefty payouts investors can expect to reap, with some firms promising returns of around 20 per cent.

'Land is a hard asset that will always appreciate in value with time and development,' said Mr Michael Yap, vice- president (Asia Pacific) of Edgeworth Properties.

Edgeworth selects land that has the prerequisites for sustained economic and population growth and is situated next to developed neighbourhoods, added Mr Yap.

Landbanking companies typically give customers an estimate of how long they have to wait before the land is bought. This can be from three to seven years.

However, there is no guaranteed figure and it is possible that customers may have to wait longer.

Most landbanking companies provide detailed information on the land they are offering so investors can get a fair idea of what they are buying.

But there are also risks involved.

'The first thing that comes to my mind is liquidity - landbanking does not provide much liquidity,' said Mr William Cai, director of GYC Financial Advisory.

'As there's a lack of liquidity, it is hard to say if investors are overpaying for the piece of land in the first place.'

Mr Cai also cited exchange rate fluctuations as a risk in this kind of investment.

Landbanking is also unregulated, which could be a problem if disputes arise between the company and individual investors.

Despite the possibility of getting their fingers burnt, response from Asians has been 'very encouraging', said Mr Yap.

Edgeworth's land lots are sold in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines, with Singaporeans constituting about 63 per cent of buyers.

Source: Straits Times, 26 April 2009

London (homes) calling

London property may be among the most coveted in the world, but it has still not been immune to the global economic fallout.

But while falling prices are giving home owners sleepless nights, they spell good news for buyers who have always yearned for that London address.

Experts point to a couple of reasons why homes in the British capital are calling out to investors all over the world, particularly Singapore:

For starters, London prices have plunged about 20 per cent to 30 per cent since their peak, says property consultancy Knight Frank in a recent report.

And the Singapore dollar has appreciated by 20 per cent to 30 per cent against sterling in the past year or so, giving investors more bang for their buck.

Mr Nicholas Barnes, Knight Frank's partner of residential research in London, told The Sunday Times that two trends will emerge in the first half of this year: One is that the balance of power has moved from sellers to buyers, while the number of sales will start to rise as more owners accept that the downturn is not going to be followed by a quick rebound.

There is already evidence that buying opportunities are emerging from the slide in prices and some buyers are biting despite the recession.

Ms Jacqueline Wong, head of residential, Singapore, at Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), said the firm tested the waters in Singapore last weekend by launching two projects with a leading London mixed-use developer, St George.

The launches attracted 'very good response' and saw more than 80 visitors, with 12 units sold, she said.

One project, 14-storey Aquarius House, part of the St George Wharf development in Vauxhall, offered 85 one- and two-bedroom apartments ranging from 364 to 851 sq ft and will be completed early next year.

Prices start from £399,950 (S$880,000), which works out to about S$2,417 psf - comparable to prime properties in Singapore such as Ardmore Park.

This is a 15 per cent discount on prices launched at the peak of the market, said Ms Wong.
Another firm, DST International, is also tapping the current sentiment and will be launching a London project in Singapore next month.

On offer is The City Peninsula, a 20-storey project at Greenwich, one stop from Canary Wharf, which is offering one- to three-bedroom units ranging from 495 to 840 sq ft.
Prices start at £250,000, which works out to about S$1,111 psf, which is comparable to city-fringe home prices here.

DST's London specialist Doris Tan said that as Greenwich is one of the main destinations of London's 2012 Olympics, properties at that location have the potential for capital appreciation.

For buyers looking at super- prime properties, locations like Belgravia, Mayfair, Chelsea and Knightsbridge offer some of 'the world's most attractive urban environments', says Knight Frank.

Emerging property hot spots include Marylebone - it recently pushed past the £1,000 psf mark but is still far cheaper than neighbour Mayfair - Bloomsbury, Paddington, Bayswater and the South Bank.

Knight Frank is also marketing 1,024 sq ft flats at Canary Wharf in East London for S$880,000 upwards each. A year ago these were going for more than $1.2 million each.

Mr Barnes said the worst of the price slide is over. But analysts are 'not yet sure where and when the bottom of the market is'. Also, there is a possibility that the pound may weaken over the next six to 12 months.

JLL's director of residential investments, Mr Julian Sedgwick, said he anticipates a strong medium- term residential price recovery, led by London, from next year.

It might pay to wait a little longer before investing, although JLL's Ms Wong cautioned that trying to time purchases with the bottom of the market could mean all the choice units will be gone.

She pointed out that London property has always been a good investment proposition: 'There is no (capital) gains tax, there's a lot of transparency and it is a location popular with many Singaporeans due to its top universities.'

One more thing to note is that London still offers strong rental yields of up to 7 per cent currently, as the capital values of stock have fallen further than rental rates, said Hong Kong-based property investment firm IP Global's managing director, Mr Tim Murphy.

'It is important to factor in the yield of a property as well as its potential capital gains when considering an investment,' he said.

Knight Frank's Mr Barnes thinks the prime residential market will bottom out this year, remain fairly flat for much of next year and begin to tick upwards towards the end of next year.

'We do not, however, foresee a significant 'bounce' in values - rather we think a steady and more sustainable uplift over the medium term is more likely.

'We also believe that prime will emerge from the recession ahead of the general market.'

Source: Straits Times, 26 April 2009

Lower-priced landed homes in Johor

Investors or people looking for retirement homes in Johor should be able to find attractive buys in the Malaysian state.

Mr Ivan Hoh, executive director of PropNex International, said Johor's proximity to Singapore makes it an attractive destination.

'Many aspire to own a landed property in Singapore which they can't afford, so the other alternative is to buy a house in Johor,' he said. \

There is generally more demand for landed homes than condominiums in Johor, he added.

'As they have vast land, many prefer to live in a house with land versus paying a more hefty sum to live in a condominium. For about RM250,000 (S$104,000), you can get a decent terrace house of 1,500 sq ft. A condominium in a good location will cost at least RM350,000.'

Indeed, the lower prices compared with similar properties in Singapore are a huge draw.

Mr Lim Boon Ping, an agent with Johor-based Tiram Realty, said: 'Compared to Singapore or even other parts of Malaysia, Johor Bahru residential prices remain very attractive, thus making it a relatively cheap place to reside in.'

He cited the example of a single-storey terrace house in Taman Johor Jaya with a built-up area of 761sq ft.

'At its peak in 2006, transactions hit RM170,000 for a unit. Now, you can easily purchase one at around RM120,000.'

Knight Frank Research showed that 'movement of prices has been flat with no significant changes (in Johor's residential market)...the market is stable and does not show any sign of a 'bubble' scenario'.

Knight Frank also said rental rates and yields, which hover around 4 per cent to 5 per cent, are expected to come under pressure and show some downward adjustments in the near term.

Mr Hoh said: 'In terms of rental yield, a house in general will not be able to fetch as high a yield when compared to a condominium.

'As property prices have crept up over the years and rental rates stand still, the yields in Johor remain low, probably 3 per cent or 4 per cent.'

Malaysian property giant SP Setia has some projects in Johor.

Its Setia Indah project, for instance, has a range of units called the 180 Degree II. These are double storey terrace houses with a land area of 1,540 sq ft each.

Prices start from RM304,800. The development is expected to be completed in September.

SP Setia will soon launch Setia Eco Gardens, an eco-friendly development near the Second Link in Tuas. Its Visellia terrace units will have a built-up area of 1,926 sq ft onwards and are priced at $138,000 each.

Mr Eric Cheng, executive director of HSR Property Group, said of Johor: 'Singaporeans will have to drive only 10 or 15 minutes to get there on a weekend, and they will probably own a bigger land plot.

'But I think a true investor should wait and see. I think (they should) give themselves another good six months for the market to stabilise; I think it's still too early to judge.'

Source: Straits Times, 26 April 2009