Wounded Lion
Property Report|August - September 2020
Plagued at one point by the highest number of novel coronavirus cases in the region, the usually steely Singapore property market has assumed crash position
Al Gerard De La Cruz

In the early stages of the 2020 global pandemic, Singapore was hailed as an exemplar of how to limit transmission of the novel coronavirus. The story changed rapidly to the country enduring the highest Covid-19 caseload in Southeast Asia, with efforts to contain it savaging the region’s most progressive economy, its property sector not the least.

April saw only 277 private new homes sold — 293 including executive condominiums — the worst showing for the residential market since December 2014 when the industry was girdled with property curbs.

Only 2,553 private new homes were sold in the first four months of 2020, and the month of May — the apex of Singapore’s “circuit-breaker” lockdown restrictions — was considered to be “a write-off” for primary sales.

“No segment of industry or society can be said to be totally unaffected, impervious or untouched by the pandemic,” says Leonard Tay, head of research for Knight Frank Singapore, adding “the residential real estate market is expected to go through a challenging time in the next year or so.”

Headwinds were already gusty leading to the virus, with Singapore wedged between the US-China trade war. “The economy slowed down in the second half of 2019 due to weak global growth, leading to contraction in manufacturing, particularly the electronics cluster,” says Han Huan Mei, research director of List Sotheby’s International Realty.

“Sentiments towards real estate were cautious and buyers became more selective, leading to a decline in sales volume since Q3 2019.”

Bringing downward pressures to a head, Singapore implemented its strict lockdown on April 7, intensifying social distancing and restricting human movement to suppress virus transmission. Shuttering almost 80% of businesses, the rules closed show flats and suspended house viewings. It was a bitter pill to swallow for property market stakeholders.

“This made all the difference in total private home sales between March and April,” notes Tay. “At least April had one week of business activity, albeit with safe distancing protocols put in place.”

Around 65.5% of all private new home sales in April comprise transactions before the circuit breakers, with subsequent weeks a free-for-all for real estate agents relegated to marketing their projects online.

“While some homebuyers were willing to make purchase decisions from off-site digital viewings, they are the minority. Investment outlay is considerable for most private residence buyers—they exhaust every avenue for due diligence to make the most informed purchase possible,” says Tay.

LEASE OF LIFE

As the novel coronavirus raged in April, the volume of non-landed private home rentals in Singapore descended to 3,068 units, down 40.6% on the year and 36.5% month-on-month, according to SRX flash reports. Similarly, rental volumes for HDB flats hit just 1,260 units in April, a monthly decrease of 36.7% and a yearly drop of 41.3%.

Border controls attendant on the Covid-19 pandemic sank rental volumes, notes Christine Sun, head of research and consultancy at OrangeTee & Tie. “Global travel restrictions significantly reduced the number of expats who could enter Singapore for work. Many foreign workers also remain under lockdown in their home countries as the spread of the coronavirus intensifies.”

On a quarterly basis, private rental volume was more buoyant, rising from 20,703 units in Q4 2019 to 21,191 units in Q1 2020 as foreign workers scrambled to renew rentals before the circuit breaker measures.

But the looming prospect of a second wave of infections may cause the recurrence of lockdowns or prolong travel restrictions—both boding badly for rental markets. “Companies may adopt a more conservative hiring outlook in the months ahead and we may see a temporary pullback in foreign employment,” says Sun.

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