Sunday, October 16, 2011

Have property, may not profit

An old friend in the real estate business once estimated that only one in four investors here made any money out of investing in property.
Although he had a pulse on the market for the past four decades, I thought that his estimate was absurdly low.

Owning a home of our own is in our blood, and it would be insane for anyone to want to grab a piece of the highly prized real estate on our crowded island if it had been a money-losing proposition.

In fact, until the Government stepped in with a host of anti-speculation measures, there were numerous stories of investors who flipped their purchases for a quick profit by selling the property they had just bought to another buyer.

Still, looking at the many ups and downs of the private residential market over the years, I wonder if there is some truth to the observation made by my friend, far-fetched though it may seem.

Like the stock market, the property market moves in cycles, and if you are caught at the wrong end of the cycle, it may take years before you get to see the price you paid for that dream home again.

At a recent reunion with a group of old friends, all in their late 40s and early 50s, I observed that several of them had sold their properties in the past few months as the red-hot market was on a roll.

Surprisingly, they then chose to downgrade to a smaller apartment or HDB flat, or kept the cash proceeds.

As middle-aged investors, they are certainly more conservative in their investment outlook, but the roller coaster ride experienced by the local property market in the past 20 years also had a bearing on their decisions.

Making money from the property market is not as easy as it seems.

One friend said he had invested in a swanky Orchard Road condominium unit four years ago, only to see its price plummet soon after that with the onset of the global financial crisis. He was glad to get out, even though he had only broken even on his investment.

Another friend remarked that on paper, it would appear that he had made a hefty gain on a condo unit he had bought for investment 15 years ago. But after deducting the interest paid on the mortgage and the sums spent over the years on repairs and maintenance, the returns worked out to a paltry 3 per cent a year.

In hindsight, it is simply not a risk worth taking, considering the large outlay involved, he said.

We argued that his returns would not have been so low if he had included the rentals he had collected in his calculations.

And there lies another twist to his story: He said that unlike the current tight rental market, where landlords can pick and choose their tenants, there was a period between 2002 and 2005 when condo rentals plunged so badly that it was uneconomical for owners like himself to let out the unit.

It is a cautionary tale about some of the potential hazards in the property market that a fresh investor may want to take note of.

Talk to any seasoned property investor and he will tell you that the key to making money is 'location, location, location'.

But like the equities market, investing in the property market is also about getting the timing right.

My friend's returns on his investment were so low because he bought the condo in 1996, when prices were at a record high.

It took 10 years before property prices regained those lofty levels - and another five before they rose to a level where he could comfortably get out without incurring a loss.

Would my two friends have done better if they had waited? Their answer is no, given the recent turmoil that has rocked financial markets.

At the back of their minds was a fear that the roaring bull property market might be too good to last, given the bad memories they nursed of previous market crashes.

Some bullish property investors argue that this time, it is really different.

They note that the 1996 rally was powered primarily by local purchases, following a relaxation in the rules on the use of one's Central Provident Fund savings to buy private properties and resale HDB flats.

Now, however, foreigners account for a sizeable chunk of the buying interest. As such, even if local demand flags, there will be foreigners to prop up the market.

As US investment bank Goldman Sachs noted in a recent report, foreign buying made up 31 per cent of all private residential properties in the third quarter. It also observed that Chinese buyers dominated the purchases, accounting for 28.3 per cent of the foreign buying.

Yet, even the Goldman report found little to be exuberant about.

While sales of new private properties stayed firm in the mass-market condo segment, it observed that the resale market was subdued, with only 2,507 caveats lodged for the July-to-August period.

Also taking a cautionary stance was Malaysian investment bank CIMB, which noted that the unsold inventory of private properties had started to creep upwards in the past few quarters, even though it was still lower than that in 2009.

It expressed concerns that the selling pressure might build up in the next 12 to 18 months if fears of a recession escalate.

And with foreigners forming a significant portion of the buyers, the regional housing trend becomes important. For example, a slowdown in the red-hot Chinese property market may also have an impact here.

For property sellers, the big relief is that the concerns raised by analysts will not be relevant any more. Their big worry is how to get a decent return on their sales proceeds in order to stay ahead of inflation.

However, those aiming to buy a condo unit as an investment should realise that it is not a sure road to riches.

Getting into property investment is far easier than getting out of it - especially when the global economic climate turns chillier, like now.

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