Singapore
Singapore Pixabay

Foreigners are once again pouring money into Singapore's high-end property market despite hefty levies introduced last year.

And, it is the Chinese who are leading the return, property brokers say, even though British billionaire James Dyson grabbed headlines this week with the purchase of Singapore's most expensive apartment.

Some of the Chinese investors are apparently buying into these luxury homes in the city state as a safety bet against the U.S.-China trade war. Fresh interest is also being driven by instability in rival financial hub Hong Kong, the brokers say.

Private home prices rose unexpectedly to a five-year high in the second quarter, driven by Singaporeans who make up the bulk of the market. But a detailed analysis of transaction data also shows a rise in foreign demand.

"The Chinese are coming," said Chandran V.R., managing director of realty firm Cosmopolitan Real Estate. "The factors are the issue in Hong Kong and also the trade war...They are looking at the stability of our currency."

Chandran, who is currently marketing a S$12.8 million ($9.4 million) penthouse, said there has been a rush of potential Chinese buyers to view the property in recent weeks.

Other brokers said they were aware of four deals over the last three months where Chinese bought apartments worth S$20-S$30 million in Singapore.

In Singapore's luxury apartment market, 169 deals worth S$1.4 billion were registered in the first half of this year, according to List Sotheby's International Realty, with foreigners and permanent residents making up 70% of the buyers. Deals picked up from the previous six months, but were still lower than the first half of 2018, when the group made up 61% of the buyers, it said.

In recent years, Chinese buyers have become the dominant players in Singapore's prime residential property markets, taking over from wealthy tycoons from surrounding Malaysia and Indonesia.

However, cooling measures introduced by the Singapore government last year - including hiking additional stamp duties for foreign buyers to 20% from 15% last July - have dampened demand. Until now.

UNEXPECTED REBOUND

Second-quarter transaction volumes in Singapore's core central region, which is popular among wealthy foreigners and includes the Orchard Road shopping area and Sentosa island, touched their highest in a year, consultancy OrangeTee & Tie's analysis of transaction data as of July 10 shows.

New luxury launches like City Developments Ltd's Boulevard 88 have also spurred deals.

After dipping for five straight quarters, the number of foreigners buying apartments in the prime districts of the city-state rose in the second quarter from the previous three months.

"The current social and political uncertainties around the world, including the trade war and Hong Kong social unrest, magnify Singapore's strong positioning as a safe haven for property investment," said Christine Sun, head of research & consultancy, at OrangeTee.

That attraction comes even as the city-state's trade-reliant economy, like many of its Asian counterparts, faces intensifying pressure from the Sino-U.S. tariff war and cooling global growth. Data on Friday showed Singapore's annual growth at its slowest in a decade.

China's yuan currency has depreciated around 2.5% against the U.S. dollar and the country's main stock market has fallen 8% over the last three months as the United States has ramped up trade tariffs on Beijing.

Over the same period, the Singapore dollar is down less than 0.4% against its U.S. counterpart.

There are already signs Singapore stands to benefit from concerns among the public and business community about Beijing's increasing influence over its regional rival Hong Kong. These have been galvanized by recent protests against a now-suspended extradition bill.

Bruce Lye, managing partner at realty firm SRI, said his eight-person luxury team - which typically caters to buyers looking for homes costing upwards of S$8 million - are busy now coping with the new demand from potential buyers, mainly from China.

Each team member usually services just one client at a time, but now has three, he said.

Recent prospective buyers are coming "because they are looking for an alternative home - a safe haven," said Lye.