Luxury homes reserved for Singaporeans buck property slowdown

SINGAPORE • Some of Singapore’s most desirable houses come with a catch — only locals can own them.

That foreign buyers — notably from China — who for years helped drive demand for luxury homes, can’t buy these dwellings, hasn’t dented their appeal. Their scarcity and the exclusivity they confer have pushed prices of the homes — known as Good Class Bungalows, or GCBs — to record highs, even as the broader property market cools.

Just about 2,500 GCBs dot the city-state, ranging from colonial-era houses to architect-designed modern homes with cantilevered verandas, infinity pools and expansive landscaped gardens, a world away from the high-rise condos most Singaporeans call home.

In a recent blockbuster deal, Tony Tung, the chairman of Hong Kong-based oil trader Winson Group, bought a bungalow near the Botanic Gardens for S$105.3 million (RM318.19 million), the Business Times reported earlier this month, saying it was a record for a GCB. Nearby, a Singaporean member of the Tsai family, who made their fortune in insurance in Taiwan, snapped up a bungalow for S$93.9 million.

More records may soon be broken.

A new bungalow near the Botanic Gardens, featuring a central courtyard pool and water garden, will soon hit the market with an asking price of S$3,500 per sq ft. That would surpass the previous record of S$2,700 per sq ft set last year, according to KH Tan at Newsman Realty, who is handling the sale.

“Due to scarcity and exclusivity, the GCB market has always been regarded as the jewel of the residential market and a coveted trophy asset to the well-heeled community,” said Sammi Lim, director of capital markets at real estate agency CBRE Group Inc. “GCBs have proven to be a resilient asset class through market cycles.”

That’s proving to be the case again as a rally in home prices stalls following the imposition of further property curbs in the middle of 2018. House values declined 0.1% in the three months ended Dec 31, snapping five straight quarterly gains.

The citizenship requirement isn’t the only restriction on GCBs.

The plot must be at least 1,400 sq m (15,069ha or about one-third of an acre), and the house can’t take up more than 35% of the land, or be more than two storeys high.

Such luxurious use of space is another status symbol in one of the world’s most densely-populated countries, where about 7,900 people are crammed into each sq km.

Singapore is also one of the wealthiest nations on Earth — home to the ninth-highest number of millionaires — according to Credit Suisse Research Institute’s 2018 Global Wealth Report.

That’s helped underpin activity in the GCB market, with the number of transactions rising 47% in the second half of 2018 (2H18) compared to 1H18, according to CBRE.

Typical buyers are super-wealthy locals and foreigners who have attained citizenship, said Tan, MD at Newsman Realty, which specialises in bungalow deals.

“The super rich want to buy the best diamond, the best car, so in Singapore residential, the Good Class Bungalow is the best you can get,” Tan said. — Bloomberg