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Thursday, 15 January 2009

Buyers, sellers at impasse

Owners still asking for sky-high prices while bank valuations fall
Thursday • January 15, 2009
Loh Chee Kong
cheekong@mediacorp.com.sg

A DOWNTURN is usually the time for bargain-hunters to snap up properties on the cheap. But for
now at least, the reality could not be more different, as prospective buyers discover.

Said Ms K Chan, a HDB dweller looking to upgrade to a condo: “I thought this would be a good time to pick up a good bargain. But owners are still asking for sky-high prices.”

According to industry players, the volume of transactions in the last month or so has dropped to a level only witnessed during the Sars outbreak when the market was practically frozen.

The reason? A growing gap between falling bank valuations — which determine how large a bank loan buyers can take — and high asking prices by highly-geared sellers needing to pay off their outstanding loans.

A random check by Today on 15 homes for sale — condos and various landed property types spread across the island — found stark differences between what owners are asking for and preliminary valuations by independent professionals.
While it is normal for initial asking prices to be higher than the conservative value banks attach to a property, in six cases that Today found, the valuations were less than two-thirds of the asking price.

For instance, while an owner of a four-storey bungalow in Holland Grove Drive was asking for $ 7.2 million, his property was valued at just $3.3m. Likewise, a Caribbean at Keppel Bay unit valued at about $700,000 was being touted for sale for $1.1m.

‘Better for sellers to cut losses now’

Property agent Michael Leong lamented: “It’s very difficult to negotiate deals these days. Both sellers and buyers would hesitate for really long and in the end, they still cannot agree on the price.”

Chesterton Suntec International director Colin Tan said the property bull-run of yesteryear – which pushed prices to record levels – has resulted in once-overly-bullish investors held hostage by the large loans they undertook.

HSR Property Group executive director Eric Cheng thinks this is especially so in the luxury segment, where “people are more likely to be highly geared and own more than one property”.

For sellers unwilling to budge on their asking price, the latest Citigroup report on the property market makes for grim reading.

The bank forecasts mid-tier to high-end residential property prices here to fall another 35 per cent, bringing “prices back to 1998 levels”. For prices of luxury properties such as Ardmore Park, the fall would be even steeper – up to 60 per cent from their peaks two years ago, Citi estimates.

Noting the current general scarcity of cash, Mr Tan said: “For sellers, maybe it’s better for them to cut losses now, rather than take a bigger loss later on. But sometimes you have geared up so much, the situation is out of your hands – you are stuck.”

‘Buyers can wait’
Before buying a property, buyers can request from banks a preliminary valuation – determined by an independent professional – which estimates a property’s open market value.

Such a valuation takes into account, among other factors, recent transactions and property launches in the vicinity. The banks would then carry out a final valuation onsite before granting a loan, capped at 90 per cent of the purchase price or valuation, whichever is lower.

According to Mr Cheng, the final valuations usually do not veer much from the preliminary ones. In rare cases, banks may increase their valuation – by up to 20 per cent – to match the asking price, provided they are convinced of the buyers’ ability to finance the loan, he said.

Still, the lack of activity in the property market, to some extent, means valuers are groping in the dark when setting the property value. “A lot of it is based on gut-feel,” said Mr Cheng.

But Mr Dennis Ng, spokesman for mortgage consultancy portal *, believes
that valuations accurately reflect current dire sentiments. He predicts the impasse will be broken in the second half of the year – when it becomes a buyers’ market. “Ultimately one party will give way,” said Mr Ng.

For now, Chesterton Suntec International’s Mr Tan has this advice for prospective buyers: “You can afford to wait. Only go (into a transaction) when it is a property you really like and it is within your affordability.”

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