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China visitors inspect a model of a public housing estate to be launched in Singapore. Photo: Reuters

Wealthy Chinese in Singapore for Lunar New Year may spend the holiday buying luxury real estate

  • Inquiries before the holiday period typically increase at least 15 per cent, and that demand has intensified over the past two years
  • Sales to Chinese buyers of flats S$5 million (US$3.7 million) or more doubled in the third quarter of 2019 from the same period of 2018
Lunar New Year is the most important festival in the Chinese calendar. But instead of traditional reunion dinners, some families have another ritual: luxury apartment shopping in Singapore.
With the political unrest in Hong Kong showing no signs of stopping, Chinese buyers are zeroing in on Asia’s other major financial centre, doubling sales of units at the top end of the market. Rich foreigners are largely undeterred by the higher taxes that are now levied on them.

Inquiries in the lead up to Lunar New Year typically jump at least 15 per cent, three property agents. Demand has intensified over the past two years with most people wanting to buy units as an investment rather than a principal place to live.

“Wealthy mainland Chinese are seeking a way to safely diversify and guard a portion of their wealth in offshore assets,” said Georg Chmiel, executive chairman of China-based property portal

Chinese nationals are set to top Singapore’s list of foreign buyers in seven out of the past 10 years, according to List Sotheby’s International Realty analysis of government data. In the early years of the last decade, they bought homes to resettle in the city state. But since 2017, an increasing number are purchasing flats solely to park their wealth and aren’t keen on renting them out either, agents say.

Earlier this month, Clarence Foo, a Singapore-based property agent at APAC Realty unit ERA, sold one property to such a buyer. The Chinese couple in their 50s run their own financial business and were in town for three days to apartment hunt.

After viewing four units in the central business district, they settled on a S$3 million (US$2.2 million) three bedder at the upscale Marina One Residences, a 10-minute walk from the iconic Marina Bay Sands casino, hotel and entertainment complex.

“They just wanted a place close to the hotel because they believe property prices will appreciate quickly since it’s near a landmark location and that area is slated for further redevelopment,” Foo said.

Prospective buyers inspect a model of a suburban private condominium development in Singapore. Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong used to be a favoured destination due to its proximity to mainland China and fewer market restrictions. But the protests have prompted many to turn to Singapore as an alternative investment haven, drawn by its economic and political stability.

“Whereas a year ago they were enthusiastic, mainland buyers today are cautious or downright sceptical,” Chmiel said. “Either they’re postponing their purchase in Hong Kong or deciding against it altogether.”

China’s new wave of ‘mid-tier’ investors set their sights on Singapore property

The Chinese couple, who own four other properties in China and Canada, sold their Hong Kong apartment when violence escalated, Foo said. The pair declined to be interviewed, while Foo declined to reveal their personal details.

Cooling measures levied by Singapore’s government in July 2018 made it more expensive for foreigners to buy property in the city state. But the curbs have impacted cheaper units the most: sales to Chinese buyers of flats S$5 million or more doubled in the third quarter of 2019 from the same period of 2018.

“It shows that high-net-worth individuals are less affected by the cooling measures than those seeking to buy lower and mid-tier flats,” said Christine Li, head of research for Singapore and Southeast Asia at Cushman & Wakefield.

And while China has tightened capital controls to crack down on money leaving the country, the rich, it seems, can still find a way around things.

With many owning businesses overseas, they’re often able to fund their acquisitions through those channels, according to Justin Tang, the head of Asian research at investment and advisory group United First Partners.

Singapore schools offer ‘safety and security’ for families leaving Hong Kong protests behind

China also operates an annual quota system whereby individuals can in some circumstances take US$50,000 out of the country over a 12-month period. It’s common for relatives to pool their quotas, so much larger amounts can be transferred.

Home prices in Singapore have also moderated, making buying a flat more affordable. Private home prices rose just 0.5 per cent in the final quarter of 2019 compared with a 1.3 per cent expansion the previous three months. For all of 2019, apartment prices on the island increased 2.7 per cent, well below a jump of 7.9 per cent in 2018.

“[Singapore has] done well economically, which could also result in additional benefits such as long-term price appreciation,” Li said.

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