Malaysia restraining property boom

CHRIS METCALF commutes for 45 minutes to Singapore each day from Iskandar, a region just over the border in Malaysia, to work as a lawyer at Clyde & Co LLP.

“It’s too expensive to live in Singapore,” said Metcalf, who moved across the Johor Strait in June after finding he could no longer afford the island-state on a local salary and with four children. “We’re selling a house in the UK and when we do we’ll consider buying in Malaysia because it’s definitely better value.”

Malaysia is seeing the spillover from Singapore’s four-year property boom and its subsequent efforts to cool the market. Prices of homes at Horizon Hills, where Metcalf now lives, have jumped almost threefold over the past five years amid a flurry of foreign buying, according to data from property broker Knight Frank LLP.

Now Malaysia is taking steps to prevent its own real estate inflation from emerging and appeasing locals who say they can no longer afford to own a home. In last month’s budget, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak doubled the minimum amount foreigners must spend on property and raised the capital gains tax to 30% on homes they sell within five years. The state governments of Johor, where Iskandar is based, and Penang, are considering additional tariffs on overseas buyers.

While Horizon Hills surrounds a golf course and is luxurious by Malaysian standards, homes cost far less than in Singapore. Four-bedroom houses in the 1,200-acre (487ha) development, popular with expatriates, are advertised online at US$270 (RM860) per sq ft (psf), compared with the US$503 psf asked for a four-bedroom public housing flat in Singapore’s central Bishan district.

Comparative costs

The average price of a new 1,000 sq ft condominium in Singapore is between US$800,000 and US$960,000, according to London-based broker Savills plc. A similar sized place in Kuala Lumpur costs about US$374,000, according to CBRE Group Inc’s Malaysian unit.

Singapore has ramped up efforts to bring down housing costs with measures such as linking borrowers’ maximum debt levels to their incomes, higher stamp duties and capital gains taxes. Home prices have still jumped 40% to a record since the island-state started introducing curbs four years ago. The gains led to Singapore being ranked the most expensive city to buy a luxury home in Asia after Hong Kong by Knight Frank in a wealth report in March.

Malaysia attracts

The difficulties of purchasing in Singapore have prompted potential buyers to explore Malaysia.

“Malaysia has certainly been the recipient of a lot of Singaporean money since the tighter cooling measures here,” said Nicholas Holt, Knight Frank’s Asia-Pacific research director. “Singaporeans probably top the list in terms of overseas buyers in Malaysia, most notably in Iskandar, but also in Kuala Lumpur and Penang.”

That’s prompting Malaysia to act, joining Hong Kong and mainland China in seeking to cool surging housing markets to help combat concerns over affordability and prevent a housing debacle from emerging in the financial system.

Bank Negara Malaysia shortened the maximum length on mortgages in July, saying household indebtedness has risen by an average 12% per annum in the past five years. Last month, the government barred developers from helping home buyers by absorbing some interest payments on loans.

Malaysians have accumulated Southeast Asia’s highest level of household borrowings at 80.5% of GDP, according to Bank of America Corp’s Merrill Lynch unit.

Priced out

B Shashikumar, a 32-year-old bank manager, wants to buy a home before he gets married.

“Even with my RM5,000 monthly salary, I can’t buy a house in Kuala Lumpur or Selangor below RM300,000,” he said. He spends three hours daily commuting to and from work in KL from Shah Alam, where he lives with his parents. “I’ll have to find one in another state. It’s difficult to get high loans for a house in the city.”

Average home values rose 43% to a record in the 4½ years to June, according to government data. Prices in Kuala Lumpur climbed 62% to RM605,711 between the start of 2009 and the end of the second quarter this year, said CBRE, citing government data. They rose 49% to RM298,697 in Penang and 37% to RM187,644 in Johor during the same period, the data showed.

Cooling measures

Cooling measures may slow home sales, according to consultants, including CBRE and Knight Frank. “The market is expected to self-correct in the next six to 12 months,” said Judy Ong Mei-Chen, a Kuala Lumpur-based executive director at Knight Frank.

Iskandar, a development zone spanning 2,217 sq km, three times the size of Singapore, started to develop in 2006 to compete for manufacturing and logistics business with its neighbour in the south. It’s aimed at piggy-backing on Singapore’s economic rise, just as Guangdong gained from Hong Kong, by offering lower-cost alternatives to manufacturers, food processors and energy companies.

Residential neighbourhoods featuring large homes, gardens and swimming pools, are being built. Spin-offs of foreign schools and universities are also opening offering cheaper international standard education than Singapore, including Britain’s Marlborough College, where Metcalf now sends his kids.

Legoland, Pinewood

Some high-profile projects, including the Legoland Malaysia amusement park and Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios — a franchise of the UK-based company where James Bond films were made — are done or nearing completion in a flagship development zone called Nusajaya.

Wealthier foreigners are encouraged to settle in the country under the government’s Malaysia My Second Home Programme, which provides them with renewable 10-year multiple entry social visit passes. About 77% of the 22,709 people who have applied are from Asia, with the largest number of recent arrivals coming from China, government data showed.

Singaporeans account for 70% of overseas buyers in Malaysia, making them the largest group of foreign purchasers, Datuk Wan Abdullah Wan Ibrahim, CEO of UEM Sunrise Bhd, told reporters on Nov 13. UEM, which is co-developing Horizon Hills with Gamuda Bhd, is the biggest landowner in Iskandar.

“The impact of the budget measures will be temporary,” Wan Abdullah said. “Developers are very creative. We will find other means of attracting buyers.” — Bloomberg

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on November 21, 2013.


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