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Weak home prices raise rent-or-buy poser

BEYOND PROFIT AND LOSS: The scene at Sky Habitat's relaunch earlier this year. If prices stay flat, or appreciate anything less than 2 per cent over the next four to five years, renting could prove more cost-effective than buying a property.


    Nov 11, 2014

    Weak home prices raise rent-or-buy poser

    NEW research says it may be cheaper to rent than to buy a home in Singapore, if residential property prices here continue their current moribund trend. But does this necessarily mean home buyers here are better off switching to this option?

    The rent-or-buy poser is oft-debated, even worldwide. In the United States, a study this year by Trulia found that home ownership is generally still 38 per cent cheaper than renting. The Reserve Bank of Australia said it could become cheaper to rent instead, with home prices unlikely to keep growing at the rate they have over the past 60 years.

    In Singapore, home prices have fallen faster than rentals, since loan curbs (that is, the total debt servicing ratio, or TDSR) kicked in.

    Square Foot Research has found that if prices stay flat, or appreciate anything less than 2 per cent over the next four to five years, renting could prove more cost-effective than buying a property.

    Analyst Esther Hoon, from the independent property research firm, used the example of a buyer purchasing a condominium unit for $1.28 million in Upper Bukit Timah (District 21). She assumed the buyer then sells the unit four years later - with four years being the minimum holding period to avoid paying seller stamp duties - at the same price.

    Taking $1.28 million and subtracting the mortgage paid, remaining loan, as well as initial down payment and other miscellaneous fees, he would have made a loss of $149,000.

    But Ms Hoon's research shows that if he had rented the same unit for a monthly $2,800 for four years instead, he would have paid a total of $134,000 in rental - less than the loss he would have made from selling his home.

    Buying this unit would still be more expensive than renting it if home prices appreciate 1 per cent in four to five years' time.

    But the tipping point comes when prices increase 2 per cent or more; then, buying becomes cheaper.

    For her research, the analyst used median rentals in the third quarter of this year and median transacted prices in the secondary market from January to September for non-landed private homes (excluding bulk sales), on properties ranging from 1,000 to 1,200 sq ft.

    She assumed that the property loan was borrowed at a fixed interest rate of 2.18 per cent over 30 years, and the rental was fixed over a 48-month holding period. She did not take into account inflation and discount rate.

    So, does this mean home buyers here should switch to renting instead?

    Singapore, along with some Asian countries, may be unique in that renting rarely comes across as an option for locals who can afford to buy.

    Their motivations go beyond mere profit-and-loss calculations, extending also to personal and psychological concerns - financial security or pride, for instance. They build up equity as they pay down a mortgage, said R'ST Research director Ong Kah Seng.

    Property prices also generally appreciate in the long term, while rental money essentially goes nowhere, neither bringing one closer to owning a home nor yielding any returns. It is merely "helping your landlord to pay his monthly mortgage", Mr Ong said.

    Singapore's housing policies are also more geared towards home ownership than leasing. Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings, for instance, help locals to buy properties. CPF Ordinary Account savings can be used to pay the down payment as well as monthly loan instalments.

    "Many people are unsure how best to make use of their CPF monies during the interim years, but if they invest in a flat or private property, they will be on a sure path to capital appreciation in the long term," Mr Ong said.

    But what is the opportunity cost of the equity or capital tied up in a home purchase here?

    DTZ's South-east Asia regional head of research, Lee Lay Keng, pointed out that home prices have outpaced equities. She calculated that private home prices have grown 6.1 per cent between the post-crisis third quarter of 2009 and the third quarter of this year on a compound annual growth rate basis - faster than the Straits Times Index's growth of 4.2 per cent between September 2009 and September this year.

    That being said, the performance of the various asset classes can change a lot, year to year. From the third quarter last year to the period this year, private home prices fell 3.3 per cent. In contrast, even though the equity market has been sluggish in that same period, blue chips appreciated 1.23 per cent year-on-year as at the end of last month.