Published November 21, 2013

Malaysia acts to cool property demand

It addresses rising prices, concerns about affordability

Hot project: Prices of homes at Horizon Hills in Iskandar have jumped almost threefold over the past five years amid a flurry of foreign buying, according to data from property broker Knight Frank. - FILE PHOTO

[SINGAPORE] 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 Mr 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 Mr 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.

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 Najib Razak doubled the minimum amount foreigners must spend on property and raised the capital gains tax to 30 per cent on homes they sell within five years.

The local governments of Johor state, where Iskandar is based, and Penang to the north, 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 487 hectare development, popular with expatriates, are advertised online at US$270 per square foot, compared with the US$503 per square foot asked for a four-bedroom public housing flat in Bishan.

The average price of a new 1,000-square-foot condominium in Singapore is between US$800,000 and US$960,000, according to London-based broker Savills.

A similar-sized place in Kuala Lumpur costs about US$374,000, according to CBRE Group'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 per cent 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.

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.

Malaysia's central bank shortened the maximum length on mortgages in July, saying household indebtedness had risen by an average 12 per cent 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 South-east Asia's highest level of household borrowings at 80.5 per cent of gross domestic product, according to Bank of America Corp's Merrill Lynch unit.

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

"Even with my RM5,000 (S$1,956) monthly salary, I can't buy a house in Kuala Lumpur or Selangor below RM300,000," said Mr Shashikumar, who typically spends three hours each day commuting to and from work in Malaysia's capital from Shah Alam, a city 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 Malaysian home values rose 43 per cent to a record in the four-and-a-half-years to June, according to government data.

Prices in Kuala Lumpur climbed 62 per cent 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 per cent to RM298,697 in Penang and 37 per cent to RM187,644 in Johor during the same period, the data showed.

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 square kilometres, three times the size of Singapore, was started 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 Mr Metcalf now sends his kids.

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 per cent 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 per cent of overseas buyers in Malaysia, making them the largest group of foreign purchasers, Wan Abdullah Wan Ibrahim, chief executive officer 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," Mr Wan Abdullah said. "Developers are very creative. We will find other means of attracting buyers."

UEM, UOA Development and Mah Sing Group may post slower sales growth due to the cooling measures, K&N Kenanga Holdings said in a research note dated Oct 28, predicting a knee-jerk reaction to foreigners' appetite in the next few months.

UEM shares have fallen 12 per cent since Mr Najib announced property cooling measures on Oct 25. UOA dropped 12 per cent and Mah Sing is down 9 per cent in the same period, underperforming a 0.5 decline in the benchmark FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index.

"Currently, Malaysia has a rather low number of foreign purchasers despite having one of the most accommodative environments for property investment in the region," Leong Hoy Kum, Mah Sing's group managing director, said in an e-mailed response. "This means that should sales be slower, it may not have a very strong impact on the market in terms of pricing and sales volume."

Johor is planning to impose an additional 2 per cent tariff on buyers from overseas across all segments of the property market from May, The Business Times of Malaysia reported, citing Koh Moo Hing, chairman of the Johor branch of the Real Estate and Housing Developers' Association.

Penang is seeking public feedback on proposals to introduce a 3 per cent levy on foreigners purchasing homes next year, Lim Guan Eng, the state's chief minister, said last month.

"If I buy a property, I'm not going to buy it to speculate," Mr Metcalf said. "I want to buy a house that I can live in and the kids can grow up in and that we can call home. Iskandar feels more like living in the UK." - Bloomberg