MND calling 99-year leases “good store of asset value”, but there’s a catch

Apr 15, 2017 04.15PM |
 

by Daniel Yap

AFTER his shock-inducing announcement that HDB owners should not expect to get their flats redeveloped at the end of their 99-year lease, which means the value of a 99-year-old flat is practically zero, Minister for National Development, Lawrence Wong is now saying that HDB flats are “a good store of asset value”.

It seems to do little to solve the problems that owners (leaseholders, really) of end-stage leases are facing – possible homelessness or having to shell out tons of money for stuff they wrongly assumed they’d get for free. And those who panicked at the initial reminder that a 99-year lease only really lasts for 99 years will be wondering – what does Mr Wong mean to say now?

Is he trying to calm down stunned flat buyers who thought that the value of their home was a sure thing?


HDB flats are “a good store of asset value so long as you plan ahead and make prudent housing decisions”.

Ah, but the good minister did include a caveat, although he didn’t explain it. His whole phrase is that HDB flats are “a good store of asset value so long as you plan ahead and make prudent housing decisions”. What decisions exactly? What’s the key to unlocking all of this asset goodness, if indeed there is any to be unlocked?

There are two ways of viewing something as an “asset”. The first is that an asset is something you can use to pay off liabilities, for example loans. That’s why you can’t (and shouldn’t be able to) take a housing loan for more than your house is worth. That’s also why banks are not happy at all when you miss a mortgage payment. It means that the value of the money you owe in the loan gets dangerously closer to the money they can get if they repossess and sell off your house, should it come to that.

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The thing about assets is that for every upside, there is a downside. Inflation eats away at the value of cash, property, everything. Markets go up and down, and you cannot guarantee that you will exit in the black. And some assets depreciate, like HDB flats, which run down to zero after 99 years. The ownership of any asset bears some degree of risk.

You just have to make sure that the risks are smaller than the returns.

There’s a second way to look at something as an asset. It is a more “business” approach, where something that is an “asset” is supposed to generate income. Like a factory building or a machine. It can also be something that generates income over a longer period of time (or which can be liquidated for capital gains), like Singapore Government bonds, or stocks.

So, what Mr Wong may be saying is either a) buy and sell and finance your HDB flat in a way that makes your returns greater than your risks or b) rent it out for income (as in rent it out not to cover mortgage payments, but at a price that is higher than depreciation and the costs of rental – agents, repairs, fees).

Taking advantage of renting out for income is straightforward – you get permission to rent out and then you pay money (either your own costs or you hire an agent) to put your property on the market and maintain it.

Taking advantage of buying, selling and financing is also simple (but not necessarily easy). All you need to do is recognise that the market is irrational. If you told any accountant that asset X would last for 100 years and cost $100,000, they would depreciate it (say on a straight-line basis) at $10,000 a year. Or maybe accelerate the depreciation in the first few years.

The money you spent on renovations too should be depreciated (including original fittings), say over 15 years, which is when you may need to renovate again. This is how we do cars – we know that a COE lasts for 10 years and there’s a PARF rebate and a “scrap” value, so every year the value of a car goes down by a certain amount.

Not so for HDB flats. Market values actually rise over time even as the life-span of the asset falls. It may be some kind of hyperbolic discounting (read about how it makes you stupid in our linked story) or people are just plain crazy. But take advantage of this! Buy a BTO flat that is much larger than you actually need, rent out a room and then when the five-year minimum occupation period is up, sell the whole thing and downgrade to a newer, prudent sized unit. Or just sell the older unit and buy a same-sized newer unit every 10 years or so, before people start to get jittery about the HDB flat you’re selling having only 60 or 70 years left on its lease. It should still fetch about the same price. Because people are crazy.

Eventually, when it’s just you and maybe someone else living in your home, you can downgrade further to use your asset (the market value of your HDB flat) to pay for your liabilities (daily expenses, travel, etc), if you’ve preserved it well. If you’re retired, a chunk of that money is likely to go into your CPF, because the housing loan goes back in, with interest (and then gets paid out via CPF Life).

But no matter what age you do it at, the bottom line is this – let it go. If you never sell your depreciating asset, you’ll never get any cash out of it at all. And the “prudent housing decision” you need to make is to take advantage of people who will shell out as much for a 30-year-old flat as a 10-year-old one (especially when the renovation looks fancy).

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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