AMPLE data is available on the overall rise in vacancy rates in Singapore's private residential property market, but there are no official statistics on vacancy rates in individual completed condo developments.
Photos taken at night from outside these projects could provide some clues. Going by the photos taken by The Business Times, a clear majority of the sample of 10 completed projects which had looked largely unlit at night in May 2014 did not look much brighter a year later.
Let's begin with a profile of the projects: Half the 10 dark condos have been fully sold by their developers - The Laurels, The Vermont on Cairnhill, RV Edge in Shanghai Road, Canberra Residences in Sembawang and NV Residences along Pasir Ris Grove.
Units in three other developments have been mostly sold: As at June 11, 98.6 per cent of the units at Marina Bay Suites had been sold; the figure for Goodwood Residence in Bukit Timah was nearly 91 per cent and The Interlace, 85 per cent.
The developers of the two remaining projects, Cape Royale and Hilltops, are focused on leasing out the units. With Cape Royale, Ho Bee and IOI decided in 2013 - even before the project was completed - against selling any of the units in the 302-unit development, given the soft market conditions in Sentosa Cove. The units are now fetching rents of S$4.70 to S$5.50 per sq ft (psf) a month for units in the three and four-bedroom development.
SC Global, which is estimated to have sold 62 of its 241-unit freehold Hilltops in Cairnhill, is now also focused on leasing. Monthly rental rates there are now between S$7 and S$9 psf.
Although leasing activity at Cape Royale and Hilltops is said to be brisk, they emerged largely unlit in BT's night shots.
Even the projects that have been fully or substantially sold by developers - and hence with units handed over to the individual buyers - are continuing to stay relatively dark, despite what R'ST Research director Ong Kah Seng described as a "decent level of leasing activity" by the units' owners. He based his comment on the number of lease commencements since the completion of the projects.
Of the 10 projects, The Interlace showed the most marked increase in the proportion of lit units between May 2014 and May 2015. It had received its Temporary Occupation Permit (TOP) in September 2013, and as of June 11, the developer (a consortium comprising CapitaLand, Hotel Properties and National University of Singapore) had sold 882 of its 1,040 units. A CapitaLand Singapore spokeswoman said the majority of buyers are Singaporeans.
Sited on the former Gillman Heights site in Depot Road, the 24-storey project comprises two to four-bedders and penthouses.
On the other hand, the proportion of lit units at four upscale projects - Marina Bay Suites, Goodwood Residence, The Laurels and The Vermont on Cairnhill - had made little improvement between May 2014 and May this year. Foreign buyers bought substantial proportions of units from the developers of these projects.
The developer of one of these projects, located in a prime district, told BT that of the units sold, 31 per cent were picked up by foreigners (with Indonesians being the top nationality); Singapore permanent residents accounted for another 29 per cent of buyers (Chinese being the top group). The buying share of Singaporeans was 30 per cent and companies, 10 per cent.
"The corporates who own units use them to house their overseas top executives when they come here," the developer said.
An executive with the developer added: "High-net-worth foreign buyers have the financial capacity to leave their units empty and prefer not to lease them out. They wish to live in their own homes when they come to town.
"Before coming to Singapore, these owners often make arrangements, through our concierge services, to find a temporary housekeeper to prepare their units for their arrival," she added.
Such holiday homes thus contribute to the dark appearance of these projects at night - for the rest of the time.
On the leasing front, Jacqueline Wong, head of residential leasing and ad-hoc sales at Savills Singapore, said Marina Bay Suites (comprising three and four-bedroom apartments and penthouses) tends to attract expats at senior and middle-management levels and who travel in the region. Being in the Central Business District, the project does not typically attract expat families, she noted.
"Rentals are S$9,000 to S$15,000 a month for a four-bedroom apartment and S$7,000 to S$9,000 for a three-bedder."
On the other hand, The Vermont on Cairnhill and The Laurels, which have a high proportion of one/two-bedders - 39 per cent and 45 per cent of units in these projects respectively - are popular among junior expat tenants who are single or who are married but have relocated here without their families.
Ms Wong said: "Corporations are increasingly seeking to minimise costs, firstly by not offering full expat packages so the individual does not relocate with family; secondly, instead of providing a housing package with a lease signed by the company, these expats are given an annual housing allowance for them to sign personal leases."
Very often, these expats are hired only for the duration their expertise is required, so they come to Singapore alone and sign a one-year lease for an apartment, then often travel in the region for their job. Their families may visit them during holidays, so they prefer renting apartments near the Orchard Road shopping and entertainment area, she said.
But although frequent-traveller expats contribute to the number of leased apartments going unoccupied and staying unlit, two of the projects in BT's sample of "dark condos" - NV Residences and Canberra Residences- are suburban projects where more local factors are at play.
Based on R'ST Research's analysis of caveats lodged for units bought from developers, 64 per cent of buyers in NV Residences and 70 per cent in Canberra Residences had HDB addresses.
Joseph Tan, executive director for residential developments at CBRE, suggests that at least half of these buyers would have planned to sell their HDB flats closer to the completion of the condos. But with the HDB market having been soft in the past year, those who don't need to sell their HDB flat to fund the purchase of the condo would have probably chosen to hold on to their HDB flat until prices improve before selling it and moving to their new condo.
He estimates that around 40 per cent of those with HDB addresses who bought suburban condos in the 2010/2011 period - when NV Residences and Canberra Residences were launched - could have done so as an anti-inflationary hedge.
"The market seemed to be on the road to recovery at the time and prices were then deemed reasonable. Now that the projects are completed, some of these owners may be prepared to keep their units for a while as they wait for price appreciation or to simply review their intention."
At RV Edge off River Valley Road, buyers with HDB addresses picked up nearly half (48 per cent) of the units sold by the developer, based on caveats data. The freehold District 10 project's 108 units are mainly shoebox units of no more than 500 sq ft each, noted Mr Ong of R'ST Research.
"Usually, projects in Core Central Region attract higher interest from buyers with private addresses, not HDB dwellers. That said, RV Edge appealed to HDB dwellers because back in early 2010, when the project was launched, the shoebox fever was gaining hype.
"The project was affordably priced; its developer sold units in 2010 at a median price of about S$1,690 psf. In terms of lump sum pricing, 71 of the 107 units for which new sale caveats were lodged cost less than $750,000; the 10 cheapest units went for under S$680,000. This is indeed attractive for buyers, for a freehold property in District 10."
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