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Measures to curb excessive shoebox units yield mixed impact: study

Smaller-sized units seen appealing to a wider group of homebuyers and investors

Buyers waiting in a balloting tent during the launch of J Gateway. While the proportion of shoebox units in projects in the West region fell in the post-guideline period, there is still strong demand for them.


MEASURES to moderate the excessive development of shoebox apartments, commonly referred to as "Mickey Mouse" units, appear to have had a mixed impact on the offering of such small units outside the Central Area (CA).

A specific study by Knight Frank on selected private residential projects found that the proportion of shoebox units outside the CA has risen since the November 2012 guideline from the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) stipulating the maximum number of dwelling units for all new flats and condominium developments outside the CA.

The research compared private residential projects whose building plan proposals had received provisional permission within a one-and-a-half-year period before Nov 4, 2012, (pre-guideline period) with projects whose provisional permission dates fell within a one-and-a-half year period after Nov 4, 2012, (post-guideline period).

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A total of 105 projects (with at least 100 total units each) were studied but The Hillford, touted as a "retirement village" with a disproportionately large number of shoebox units, is excluded because the project was exempted from the URA guideline to serve as a private retirement housing product.

The study found that the proportion of shoebox units (less than or equal to 47 sqm) in selected projects in the post-guideline period was 12.1 per cent, up from 10.5 per cent in the pre-guideline period.

Going by planning region, the share of shoebox units fell in the North and West regions in the post-guideline period, but rose in the East, Central (excludes CA and Southern islands) and North-east regions.

The mixed findings may be at odds with what URA had sought to achieve when it prescribed a formula (gross floor area/70 sqm) for the maximum number of dwelling units for all new flats and condominium developments outside the CA. This was seen as a more flexible approach to allow developers to optimise their overall unit mix than to impose a specific limit on the proportion of shoebox units in projects.

A stricter cap is applied to low-density residential estates Telok Kurau, Kovan and Joo Chiat/Jalan Eunos.

Knight Frank's head of research and consultancy Alice Tan noted that given the tightened financing requirements and property cooling measures, developers are still inclined to incorporate more smaller-sized units in projects "so as to appeal to a wider group of home seekers, investors or singles and small families still looking out for units with affordable lump-sum prices".

"This is critical for developers, in this competitive sales market, to reach out to a wider market base of investors with varying needs and wants so as to achieve better sales results," she said. Furthermore, shoebox units fetch higher per square foot pricing.

Based on the study, the proportion of shoebox units in selected projects in the Central Region rose from 16.4 per cent in the pre-guideline period to 16.7 per cent in the post-guideline period while that proportion in the East rose from 6.6 per cent to 13.4 per cent.

The rise is attributable to projects such as the popular Commonwealth Towers in Queenstown (Central Region), where some 40 per cent of its 845 units are shoebox apartments, as well as The Glades at Tanah Merah (East region), where 20 per cent of 726 units are shoebox units.

The North-east region also registered a three percentage point increase in the proportion of shoebox units to 9.6 per cent in the post-guideline period. On the other hand, the proportions of shoebox units in the North and West regions saw notable declines, possibly due to the anticipated lower demand for such units in far-flung locations, Ms Tan said.

Savills research head Alan Cheong noted that there is "no one clear answer" to whether URA's guideline has been effective in curbing the building surge of shoebox units as developers typically study micro-location factors for each project before making a judgment call on the unit mix.

Given the formula guideline, developers would have to build more larger units to compensate for a large number of shoebox units in a project. But Mr Cheong noted that developers are unlikely to take the risk of building too many large units because the higher required downpayments mean that the target market is smaller. "Consequently, developers would play it safe by building smaller format homes averaging 70 sqm."

Teo Hong Lim, chief executive officer of boutique developer Roxy-Pacific, highlighted an interesting trend. After 2012, he saw more developers entering the shoebox or compact- apartment market because affordability became an issue as prices rose and as the lending curbs set in. "But developers usually do a spread-out to hedge the risks. There is no point being too focused on one unit type," he said. "We need to be location-driven in analysing the optimal proportion."

But Knight Frank's analysis revealed that demand and supply do not always show a positive correlation. There appears to be no letting up in demand for shoebox units in the West region, amid a fall in the proportion of shoebox units supply post-guideline.

A caveat analysis of new sales shows that new sales of shoebox units in the West region as a proportion of total sales lodged in that region was 14.1 per cent in the post-guideline period, up from 10 per cent in the pre-guideline period.

Close to half of the caveats lodged in the West region were for the highly popular J Gateway, which was launched in the weekend just before the total debt servicing ratio (TDSR) came into effect, followed by some 15 per cent of caveats lodged for Hillion Residences.

Ms Tan attributed this to the Jurong Lake District rejuvenation story that is spurring investment interest for smaller units.

Nicholas Mak, executive director at SLP International, warned that rental rates and property yields of shoebox units are likely to come down due to weaker leasing demand. Given that the majority of buyers of shoebox units are investors who are most affected by the TDSR and the additional buyers' stamp duty (ABSD), he believes demand for shoebox units is also easing.

Already, it seems that most buyers are not willing to pay more than S$1.1 million for a shoebox unit. Knight Frank noted that post-TDSR, sales transactions for shoebox units exceeding S$1.1 million more than halved, while there was a notable 43.2 per cent rise in the number of transactions in the S$700,001-S$900,000 range in the post-guideline period compared to the pre-guideline period.

About 2,022 units or 42.2 per cent of the total number of shoebox units in the selected projects studied between May 2011 and April 2014 are expected to be completed in 2016, which could weigh on rents.

The wide options available and the risk of rising vacancy levels "could exert pressure on rental yields of private residential properties, including shoebox units", said Ms Tan.

"With rental and location considerations, shoebox units in developments located in the city fringe areas could achieve higher take-up compared to larger units and shoebox units in the suburbs."