Property Investment in Singapore by Foreigners

Introduction

Since 1973, the Singapore Government has imposed restrictions on foreign ownership of private residential property in Singapore.

In its drive to attract foreign talent to Singapore, the government however makes concessions for permanent residents, foreign companies and limited liability partnerships that make an economic contribution to Singapore to purchase such properties for their occupation. In fact, over the years, the government has relaxed some of the restrictions for e.g. since 19 July 2005, foreigners can purchase apartments in non-condominium developments of less than 6 levels without the need to obtain prior approval. Other such schemes include the Global Investor Programme (see topic below).

Foreigners and Restricted Property

A) Foreigners:

The Residential Property Act is the governing legislation for private residential property whilst the Housing and Development Board (“HDB”) is the relevant authority for purchase of any HDB property.

As long as you are NOT a:

  1. Singapore citizen;
  2. Singapore company;
  3. Singapore limited liability partnership; or
  4. Singapore society.

B) Restricted Property

You will need to acquire approval from the relevant authorities to purchase:

  1. vacant residential land;
  2. landed property [i.e detached house, semi-detached house, terrace house (including linked house or townhouse);
  3. landed property in strata developments which are not approved condominium developments under the Planning Act;
  4. shophouse which is not strata subdivided and is erected on land which has been zoned “residential”[ref]This is not an exhaustive definition. You should seek advice from your lawyers who will be able to advise you based on the reply of the Chief Executive Officer, URA, on the zoning and approved use of the property.[/ref];
  5. all the apartments within a building or all the units in an approved condominium development without the prior approval of the Minister for Law;
  6. a leasehold estate in restricted residential property for a term not exceeding 7 years, including any further term which may be granted by way of an option for renewal;
  7. an HDB flat purchased directly from HDB;
  8. a resale HDB flat where HDB has consented to the sale;
  9. an HDB shophouse; and
  10. an Executive Condominium purchased under the Executive Condominium Housing Scheme Act, 1996.

You are however allowed to purchase without prior approval

  1. any apartment within a building or
  2. any unit in an approved condominium development under the Planning Act.

Property Investments for Permanent Resident Application

Under the Global Investor Programme (GIP) administered by the Economic Development Board (EDB), foreigners can be considered for Permanent Resident (PR) status if they invest a certain minimum sum in business set-ups and/or other investment vehicles such as venture capital funds, foundations or trusts that focus on economic development.

Private residential properties investment can be considered for application for Permanent Resident application if the foreigner invests at least S$2 million in business set-ups, other investment vehicles such as venture capital funds, foundations or trusts, and/or private residential properties. Up to 50% of the investment can be in private residential properties, subject to foreign ownership restrictions under the Residential Property Act (RPA). This is to attract and anchor foreign talent in Singapore.

Eligibility

A) Residential Property Act

For restricted property listed under items 1-4 of “Restricted Property”, approval is granted only to a foreign individual if the foreigner intends to use it for his own stay.

An “Approval-In-Principle” (AIP) application can be made even when the specific property is not found yet. The AIP, if granted, is valid for 6 months. It is not renewable. Once the 6-month period has lapsed, a fresh application must be made for another Approval In-Principle or for purchase of a specific property.

Every application is considered on its own merits. The main criteria are whether the foreign individual is a permanent resident of Singapore and his/her economic contribution to Singapore.

In assessing the economic contribution to Singapore, the main factors considered are:

  1. professional/technical/academic qualifications;
  2. expertise and working experience needed by Singapore; and
  3. investments in the type of industry or service sector needed in Singapore.

Processing time is about 5 weeks. If the application is not approved, any appeal must be made within three months from the date of the letter of disapproval.

Conditions

The following conditions are usually imposed if your application is approved:

  1. You cannot sell your estate and interest in the property within 3 years after the date of purchase of the property or 3 years after the date of issue of the Temporary Occupation Permit or 3 years after the date of issue of the Certificate of Statutory Completion, whichever is earlier.
  2. The land area of the property should not exceed 1393.5 sq metres/15,000 sq ft.
  3. The property will be used solely by you for your own occupation and that of your family members as a dwelling house and not for rental or any other purpose. You are required to give an undertaking to this effect. Breach of this undertaking is an offence under Section 25(8) of the Residential Property Act for which an offender may be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years or both.
  4. Where an application is for vacant residential land, approval will be subject to the additional conditions of:
    1. obtaining the Notice of Grant of Written Permission for the construction of the dwelling house within 6 months after the date of the letter conveying the Minister’s decision;
    2. obtaining the Temporary Occupation Permit or Certificate of Statutory Completion (whichever is earlier) within 24 months after the date of issue of the Notice of Grant of Written Permission;
    3. furnishing a Banker’s Guarantee of $50,000 or 1% of the purchase price of the property (whichever is higher) as security for the compliance of the conditions imposed.
  5. Where an application is also to tear down the existing dwelling house on the property to build a new dwelling house or to carry out reconstruction of the existing dwelling house; or to carry out addition and alteration works to the existing dwelling house, additional approval from the Government is required.
  6. If the foreigner already own a restricted residential property (not HDB or Executive Condominium) at the time of application, the existing property must be disposed off:
    1. (where separate legal title has been issued for the new property to be purchased), on or before the legal completion of the purchase of the new property; or
    2. (where the new property to be purchased is under construction), within 3 months from the date issue of the Temporary Occupation Permit or Certificate of Statutory Completion (whichever is the earlier) for the new property; or
    3. (where the Temporary Occupation Permit or Certificate of Statutory Completion for the new property to be purchased has been issued but separate legal title has not been issued), within 3 months from the date when the seller delivers vacant possession of the new property to you.
  7. If the foreigner and/or his/her spouse own an HDB flat or a non-privatised HUDC Phase III or IV flat, he/she is strongly advised to check with HDB as to whether they are eligible to retain their HDB flat without owner-occupation under the HDB’s existing policies, before he/she proceed to purchase a restricted residential property. If the foreigner or spouse is not eligible to retain the HDB flat without owner-occupation, he/she will be required by HDB to dispose of the flat within such time as may be specified by HDB.
  8. If the foreigner and/or spouse own an Executive Condominium (EC) purchased under the Executive Condominium Housing Scheme Act 1996, they are not allowed to dispose of the EC within the Minimum Occupation Period of 5 years starting from the date of issue of its Temporary Occupation Permit nor acquire an interest in another residential property or HDB flat within this period.

Bequests

Under the Residential Property Act, a foreign person cannot acquire/inherit a restricted residential property unless he obtains approval. If approval is not granted to him, the personal representatives of the estate of the deceased person must dispose of the foreign person’s share in the restricted residential property within 10 years from the date of death of the deceased person.

The foreigner may will his/her property to a foreign person as beneficiary. However, upon death, the foreign beneficiary will likewise have to obtain Minister’s approval to acquire the estate or the personal representative will have to sell the foreign beneficiary’s share within 10 years of the date of death of the deceased person.

The personal representative can apply for an extension of time to dispose of the property if required.

B) HDB

For HDB flats, HDB shophouse and executive condominiums, eligibility is subjected to the Housing And Development Board.

Generally, foreigners are not allowed to buy a flat directly from HDB. To buy a flat from the resale market, you must be a Singapore citizen or Singapore permanent resident. You must also include at least one listed occupier who is a Singapore permanent resident or Singapore citizen.

As mentioned earlier, if you or your spouse owns a HDB flat, an EC or a non-privatised HUDC Phase III or IV flat, it is critical that you seek HDB’s approval before you intend to buy another residential property. Infringement of HDB regulations may cause your HDB flat to be forfeited.

Documentation for Your Intended Purchase

There are generally two ways you can transact when you intend to buy a private residential property, by way of an Option To Purchase or by entering into a Sale and Purchase Agreement. Both are contracts between the relevant parties with terms that should be negotiated before any commitment by either party.

Transacting by option is more common. You usually pay 1% of the purchase price (“option money”) in exchange for the Option to Purchase. You are usually given 14 days to decide whether to proceed with the purchase. If you decide to proceed, exercise the option by signing and forward it to the seller’s solicitor together with another 4% of the purchase price. If you do not intend to proceed, the Vendor will be entitled to forfeit your option money. Completion will usually be 8-12 weeks thereafter.

If you transact by way of a Sale and Purchase Agreement, you pay a deposit (usually 5-10% of the purchase price) and you must proceed with the purchase unless the vendor is unable to fulfill certain conditions under the Agreement.

It is crucial, before you buy an Option or enter into any agreement that you consult with your lawyers on the terms of the Option. (See below for some of the Purchase Terms) as frequently, these terms may be prejudicial to your rights or may not take into consideration your special circumstances.

If you need to make a commitment before you can consult with a lawyer, ask the realtor to prepare an Offer to Purchase clearly stating the price, property description and particulars of the parties (vendors and purchasers) as well as the fact that the payment of your option money is subject to terms and conditions. All payment must be made “Subject To Contract”. Write these words clearly on the back of the cheque for the option money and the Offer To Purchase.

Purchase Terms

Please note that this is not an exhaustive list of purchase terms you should watch out for. ALL terms are important and will have a significant bearing on your rights. This article will however highlight some of the terms you must incorporate if you are a foreigner buying a restricted private property.

1) Parties/Price/Property

Make sure that the description of all the above is accurate. You will not be allowed to add or remove any purchasers after you have exercised the option without paying additional stamp duty.

2) Approval

It is critical that your purchase must subject to your obtaining Government approval failing which the Option to Purchase or Sale and Purchase Agreement is null and void.

3) Time Period

There are 2 important datelines which you will have to note. The date for exercising option and the date for completion where you pay up the balance of the purchase price and the title the property is transferred to you.

Make sure that the datelines accommodate the time required for your application for approval.

I must emphasize here again that you should try to seek your lawyer’s advice before you part with any money. It is not true that you can only use an Option To Purchase prepared by the vendor. Nor is it true that a realtor’s option is always fair. Each transaction is unique and at the very least, your lawyer will ensure, before you part with your money, that the purported vendors are indeed the owners of the property by conducting a title search of the property.

In Singapore, property investment often entails large sum of money, even if it is only 1% of the purchase price. It is prudent therefore that a lawyer runs through with you the terms of your purchase and if necessary, negotiate the terms for you before you make such a heavy commitment.

Be sure to inform your lawyer of your special requirements e.g. if you are a foreigner etc so that he/she can ensure that the critical terms are incorporated into your contract.

Conclusion:

In the recent months, there has been an increased in foreign buyers of Singapore’s property and their purchases are fuelling the market. They now make up almost 25% of the buyers, compared to 15% five years ago.

This is largely due to an optimistic outlook that Singapore’s property is rebounding on stronger fundamentals, looking forward to even better days after 2010 when the two planned casino resorts begin operation.

The projection is also that the city’s 4.5 million population is likely to increase to some 7 million by 2030 with a large intake of foreigners. In land scarce Singapore, this means that demand for homes can only continue to rise.