SINGAPORE: Keen to have a second property as a “vacation house”, 46-year-old Mr Khoo has been on the lookout for a private condominium since the start of 2016.
The Singaporean, who did not want his full name to be used, currently owns an HDB flat with his wife, so he was keen on taking up his property agent’s suggestion to “decouple” from his existing property to avoid having to pay Additional Buyer’s Stamp Duty (ABSD).
Through this process, Mr Khoo would have transferred his share in his existing HDB flat to his wife, thereby leaving him free to buy a private condominium without having to worry about paying ABSD, as the subsequent purchase would have been seen as his first. Such a practice can mean substantial savings for home owners like Mr Khoo who are on the lookout for a second property.
However, he will now have to shelve his plans due to changes in the rules governing the transfer of flat ownership by the Housing and Development Board (HDB).
In an email response to a query from Channel NewsAsia, the HDB confirmed that changes in flat ownership will now only be allowed under six circumstances including marriage, divorce, death of an owner, financial hardship, renunciation of citizenship and medical reasons.
These new regulations took effect on Apr 1, according to the HDB spokesman, adding that HDB will assess on a case by case basis if the request to change flat ownership does not fall under the above circumstances.
This means that transfers in flat ownership between spouses or immediate family members will no longer be readily approved.
According to industry watchers that Channel NewsAsia spoke to, the practice of “decoupling” – a shift from co-ownership to sole ownership of an HDB – gained popularity among local home owners, particularly since the upward revision of the ABSD in Jan 2013.
Out of every 10 HDB flat upgraders, about 1 or 2 couples choose to "decouple", said R'ST Research's director Ong Kah Seng.
The ABSD, first introduced in 2011 and revised two years later, was part of the Government’s cooling measures aimed at reining in escalating residential property prices.
Currently, Singapore citizens have to pay an ABSD of 7 per cent on a second property, and this increases to 10 per cent for third and subsequent purchases. Meanwhile, ABSD for foreigners is set at 15 per cent for first and subsequent property purchases.
Given the substantial savings, Channel NewsAsia understands that this practice was an “open secret” for home owners looking to avoid hefty duty, with property agents and lawyers readily offering advice to “decouple”.
However, the HDB spokesman stressed that the latest tweaks in regulations "are not meant to prevent married couples from decoupling to avoid ABSD" and are instead part of a regular policy review.
There are market watchers who think the latest move addresses a "loophole" in the current system.
“The essence of an HDB flat is a basic shelter, and it should not be treated as investment product,” said Ku Swee Yong, Chief Executive of real estate agency Century21. “Home owners who engage in ‘decoupling’ have been treating the HDB as an investment tool and given the heavy subsidies by taxpayers and the state in this asset class, this is wrong.”
For R'ST Research's Mr Ong, the tweak in regulations will ensure that buyers are not financially overstretched amid a weak economy.
"If we look at things holistically and strategically, changing of regulations (will) ensure that buyers do not beat the system by decoupling, or purchase a private property on impulse and overstretch property financing capabilities, especially in weak economic times that is set to persist."
Given the sluggish economic conditions, there is a need for the Government to "protect the masses by discouraging them in over-investing in private properties", Mr Ong added.