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Saturday, September 8, 2012

Making all housing more affordable

WHEN I watched Usain Bolt cross the 100m line in an Olympic record of 9.63 seconds during the recent concluded Olympic Games, I saw a young focused sprinter with only one objective in mind; to cross the finish line in the shortest possible time. He amazed the world with his stunning performance again.

This reminds me of our journey in making all Malaysian housing more affordable. It is a race that requires the same amount of focus from all relevant stakeholders including public sector which is the Government, and private sectors, i.e. the property developers, home buyers and NGOs. Furthermore, like in a race where the sprinters have a sight on the direction and goal, all stakeholders in the housing industry should be aligned to the same goal before starting the race.

To understand what exactly drives up property prices, we need to analyse the various factors that influence the price of a housing development in Malaysia. This may help us identify the root cause and provide us with the correct remedies to make Malaysian housing more affordable and sustainable.

Let's begin by looking at what are the major cost components of a property project. Twenty or 30 years ago, land acquisition was only about 5% to 10% of a project cost, but nowadays, it can take up to a sizable 20% to 30% of the whole development budget before any value-added works are carried out on the land itself.

Land prices are ever rising due to scarcity of urban land especially in the major cities. For example, a piece of land that used to cost RM10 per sq ft in Mont' Kiara during the late 80's now can cost up to RM300 per sq ft. With rising land cost “eating” up a significant portion of the development budget, house prices automatically increase as a result.

The next major cost is the holding cost and construction financing cost of the project. The longer it takes to complete a project, the higher the financing costs of the project which will then increase the price of a home.

I mentioned this before in my earlier articles that property projects are sometimes subjected to one, two or more years of gestation period to obtain all the necessary approvals from the relevant authorities before they can be launched. The lengthy approval period will definitely affect the holding costs, and slow down the supply of housing units. If this approval time is not shortened, the rising demand will only further push the prices up. This is the basic market influence of supply and demand.

Another factor that influences the cost of housing, as highlighted by developers surveyed during the recent Real Estate and Housing Developers' Association (Rehda) media briefing, is the unsold and unreleased Bumiputra units.

According to the latest half-yearly property industry survey by Rehda, the number one reason for unsold properties comes from unreleased bumiputra units and has been so for the past two years.

With the requirement to hold on to the unsold bumiputra units, the additional holding cost is inevitably spread out to all the other house buyers in the form of higher priced units. Unreleased bumiputra units may also create a false impression of supply shortage in the market, and these can cause the prices to increase again. While we recognise the need for a bumiputra housing policy, the various states should agree on a transparent, auto-release mechanism to release bumiputra units if unsold beyond 18 months of launch, to make houses more affordable for everyone.

Apart from land cost, holding, and construction financing costs, another cost component that adds to the price of properties is utilities costs. In the past, utility companies would be expected to build substations and water storage towers as well as lay electrical cables and water pipes. Today, all these are required to be completed by developers themselves.

In a roundtable discussion on housing affordability, Housing Buyers Association secretary-general, Chang Kim Loong highlighted that the privatisation of utility companies have turned them into profit-oriented companies. Taxpayers' monies are no longer utilised to provide the basic necessities that they have paid for. This ends up making houses cost more because home owners end up bearing the cost of the infrastructure for these utility services.

In the illustration mentioned at the start of this article, a sprinter must stay focused on the targeted goal of winning the race without mental and physical disadvantages before and during the sprint. Imagine if Bolt needed to run against a headwind and carried a few pounds on his back all along the race. Would he still able to break the Olympic record and become a legend?

In the race to make the price of all housing units more affordable, the issues of high land cost, lengthy approval period, additional utilities expenditure and unreleased bumiputra lots are the burdens that are holding houses back from becoming more affordable. Solve these dilemmas and we will begin to break records.

● FIABCI Asia-Pacific Regional Secretariat chairman Datuk Alan Tong has over 50 years of experience in property development. He is also the group chairman of Bukit Kiara Properties. For feedback, please email

By The Star

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