When most people hear the word “auction”, they think “distressed sale”. In many other parts of the world, this is mostly true. Although I own a few things from distressed sales and have bid in quite a few auctions, I’m definitely still a novice when it comes to auctions in Singapore, particularly property auctions. They’re an entirely different animal. And here’s why.
On a chilly and windy winter morning in the seaside city of Oxnard, a group of a dozen+ strangers huddled together on the steps of the county court house on a Saturday morning, waiting for the clerk and auctioneer to arrive. This group of preregistered bidders had received the details of each defaulted property a couple weeks in advance. Our only requirement that morning was just to show up with our deposit cheques in hand. Once the clerk arrived with the auctioneer, the auction began. We stood in a circle, each with our puffy winter coats touching. There were no chairs, no bidding paddles, and no gavel. To an onlooker, we looked like a bunch of homeless people (how ironic).
The auctioneer was the kind you see in movies, fast-talking, rhythmic, and hypnotic. Why do they talk so fast? Because it creates a sense of urgency. It also helps to get through a long list of properties. Why did they have use standing so close together? Not only to keep track of us, but also to make it more personal and incite competition.
Once he announces the lot number, he opens the bid at the reserve price. The bidders will make a hand gesture or a nod to indicate their bid. Because attendance to these types of auctions were small and the auctions occurred frequently, they didn’t use paddles.
And it made it so that I was completely aware of my body movements. Any itch or flyaway hair would just have to wait.
At the end of the 2 hours, all the properties that had bids were sold (which was nearly all 22 of them). The buyers then gave their deposits to the clerk. These deposits usually amounted to around 5% of the final bid price. The balance would then be due within 2 weeks (in cash).
This was the era before the majority of defaulted property auctions went online. A lot has changed since then.
How Property Auctions in Singapore are Different
Please note that I’m referring to property auctions in the private housing market.
1. You don’t have to preregister to attend. Preregistration happens in the US because the sale terms usually are in cash. Thus, the auction house or government agency needs to verify your financial solvency. In Singapore, anyone can just walk in and participate in an auction. Who usually attends? There’s usually about a hundred people, but just a small percentage of them are actual buyers.
The audience mostly consists of property agents with fewer than half being non-agents. Many buyers/bidders will often bring their agent, or have their agent attend on their behalf. But that’s not the only reason why agents are there. Many sellers are there too (to check out the interest in their property) and these agents might solicit their services to them if/when no one bids for their property.
2. There’s no fast-talking auctioneer. The auction is conducted at a rather normal pace, with about 10 – 15 properties up for bid (excluding their private treaty listings) and it lasts all afternoon.
3. It’s not a cash sale. In Singapore, you have to pay between 5 and 10% in cash. The rest is usually from a bank loan. So you’ll need to get an in-principle approval from a bank.
4. There is a reserve price for each property. In property auctions overseas, some properties may not have a reserve price. In Singapore, the reserve price is set by the seller, developer, or the bank (in the case of a foreclosure). It’s usually a bit below the valuation price, but doesn’t have to be.
5. Very few of the properties will get sold. I’ve been to auctions where none of them get sold. Why? The bids must meet the reserve. If they don’t, the property isn’t sold. More reasons why? Keep reading.
6. Most of the properties are not distressed. In Singapore, most properties put up for auction are not defaulted or distressed properties. So as of this point, don’t expect there to be much in the way of “fire sales”. Currently, about 70% of the properties up for auction are owner sales. The remaining 30% are bank/mortgagee/estate sales.
Can You Still Get Good Deals Through Singapore Property Auctions?
In the Singapore context, buying properties at auction may not result in any real savings. In the past, there were bidding wars and property sold for a higher price than the valuation price. This is less common in today’s market.
When Knight Frank (one of the auction houses in Singapore) identifies a “star buy” or tells you an example of an “exceptional deal” that they’ve transacted in the past, they are referring to a 5% to 7% savings from the valuation price. According to their Head of Auctions, most properties sell very near the valuation price. Could you have achieved the same percent savings by negotiating through the traditional home buying route? Perhaps.
Compared to other countries, a 5% or 7% savings can be seen as rather puny. Why are the savings not higher in Singapore? Because property auctions are not primarily comprised of distressed sales. Also, because the reserve prices are much higher in Singapore, and there usually is no “must sell by” date.
In the repossessed property auction in the US mentioned above, the reserve price was the amount needed to clear any tax/estate liens on the properties. Whereas the reserve price in Singapore auctions is set by the sellers, based loosely on the valuation.
Because payment does not have to be all cash, there is also more ability for participation, which means more competition (more buyers/demand).
So can people get good deals at auctions? Yes, if you consider saving 7% a good deal but that’s not the type of savings most bidders get. Perhaps in the coming years, as interest rates increase, and more people find it difficult to service their loans, we may see an increase in properties put up for auction. We may also see more actual distressed sales. Perhaps banks will lower their reserve price in the hopes of clearing their inventory. And cash deposits might need to be increased, as in-principle loan requests are harder to obtain.
It will be interesting to know what happens then.