Buying real estate in Singapore signifies a serious investment, particularly as the value may often exceed a million dollars for condominium properties. With this in mind, it becomes crucial to conduct all necessary checks before proceeding. The conveyancing process in Singapore is designed exactly for this purpose, providing definitiveness and safety for real estate transactions.
The conveyancing process in Singapore includes various stages: sourcing the property, assessing related costs, carrying out due diligence on the selected real estate, and securing an option to purchase. The second phase commences once the buyers have remitted the conveyance fee. They then instruct their lawyers to exercise the option to purchase, place a caveat on the property, and obtain the ownership certificate from the authorities.
For non-residents buying property in Singapore, the conveyancing process necessitates additional steps, as foreigners are generally prohibited from purchasing landed property, HDB flats, or structures below six stories not classified as a condominium. Therefore, preliminary due diligence should include determining the buyer’s eligibility to purchase specific real estate.
While buyers can perform some of the tasks such as sourcing or title search independently, the involvement of lawyers is not only recommended but mandatory by law for registering the title transfer with the authorities. Expert conveyancing lawyers not only facilitate a thorough examination of the property, title, ownership structure, and documents but also ensure a secure deposit of the downpayment and smooth title transfer.
Sourcing and Due Diligence on Properties in Singapore
The undertaking of sourcing and conducting due diligence on real estate in Singapore should be preceded by determining a buyer’s eligibility to own the property. The Residential Property Act imposes restrictions on foreigners purchasing landed property, which includes not only the building but also the land ownership. Consequently, condominiums remain the most accessible option for foreigners in Singapore. However, the law does provide certain exceptions for non-residents, including the right to buy residential units in buildings above six floors or landed property on Sentosa Island. Finally, specific categories of foreigners may be eligible to purchase restricted properties, such as land, after obtaining prior approval from the authorities, making a case-by-case evaluation essential before proceeding.
Assessing Associated Costs
The act of purchasing real estate invariably incurs taxes and fees, and buying property in Singapore is no exception. In addition to the price of the property, the buyer will need to account for property taxes, conveyancing fees, stamp duties (ranging between 1-4%), and an Additional Buyer’s Stamp Duty (ABSD). ABSD impacts Singaporeans purchasing more than one property, as well as foreigners, and its rates can climb up to 15% and even 25% — for instance, in the case of entities buying a 3rd property.
While tax calculations can be conducted on the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) website, prospective buyers should also verify the maintenance fees, various insurance costs, and the so-called sinking fund fees levied by condominiums for future needs. Additionally, costs for researching the title, preparing the documents, and the lawyer’s commission should be considered. However, these expenses are typically just a fraction of a percent of the total cost of real estate transactions.
Title and Structure of Ownership
The seller’s ownership of the property should be validated via a title search, conducted through the Integrated Land Information Service (ILIS). This search should identify all the property owners and their corresponding shares. The ownership structure requires clarification as well. In the case of joint tenancy, all tenants possess equal rights to the property, irrespective of their financial contribution to the purchase price. However, tenants-in-common hold rights proportionate to their shares.
Form of Ownership (Tenure)
In Singapore, properties can be owned under freehold or leasehold types of tenure. With freehold tenure, the sellers outright own the property, whereas leasehold tenure implies that the sellers have the right to lease the property from the government for a varying period, from 1 to 99 years. There are instances when such leases extend up to 999 years, but these cases are so infrequent that they can often be disregarded. Naturally, buyers will mirror the seller’s tenure on the property, so when buying leasehold property as part of the conveyancing process in Singapore, it’s essential to calculate the remaining period of the lease before it expires.
Continuation of the conveyancing process is only feasible in the absence of encumbrances on the property, such as mortgages or caveats placed by third parties. Buyers can verify whether any caveats have been placed on the properties through the Urban Development Authority’s website, which furnishes information about transactions involving caveats or issued options to purchase. However, if buyers are still keen on a property with a caveat, they can request the seller to have it removed in court. Nonetheless, the property should be clear of all caveats before proceeding further with the process.
Availability of financing options
In case the buyers need a loan to purchase property in Singapore, they should ensure that the financing would be available before asking for the Option to Purchase. This would prevent buyers from being sued if, for some reason, the bank declines the loan and would further exclude situations when buyers lose their option fee. Still, in current practice, buyers pay a 1% option fee to sellers to get an option to purchase even before starting their research.
Option to Purchase, Payment, and Title Transfer
Executing the Option to Purchase
After the buyer and buyer’s lawyer have done all the checks as described above and made sure the property has “good root” of title which means that it is available for sale and there are no problems with ownership, the buyer’s lawyer shall exercise the option to purchase and make the arrangements for paying the deposit. At this stage, the buyer also pays the rest of the option fee, which can amount to 9% of the purchase price.
Lodging a Caveat on Property
After the buyers’ lawyer has exercised the option to purchase and the buyers have made prepayment, they have all the reasons to make sure that the property would be no longer available for any other potential buyers. In order to do so, the buyer’s attorney should lodge a caveat on the property with the Land Titles Registry of the Singapore Land Authority (SLA).
Buyers are required to make a downpayment for the property to a conveyancing account opened with their lawyer. Alternative options include a conveyancing account of the Singapore Academy of Law or escrow accounts jointly owned by the buyer’s and seller’s lawyers.
Example of calculating the option fees and downpayment: Assume the buyer is purchasing a private condo apartment with a listed price of $1,000,000, an option fee of 10%, and a maximum allowed financing of 80%. When initiating the option to purchase, the option fee is 1%, or $10,000. After the buyer’s lawyer exercises the option to purchase, the buyer pays the option exercise fee, amounting to 9%, or $90,000. The remaining downpayment equals $200,000 minus the paid option fees, totaling $100,000.
Transferring the Property and the Title
Once the buyer has made the downpayment, the seller should transfer the property into the buyer’s possession and hand over the keys. At this stage, the buyer conducts a final inspection of the property and either accepts it from the seller or comments on defects to be rectified. The buyers then proceed with the registration of the change in ownership with their lawyer and the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), receiving a transfer form and a certificate of title, which concludes the conveyancing process.
Although conveyancing in Singapore might seem straightforward, it does come with its own set of potential hurdles. One such challenge is the potential loss of the option fee if the deal falls apart due to the buyers not receiving financing or changing their minds at the last stage. In light of this, conducting preliminary due diligence on the property, including an assessment of its value and common charges, before paying the option fee is crucial.
While buyers can perform some of the research independently, it’s recommended to assign the task of searching for caveats on the property and conducting a professional due diligence review to qualified attorneys. Considering the high prices for real estate and the notable significance of the option fee even when calculated at 1%, entrusting the conveyancing process to experienced lawyers provides the best assurance for the successful completion of property purchases in Singapore.