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Sunday Spotlight: With en bloc fever rising again, residents try to cash in without the mudslinging

SINGAPORE — The en bloc fever is back. But this time, homeowners appear to be steering clear of ugly spats - so far - despite opposing views towards collective sale.

Sunday Spotlight: With en bloc fever rising again, residents try to cash in without the mudslinging

Kemaman Point in Balestier is in the midst of its first attempt at going en bloc. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

SINGAPORE — With the condominium's three previous failed attempts at an en bloc sale, the marketing agent handling Amber Park's fourth try was sparing no effort to get residents on board.

Agents from JLL would patrol the lift lobby and pounce on returning residents to persuade them to agree to the sale, as at least four in five owners must give the green light before a sale tender can be called.

“They know what time you come back. They kept pestering us and it’s quite annoying,” said long-time resident Tan Chiew Hong, 35.

While her family had held out during the first three tries between 2009 and 2015, they finally signed the papers in the fourth – and eventually successful – attempt. “My mom wanted the agent to stop lurking by our door,” said Ms Tan, an architect.

City Developments Limited, through its wholly owned subsidiary Cityzens Development, and joint-venture partner Hong Realty snapped up the prime estate with a sea view for a record bid of S$906.7 million last month. Owners of the 200-unit development built in 1986, such as Ms Tan’s family, could each receive around S$4.3 to S$8.3 million from the sale.

For months, the nation has been gripped by en bloc fever as one private residential estate after another sought to capitalise on the hype, and aggressive bids by land-hungry developers made property market-watchers sit up. For instance, former Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC) estate Normanton Park was sold for S$830.1 million last month in one of the biggest en bloc deals this year. Kingsford Huray Development’s winning bid was over S$30 million higher than the reserve price.

Hoping that the third time’s a charm, condominiums such as Park West in Clementi and Cashew Heights in Bukit Timah are trying again for a collective sale.

Park West collective sales committee chairman Frankie Lim wants to ride the current wave. A marketing agent and lawyer were appointed in August and the committee is “less than two per cent” shy of 80 per cent, said Mr Lim, who works in sales.

“During the second time (in 2011), we launched the sale towards the end of the en bloc window. We were not successful as we were late,” said the 46-year-old. “The window is when developers are hungry for land. I think this is the right time.”

NO UGLY SPATS SO FAR

Homeowners for and against a collective sale continue to stoutly defend their stand and propagate their views. But if TODAY’s interviews with residents are any indication, parties on both sides of the fence this time round have been spirited but civil, with none of the the ugly spats and mudslinging seen previously.

In 2008, for instance, residents against the sale of former HUDC estate Laguna Park found glue in the keyholes of their mailboxes and on their apartment doors, as well as corrosive liquid or paint on their car. The sale fell through and the management committee chairman was eventually fined S$4,800 for putting glue in his neighbours’ locks.

Talk of going en bloc has recently begun swirling again at Dairy Farm Estate in Bukit Timah, which in 2007 saw residents starting two separate petitions against a proposed collective sale.

Residents have received flyers in the mailbox extolling the merits of an en bloc sale and, on the noticeboard near the convenience store within the estate, an unhappy resident scrawled across one such flyer: “This is Donald Trump-style fake news.”

Teacher Caroline Heng, 35, laughed after chancing upon the flyer on the noticeboard. “A guy popped up behind me and said, ‘This is not fake news! You should leave some (inheritance) behind for your kid,’” recounted the mother of a four-year-old boy.

An anti-en bloc chat group has been formed, said her husband Soh Ee Shaun. The 37-year-old artist turned down an invitation to join despite being against a collective sale. “I didn’t want to be part of all the negativity,” he said.

Mr Soh moved into the estate with his parents in 2001 and bought a unit in a neighbouring block in 2007 after marrying his university sweetheart.

“We have to really look at the price. If it’s a really large sum of money, it may be hard to resist. But there’s more to it than just having the money. Where else can I move to? I don’t think I can find a similar place,” he said.

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Both husband and wife love the proximity to nature, and have spotted various wildlife – an eagle, a pair of owls, a bat, a woodpecker and a monitor lizard - around the estate. The sightings also provide learning opportunities for their son. Encounters with monkeys have failed to dampen their enthusiasm about living close to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, and the couple said most residents love animals. When Ms Heng was four months’ pregnant, a monkey wandered onto her balcony and smacked one of her cats. Another cat hissed at the monkey and drove it out of the balcony – into a neighbour’s house.

Residents have created a Facebook group on cats, which the couple used when one of their cats ran away a few months ago. There have been tip-offs from neighbours, but the cat remains missing.

The “kampong spirit” in the estate is very strong, said another Dairy Farm Estate homeowner, Mr Jeremy Tan, who moved in around March. Although new to the estate, Mr Tan and his wife gamely set up a clay-making booth at the annual Dairy Farm Day, and are thinking of organising a clay workshop for their neighbours.

On the possibility of a collective sale, Mr Tan, 33, said: “I bought it knowing that (an en bloc sale) could happen. If it does, we will plan for another place.”

SOME CHOOSE TRANSPARENCY

Over in Balestier, freehold condominium Kemaman Point’s collective sale committee chairman Peter Mao has opted for a transparent process to avoid acrimony.

The condominium, built in 1993, has yet to receive the requisite number of residents agreeing to an en bloc sale.

Above: To avoid acrimony, Kemaman Point’s collective sales committee chairman Peter Mao, 59, makes it a point to be transparent. The Balestier freehold condominium, built in 1993, has yet to receive the requisite number of residents agreeing to the en bloc sale. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

“Even for my committee meetings, I invite residents to join. They ask questions even though they’re meant to be observers,’ said Mr Mao, 59, an entrepreneur. “The committee cannot go and convince owners to sell. That’s the marketing agent’s job. We are like a bridge. Of course, we can say our own piece as an owner.”

Some residents are not in favour of going en bloc. During a meeting, a resident raised his hand to say that he was uncomfortable with the suggested reserve price. “I’ve known him for years…Since then, he’s given me the cold shoulder,” said Mr Mao.

Meanwhile, Teresa Ville resident Caesar Sengupta has started a blog with his family members – they have two units at the 31-year-old condominium off Lower Delta Road – to raise awareness about the likely pitfalls of an en bloc sale.

The 41-year-old vice-president of a technology company, said: “I’m a bit worried that people who don’t have a lot of good counsel about this are rushing forward. The en bloc process involves getting paid at least two years later. At that point, a lot of people will be in the market trying to buy. You will have all these swanky, small new condominiums and they won’t be able to afford it.”

Behind the headlines that declared it one of the biggest en bloc sales of the year, the deal for the 488-unit Normanton Park stood out for another reason – the unanimity and relative harmony leading up to the windfall of S$1.68 million to S$1.86 million for each homeowner.

Over 90 per cent of them gave the nod to selling.

In fact, over 80 per cent agreed to do so within 11 days, according to collective sales committee chairman Sukhvinder S Chopra.

“From this, we can see that the majority of the owners are very keen to see the en bloc successfully through quickly,” said Mr Chopra, a 56-year-old retired navy colonel. In a 2015 attempt, only 81 per cent said yes.

But this could be due to a happy confluence of factors.

Built in 1977, Normanton Park was sold to military families on a 99-year lease. With nearly half of the 99-year lease gone, the majority of owners felt that it would be more logical to cash in and buy a newer property, said Mr Chopra.

The age of the estate could not be ignored, said Mr Patrick Lim, 51, a group financial controller.

His family were first-generation owners, moving into the estate even before the swimming pool was constructed in 1977. They bought a second unit in the 1990s, where he resides with his wife and two sons today.

“I didn’t want to do too much (renovation after moving in) because there might be an en bloc sale,” Mr Lim said.

Signs of wear and tear include leaky aircon units, rust on the cast-iron kitchen and toilet pipes and pavements dislodged by tree roots.

Still, it was with reluctance that the family decided to sell and they will have to vacate their home around end-next year.

Over the last month, Mr Lim has been viewing public flats. He hopes to move to Dover, Holland Village or Tanglin Halt as his sons – aged 6 and 7 – study in the area and the family goes to church nearby.

He also hopes to continue living near his parents. “I told my younger son, ‘We’re going to be moving out’. He replied, ‘I hope we can stay with Ye Ye (grandfather),’” said Mr Lim.

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