Singapore’s ‘shophouses’ are catching the eye of the rich, with some forking out tens of millions

Row of shophouses in Singapore’s Katong area.

Olivier Chouchana | Gamma-rapho | Getty Images

SINGAPORE — The ornate, colorful “shophouses” that line the streets in some old neighborhoods of Singapore are not what immediately comes to mind when people think of the city-state.

In a country where land is scarce and public housing can cost more than a million, these two- or three-story shophouses can cost tens of millions. But investors are still snapping them up.

Shophouses are colonial-era buildings — with some built as early as the 1840s — that are under a government conservation program.

From Jack Ma’s wife to Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan, as well as Spanish tycoon Ricardo Portabella Peralta, the rich and famous are reportedly among the buyers of Singapore’s shophouses.

Renowned Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio was also recently identified as a buyer of two shophouses along Singapore’s Club Street. CNBC could not independently verify this.

The sales volume of shophouses in the first quarter of the year surged 52.2% from the previous quarter to $169.1 million Singapore dollars ($125 million), a report by property consultancy Knight Frank showed. It cited interest from high-net-worth individuals as a key driver of growth.

This is one of Singapore’s finite gems, you have only 6,000-odd units. Whatever that’s conserved can never be recreated.

Sebestian Soh

Meir Collective

The priciest commercial shophouses along the streets of Telok Ayer, Boat Quay and Stanley Street can cost over S$5,000 ($3,700) per square foot, said Knight Frank’s executive director of capital markets, Mary Sai. That’s double that of Manhattan’s Upper Fifth Avenue, the world’s most expensive retail rental destination.

One of the biggest shophouse deals last year amounted to S$80 million for six adjoining conservation shophouses which was bought by a Chinese investor. 

The allure of shophouses

There have always been pockets of interest in these shophouses as an alternative asset class or collector’s item, but particularly so in recent years, real estate experts told CNBC. 

“This is one of Singapore’s finite gems, you have only 6,000-odd units. Whatever that’s conserved can never be recreated,” said Sebestian Soh, chief placemaker at real estate and investment firm Meir Collective.

There’s no technology that can fully replicate the intricate moldings and design elements, he said, adding that some investors hold on to them as collectors’ items.

Only the ultra-high-net worth can afford to buy shophouses nowadays.

Loyalle Chin

director, Propnex

Built between the 1840s to the 1960s during the colonial era, only around 6,500 of these shophouses are gazetted as conservation buildings. They can be used or leased for an array of uses — from food and beverage, boutique retail stores and family offices, among other flexible purposes, said Knight Frank’s Sai.

The appeal of commercial shophouses grew even more when the government rolled out a series of property cooling measures in April last year.

They included additional levies on locals purchasing second homes, and duties on foreigners looking to buy any residential property.

Shophouses, which are largely categorized as commercial, are exempted from these higher fees.

Colorful old shophouses in Cross Street, Chinatown.

Pictures From History | Universal Images Group | Getty Images

Currently, the largest proportion of these shophouses are being snapped up by wealthy local individuals or corporate entities vis-à-vis foreign investors, property experts told CNBC.  

“Only the ultra-high-net worth can afford to buy shophouses nowadays,” said Loyalle Chin, a director at Propnex with a specialty in shophouses. Ultra-high-net worth individuals are those with a net worth of at least $30 million.

“People are looking for a safe haven for wealth preservation,” said Chin, adding that these individuals are looking for safe real assets to put their money in besides other more common forms of asset classes.

“And one area that is very attractive in real assets, in Asia Pacific, is conservation assets,” he added.