As multi-billion ringgit investments in Johor's Iskandar Malaysia take shape, property players and investors are increasingly positive that the Johor property market is poised for a golden era after a sluggish decade.
KGV-Lambert Smith Hampton executive director Samuel Tan is among those convinced that Johor Bahru and Iskandar Malaysia's property scene are on the cusp of a change of fortune.
"The past 10 years have been miserable. When we look at Kuala Lumpur's property market, we are full of envy," Tan told a media briefing in Johor Bahru last weekend.
Although property values and demand have a long way to go before they catch up with the hot real estate markets of Kuala Lumpur, the Klang Valley and Penang, Tan said the narrowing gap in values provides investors good upside potential.
Although total transaction volume for properties in Iskandar Malaysia remained constant over the years, he said, the transaction value and demand have been on the uptrend, particularly since 2H10.
Data from the National Property Information Centre (Napic) show that the transaction volume in Johor in 4Q10 more than doubled to 5,147 units from 2,105 in the preceding quarter.
Significantly, the transaction value nearly tripled to RM1.13 billion in 4Q10 from RM397 million in the previous quarter.
Tan said greenfield projects like those in Nusajaya had impacted the Johor property market, as it carved out a well-planned space for high-end properties, with improved accessibility and amenities.
"Instead of buying cheap houses, people are now willing to pay higher prices. People are changing their lifestyles. They are going for things that offer them prestige, lifestyle and security," he said.
Moving forward, Tan predicted that Johor Bahru would see the rise of more serviced apartments in the city centre, driven by growth in population and economic activities in the state capital.
He said luxury properties in Johor largely targeted foreign buyers, given the restrictions on foreigners purchasing properties priced below RM500,000.
However, almost 60% of property investors in Johor last year were local buyers, which Tan said indicates growing confidence in the Iskandar Malaysia story.
Brownfield developments in the well-located suburban areas too will see growth due to improved infrastructure connectivity and commercial decentralisation, he said.
Apart from residential properties, shop offices and commercial properties in Johor have also seen a substantial increase in prices as people were starting to view commercial properties as investment products, Tan said.
Land values have seen substantial increase as well, as investors begin accumulating landbank on optimism that Iskandar Malaysia would blossom into a thriving economic hub, Tan said.
Many large developers have been flocking to Johor Bahru and Iskandar Malaysia, likely realising that the upside potential in Kuala Lumpur and the Klang Valley was limited, and that Iskandar Malaysia would be the next untapped hive of economic activity.
However, industry observers had expressed reservations as to whether the rising potential of Johor's property market was indeed sustainable in the long term, given that it was largely dependent on take-up by domestic and Singapore investors who have a wide array of options.
Malaysian Rating Corp Bhd vice-president for ratings Rajaseharan Paramesran said Iskandar Malaysia's continued ability to attract investors would be a key factor in driving demand for residential and commercial properties in the region.
Rajaseharan noted that Iskandar Malaysia had surpassed its own projections, receiving RM3.76 billion in investments for the first quarter of this year, bringing the total investments to date to RM73 billion.
The added impetus for Iskandar Malaysia's growth would be the infrastructure upgrading within the development region, closer cooperation with the Singapore government and the establishment of various educational institutions.
"Previously these were just development concepts and plans but these are now being actualised, thereby generating interest among property buyers," Rajaseharan told The Edge Financial Daily.
According to Rajaseharan, although there were previously large overhangs in the Johor property market, the huge focus on the Iskandar region, supported by Khazanah Nasional, would continue to drive the momentum in the southern state.
However, Rajaseharan added that property developers would still have to balance supply and demand dynamics despite the presence of strong factors to support growth in Iskandar Malaysia.
In a similar vein, Iskandar Regional Development Authority (Irda) CEO Ismail Ibrahim said the Iskandar Malaysia planning authority was mindful that there must be a healthy balance between supply and demand for properties.
"We don't want a mad rush of landowners or property players building properties. They must first identify an economic anchor before building their townships," Ismail told reporters in Johor last weekend.
Ismail noted that housing prices in the southern state had been on the rise, a marked shift from the largely rental-driven real estate market in the region.
"We see demand for residential properties as a spillover from the economic activity that is taking place. In the past, properties were largely for the rental market but now people realise that they can work and live here," he said.
Despite the optimism, data from the Valuation and Property Services Department show that Johor continued to top the national list in terms of total volume and value of overhang for residential property and shoplots in 4QFY10.
For residential properties, Johor recorded an overhang of 5,599 units of residential properties valued at RM1.01 billion, almost a quarter of the country's total overhang for the sector in 4QFY10.
For shoplots, Johor posted an overhang of 2,456 units valued at RM612.34 million, significantly outnumbering the other states and federal territories.
The southern state also topped the list of unsold residential properties and shops, in terms of those under construction and those not constructed.
OSK Research head of research Chris Eng said 2012 would be the tipping point for Iskandar Malaysia as actual commercial projects start up.
"Iskandar Malaysia is looking increasingly bright but we need on the ground commercial activation to kick off first," he told The Edge Financial Daily.
He said demand for the medium range residential properties in Iskandar Malaysia had been strong and should trigger the secondary effect of demand for shoplots.
KGV-Lambert Smith Hampton's Tan conceded that many investors have been sceptical as to how Iskandar Malaysia can achieve the optimum critical mass needed to support the construction and real estate projects.
"I view Iskandar Malaysia together with Singapore because of the proximity and connectivity. We have six million people between these two areas and if you can tap into this catchment, it is great," Tan said.
Analysts concur, although they said much of the change in perception towards Iskandar Malaysia also had to do with the corporate developments in UEM Land Holdings Bhd, which took over Sunrise Bhd last year.
Sunrise chairman Datuk Tong Kooi Ong is now part of UEM Land's development committee that will spearhead the development of its landbank in Iskandar Malaysia.
In the process, UEM Land, with a stronger management and branding in place, has since emerged as one of the top property picks for analysts and fund managers this year.
However, an industry observer also advocated some caution amid the euphoria as investors begin comparing land prices between Iskandar, Johor and Singapore, and expect more convergence.
"While land prices in Iskandar Malaysia are a fraction of Singapore's, there is no guarantee it will become the Shenzhen of Hong Kong," he said.
The observer added that price convergence for Iskandar Malaysia may be less like the Shenzhen-Hong Kong model, which was a "one country, two systems" situation.
"Here, is it two countries, two systems," he said adding that for Iskandar Malaysia to be successful, it has to first build a sizable local population, rather than rely purely on Singaporean investors.