SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Far from the madding crowds of Singapore's glitzy shopping malls, Cynthia Neo runs a bridal boutique tucked away in a nondescript industrial building in an old housing estate, pushed off the high street by pricey retail rents.
The owner of J&C Bridal Collections pays one quarter the rent she once shelled out for a shop in the heart of Chinatown, where a string of restaurants, hotels and retail shops meant a steady stream of shoppers.
But rising rents may be creeping into the industrial parks too. Industrial property prices have surged 27 percent this year after a government crackdown on residential investment pushed speculators into factories and warehouses.
Residential property developers are starting to wade into the light industrial market too, trying out upscale "lifestyle" office parks that look like posh condominiums.
Some established industrial players say valuations are getting a bit too rich.
"It's been our assessment that the market has started to get a little hot," said Nick McGrath, chief executive officer of Singapore-listed AIMS AMP Capital Industrial REIT.
"We've used the strength of the market in the last 12 months to sell properties rather than buy," McGrath said, adding that the real estate investment trust has shifted its focus to upgrading existing assets instead of buying more.
Singapore's government has introduced six rounds of measures to cool rising home prices, including an additional stamp duty aimed at foreign buyers and a cap on tenures for all new residential property loans.
Those moves succeeded in capping property price increases this year - the residential market is up just 0.96 percent through October - but they did not bring about the 10 percent fall that some analysts had predicted.
Now the government is turning its attention to industrial property. To make land prices more affordable to businesses, in July, it capped lease terms for industrial sites sold under a government land sales program at 30 years instead of 60.
Singapore's light industrial parks, typically simple mid-rise buildings with a few standard facilities like cargo lifts and unloading bays, are home to small- and mid-sized startups, wholesale businesses and back-end offices.
But rising shop rents have made them increasingly attractive to store owners who would normally prefer customer-friendly malls or pedestrian-filled shopping streets, and some have started converting part of the industrial space for retail.
The rising industrial property prices have not fully filtered through to rents in these buildings, which are up a relatively modest 6 percent this year, but when long-term leases are renegotiated, tenants may be in for some nasty shocks.
That could create problems for small business owners, who are grappling with higher operating costs.
"Inflation and labor costs are already high. Some are worried about rents that may inadvertently increase in tandem with prices," said Png Poh Soon, head of research at Knight Frank Singapore.
That may lead some businesses to buy industrial properties instead of renting.
"Together with the investors, the increase in demand drove prices up amidst cheap financing, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of higher prices and cost of doing business," he said.
Pixal Culture, a photography studio that caters to weddings, bought a unit in an industrial building in western Singapore in 2008, owner Steven Yeo said.
"It's much easier, because landlords may get you out after a few years. Nobody can increase our rents," he said.
Singapore Member of Parliament and entrepreneur Inderjit Singh asked the government last month what its plan was to keep industrial land affordable for small- and medium-sized enterprises. Local media reported that the response from Lim Hng Kiang, the minister for trade and industry, was that rising industrial rents have not dented Singapore's competitiveness.
WAREHOUSE WITH A POOL
McGrath, of AIMS AMP Capital, said he has observed more investors speculating in the industrial market's strata subdivided space, where carved-up smaller units have commanded per square foot valuations some three to six times more than his warehouses.
The sharp rise in industrial property prices has rung alarm bells for some, but attracted interest from developers new to this space. Construction firm Hock Lian Seng Holdings Ltd won a bid in June to develop a site in an industrial area in Singapore's east.
Residential developers are also getting into the industrial game - and bringing some homey touches with them.
Oxley Holdings Ltd, which has built residential projects with units selling for $2 million apiece, started developing "lifestyle" industrial properties last year - complete with swimming pools, gyms and rooftop gardens.
It has launched four such projects, two of which have been fully sold, indicating strong demand for strata-title units despite high valuations.
(Reporting by Charmian Kok; Editing by Emily Kaiser)