The Edge Singapore
Meet Amous Lee: the Singaporean developing and selling homes in Japan with FM Investment
Amous Lee, group CEO and partner at FM Investment (FMI), has a unique background. A veteran of international property with over 20 years of experience, the Singaporean has carved out a career in real estate all across Asia.
He started his career at Knight Frank, where he rose up the ranks over the years. He served stints in Singapore, Thailand, and Hong Kong, eventually becoming the head of Greater China, marketing international property projects to Hong Kong and Chinese buyers. After a decade at Knight Frank, Lee left to join IP Global, a Hong Kong-headquartered property investment firm.
In 2014, Lee struck out on his own, founding FMI, which he envisioned as an end-to-end business that not only provides agency and consultancy services, but also undertakes development and investment projects. Today, FMI has a vast portfolio of property projects across the globe, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Vietnam, Australia, and the US.
In Japan, besides helping partners and clients invest in Japanese properties, the firm has an added layer of expertise — it serves as a turnkey developer that builds and sells its own properties. This makes FMI a distinctive entity within the Japanese property landscape. “We’re a developer in Japan that understands the nuances of the Japanese property market, and also what people from other parts of Asia like Singapore are looking for, ” Lee says.
FMI’s beginnings in Japan
When FMI first ventured into Japan in 2014, the firm operated primarily as an agency, helping Japanese developers market their residential projects overseas. “Our first Japanese client was a developer from Osaka that wanted to sell to international buyers. We helped them to sell out about six or seven projects,” Lee recounts.
“In Japan, buyers will usually wait until a project is completed or three months away from completion to buy. This is different from Singapore and Hong Kong, where buyers
tend to buy new property off-plan,” Lee explains.
Lee decided the best way to learn the buying process was to buy Japanese properties himself. “I wanted to put my money where my mouth is and learn the process for myself, from finding a mortgage to figuring out the rental process and tax implications.”
That in-depth understanding helped him effectively market Japanese properties overseas, which in turn led to the FMI building a strong reputation. “Marketing projects gave us a foothold in the Japanese market and helped us gain some recognition,” Lee says.
He soon spotted a mismatch in supply and demand when it came to overseas buyers. New Japanese projects were often marketed locally first, meaning that units available to overseas buyers would be the leftover unsold units. In addition, projects in Tokyo often had strong demand, meaning that developers would not market them overseas.
“Even though we had interested buyers, there was often no stock to sell,” Lee recalls.
Venturing into property development
Seeing this gap, Lee started exploring the idea of venturing into property development. By then, FMI had set up FMI Japan, a dedicated subsidiary for its projects in the country.
FMI Japan approached developers, proposing to co-partner and undertake property development projects together. One of its earliest projects was a 50:50 joint venture to build Shibuya Hill Top, a condominium located less than a 10-minute walk from the iconic Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo. Lee launched the 25-unit freehold project for sale in Hong Kong as soon as the project got its planning permission approved — and it sold out within 12 hours.
Not long after, FMI Japan embarked on more projects, this time in Oshiage, an area close to the Tokyo Skytree tower. “We built three to four blocks there,” Lee recalls, adding that those projects also sold out quickly.
As a result of these successful partnerships, more Japanese developers started approaching FMI Japan. Besides contributing capital, FMI Japan would market the projects overseas, while the development partner would construct the buildings. “We helped local Japanese developers tap into the international market, which they usually weren’t familiar with,” Lee says.
Helming own projects
Eventually, Lee decided it was time for FMI Japan to develop properties without the help of a joint-venture partner. The first project it built was at a site in Ginza East, Tokyo.
Lee had initially planned to just refurbish and sell the building, which was originally an office block. But looking at the site, which had picturesque views overlooking cherry blossom trees in a nearby park, Lee saw its redevelopment potential. He decided to tear down the building and build a new 10-storey apartment. The project was entirely funded by Lee. “Because we had no construction experience, we couldn’t get a construction loan. So every cent had to come from my pocket,” he recalls.
Indeed, undertaking the project was a steep learning curve. “There were a lot of lessons to learn about construction, because it’s a different territory,” Lee says. For one thing, construction costs in Japan are a lot higher due to the country’s exposure to earthquakes, which in turn requires building projects to adhere to earthquake-resistant construction requirements. “Any new building in Japan has to be able to withstand earthquakes of up to seven on the Richter scale,” Lee shares.
In addition, Japanese building regulations require developers to complete construction within specific timeframes, typically around 12 to 15 months. Developers that do not meet the timeline will be charged interest daily.
While learning the ropes of construction was challenging, FMI Japan overcame these obstacles, completing the project in 2017. Since then, FMI Japan has continued to build and sell its own projects. Today, it has completed 12 developments across Tokyo and Osaka. The company focuses on boutique projects with about 20 to 50 residences, which allows it to seek sites in prime areas.
Helping clients navigate the process
With its experience accumulated over the years, FMI Japan has developed a firm grasp of every aspect of the Japanese property market. This, combined with an understanding of foreign buyers’ needs, gives it a unique advantage. “We help educate our clients on Japan, because there are a lot of misunderstandings about Japanese real estate among Singapore and Hong Kong buyers,” Lee says.
The Japan real estate market has become a lot more attractive in recent years, thanks to persistently low interest rates and favourable exchange rates. Unlike countries like Thailand, Australia or Canada where there are strict laws governing home ownership by foreigners, Japan does not have such restrictions. Lee adds that mortgages are now more widely available to this group of buyers.
FMI Japan helps clients navigate the process of acquiring a property in Japan from end-to-end. It also has a suite of after-sales services, which include assistance on tax filings and a management team who helps clients with renting out their units and visa application. “A lot of our clients are eligible for the Japan’s Business Manager Visa, which entitles them to education, healthcare and welfare benefits similar to those for Japanese citizens,” Lee highlights.
The firm caters to a full spectrum of clients, ranging from individuals to developers and institutional or private investors. FMI Japan has handled deals starting from $300,000 for a single condo unit to $20 million for a 50-room hotel.
Lee expects Japan to continue attracting interest from investors, especially in Singapore. With the latest property cooling measures that were announced, more Singapore investors will be looking abroad, he predicts.