The Hell That We Experienced Throughout Real Estate Processes In Singapore — Buying
Note: As mentioned in the previous post in this series about selling an apartment in Singapore, this instalment was also written over the course of many months. In fact it was started more than a year ago, beginning on Friday, May 3, 2019 and then being periodically updated, combined, and adjusted over time, albeit rather inconsistently. To document the entire excruciating process as accurately as possible, I just kept adding more and more to it as events unfolded. I was initially going to cover both our experiences with buying and selling an apartment in Singapore, as well as renovating in a single piece, however, as we encountered seemingly perpetual red tape, endless delays, and the process as a whole dragged on, this piece got painfully long so I decided to edit into three parts, and here is the second chapter about purchasing our future home. Enjoy.
Last year Anna and I had already decided on exactly what kind of apartment we wanted this time around. Until July 2020 we had lived in the type of apartment we were after when the opportunity first arose to buy, a walk-up HDB apartment in the neighbourhood of Tiong Bahru, the oldest housing estate in Singapore, that we purchased just after we got married. For those unfamiliar with the term, HDB apartments are public housing that you can rent or own and make up around 82% of all housing in Singapore, but there is a lot of bureaucracy, red tape, and restrictions when purchasing, selling, or renovating an HDB property. We loved our place, it’s exactly what we wanted that was within our budget when we bought it, but at 920 ft² we had simply outgrown it; we didn’t have anywhere near enough storage space, plus I do a lot of cooking so a larger kitchen with more bench space would be ideal, and we would also like a second bathroom and an outdoor area. Thus, we want to buy an old, private, ground-floor apartment to renovate in the same neighbourhood. This guide should give you a decent idea, we were living in a pre-war apartment and want to buy a post-war apartment:
The architect for the pre-war flats was Alfred G. Church, a British appointed by the colonial government. Block 55, the first block of 20 blocks was done by 1936. Built in the late Art Deco movement, the flats featured a style known as the Streamline Moderne. This style incorporated curved horizontal lines that embodied the machine age of automobiles. As a result, many settlers regarded the buildings as ‘fei ji lou’, or aeroplane flats in Chinese. Other architectural features include the use of masonry from the Alexandra Brickworks Company.
Built between 1948 to 1954, the design of the post-war flats was done by the SIT senior architect and the first locally appointed assistant architect. This featured an International Style with boxier, cleaner lines and modern materials such as steel, glass and concrete. In addition, the design was the first time the climate was taken into consideration as it include tropical elements such as higher ceilings, large windows, and balconies.
Even before we started looking at available apartments we had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted, but one thing was 100% certain — We wouldn’t even consider leaving Tiong Bahru. We love it here and besides the first three months when I shared a room with Anna’s brother at her parents house, this is the only neighbourhood in which I’ve lived since I first moved to Singapore almost 13 years ago. We’ve seen this place transform from a traditional, old-school, low-rise neighbourhood with simple little local stores and a chicken walking around, a place where I was the only white person and everyone knew everyone, to a gentrified home for hipsters with cafes, wall murals, indie boutiques, start-ups, galleries, bars, and restaurants, but we still love it here. Oh, and who wouldn’t want to live somewhere that has this in its early history:
Tiong Bahru was then also known as Mei Ren Wo (“den of beauties”) as it was where wealthy men would keep their mistresses. Due to close proximity to the Great World Amusement Park, there was a predominance of ‘pipa girls’ within the SIT estate, which refers to a more polite term for prostitutes. It was speculated that the pipa girls use the staircase access at the back of the flats to entertain the men, and flee whenever the men’s wives return.
That’s pretty badass for what is now such a sterile country! Anyway, we started looking at apartments when we got back from Melbourne in the middle of April 2019 and were fortunate enough to find pretty much exactly what we were after on the very first viewing with a normal, female real estate agent. She was knowledgable and asked us our intentions for the place, as opposed to just constantly telling us what we should do. This place was pretty much perfect, despite the fact it was going to need a lot of work if we got it, but we thought we should still see what else was around and that’s where things got interesting.
We looked at five other apartments, a couple of which had already been renovated in the exact same style that everyone here seems to go for so we ruled those ones out, but it’s when you’re looking at ones that need to be renovated that you hear the true bullshit from the agents. Rather than be comfortable here, many people in Singapore just think of resale value and trying to cash in so they build in every possible area, from balconies to backyards to air-wells, and try and claim it all as interior floorspace. Quite often they will also wall off part of the apartment and claim it as a separate unit that they sublet, or some will even go as far as to put a mattress, accessible only with a stepladder, on top of the clothes-dryer and a table in the area that would typically be the laundry and lease it out as an additional bedroom (above, right). The way it was advertised on this occasion also claimed that this bedroom was equipped with an ensuite, because it happened to be right in front of a toilet. Yes, that is the third bedroom with ensuite in what was marketed as a three-bedroom flat. Others also had the toilet and shower in separate cubicles, but listed them as two entirely separate bathrooms. We even saw one place that had walled off an entire area to sublet as an office, but had no way of accessing the rest of the house except for walking around the block. They had renovated it in a such a way that the only way to link the two parts together was to knock out the wall between the office’s toilet and the house’s main bathroom! “Don’t worry,” the agent explained. “That would work well for you, you need a big bathroom because he’s big.” What that agent failed to understand is that nobody would currently be able to access or leave what would be the living room without circumnavigating the block if there was anyone in the house taking a dump! Not an ideal scenario.
Then there are the agents themselves. We had two decent female ones when we were looking to buy, one of whom we had helping us sell our own apartment as well, but the rest of these sweaty-palmed mouth-breathers are among the most socially awkward people I have ever encountered, and as you may have read in my previous post on this topic, it only gets worse when you’re trying to sell a place and they are looking to make a commission. Anna organised the viewings and would send me the address at which to meet when she was on her way straight home from work, thus often I would arrive at the property first. The initial interaction between each agent and myself would generally start out somethng like this:
Agent: “Are you Anna Tan?”
Me: “No, that’s my wife. My name is Tim.”
Agent: “So… what are you, 180, 190cm?”
Me (rolling eyes): “About that.”
Agent (mouth agape): “More? What, two metres?!? Wah, you’re so tall… so very tall, you should play basketball! You know, I had a friend that was almost…”
Me (looking at phone): “Oh, Anna’s almost here.”
Usually Anna hadn’t contacted me at all, it was more a matter of trying to change the topic, because I have been getting asked these very same questions about my size, followed by the exact same responses, at least once every day that I have left the house since I have lived in Asia. The only problem with changing the topic was that there would now be an awkward silence and it is difficult to sell something to someone with whom you haven’t built a rapport. This brings about another problem for the agents as they seem the type that still live at home with their parents and don’t have a whole lot of life experience, yet they want to be all chummy and make smalltalk, just with a very limited range of topics:
Agent: “So, have you tried Singaporean food?”
Me: “Yes, I’ve had it for almost every meal for the entire time I’ve spent in Singapore.”
Agent: “Wah, so you can take chili?”
Me (rolling eyes again): “Yes, I love chili.”
Agent (wracking his brain for new topic): “Have you had your lunch?”
Me: “Of course, it’s 6:30 in the evening!”
Agent: “What did you have?”
Me: “Lor mee.”
Agent: “Oh, but you know that those noodles are typically a breakfast dish…”
Me: “You can eat Corn Flakes in the afternoon if you want and besides, the stall was open.”
It was usually at this point that Anna would arrive and the agent could attempt to bond with her while I just walked around taking photos. Anna is a woman you don’t mess with and is a bit obsessive when she has her mind set on something so she would do most of the talking with the agents, but hardly any of them could answer her questions. Rather, they would just go through a pre-prepared script that you could tell they had spent hours rehearsing in front of the mirror, pointing out changes and adjustments that could be made, but essentially ignoring Anna’s many queries related to what we wanted to do with the place.
Luckily the woman who showed us around the first place that we liked was quite knowledgable. We’ve also been pre-approved for a loan that will combine with the amount for what we sell our apartment, plus some cash we’ve been putting aside for this purpose, to purchase that apartment and renovate it.
Fast forward to mid-December, 2019 and our own apartment still hadn’t sold, the weird neighbour living behind us was dead, and our top two options for a place to buy had been sold so we were now targeting the place that would need a bathroom ripped out to enter the rest of the house. You can tell that whomever owns the place has a ton of cash, because they had the asking price listed quite high, despite the fact that it would cost a fortune to make it liveable, and had rejected every reasonable offer for the place, preferring to let it sit empty than compromise on the price. We knew for a fact that it was still empty because the mail was really starting to pile up out the front of the place.
Once we had sold our apartment we would be in a position to make a higher offer, because so much time had passed that we had accumulated significantly more cash than we had first anticipated having when it came to buying.
Anna had initially thought the asking price for the place we wanted was too high, but as I mentioned earlier, we were now able to afford it, however, she is an extremely stubborn woman who likes to get cut a deal, just like her father, leading to her constantly increase our offer in small increments until we were almost at the asking price. Finally we were at the stage where we just had to cave in and give the owner what he wanted so we informed our agents on the night of Wednesday, January 22, 2020 that we were willing to offer the full asking price just to get it all over and done with. The following morning I had to take a cheque to a bank branch a couple of kilometres away, but Anna also told me that we’d be viewing another apartment that evening that had just come on the market, it was in the original condition from the 1960s due to the person who was most likely the first owner recently dying, and was significantly cheaper than the one for which we were about to put in an offer. I was skeptical at first, because we had already missed out on the two previous places we had wanted, plus we had now finally sold our place so we could be screwed if we didn’t finalise the apartment we were trying to get. It would turn out to be a blessing in disguise, because we ended up getting beaten to putting in the offer for the other place, missing out now on three apartments in a row. Once we had a look around the new place we decided to put in an offer there and then. It was old and dirty, but when it came to renovating it was going to cost us roughly the same, this place was going to be a completely blank canvas and we would have plenty of cash left over from our original budget for fixing up the other more expensive property to spend on cool furniture and appliances. Here’s how it looked in its original state, but never fear, we are going to make it awesome:
It’s now August of 2020 and we finally got the keys for our new apartment at the beginning of the month, literally a giant ring of around 30 keys that took me several hours to separate into three different sets (there were four locks just on the front door!), but our biggest hassle had been simply buying the new place. Nothing went as planned with the purchase, but we had expected that — The lawyer for the siblings of the owner who were to inherit the property prior to sale was away for two weeks over the Chinese New Year period and then took an extra two days of sick leave after that so we were left hanging for quite a while for the deal to be finalised. We were also out of the country from late February to early March, there was then some in-fighting between the next of kin over multiple issues including the price, and finally covid-19 hit and real estate agents and property lawyers weren’t considered essential services when Singapore shut down for 10 weeks during the “circuit breaker” period from the beginning of April until early June. Getting things processed after the reopening was still extremely slow due to the backlog for everyone involved, but we were lucky that the people who bought our old apartment let us stay there for an extra three months on top of the customary three after the sale, but it still wasn’t enough. Despite initially believing that we would’ve renovated and moved into our new home by this stage, we were instead looking for another place to live temporarily while the status of our newly purchased abode was still in flux.
We ended up taking out a six-month lease on an apartment on the 22nd floor of the Highline Residences at the end of June, just a short walk down the road from our old place and directly across the road from my local pub and that brings me to where we currently stand; the place definitely looks nice and it is, but for the foreseeable future Anna, myself, and Kermit will be living in this tiny condominium with the bulk of our belongings still in boxes, sitting on some of our old, uncomfortable furniture until our renovations are completed and we can move into our new home. Admittedly, we do like having a pool and a balcony, but it definitely isn’t worth what it is costing us to stay here, although we are able to afford it mainly due to the money we saved being locked in during the coronavirus and all of Anna’s overseas conferences being cancelled. The plans and designs for the renovation are all completed, but nothing has even begun yet, because there’s a lot of bureaucracy involved, approvals to be granted, and just endless stress and headaches when you’re trying to transform a heritage-listed apartment that possibly hasn’t been cleaned since the 1950s into your dream home, plus there are a couple of people I have never liked that will now be our immediate neighbours, but that part is all a story for next time. With a bit of luck we will have moved in there by Christmas and, after having already moved house 10 times in the past 14 years, hopefully this will be the final stop.
Thanks for sharing your experience! Look forward to reading about your renovation process and your dream home coming to fruition! I recently got a unit on Tiong Poh as well, and can’t wait to move in!
Cheers, Helena, we can’t wait to be in the new place, but not particularly looking forward to actually moving. There will be plenty to write about the renovations, particularly dealing with URA 🤬
How is it progressing now? All the best with the renovations! Would be very interested to see what you do with it.
Pretty much done, just a few small things to sort out, will be writing about it soon 👍🏻