Why I Chose HDB Over Private Property

When deciding on a property—one that you and your family will call ‘home’—there are some important factors besides finance that you should keep in mind.

As a foreign-born HDB dweller, my housing decisions have been often inquired upon. With this article, I hope to shed light on why I chose a HDB flat over private property, and why Sengkang West of all the housing estates. I will also offer some friendly guidance to those also looking to make Singapore their home.

Celebrations at Sengkang West. All images courtesy of Peter Breitkreutz.

Celebrations at Sengkang West. All images courtesy of Peter Breitkreutz.

Resale HDB: Are you qualified?

This should be the first checkpoint for non-Singaporeans deciding between HDBs and private properties. For those considering resale HDBs in particular, there are quite a few eligibility conditions and legalities you should take note of beforehand. For instance, resale HDB buyers have to be Singapore Citizens or Permanent Residents, or have at least one such listed occupant. In terms of regulations, there is one rule widely covered in recent news: you must sell off any private property you already own within six months of purchasing a resale flat. More information can be easily found on the HDB InfoWEB.

Unless you meet the stated criteria, your best bet is private property. In case anyone was wondering, PRs are not eligible to purchase new HDBs.

Condominiums: Are you sure?

Why not a condo, you ask? Very good question!

When we first moved to Singapore sans PR status, we did not want to do the stereotypical expat thing and move into predominantly foreign communities. After spending some time searching for the right location, we thought we couldn’t get any more ‘heartlander’ than moving to Woodlands, the northern-most part of the island.

However, we failed to realise that moving into a rental condominium still meant that we ended up surrounding ourselves with a non-local community. Additionally, security guards and boom gates ensured that we were practically locking ourselves out of the community, and the community out of our lives.

Sure, the facilities (pool, gymnasium, function rooms) and privacy that come with condominiums are attractive. But the security measures, in particular, did little to make us feel safer in a country that already boasts one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Neither was it helpful in integrating us into the community we so desperately wanted to belong to. It felt almost like we were on an extended business trip at a resort; definitely not like a place I’d call home.

After a few years there we decided to explore our options, this time deciding not to rent. The dramatically fluctuating rental market then affirmed our decision, but it was not our main motivation. It dawned on us that to really integrate and root ourselves, boots and all, in Singapore for the long term, we needed to stop living the ‘pretend heartlands’ lifestyle. Even now, we still hold the belief that rent money is dead money when it comes to planning for our future in Singapore.

This decision then led us to the resale HDB option.

We soon realised that many five-room HDB flats (or ‘three-bedroom’ in foreigner speak) were larger than modern condominiums, and the newer HDB buildings and estates were styled similar to condominiums. New HDBs were taller, with fewer flats per floor, an elevator at every level and actual hallways within the flats!

Our current apartment has 22 floors with only four ‘point blocks’ on every level. It has a layout and style similar to our former private home, but with more area and a lovely view. Of course, the difference was the lack of private pool and security.

Sengkang West HDB flat.

Sengkang West HDB flat.

HDBs: a golden opportunity for integration

If not for living in an HDB estate, we never would have gotten the chance to serve the community.Joining a local grassroots organization not only satiated my passion for charity work, but also afforded us a key opportunity to know and befriend those in our community. Another step towards integration in our new country!

I am now a grassroots leader and member of the Anchorvale Community Club Management Committee, with a community network that now stretches across Sengkang West. We are proud to be part of a strongly bonded community, where it is very rare to visit neighbourhood shops and eating places without running into people we know. We now treat our neighbours like family, and vice versa!

I think such a deep integration at the grassroots level is not impossible should we have opted for yet another private property, but I am sure it would have been much more difficult.

A family carnival at the HDB heartlands makes a good opportunity to get to know neighbours.

A family carnival at the HDB heartlands makes a good opportunity to get to know neighbours.

Sengkang West: Who are the people in your neighbourhood?
As a young family with two ickle boys, we fit in quite well in Sengkang West, which was then (and is still considered) a relatively new and developing part of Singapore. We have seen so many new buildings sprouting up over the years, and practically grew up with this estate.

Furthermore, as we are still considered a foreign family, joining a blossoming community instead of a mature estate was in hindsight also made it a little easier for us to cultivate a sense of belonging.

Family time at the park.

Family time at the park.

HDB for the long haul

When it comes to deciding between HDBs and private apartments, it’s all about your personal motivations and your desired lifestyle in Singapore.

For us, we wanted our locally born children to be completely immersed in the culture of their birth country. Our elder boy now attends a kindergarten near our home, swimming classes at the public sports complex, and art classes at the local Zone E RC office. His best friends are Singaporeans too. By living in the HDB heartlands, we plan to eventually enroll him and his brother in a local school.

We would not dream of giving up our HDB lifestyle in a million years.

Meeting Senior Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Meeting Senior Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

So if you’re looking to truly make Singapore your home, I think the answer is a no-brainer: move out of the expat comfort zones and into the HDB heartlands. It’s a decision that has fulfilled my life; I am certain yours will be too.

Decorating – It’s All About the Timing

Cash over valuation (COV) can be a controversial variable in the Singapore HDB resale market.

By all accounts, COV can be determined by many factors such as proximity to shops, food-courts, public transport or other amenities. As I’ve learnt from our apartment search a couple of years ago, another oft-forgotten determining factor is whether or not a flat is in good condition, well-maintained and recently renovated.

We looked at a number of different apartments before settling on our current block in Sengkang West. I must say that I was both amazed and disappointed that so many potential sellers put very little effort into the presentation of their interior prior to a viewing. It was an immediate turn-off to walk in and see an apartment in disrepair or simply unclean. And to add fuel to the flame, the sellers often asked for cash well above valuation – which would potentially eat into any budget set aside for renovation.

Walking in to the first viewing of what is now our apartment was a different story. The first thing that hit us was that the entire place was immaculately clean. What’s more, the renovations were already completed, and gave us an insight into something that we hadn’t seen in any other flat we had viewed. Its layout was completely unique and I can guarantee that there is no other apartment with the same fantastic features – although every 5-room flat in our block was identical at ‘birth’.

Along with the gorgeous browns, tans and light décor, one of the knock-out features of the open plan living areas is the built-in bar. Although we don’t entertain as much as we would like to given our busy lifestyle, the bar perfectly complements the rest of the decoration style.

The built-in bar. All images courtesy of Peter Breitkreutz (aussiepete.com).

The built-in bar. All images courtesy of Peter Breitkreutz (aussiepete.com).

We had no previous experience with decorating a property in Singapore, nor did we have any benchmark on how to go about it. We just researched extensively and went it alone – as a result, I’m guessing that although we were more than happy with the end result, we may have paid much more than we should have.
Here’s my key advice: be sure to plan your settlement and handover date in relation to required renovations, decorations and relocation very meticulously. Do not under any circumstances think that if you only have a small amount of work to be done – bathrooms or painting, for instance – that you will be able to co-locate in your new home while the work is underway.

When looking at any renovations in a HDB, the first thing to do is understand exactly what you are trying to achieve. In the case of our bathrooms, my wife had some very specific requirements in terms of placement of sinks, showers, toilets and the new bathtub. I had my own expectations about hot water systems, space utilisation and ambiance.

A computer-designed 3D visual of the common bathroom.

A computer-designed 3D visual of the common bathroom.

Once we had decided on a framework of what we wanted, we then went online and found contact details for a number of different renovation companies. We also visited a few companies we’d seen over the previous couple of years.

After talking with a number of these companies and looking at some of their previous work and testimonials, we eventually settled on a couple to give us quotations on our requirements. This involved selecting the tile patterns and designs that we wanted – the fixtures and fittings – toilets, bathtubs, shower heads, taps etc. After much searching we found a successful interior decorating firm that looked after our permits, provided labour, drew final designs and worked with us closely through all stages.

Not wanting to complicate things, and with the need to move into our flat as soon as possible, we also had the design company take care of securing professional painters to give the entire apartment the once-over.

The newly painted lounge room.

The newly painted lounge room.

The entire process of renovation was actually quite quick – maybe 3 to 4 weeks if I recall correctly – from the moment they entered the premises to the time they gave us the key back and we started moving furniture.

Although the exercise was relatively expensive, we were ecstatic that we were able to move into our very own resale flat that was unique to us in every way we wished it to be.