Finding a place to live in a new land can either be a daunting process or an easy feat. The latter is usually the assumption that the process is fundamentally the same …. globally. When moving to Singapore (from the U.S.), it’s a yes and no.
What is the difference you may ask? Well, it’s differences-plural. It’s the unique nuances, in unchartered territory, and unfamiliar processes that will have your inner dialogue questioning, ‘is THIS right, and how does THIS work?’ over and over again.
If you’re an expatriate and your company is covering all, some or none of your housing costs. Here’s what to know about the housing market so you can familiarize yourself with Singapore’s rental process. It will give you a leg up when negotiating the housing and what to expect.
Location, location, location
I won’t describe individual neighborhoods, but if you’re moving to Singapore sight unseen. Here’s how to narrow it down to a certain area.
Singapore is a small (but dense) island. Everything is fairly close to each other. And when I say close, it’s generally a 45 min’s drive from either side of the island – west to east or north to south (sans traffic). By public transport, the same route can take an hour and 40 mins.
Since most use public transport (as it’s super cheap, clean, and efficient), choosing a neighborhood that is convenient to the buses and trains. Is a huge consideration that’s accompanied by the affordability and size of the living space.
Naturally, house seekers map out the proximity to certain lifestyle preferences (hawker centers, nature parks, shopping, etc.), easy commutes to/from the office, and for the kiddos to get to school. A great tool to gauge distance virtually is Google Maps. I love the directions feature that provides distance, transit routes, and timing. It also gives the info’ by modes of transportation.
While many professionals work in the CBD (central business district), some do live in the area as well. For those who opt to live further outside of the CBD. Their accommodations are more spacious at a significantly lower price in comparison to the city.
Yet the further out you go, the conveniences (as walkability goes) for restaurants, cafes, bars, and grocery stores are more spread out. But most neighborhoods are surrounded by an assortment of food, beverage, grocery, and retailers options.
Honestly, I’ve never seen so many options for food and malls (Singapore LOVES their malls). It’s a similar reaction to the first time I visited Amsterdam and saw the endless seas of bicycles. I was amazed! The same goes for eating venues here in Singapore. Quite frankly, I’m still astonished at the abundance.
Let’s address the elephant in the room and pull the band-aid off quickly in terms of price sticker shock. Singapore is one of the world’s top expensive cities. It definitely stands out to its SE Asia neighbors in terms of cost.
Space in Singapore is a luxury and it’s expensive. A 1 bedroom condo in the CBD that’s about 700 square ft. sells for S$2.65M (US $2M). A similar condo in the northern hemisphere of Singapore has a price tag of S$700,000. (US $559,000). As for rental prices, expect to see averages such as S$2.00/psf to S$7.20/psf. A 1 bedroom in the CBD lists for S$2,500 – S$3,500 for a 500-980 square ft., per month. Of course, housing with roomies is less.
A family of 4 living in a condo or landed house (more on the types of housing below) in the suburbs (say Newton or Orchard) will average around S$9,000 – S$15,000. Venture further out, and a home for a family of 4 in a HDB is significantly less. Averaging around S$3,500.
Online resources for housing
Property Guru and 99.com are good staples to start an online search. Do note, these sites refer to areas in a Hunger Games type fashion. Meaning the neighborhoods are listed by district numbers. This is for agents. In everyday terms, we speak in neighborhoods /areas (Katong, Geylang, Telok Ayer, etc.).
If a certain condo catches your fancy, these sites will list all the available properties in the building and how much recent properties just went for. Knowing the trend will help you in negotiating the cost of a lease (yes, negotiating rent is a thing in Singapore). Additionally, you can also search by MRT stations and neighborhoods, then filter down to more specifics like price, size, room quantity, etc. Or start with those features and then list by MRT station or area.
Another option is taking over a lease. Join FB group, Lease Takeovers Singapore (a private group) to get a jump on a place before it’s listed.
A bit of a side note. Some postings that are fakes (I know, why? and what’s the point?). Just be wary. Most will be easily identified by a non responsive agent and the photos are mostly of the outside of the property.
Types of housing
Whilst searching online you will see there a lot of choices. Most rentals are either condos, HBD (Housing and Development Board), landed property (terraces, semi-detached, bungalows, shophouses), and serviced apartments.
Condominiums come with amenities such as a pool(s), BBQ pits, playground, tennis courts, a community area for meetings, and security management. There’s a car park (that comes with an extra fee) and a designated spot for your bicycle as well.
HBD’s do not come with these amenities but are much cheaper, sometimes a bit older and 80% of the locals live in HBD’s.
Serviced apartments are much like condos but are fully furnished, and have a cleaning service.
The landed properties provide more space, privacy, some have a private pool and are more expensive. They can be categorized by; semi-detached house (sharing a wall with another), a bungalow, a shophouse, terrace house, cluster housing, and townhouse.
When searching for housing, you will also notice that some come with a bomb shelter. Which is a great storage room. Especially when the closet space is limited.
Random note about the rental listings. Two things that are common in the States that I don’t see being done here. 1) Listings do not state for non smokers or not. Nor do they ask for references. What they will ask, if you have a pet(s) and who else will be living with you.
To use an agent or not use an agent
Uncommon in the States, you will likely be dealing with an agent for a rental property in Singapore. Whether it’s the landlord’s agent or an agent you have hired. In rare situations, there are scenarios where no agents are involved and you’ll be directly working with the landlord.
Never will there be a situation where one agent is both the landlord’s agent and the tenant’s agent. This is a conflict of interest (especially with contracts) and it would be double-dipping in the commission arena (more on this below).
If you’re in a situation where you come to Singapore and are provided with temporary housing for the first month or two. It’s good to know that agents here work quickly. It’s not uncommon to start the search and be able to find something within the first week.
There are definite pros for a tenant to hire an agent. Particularly when time and knowledge about the housing market are limited. Besides providing their professional advice. Agents will communicate between you and the landlord/landlord’s agent, schedule viewings, drive you around to different properties, and make recommendations.
Do note, you will be asked to sign a contract (agency agreement) with the agent (their agency). To get an idea of what one looks like. The Council for Estate Agents provides agreements that you can peruse. Have a look at the Lease of Residential Property by a Tenant.
Something that I cannot stress enough, is everything is negotiable. Everything. This might not be new to you, but for me, it’s definitely an uncommon practice in the States. So before signing an agency agreement, know that monthly rent is negotiable, commission rates are negotiable, security deposits are negotiable (more on this below).
Agent’s Commissions: How it works, who pays and how much.
Agents are paid on commission, but who pays it and how much is ultimately what’s written into the agency agreement. While there isn’t a set of rules and regulations, because everything is situational and negotiable, there is a general industry guideline.
Confused? Yeah, me too, only because this ENTIRE renting process was new to me. It is advised to ask upfront before entering into any contract with an agent about the commission rates.
The GST (good and sales tax) might be added to the commission rate, so read that agency agreement intently. Also if you decide to renew your lease, do take note of what the agency agreement states on this. As another payment of a commission rate will need to be paid again based on what is stated in the agreement.
Generally, the commission is based on the monthly rental amount and how long the lease is. The guideline of a $3,500 monthly rental amount, will determine who pays and how much.
Less than or at $3,500.
For a 1-year lease. The landlord will pay their agent 1/2 month’s rent and if the tenant uses an agent they do the same with their agent. If the tenant doesn’t use an agent, well that’s money back into your pocket and the tenant pays nothing in regards to the commission.
For a 2 years lease, the commission is upped to one month’s rent to the respective agent(s). The landlord pays their agent 1 month’s rent in commission and the tenant will pay their agent 1 month’s commission. That’s if you use one, of course.
More than $3,500
For a 1-year lease, the commission rate is 1/2 month’s rent and the landlord pays their agent and the tenant pays their agent (if any) 1/2 a month rate. If the tenant does not use their own agent, they do not pay any commission.
A 2 years lease, the landlord pays their agent 1 month’s rent. Then the landlord’s agent splits the commission with the tenant’s agent (if they have used one). The tenant does not pay a commission to their agent.
Viewing potential homes
Definitely have a second or third look at the property at different times of the day and on different days of the week. But only do this if you are really interested in the property. There’s no need to waste your and the agent’s time if you’re just lukewarm about the property.
Upon separate viewings on different days of the week. You may discover things you didn’t see the first time.
Such as, noisy neighbors, how bad the construction actually is, a bug infestation, high amounts of people traffic (which can slow down the use of the elevators, or when you want to use the facilities; gym, pool), damage to the floors or tiles, and windows maintenance – especially in the older apartments. Or broken locks, shaky window panels, or mold.
What to consider about a neighborhood
Besides convenience, the weather should be considered when deciding where to move. The reason being, a 10-minute walk may not sound like much, but Singapore’s heat and humidity may have you thinking differently. That’s why close proximity to places like public transport and grocery stores (albeit many have their groceries delivered) are key factors. There’s nothing more embarrassing to show up to work or a restaurant with sweat marks in your underarms and the back of your shirt.
The other thing to consider is noise pollution.
Construction. In every direction in Singapore, there is construction constantly happening. Within months a new building can erupt and block an apartment’s (selling point) view. If there’s a vacant plot of land, there’s most likely a development plan. Speaking from one who has lived next to it, there is no noise canceling headphones strong enough to block out the hammering.
Other types of noise pollution are traffic and people. While a place might be amazing if it’s too close to a busy road/intersection, restaurants and bars, or above the pool, playground, or BBQ pits. The home’s likability can quickly go downhill.
We rented an apartment that came with a big and beautiful outdoor patio. Unfortunately, we hardly used it, because it was right next to the pool and BBQ pit where the noise was constant. If it wasn’t kids screaming at pitches that would impress Mariah Carey. It was the noise from the BBQ parties that would go on till 10pm (even on a random Tuesday). So we had to keep our patio doors closed to block out some of the noise and to have privacy. Which was super unfortunate because the breeze that we would get was so nice. I feel like we got the short end of the stick with that apartment.
If you want to get the lowdown on a particular building, join and ask Singapore’s Facebook Groups (eg Expats in Singapore, ExpatLah!). Inquiry all the dirty deets, the good, the bad, and the ugly. You will quickly learn what agents either don’t know or don’t tell you (e.g. the condo doesn’t allow deliveries during certain times, the condo charges for entry passes (key entry fobs).
Generally speaking, expat FB groups are really good to join as other’s insights are worth their weight in gold.
What to know before signing ANYTHING
If I’ve learned anything in this process, is that the rental process is not black and white (I was forewarned this by a landlord’s agent who previously lived in the States). Everything is negotiable. Everything. And I’m not just talking about in terms of money (for the security deposit, stamp duty – tax on renting, commission, and monthly rent – which yes, are ALL negotiable).
The services are negotiable as well. Such as the maintenance on repairs, aircon services, gardens (if private), pools, and hot tubs (if private).
Naturally, the longer your lease is the more negotiating power you will have.
If you go onto Facebook Groups, you will see plenty of situations where unforeseen situations occur between tenant, agent and landlord. Such scenarios like, tenants being challenged about damage, and small claims court, deposits not being refunded, verbal agreements that were not met, and so on.
Hence, I can’t warn you enough to be extra cautionary to not fall into these pitfalls.
What could and does cost extra
Before signing off on a property and if you think you’ll want to extend your lease. Ensure a renewal clause is in the tenancy agreement (TA). Usually, the tenant will need to provide a written notice to the landlord (3 months before the end of the lease). If you go this route, make sure you have documentation that the landlord and their agent have 1) received the written intention and 2) accept the same price. Otherwise, you could be stuck paying an increase in rent on the same property.
A common clause in rental contracts is the tenant has the first 30 days from the start of the rental date to report any damage to the property which the landlord will incur the total cost. After 30 days, anything that needs fixing the tenant will be responsible for $250-$300 for each and any repair. And if anything is remaining, the landlord will pay the remainder. The clause will also indicate who calls the repair company and which to use.
If you know that you’ll be away on travel during the first 30 days, consider getting an extension to the first 30 days to add the additional time you are away. This could save you some coin.
Ask to see documentation of when the last time the aircons were serviced (both chemically and a routine service) and replaced.
In the tenancy agreement (TA), it will be stated you are responsible to have the curtains cleaned upon your departure and or pay for the property to be professionally cleaned.
On the off chance of a fire or flooding, ask your landlord about property insurance and what is included.
Stamp duty tax (more on this below).
The Paperwork Process
Letter of Intent
What may seem like an extra step, a letter of intent is a formality of your intent to rent a certain piece of property alongside it outlines rental terms and other conditions (monthly fee, deposit, length of lease, repairs, etc.) and secures the property with the landlord for them to disengage in searching for other tenants.
This is also a great time to add anything extra you would like included in the tenancy agreement (TA). Such as request for additional furniture or appliances, or the removal of furniture, or maintenance services to be covered by the landlord.
First and foremost. Tenancy Agreements are written to protect and are in the interest of the landlord, not the tenant. What is fair and what is within legal rights are two different things.
When you do receive the TA, ensure the scope listed on LOI matches. It’s a good practice to have a second or third pair of eyes that has your interest at heart to read over the TA as well.
Expatriates and the diplomatic clause
The diplomatic clause should be written into your TA. This will allow you to break your lease if you must leave Singapore due to a change in your employment, visa status, or order by the government (yours or Singapore’s). Usually, this needs a 2-month notice period with documentation. It’s usually not applicable for a 1- year lease. Thus, for a 2-year lease, it usually kicks in after one year. So be wary of the TA’s wording and what the parameters are.
After signing the TA, stamp duty must be paid (usually 14 days from the date of signed TA). Stamp duty is a tax for rentals on a tenancy agreement. This includes if you’re renting a room as well.
The stamp duty is .4% of your total lease. If your lease is for 2 years at $5000 a month. That’s $120,000 for 24 months. The stamp duty due is .4% x $120,000 = $480.00.
Handing over the keys
The last official piece associated with getting the keys is reviewing the inventory list with the agent at the time the keys are handed over. This is a checklist of keys, appliances, light fixtures, furniture, ceiling fans, etc. Make sure all is in working order and markdown any damage (scratches, missing tiles, paint chips, etc.). After this is signed by you and the agent, ask for a copy with the landlord’s signature and take a photo of it.
During this time you should also be documenting every inch of the property with video and pictures. Then email the documents to yourself, the landlord, and the agent, just so you have a timestamp (of the date of the handover) as well. So when it comes time to exit the property, that the crack in the wall that was there at the time of move-in, won’t be in question (aka taken out of your deposit).
Good luck in your move. Singapore is a fantastic city-state to reside in.