Relocating to Singapore is no different to any other big move, in that where you ultimately decide to live will depend on many factors. Where you work, where the kids go to school, the sort of lifestyle you want, your budget—all of these things will help to determine whereabouts in the city you end up.
Despite being geographically small, there is a lot of variety in Singapore neighbourhoods and housing styles (despite the images you’ve seen of mile upon mile of identical HDB housing), and so from the outset it’s good to have a clear idea about how you want to live your life once you’re there. Will you need to be near an MRT station or bus stop? How important is greenery to you? Do you want the kids to walk to school, or go on a school bus? What sort of shopping or recreation facilities do you want nearby? These are the sorts of questions to consider as you embark on looking for a new home.
When to Start Looking
It’s a good idea to have thought about these sorts of questions before your Look-See Visit, if you can. In this way, on that visit you’ll be able to use your time more efficiently and see more properties that are likely to be suitable than if you start from scratch once you get there. If you can provide your company HR or relocation agent with as much information as possible about the neighbourhoods and types of housing you’re interested in, this will save you a lot of time, a commodity not always in great supply on that Look-See trip.
Types of Accommodation in Singapore
The majority of expats in Singapore live in condominiums (condos), apartments that come with a wide range of shared recreation and sporting facilities, and usually have 24-hour security as well (particularly useful when you’re away on business, or visiting home in the holidays). New condo developments are being constantly built, often on the site of ‘old’ ones (i.e., more than 10 years old), and are in plentiful supply in just about every neighborhood in the city.
Condos vary in size, but 3- or 4-bedrooms are the norm, making them ideal for family living, although there are some smaller 1-bed condos and enormous penthouses as well. The location of a condo will of course have a significant bearing on the cost, as will the vintage, but for many expats condo living presents an attractive lifestyle package that enables access to a good range of facilities and a ready sense of community, combined with privacy when you need it.
When you consider the cost of renting a condo, it can be useful to factor in what you might have to pay if you were to access all of its facilities off-site. For instance, a modern well-equipped condo will offer things like reserved parking, a swimming pool, a gym, barbecue facilities, a kids’ playground, tennis and squash courts, and a clubhouse/function room. Paying to use any or all of these sorts of amenities separately could be costly indeed.
On the other hand, if you think it’s unlikely that you’ll use this stuff, it might be worth looking into a high-rise apartment, where you get the living space but without these additional facilities. Again, there are a variety of apartments to rent, although small, studio apartments for singles can be in short supply, and most younger expats and students in Singapore choose to share. Most condos and apartments will be offered as either fully- or partly-furnished, and so the amount of furniture you want to bring with you will also influence what you opt for.
As is to be expected, there are some stunning and enormous penthouse apartments on the upper floors of buildings scattered throughout Singapore, but in particular in the CBD and Orchard Road area. Some of these are the very apex of luxury living, with their own pools, roof gardens, private terraces and amazing views. This is expat living at the next level (literally!), but comes at a price, needless to say…
For those who don’t find apartment or condo living an attractive prospect, and think a penthouse might be a bit of a stretch, you can look into finding a house. However, in Singapore that straightforward term is broken down into a number of sub-categories, each with its own particular characteristics, and so if you do opt for a house it’s important to understand the distinctions.
Landed housing refers to any sort of low-rise house that stands in its own grounds i.e. doesn’t share facilities with another house, nor is attached to another property. The former is known as a cluster house, the latter as a semi-detached property.
Cluster houses are the Singapore equivalent of the private housing estate or gated community, where landed properties (usually uniformly designed and built) are grouped together in a small compound (often with security) and may share some recreational facilities and private car parking.
Semi-detached houses in Singapore are the same as elsewhere in the world, in that they are usually a pair of houses with a common wall (which you might also find as part of a cluster). Although the garden and outdoor spaces aren’t normally huge, the living area of most semi-ds is usually larger than you’ll find in an apartment. You will also find terraced housing in older neighborhoods in Singapore, which are sometimes called rowhouses or townhouses (the last in the row is called and end terrace, and is usually more desirable).
Other types of landed property include bungalows, which are found in a variety of styles, from classic colonial to uber-modern. Bungalows are very often at the top end of the market, as they usually come with a good-size chunk of land, but they do provide a quality of life that is unmatched. And then of course, at the upper end of the upper end, there are the famous Black and White Houses, large and grand bungalows originally built by Singapore’s colonial administrators in the English style. Today, these are largely government owned and extremely expensive to rent, located as they are on prime real estate in the country’s most established and sought-after neighborhoods.
A final type of housing that you may come across, and one that is growing in fashionability, is the shophouse. Built originally as combination home/workshops for Chinese artisans, they fell out of vogue for many years, but are undergoing a renaissance, many being renovated so as to be Singapore’s equivalent of loft or warehouse living, or converted into trendy boutiques and mega-cool coffee shops. Do take care, however—if a shophouse is described as being ‘Peranakan-style’, this means it’s as yet unrenovated and so probably won’t have air conditioning, and the plumbing will be pretty creaky.
Of course, the most ubiquitous form of housing in Singapore is the HDB flat. However, this is not always a straightforward option for expats. Certainly, unless you are a citizen or permanent resident it is not possible to buy one, or rent from the central authority, but it is nevertheless possible to rent an HDB flat privately from the owner, provided certain conditions are met.
Unless the owner has express permission, it is illegal to rent out an entire HDB flat, and so to sidestep this, some less scrupulous landlords will simply lock a room, thereby claiming that they’re not renting out the whole place. However, should this ruse get rumbled, you as the tenant will find yourself out on the street. Genuinely renting a room or rooms in an HDB is perfectly fine, but if you want to rent the whole place, make sure you get a sight of the landlord’s written approval.
Doing the Deal
You’ve found a place, and decided that you want it. The processes involved in leasing a property here are peculiar to Singapore, so it’s useful to know what to expect from the outset. Your company HR or relocation agent will no doubt be aware of much of this, but it’s good to be as informed as possible beforehand, particularly regarding some key documents.
The first of these is what is known as a Letter of Intent, which enables you to ‘lock in’ a property that you like. This is a letter (which will be prepared by your company HR or relocation agent) which goes to your prospective landlord saying that you wish to lease the property, and sets out your requirements e.g., that the property will be throughly cleaned beforehand, who is responsible for repairs, the deposit required, monthly rent, etc. This should also be accompanied by a good faith deposit (usually a month’s rent) to demonstrate your commitment, and which is offset against your security deposit (but which you forfeit if, after signing the LOI, you pull out of the deal).
The next stage is the tenancy agreement, a fairly standard document but one which is nevertheless legally binding. Most leases in Singapore will be for 12 or 24 months—longer or shorter periods of time are very unusual. You’ll be required to pay a deposit that is determined by the length of your lease—12 months and the deposit will be equal to a month’s rent, or two months’ rent on a 24 month lease. Bargaining on the rent when you are negotiating a lease is perfectly acceptable and is expected; however, be wary of a landlord who offers unusual terms (e.g., pay a higher deposit in return for a reduction on the rent, or vice-versa) as not following a standard contract may lead to problems down the line.
A vital part of the tenancy agreement is the Diplomatic/Expatriate Clause, an unusual aspect of a Singapore rental contract, but an important one that should be included. This clause means that you can end your contract at any time (once you have been there for 12 months), provided you give two months’ notice. If you’re unable to give this notice, it may be that you have to pay the difference that would cover the time until the Expatriate Clause kicked in. This is, however, not a way for you simply to change your mind about where you live; rather, it is designed so that if your company moves you on again to another posting out of Singapore, or your EP is revoked, you are not saddled with a huge, outstanding lease to cover.
A final thing to be aware of is Stamp Duty, which is payable by the tenant. There are different rates of stamp duty payable depending on the length of the lease:
For lease of up to 1 year, $1.00 for every $250 or part thereof of annual rent
For lease of more than 1 year and up to 3 years, $2.00 for every $250 or part thereof of annual rent
For lease of more than 3 years or for an indefinite term, $4.00 for every $250 or part thereof of annual rent
In our Singapore Expat Neighbourhood pages, we will take you through the areas of Singapore that are most popular with expatriates. However, Singapore is a diverse and welcoming city and so there is absolutely no need to feel constrained in where you choose to live. Rather, we are presenting the areas that already have established expat populations and so have the facilities and infrastructure in place that most expats have come to expect.