Home Search Part 2
Searching for a new home can be a stressful and time-consuming affair. You may feel under enormous pressure, as you will like to settle in soon and save costs on hotels or serviced apartments. It is, however, important to take your time, as once you have signed a lease you are bound for some time and it is difficult to break the lease. There are many locally very well-connected estate agents who can help you to find your dream home in a short time.
It is of enormous advantage if you do some research by yourself. In the section “Find A Home“, you will find all necessary information at your fingertip, including maps, commuting time, residential areas and districts around schools.
The people providing home search services are commonly known as Housing Agents, Property Agents, Real Estate Agents, Estate Salepersons, Realtors or Property Consultants. Agents are paid to find you a home either by the landlord or by you (the prospective tenant) to whom he acts as a consultant. Agents are only paid once the lease is secured. Some agents do provide settling-in services, which comprises of applying for utilities and telecommunication by filling in the appropriate forms.
Agents are not eligible to provide legal advice or able to act as surveyor but should help you to set up the Letter of Intent. They can also connect you to a legal adviser if your company is not providing one.
Assessing an Estate Agent
Unlike many Southeast Asian countries that lack official or self-regulating bodies for estate agents, property agents in Singapore have to be licensed by the Council for Estate Agencies (CEA), a statutory board. CEA refers to a property agents as an estate salesperson. CEA regulates and controls the practice of salespersons in estate agency transactions. To quality to be a property agent, one needs to fulfill a set of requirements set out by CEA, including undergoing training and examinations before one attains an estate salesperson license from CEA.
Although there are more than 30,000 licensed property agents in Singapore, only some of them have the experience of handling expatriate relocation requirements. To select a property agent for your home search, you can do the following:
● Take time to go through his personal marketing materials.
● Test his knowledge of the market, regulations and indication of rent levels.
● Ask for his qualifications.
● Ask for recommendations from current and former clients and call one for reference.
● Ask if he has professional indemnity insurance.
● Ask about membership in an official or self-regulating body.
● Does the agent personally know the landlord.
There are different ways landlords appoint agents to market their homes. If homes are listed with a number of agents, you may face stiff competition for popular homes and may need to make up your mind quickly to secure the lease.
● The landlord appoints several agents to market his property who all compete against each other to earn commission.
● The landlord has appointed one agent only but is free to rent his property out by himself.
Co-Brokerage/Joint Marketing Listing:
● Two agents are appointed by the landlord and share the commission.
Home Search Strategies
The chapters Home Search Strategies and Bargain a Deal lead you through the different technical stages of a typical home search. Detailed information what to watch out when screening a home you will find in Home Screening. In countries with a multiple listing system such as Singapore, you can work with just one good agent at a time.
When you contact an agent they like to know your rental budget (housing allowance) as to match you with a home suitable for your budget from the start on.
You may find it difficult to disclose this information, but be assured that professional agents will keep it confidential. Usually you will be shown homes slightly higher and slightly lower than your budget. This helps you to get a “feeling” what is available and within your reach. Some companies may even offer you to share the savings and give you cash when you decide to take up a lease below your housing allowance. This may be just the money you need to lease a car and allow you look for a home further out!
Your first Home Search Tour
● Take a very good city map with you.
● Ask the property agent to show you the prime residential areas and to prepare some information. Inquire about the reasons for his choices.
● Ask about general prices in the area.
● Inquire which areas are close to where you need to be (schools, office).
● Point out to different houses on the way and ask about their renting price. You will soon have a pretty good idea what is generally available for your money. Inquire about the advantage of living there as an expatriate.
● Ask which schools are close. Note the most important positive and negative features of your findings for each residential area (and their names!) you have seen.
● Circle the areas of your choice on your map and check the roads of your choice for connections by public transport if this is an alternative for you. Write down the bus numbers going to the office, shopping, the city and the schools.
At the end of this trip you will have a pretty good picture of the location. If there are other areas you have not seen, schedule another trip. State exactly what you want to see.
If you have not done so before you should now be able to evaluate your needs by drafting out a Home Assessment Form and pass your findings on to the agents in writing. Set a price range in which the agent should show your homes and clearly state the ceiling!
A typical example of your Home Assessment Form for your initial requirements may look like this:
● List of locations you have to be close to (school, office).
● Semi-detached house with medium sized garden – max. 10 years old.
● Semi/partially furnished (means: e.g. curtains, kitchen, cabinets).
● 3 bedrooms + 1 maid room + 1 study.
● Rather large dining and living rooms suitable for entertainment.
● Garage or covered parking space.
● Distance to the city (office) not more than_____. (Fill in)
● Walking distance to shopping or public transport required.
● Owner should allow pets.
● Quiet location preferred.
● Rental agreement for three years.
● Rent between US $5,500 and US $6,500. (state in local currency).
Print out copies of your Home Assessment Form to take along on your home search tours for quick assessment and screening. You can quickly tick the relevant box of your findings and do not need to write much. Keep your findings in a ledger. Take a video camera or your digital camera to help you remember the many houses and areas. You may also like to share them with your partner and family. Go to Home Screening for more information on how to assess a home. Being well organized will save you time and a lot of stress.
The number of locations to see during each trip depends on the traffic in the city. Ask the agent. You should not require more than 10 minutes for screening a home during the first visit.
After a few trips you will have a pretty good overview of the homes available and you will be able to change your misconceptions and prioritize the most important features of your ideal home. Experience gained and the records of the Home Assessment Form will help you to keep track.
Your findings may be:
● Many bedrooms are too small to place a desk for study.
● Kitchens or bathrooms have outdated features.
● Air-conditioning is definitely needed in all rooms.
● A pool in the garden is not important as long as we can walk to the club.
● Security is more important than initially anticipated.
● The maid’s room should not be too close to the family bedrooms.
● A large garden is not practicable.
By now you will know where to compromise and what to ask from the landlord. A tenant market usually allows you to bargain some extras.The following lists alternatives:
● The bathrooms features need to be renovated: ask for replacement.
● The kitchen is dreadful: have it modernized by renting/buying new appliances.
● The bedrooms are way too small: consider a bigger home with one additional playroom or study for the children.
● The garden is a mess: ask for landscaping.
● You hate the curtains provided: have new ones custom made.
● The air-conditioners are very old (older than 5 years): ask for new ones or risk trouble.
● There is no study: use the family area or a bedroom/guest room instead.
● Some bedrooms have no bathroom: share bathrooms.
● You hate the wallpaper in the master bedroom: ask for a replacement or permission to replace.
● The carpet is ugly and worn out: insist on another floor cover.
You will simply know after so many homes visited when your dream home comes along. Once this happens, it is crucial not to reveal your excitement to the landlord. Keep a low profile by keeping two or three visited homes on priority. Ask your agent to convey the message to the landlords, that contract conditions and flexibility of the landlords will help you to make up your choice.
Visit all the homes with partner/family at different times of the day and night (noise check), check distances by driving at peak hours to schools and offices and most important: set up a list of things you want to have done and included in your contract. See below for more information.
Bargain A Deal
It will depend on the market situation in the country if you have space for bargaining extras. A good agent will advise you on the local situation.
As you are always competing with other expatriate newcomers, never reveal the address of your dream home to others. There have been very unpleasant competition drives and agreements have fallen through because expatriates were fighting over the same home and you can avoid disappointments only if you keep things for yourself. However, if a dream home is not allocated to you, you should not be angry or frustrated but rather see this as a chance of finding even a better home now! This is rather the rule than the exception.
Keep in mind that expatriates do have to pay higher rents than the locals for many reasons:
● Expatriates often live in prime areas close to international schools and with high security.
● Landlords need to upgrade and renovate houses more often as expats assignments and leases are generally short or mid-term.
● Landlords also need to calculate expenses connected to the diplomatic clause meaning that a lease contract can be canceled it the expatriate is posted to another country.
● As many expatriates look for homes seasonally (usually in summer and in January) the demand is high and prices rise.
● Houses rented out to expatriates are often newly built for investment purposes and then the rents are higher than for older homes.
● If you cannot find a suitable home within a reasonable time and feel your housing allowance is way too low, you need to approach your employer for advice. Show him your ledger and sum up the problems in a written report ideally accompanied by pictures. An official assessment of the rental market from the agent might help. The solutions to such problems are many and depend on the policy of your company and your agent.
● One option is to pay part of the rent by yourself. Your contract may state that you have to participate with a certain amount or percentage by yourself anyway. Have a clear idea of what comes on top, like cost for electricity (air-conditioning!), water, gas, etc. before you commit. Ask other expats what they pay for a comparison rather than your local agent!
● Some expatriates prefer living in a home costing less than their home allowance and ask for the money to be paid out for a car instead.
Letter Of Intent
Start the negotiation period with your prospective landlord by drafting a letter of intent. This letter indicates your intention to rent his property suggesting payment and duration of the lease and works you want to have carried out before you move in. Your agent generally drafts the Letter of Intent on your behalf. Use the Home Check List and Home Check Results for preparation.
How to use the Home Check List
To prepare a letter of Intent a home needs to be checked at least by two persons and we have prepared two tools to help you to go through this procedure. Try to remember what is mentioned in Housing Needs and Home Screening as we guide you along with the help of the Home Check List and Home Check Results.
The Home Check List consists of bookmarks to remind you what to examine. Go through these bookmarks in each room. While you check the various conditions the partner fills in the results in the Home Check Result Form. This form provides the basis for your Letter of Intent. Note down every problem you see, you can always opt for leaving it out of your list in a later stage of your negotiations.
Your agent will inform you about competitors trying to seal a deal with the same landlord. Depending on the situation, you may have to negotiate less aggressively. It may take time until the landlord comes back to you. Be patient. If things are not moving, continue looking for houses. This will speed up negotiations.
If your landlord refuses to undertake some minor renovations, it may be reasonable for the company to take over some commitments (like purchasing an air-conditioner) rather than have you stay much longer in an expensive serviced apartment or hotel.
Ideally you will be able to influence renovations as for style, design and color. Try to include this in your contract. Be aware that landlords may renovate everything as cheaply as possible. Once your contract is done you need to watch over renovations and repairs and visit the new home frequently before you move in.
The Lease Contract
Important Contract Features You may think the following terms and conditions are generally included in a lease contract. They are not!
● Professional cleaning of the house, patios and terraces including cabinets and all appliances and windows before moving in.
● Polishing floors and brass parts. (Door knobs)
● Foam cleaning carpet flooring and soft furnishings.
● All items listed in the Letter of Intent should be repaired.
● Air-conditioners should be fully serviced and chemically cleaned.
● Pest Control for Home Diseases and consequently treatment of home and garden. (Including roof.)
● Removal of old appliances and furniture not wanted.
● The house and garden cleared of trash and debris.
● The bushes, trees, and grass trimmed.
● The water tank and filter to be cleaned and technically checked.
● The septic tank to be pumped out and checked.
● All drains leading to the house cleaned.
● All electrical appliances (incl. lights/plugs, water heaters) checked by a certified electrician.
● All bathroom and kitchen fixtures checked by a certified plumber.
● All gas appliances checked by a certified expert.
● The lightning rod grounding checked.
Traditionally the lease agreement with an expatriate includes a:
In some countries you may have to pay the full rent over the whole period in advance (Korea) But, even if you do this, you should keep back some payment (25%) that will only be given to the landlord once you are satisfied with the scheduled renovations.
Payments Before Lease Commencement
Gas, electricity and water etc. will be only switched on once a deposit is paid.
In many Southeast Asian countries, you have to present your employment pass when ordering a telephone connection. A letter from your company certifying application for an employment pass may do. The same applies when entering a mobile phone contract.
Stamp Fees for Payment of Lease
In some Southeast Asian countries this payment needs to be done by the tenant. The fee is calculated pro-rata to the length of the lease.
Security Deposit and Advance Rent
The landlord often uses up the advance and deposit to renovate the home and the return is unlikely. Both payments are calculated pro rata.
Your Housing Needs
First you need to evaluate your needs. Do this together with those moving in with you. It seems a lot of work but will clearly lead you to your requirements.
The answers are also a valuable help for those screening/previewing homes for you. If you ever make changes to your needs during your search you have to pass them on to your consultants.
● Decide on the Location by determining transport needs and checking security issues.
● Decide on the number of Bedrooms and other rooms you need.
● Decide on other Facilities which should come with your home.
● Safety and security in your neighborhood.
● Transport needs and distances to schools, offices, shops and the airport. See Location Assistant
Neighbourhood Safety and Security
Security has top priority and prime residential areas should be targeted to increase security and safety rather than living in a remote place by yourself. What happens in your neighborhood will have major effects on your general well-being and your subjective feelings of safety. In Singapore, the standard of security is very high. For example, it is generally quite safe to walk alone at night, even for ladies.
● A construction site comes with noise, piling, air pollution, mosquitoes and workers who live on-site, lorries damaging the roads leading to your home, traffic obstructions etc. Construction work in Southeast Asia is not limited to daytime or working days only but may continue 24 hours including weekends and holidays.
● Any free plot of land may be used for future development.
● Old or vacant buildings are prone to be pulled down.
● Connection roads to major streets of the city indicate high traffic, pollution and noise.
● Public buildings like schools, stadiums, churches, temples or a hawker center attract a lot of people and traffic.
● Mosques come with five daily prayers (sunrise!) via loudspeakers.
● Guards and security alarm systems at the neighbors may hint security problems or high profile neighbors.
● Barking dogs at the neighbors may be disturbing.
● Primary or secondary jungle may harbor creatures not welcomed. (Snakes, monkeys.)
● High trees or high-rise buildings next to your home make it dark and humid inside
● Floods and landslides may occur at homes at the foot of steep slopes.
● Easily flooded roads are a traffic obstruction.
Distances to schools, office, airports and shops for your daily needs will rule your life. Heavy traffic and traffic obstructing floods are not uncommon in Southeast Asian cities and even small distances can turn out to be a long drive. Keep times for commuting as short as possible.
Find out if it is safe to drive by yourself. If it is not safe, find out about hiring a local driver.
Drive the distances to/from offices and schools during rush hours note the time before you sign the lease agreement.Parental involvement in International Schools is frequent with many school visits each week. Children in international Schools attend many activities in the afternoon and need to be picked up regularly if there is no after class transport.
By School Bus
If you use school transport you need to call the transport office of the schools to find out pickup and drop off times of your children. Find out about activity buses and their frequency. Check security level of buses. If your child suffers from asthma, the school bus needs to be air-conditioned to shut out air pollution.
Using Public Transport
If you decide to use public transport, ask expatriates if it is safe and reliable. This applies above all to young women and teenagers. Public transport in Southeast Asia is seldom fully air-conditioned and a sweaty affair for foreigners. Many bus stops are not sheltered from rain or sunshine, and are often just a sign at the roadside without proper pavement to wait and walk. Public transport is heavily used and generally there is no seating. Buses used are often hardly roadworthy let alone safe according to Western standards.
If you want to use taxis for commuting find out about availability, waiting time and additional costs if ordered by phone. During bad weather and weekends taxis may not be available and long waiting lines should be planned.
Next you need to know the number of bedrooms you require as housing agents are going by this figure and not by size such as amount of square meter/square feet. Take less furniture and store or sell the rest. We bet you will be tempted to buy some antiques or reproductions in Singapore and even the region!
If you have frequent house guests from overseas staying with you a guest room should be included, preferably with en-suite bathroom.
If you plan to have an extra study to place your PC in a constantly air-conditioned room add another bedroom. Many Southeast Asian homes have open areas allocated as studies.
If you plan to have a live-in maid you have to look at the servant’s facilities. Extra servant quarters come with older detached houses whereas modern apartments sometimes do not have a maid’s room any more. Some maid’s rooms look like a small walk-in cabinet with no place for a bed.
While the agent might like to know the number of bathrooms you need, you should be flexible and not plan on en-suite bathrooms for all bedrooms.
|Available now in home country||Needed in Asia|
|No. of bedrooms:||+ Guestroom|
|You may include the study as a bedroom and/or use one bedroom as a maid room||+ Study + Maid’s room = Total bedrooms|
Living and dining rooms are not mentioned specifically when home searching. They are usually connected to each other. In older apartments they have a pretty good size whereas the more modern houses and apartments tend to have them smaller as land in Southeast Asian cities is now more expensive and houses are built on smaller plots. Semi-detached houses and town houses often have multi-floored layouts on small plots and you may find it difficult to place a large dining table or cabinet.
If your company wants you to entertain at home, you should look at detached houses or cluster houses (houses in a compound sharing garden and pool) or at large renovated apartments in older condominiums.
Houses in Southeast Asia are built differently from what is familiar to you. They reflect the living conditions and style of the tropics and do respect the needs of a family with servants living with them. Older houses were not constructed to have air-conditioning and are open to let the air flow freely. Shutters shut out the bright and hot sun, large covered patios provide shelter from tropical rains, and some are even built on stilts to prevent flooding. Mosquito screens are mounted on doors and windows, iron bars protect the inside from curious monkeys, large drains run through patios and gardens and there is sometimes an extra house for the servants to live in.
The floors are made of wooden planks or cool tiles and the traditional bathroom does not have a shower cabin but the whole bathroom is the shower resulting in the whole place being flooded. The kitchens are often divided into a wet and a dry kitchen, which allowed servants to slaughter animals and use the wet kitchen to undertake messy food preparations. The modern achievements of washing machines, tumble dryers and dishwasher were not provided and you may find old houses which still place those amenities outside the house at the back of the kitchen.
When the modern world reached Southeast Asia, many of the houses were converted and updated to suit the Western style of living and attract expatriates. Some have the stilts disguised and you cannot reach the inner open space under the house and stilts cannot be checked for termites. Consequently the open window concept had to be changed to harbor air-conditioning and you see many doors and windows with huge gaps where the cool air can enter freely and make your electricity bill skyrocket.
Large fridges and freezers invaded the kitchen and super-sized washers and dryers overload the old moderate electrical system so that it breaks down frequently. New electrical lines to raise the wattage were brought in and electrical wires joined at strange places. Security and safety was not so important after all! The bathroom floods as usual but now reaches the edge of wall-to-wall carpeting in the bedrooms, put down to delight the Expat of the 60s, 70s and 80s.
This should explain adequately what has been done to the traditional Southeast Asian home to comfort you, the expatriate, even if it is more often than not up to your taste. You may be able to upgrade some facilities in view of safety and security and throw out carpets to see a nice floor tiling or wooden floor appear underneath. Many windows have dark glass as Asians love dark rooms. They can be changed to make your home brighter but also hotter depending on sunlight exposure. New bathroom facilities can be installed and filthy looking toilet seats can be exchanged. If another expatriate has lived in the house before, those works usually have been undertaken.
Houses Versus Apartments
Dreaming of tropical flora and monkeys on palm trees in your garden? The romance and nostalgia, which come with a detached colonial style house with a large garden, are highly attractive for many expatriates. Have a look at the pros and cons of houses and apartments first:
Pros of a House
● You can keep pets and do not have to share your pool with others.
● Those homes come with extra rooms for domestic helpers, traditionally even with a little house (servant’s quarters) next to the main house with own bathroom and kitchen facilities. This gives you more privacy, which is very important, as many expatriates are not used to living with a maid.
● Space for living and dining is very often much larger in a house than in an apartment and you might find this more suitable as you may be expected to entertain guests of your company at home.
● Semi-detached houses, terrace houses and townhouses in the city are generally more modern and less secluded. Families with children often live in these houses and friends can be made easier. Areas close to school are frequently expatriate enclaves where mothers share transport and exchange help.
Cons of a House
● Gardens may be small, neighbors very close.
● You need to have more help to keep the place clean, work the garden and guard the house. All costs involved have to be paid by you.
● Older houses often have higher electricity costs as windows and doors are not properly sealed. Tropical Home Diseases and unwanted guests are more common as in apartments as you live generally closer to Nature with all its advantages and dangers.
● Large landed houses are often quite secluded and far away from any public transport.
● Houses are very much sought after and generally quite expensive. Semidetached, terrace and town houses often have multi-floored layouts on small plots and you may find it difficult to place a large dining table or cabinet.
Pros of Apartment
● For those who travel a lot, stay mainly in their office and do not miss the tropical touch when living on the 16th floor, this is the ideal choice.
● Apartments may offer the same space as in a house with the advantage of sharing popular facilities like swimming pool, tennis courts and gyms and to have all this effectively guarded in one compound.
● Apartments in older condominiums are much bigger than those built during recent years, reflecting also the fact that land was much cheaper then.
● New condominiums often have features the older houses do not offer. For example: the air-conditioners formerly installed as central units are now installed as split units to offer individual adjustment. This is energy saving and will reduce your electricity bill!Modern layouts may offer an open concept with large windows, white walls, lime-washed wooden inbuilt furniture, ultra modern kitchens and bathroom.
● The latest development in Singapore are E-enabled homes, with sockets for TV, cable, telephone and broadband in each room. You can switch on and of the air-condition in your home by a signal sent from your office. Yet these new apartments are substantially smaller and may not have a maid’s room or storage facilities.
● Condominium facilities offered range from a swimming pool to billiard rooms, squash courses, tennis, gym, 24 hours security and receptions. Some even feature supermarkets, hairdressers, dry cleaners and more for a life without much hassle.
Cons of Apartments
● Do not underestimate the disturbances from your neighbors as many buildings are not so well insulated and windows seldom come with double-glazing. Traffic noise can be heard even through closed windows. Neighboring apartments in condominiums undergo renovation once the former tenant moves out and you need to put up with frequent construction noise.
● Sometimes lifts need to cater for many floors and you have to wait long for a ride. The risk of fires and earthquakes is much higher in high-rise buildings.
● Water pressure may not be sufficient depending on the facilities and the number of tenants and floors.
● Sharing of facilities – especially pools, can be quite disturbing. Try to relax at a poolside with twenty kids having a birthday party!
● Also check on the security of windows and balconies. Windows often do not have security glass, iron bars or safety locks.
Many times expatriates have fallen in love with large gardens belonging to their homes as they represent the essence of a life in the tropics making them clinch matters for their decision on a home. Large trees with monkeys and squirrels, fruit trees and coconuts, butterflies and bees, the smell of the frangipani in a tropical night and the songs of the nightingale through the open windows! From many years of experience we can say: unless you are a born nature lover and not afraid of any creeping creature on earth you need to be aware of what is tied to a life close to Asian’s nature.
Monkeys and squirrels can be a nuisance, and their bites are dangerous. The fruit trees attract bats and squirrels and other animals in the food chain, butterflies are nice but Asian bees’ stings hurt and may cause an allergic reaction unknown to you before. The bushes harbor cobras who pose a threat to your dog, spiders which bite your children when they recover their football out of the hedge, and last but not least: the open window without any mosquito screen is a tempting invitation to mosquitoes transferring dengue fever and malaria.
It might sound a bit exaggerated, but you need to see the other side of the fence. As long as you train yourself, your family, and your pet (!) on how to deal with this abundance of mother nature so close to your doorstep, a tropical garden can be wonderful. Follow the advice of your maid and gardener as they are used to this world from early years onwards and have the clear advantage of being trained to survive in the tropical world.