My Journey As A Single Homebuyer In Singapore: Why I Bought My 3-Room HDB & Spent $29k To Renovate It
- September 3, 2022
- 12 min read
We all know what it’s like for singles to buy a home in Singapore. Other than the prohibitive, and quite frankly, arbitrary minimum to be 35 years of age, the other problem is that you don’t have unfettered access to all BTO units. As such, many will have to turn to resale HDB flats.
This week, we spoke to Zat (@Zatiman), who has quite an unusual home.
He has been staying in his 3-room resale HDB flat at Serangoon North for the past 8 months now. Unlike what most would do, Zat took on a very unconventional approach. His whole renovation cost came up to about $29k without furnishings. But what’s most interesting is that he opted for a zero-fixtures style, no top cabinets in the kitchen, and the entire home has no overhead lighting – just cosy, ambient lights.
Here’s his very relatable journey to home ownership so far:
Why did you decide to buy an HDB flat as your first home?
The short answer is financial practicality. The long answer is that I couldn’t fathom spending so much money on a condo in Singapore, especially not with the sizes I could get for a price I could afford. Also, I’m buying for staying, not for investment. Additionally, I wanted to buy a unit where I could pay most of the downpayment and other ancillary fees using CPF. The grant given to me as a first-time buyer helps, too – it’s my right, after all.
What were your considerations? Did you have other options, like a 2-room Flexi BTO or condo?
I applied for a 2-room Flexi 3 times, and each time, my queue number was four times the number of flats available for selection. A 2-room Flexi would have been so great for my lifestyle; I wouldn’t mind getting it in future if I had the opportunity.
Don’t get me wrong. This current resale is excellent, but, like I tell many people, as the only occupant, there are parts of this house I never go to. A 3-room is great for two but for one person with very few things, it can get a bit wasteful.
What was the home search process like? Tell us more about the different units you were deciding on and how you narrowed your search.
The home search was harried. I was in a time crunch due to a new job (I wanted to get the flat before I got the job, so I didn’t get bogged down with two new life events simultaneously). I was very specific with what I wanted in a unit.
First, it has to be within 4 km of my parent’s house so I can utilise the Proximity Housing Grant. My current unit is 3 metres shy of being beyond this distance (dangerous living, I say).
I also wanted to stay near the vicinity of Serangoon Gardens. I used to write at a cafe there all the time, so I grew to love the neighbourhood. My current flat is a quick 15 min walk, or four bus stops away.
I was also adamant that it be kept below $300k AND absolutely no COV. This was when sellers were playing the COV game, and I knew, financially, that I couldn’t bear to pay anything extra beyond the flat’s selling price. I was prepared to forfeit my OTP cost if the valuation was lower than my buying price.
Thankfully, the valuation and the buying price are the same. My agent couldn’t believe her eyes – she was sure there would be COV.
That’s not to say I didn’t look at other areas. There was one unit at Jalan Bukit Merah where I could see myself living. It’s central, the price is similar, and it’s on a high floor. But it was an estate sale with documents pending clearance – the realtor put it up for sale, I reckon, to see how much he could price the flat. I was obsessed with that unit to the point I told my realtor to call the seller’s agent before I signed the OTP to check if the unit was ready to be sold. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be.
I was intimately involved in looking for suitable units on all the housing portals. And because I wanted to make full use of the 90% HDB loan, the search parameters were particular. I was looking for flats built after 1986 that I could stay in till I was 95 (I think), which left me with only a handful of neighbourhoods to choose from. I remember looking at flats in Ang Mo Kio, Tampines, Yishun, Hougang, and Bedok.
Lastly, the most important criterion was that the flat could not be East-West facing. After living 20 years in an East-West sun, I’ve had enough of a warm bedroom at night.
Why did you decide on Serangoon North in the end?
There’s a certain charm of an old neighbourhood like Serangoon North that I had forgotten, having lived in Sengkang for nearly two decades. Life here is slower. There are fewer people, buildings are further apart, and I can breathe easier because the air flows that much better.
The neighbourhood is also very, very quiet. I reckon with a higher population of older folks, there’s not much activity to speak of – no children screaming at the top of their lungs, for instance. I’m also equidistant to Ang Mo Kio MRT, Hougang MRT, Mayflower MRT, and Serangoon MRT. It’s pretty convenient in terms of connectivity. In a few years, the Cross-Island line will also be built at my doorstep.
How did you decide on the design style of your home?
Like everyone else, I watched videos. But I wasn’t attracted to those homes that were too polished and chockfull of built-in carpentry every way you look – no. That’s not the life for me. What scares me about built-in furnishing is its permanence of it. Having a TV console (urgh, why would you need a TV console in this day and age) stuck to the wall permanently means you can only place your TV and the sofa facing that spot. Having a built-in wardrobe also means you cannot change the layout of your room. Just the thought of that sends shivers down my spine.
I was very inspired by this particular home – especially the kitchen. If you notice, my kitchen and his kitchen are exactly the same. I also liked his concept of keeping something from the old house in respect of the mise-en-scène, so I did the same with my bedroom door and frame.
It’s hard to pin a design style to my home. I would say it’s very reflective of who I am – austere, intentional, and malleable.
Take us through the changes that you did for your home:
I was so disappointed when I couldn’t keep the original blue/grey tiles due to finishing issues (there were a lot of holes from hanging things on the wall). But other than that, the kitchen turned out exactly how I imagined it.
I did move the kitchen sink away from the rubbish chute – covering or hiding the chute, I feel, makes maintenance of the area even fussier. But moving the sink away meant I had to redo the piping since my sink is quite far from the original drainage.
I was also adamant about having a stand-alone stove.
Beside the stove is my beautifully crafted one-piece stainless steel countertop, which I’ve abused and scratched in more ways than one. I love that the sink is built INTO the countertop, which means no leakage – ever. My ID had to source this from a commercial kitchen supplier in the same building. During the installation, the boss from the retail kitchen supplier came down because she was curious about how it would look.
Below the sink are two movable drawers that I can roll out when I want to vacuum or mop the floor. But beyond practicality, this also aligns with my dislike for permanent furnishing in the house. The drawers are deep and wide – it’s pretty impressive if I can say so myself.
The flooring for the kitchen is the only one in a lighter wood tone, separating the area visually from the rest of the home.
The only toilet in the house is in the kitchen. I could have made a door from my bedroom to the kitchen, but I kept the entrance in the kitchen instead so guests could use it freely when they came over.
The toilet is the biggest undertaking of the house since it involves hacking away the insides and rebuilding it, so it’s two times bigger. My bathroom measures almost 2m x 2m with a shower area that’s beyond luxurious. I also placed my washing machine inside – I always believe washing machines should be used, not seen. Plus, having the washing machine inside also means if there’s any possibility of water leaking, it will flow to my toilet instead of the kitchen.
I also didn’t use overhead lights for the toilet, opting for soft spotlights that I deftly angle, so the whole space is sufficiently lit.
Also, the toilet bowl I got for free from a BTO owner who didn’t want it. BTO owners automatically give away their HDB-provided toilet bowls just because everyone says it’s not good – poor water pressure, takes two tries to flush etc. So I took it, changed the mechanisms inside, removed the water tap on top and replaced it with mahogany wood. Someone on Carousell was providing the service then.
The door of the toilet is made of chicken wire glass. I got that inspiration from an IG home account that also used the same glass for his toilet door. I love the diffusion it gives from within when the lights are on.
Initially, the living room was narrow. So I decided to hack away at the walls and use the first bedroom as the TV and sofa space. In contrast, the original living room area is used to place my 10-seater dining table. It’s ten because I counted how many friends I have in my life, and it amounted to 10. I also have exactly ten family members.
A glass wall separates the TV room from my bedroom – I wanted the space to be as open as possible. Glass gives it that impression while visually separating the two areas.
My marble coffee tables, armchair, and carpet were from Carousell. The floor chair and plant table were from my previous home. I leaned into getting things second-hand as much as possible. Six of my dining chairs were also from Carousell. I polished the wood and reupholstered the seats, so no one could tell it was upcycled. The dining table is 2.4m long and is from IKEA. I’ve always imagined having a dining table this long, so this was a dream come true.
My dining room shares the same space as my work area. Everything at my computer table is from my previous place except for the ErgoTune chair. The chair I got for free when I signed up for a credit card.
The entire house is lit by ambient lighting. There are no overhead lights anywhere in my house. The goal is to make the house glow like a lantern at night. And since I automate all the lights to switch on simultaneously, the transformation is gradual but effective when night falls.
This is the simplest area of the house to renovate. There’s only a Queen size storage bed, an open wardrobe (from my old place), a 3m x 2m carpet (from Carousell), and a vanity area with a trolley and a standing mirror (both also from my old place). That’s all. I use the bedroom for sleeping only, and it shows.
There are also soft white curtains that I use to further mark out the area between the entertainment and rest areas.
What was the renovation process like?
I met ten IDs at a cafe in Raffles City over three days. Eventually, I settled on one who I can see genuinely wanted to undertake this renovation for the interesting concept. She tells me that while doing the renders, colleagues often came up and stood behind her and wondered why there was so much unused space. They even offered her suggestion to relay to me. Still, she was adamant about fulfilling my vision and did not push for anything I didn’t ask for or need.
The renovation took place in 2021 over four months. That’s considered quite long, given I didn’t have many renovations, to begin with. But a shortage of workers means every milestone takes about two weeks to complete.
The process was very smooth, apart from the typical mistakes here and there that had little to no effect on my overall vision for the home. There were concerns, though, from my ID. She was convinced I would be annoyed at the numerous wire trunking and visible water pipes around the house. Honestly, it doesn’t matter to me.
Those things, for me, are natural to the home – why should I hide them? Wires have to come from somewhere. Water comes from somewhere too. Why conceal and pretend it doesn’t exist? Plus, with all my cabling and pipes exposed (including my aircon trunking AND toilet, mind you), if there are any problems down the line, I don’t have to rip out an entire fake wall to get to the root of the issue.
Oh yes. Also, my final renovation cost was LESSER than what was quoted to me. 💅 This happened due to reducing the length of the kitchen cabinets and doing away with some concealed carpentry in the kitchen.
Where and how did you source your loose furniture from?
IKEA, Taobao, Forty-Two, Shopee, and Carousell. Oh, and Credit Card promotions. I’m quite a miser at heart, so if I can procure something for cheap or for free, I will.
I started sourcing the furniture while the renovation was ongoing. Plus, I made sure to be hyper intentional with what I bring in, so nothing in the house is there as a just in case. In fact, I gave away one side table via Olio because I have no use for it. Most will keep it just in case, but I can’t stand seeing something there and unused. It’s pointless. If it doesn’t bring me joy, why not pass it along to someone who needs the furniture more than me?
What did you learn from the experience, and what is the mistake (if any) that you won’t be repeating again?
There’s only one mistake I’ve made that will forever haunt me. It was not changing out the windows DURING renovation. I changed it after completing everything, and my furniture was already in place. Imagine the amount of cleaning I had to do!
Another lesson is not to be too chummy with my ID. Familiarity breeds contempt, as the saying goes. I was friendly and happy with my ID, refusing to be one of those nightmare clients. But because I was so concerned with keeping the relationship easy and fun, I didn’t insist on certain things or was careless with some details. I changed how I work with my ID around a third way through, and that’s when everything fell into place more clearly.
Do you have any regrets about how your home has turned out?
None. When friends come to my house, they always remark that the space reflects me and my personality rather accurately. If I could change one thing, it would be to find a way to put two more aircon units in my dining area.
Any other advice for those looking to embark on their first home and renovation?
View as many homes as your schedule allows it.
Don’t be pressured into putting in an offer. If the house has been on the market for a long time, trust and believe there’s no demand for it. But even if you find something you like and there’s a price/bidding war, walk away. Nothing good ever comes out of being pressured into buying anything.
Once you find a home you like, visit the neighbourhood at various times in the day and on various days of the week. If there’s a PH, even better. Stay for at least 30 minutes. Observe the surroundings, observe the neighbours, observe the crowd. Go there early in the morning and then visit it late at night at around 1 am. You must see the place in as many different lights as possible.
Go there via public transport (if you drive, so you know how easy or difficult it is for friends to drop by) or if you drive, make the journey via car from your workplace (so you can know how much time you need). As far as possible, you want to replicate actual living conditions. I surveyed my place for one week, going down at least 12 times at various times and situations. Most people don’t even think to do this and end up complaining when their expectations don’t match reality.
For renovations, don’t budge on your budget – but be realistic. Many IDs can do everything everyone else can do, but you want to find the right company that believes in your vision. I’ve heard horror stories online of IDs pushing for a specific design because it’s easy to make in bulk. Don’t be affected. If they’re pushy, drop them.
For my renovation, I got quotes ranging from 80k to 20k. Can you imagine? One ID said they wouldn’t do the work if it doesn’t hit at least 50k. Such snobbery should not be encouraged. For my home, I present them with the most challenging part of the project – my kitchen cabinets and sink. I will observe their reaction to it and make the cuts from there.
Also, don’t be affected by YouTube or IG homes. Those are all lies. Those are staged. They are not real, nor do they reflect the realities of living. Be inspired, but don’t copy.
Also, don’t bother with ‘branded’ fittings like Blum hinges or Grohe taps. Many great companies make the same thing under an OEM brand. My taps are from Shopee. They don’t leak, they look great, and they’re hardy. You don’t have to follow what everyone else is doing. It’s your home. Your budget (my aircon is Midea, by the way. It’s cheap and so easy to clean. Also, it’s 5 ticks). IDs will always upsell whatever they can. If you think it’s worth it, take it. But don’t feel pressured to agree and go along. After the Reno is over, you’re the one living there, not your ID company.
Thanks once again to Zat for taking the time to answer and share his journey!