Neighbourhoods and schools: high rise or low level; city, coast or jungle?
Tell people that you are moving to Singapore and, more often than not, they think that means living in either a tiny box apartment or a plush gated expat compound. But the reality is not quite either of these.
Singapore as a city-state is both densely populated and a small, restricted land mass. The main island has a total land area of just 725 square km, an area roughly twice the size of the Isle of Wight. As a consequence, buildings tend to go up, rather than out, and there is a huge demand for housing, which in turn pushes prices up making it a very expensive city to live in. The majority of local residents do therefore live in apartments but as an expat there are actually a wide variety of housing options to consider depending on your budget and taste.
85% of Singaporeans live in high rise apartments built by the Housing and Development Board. Most residents of these HDBs, as they are known, have bought their home, and the housing estates in which they are located are generally very well-maintained. HDBs are well-served by public transport and have their own shops and eating places.
However, the facilities and the ambience of the estates do not compare favourably with private condominiums, and recreational facilities pale in comparison. Although rental on an HDB is much cheaper than the alternatives, the number of HDBs available for rent is quite heavily restricted. As a consequence, only a small minority of expats explore this option.
Private condominiums, however, are very popular with expats and come in all shapes and sizes. Some condos have as many as thirty floors but there are plenty of low-rise apartments too. They can be found all over the island and come fully or partially furnished, or totally empty. They offer a wide range of facilities, all of which are free to residents: almost all have a pool, and often a separate children’s pool; many have gyms, tennis courts and bar-b-q pits; some of the larger or more exclusive condos have squash courts, a driving range and even a tardis-like shop, crammed with everyday essentials.
Although private outside space is limited, ground floor condos sometimes have a small private patio, and condos on higher floors often have balconies - most of which are, or can be made, child-friendly. Private condos are very secure with guards on site 24 hours a day. One of the best things about condo-life though, especially for newcomers to Singapore, is that it is very easy for you and your children to meet people: many a firm friendship has been formed at the condo’s playground or pool.
If living in an apartment doesn’t really appeal, then there are plenty of houses to suit all budgets. Few modern homes, whether they are terraced, semi-detached or detached, have much in the way of outside space (a small yard or garden generally) or facilities, although some squeeze in a pool. For those wanting a large garden, an old colonial house, known as a black and white (refers to facades: white walls with black woodwork), is a better option. These government owned properties were formerly the homes of British army officers and civil servants.
Though there are a few small black and whites, many are palatial with separate maid’s quarters and plenty of space for a pool in their huge gardens. Securing a black and white is not an easy process and involves placing a closed bid through the SLA (Singapore Land Authority) and a lot of guess work on what you think the current market rate is. Seemingly cheaper than many private landlord owned properties, don’t be fooled into thinking the agreed rent is the actual cost of living in one of these stunning homes. As the tenant, you are responsible for fitting out the property and the ongoing maintenance.
You might, for example, have to buy air conditioning units and white goods (appliances), and pay for pool maintenance, a gardener, and someone to come and kill the bugs every week. As well as unwelcome visitors of the insect variety, don’t be surprised if you get the odd visit from a snake or two.
If you are looking for something out of the ordinary, but don’t fancy the hassle of a black and white, or simply can’t find or afford one, then have a look at a shophouse. These terraced houses are so named because their original owners operated a business on the ground floor and lived upstairs. Built in the 19th and 20th centuries and left to rack and ruin for years, many have now been restored and house restaurants, shops and offices.
Some are used as private homes. They are usually two or three stories high, quite often brightly coloured and have no outside space, apart from an occasional roof terrace. Many are beautiful inside but not all are child friendly, with koi ponds and open staircases. Shophouses are generally centrally located.
With all condos and houses, prices vary enormously depending on size, location and condition of the property. Find yourself a good estate agent, give them a list of your requirements and let them do the leg work for you. They will drive you round to view suitable properties, and probably a few that are totally wrong for you. You won’t have to pay an agent’s fee unless the lease is under S$2,500 a month or for a black and white. It’s worth knowing that agents split a percentage of the rent you pay with the landlord’s own agent, so they might not always work that hard to get the landlord to accept the lowest possible rent.
The standard rental agreement is for two years with an option to renew for one year. Make sure the agreement includes a diplomatic clause that will enable you to break the lease if you leave Singapore. A typical diplomatic clause will state that if you leave Singapore or cease working there during the first 12 months of the lease then the landlord will be paid 14 months’ rent, covering the first year plus two months’ rent for the two months’ notice that is required. Thereafter, you can break the lease without penalty if you leave Singapore.
Having decided the type of accommodation you want, you then have to decide on location. It is worth pointing out that while many of the following locations are well-loved by families attending schools in the immediate area, Singapore is such an easy city to travel with great public transport and school bus services that where you live really doesn’t need to be driven
by which school your children attend. That said if you have children in nursery, junior and senior school with different drop off and pick up times, living close to your school can be worth its weight in gold.
While the Central Business District (the CBD, in the south central part of the island) may seem like an alluring proposition for the luxury of being able to walk to work, you won’t find many families or schools in the immediate area. Apartments are high rise and luxurious and generally out of most families’ budgets. There is an abundance of more affordable and family friendly property within a 15 minute drive, however.
Popular places include River Valley Road, which is lined by condos, and Orchard Road, the main shopping street in Singapore, which has condos and a few houses - including the gorgeous shophouses on Emerald Hill, lying just behind the many shopping centres. Tanglin Road is at the top end of Orchard Road and has condos and some fabulous houses.
These are prime districts, however, and prices are high. And don’t be confused into thinking Tanglin Trust School is on Tanglin Road, back in 1925 it opened its first campus at the Tanglin Club but moved to its current campus on Portsdown Road in later years. These days you are more likely to bump into students from Eton House International School while strolling down Orchard Road.
Slightly further afield, to the west of the Orchard area, Bukit Timah and Holland Village are hugely popular with international families, though there are still plenty of locals in the area all enjoying a wide range of condos and housing options. There is an abundance of good restaurants and bars in these areas and generally the area is considered a central one for easy access to many schools including Tanglin Trust School, United World College Dover Campus and Dover Court International School in one direction and German European School Singapore (GESS), Chatsworth International School and The Perse School, Singapore in the other.
If you were to drop down South from Bukit Timah towards Alexandra Park (home to some stunning old colonial black & white houses) and the west coast with its more budget friendly condos and landed properties, you will find yourself close to the new North London Collegiate School (Singapore) and the older ISS International School.
Heading over to the west you go towards Clementi with the lovely housing enclave known as Sunset with such roads as Sunset Square, Sunset Way and Sunset Place all running off each other. This is a hugely popular area with many young families and especially those considering Dulwich College (Singapore) which is close by. Further west yet will take you out towards Jurong East and the pretty Chinese and Japanese Gardens and close proximity to the Canadian International School Lakeside campus and on out to One World International School.
The East Coast area, which runs along the south eastern coast towards the airport, also has its fans. Proximity to the airport and East Coast Park, with its beach-front restaurants, picnic areas and cycle paths, are big selling points. New condos which line the East Coast Parkway have sea views and excellent facilities, and houses often have more outside space than those that are centrally located. Rents here are much lower, too, although this is not enough of an incentive to go east for some who feel that the 20 to 30 minute drive to and
from city is too far to travel. But for those considering United World College East Campus or Canadian International School Tanjong Katong campus what’s not to love with a trip to the beach as your daily after-school activity.
Also further afield, 30 minutes’ drive to the north, Woodlands is popular with American expats mainly because of its proximity to Singapore American School. Also out this way but a little further north-east in Yishun you find XCL World Academy (Singapore) and further out to the north-east still, Overseas Family School, a good selection again of popular condos and houses all with the bonus of prices being lower to those located more centrally.
Moving closer back into town from here will take you down into Serangoon and Toa Payoh and a host of schools all relatively close to one another, St Joseph’s Institution International, Australian International School, Stamford American International School, Brighton College (Singapore), International French School of Singapore and Nexus International School with a plethora of family friendly houses and condos in the wider area. Again these are still somewhat more affordable than those closer to town and a very popular choice for many.
There really is no right or wrong area to live in Singapore. Those living on the East Coast might still send their child to school in the west or vice versa. School buses are excellent and widely used. Although be warned that the further away from the school you live the journey time increases exponentially due to the number of stops the bus has to make with each parent spending just that little bit too long waving off their darlings. Schools buses coupled with Singapore’s efficient MRT train system, cabs and well controlled traffic means that getting across town is never a hugely pressing issue.
Choosing where to live is more about your budget, your preference for landed property versus apartment living or whether you want to be near the coast or the island’s jungle interior. Happy home hunting!