Expats thinking of a move to Singapore will find that accommodation in the city is of a high standard, comes in all shapes and sizes, and has a wide-ranging price spectrum. Prices vary depending on the area or suburb, the size of the property, and its proximity to schools and public transport.
The property market in Singapore can be divided into public and private sectors, with public housing being offered by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). Unlike many other countries, public units in Singapore aren't necessarily associated with lower-income groups, and even include luxury options.
Around 80 percent of Singapore's population lives in HDB housing. Expats are eligible to rent HDB accommodation, but there's limited availability, and often they’re only allowed to rent a portion of an HDB unit, unless the landlord has special permission from the government to rent out the entire property.
Many foreigners, especially high-earning Westerners, prefer to rent a private apartment, condominium or bungalow. But while some companies might cover rental costs, others might not. Given the increasing price of Singapore accommodation, it's important for expats to negotiate their salary accordingly.
Types of accommodation in Singapore
Prospective new residents of Singapore will be spoilt for choice, as the city is home to a huge variety of neighbourhoods and accommodation, in just about every price bracket. They could choose to rent private accommodation, or an HDB unit – or a single room in an HDB unit.
Singapore has a reputation for replacing buildings once they reach 10 years of age with newer marble and glass structures. Both furnished and unfurnished accommodation is available in Singapore, so this should be taken into account when deciding whether to ship goods from home.
A common choice among expats, apartments are (mainly) smaller self-contained units in larger buildings; referred to as "flats" in some parts of the world such as the UK. Many apartments are HBD-subsidised which can save expats some money.
These complexes are similar to apartments but are more luxurious and will generally offer a wide range of facilities. Those at the top of the scale will offer a full suite of facilities including a pool, gym, playground, tennis and squash courts, as well as 24-hour security.
These are houses attached to one another on one side or more. Though they aren't free-standing, semi-detached houses are more spacious than apartments and condominiums.
A low house having only one storey or, in some cases, upper rooms set in the roof. These are hard to come by and pricey, but come with ample space.
Stunning historical homes, some of which have received pricey renovations. Shophouses are clustered around the city. If a shophouse has not undergone renovation, though, expats shouldn't expect modern facilities.
Finding accommodation in Singapore
Estate agents are an essential part of finding property in Singapore. While it's possible for expats to find their own accommodation using property websites and perhaps local newspapers or magazines, it's preferable to let an agent do the legwork. A good agent with extensive knowledge of the property market is a valuable asset, and the best way to go about acquiring an agent is to ask for recommendations from fellow expats, or recruit one from a reputable property site.
The hunt for a home should be exhaustive and thorough, the fruits of which will determine where an expat spends most of their time. Besides being sure about a property before signing on the dotted line, it's also important to reconnoitre the area to make sure it suits the expat's lifestyle before settling.
Renting accommodation in Singapore
New arrivals in Singapore tend to rent rather than buy, as rules and regulations make it nearly impossible for foreigners to purchase a property. A popular route for expats going about the process on their own is to rent a short-term serviced apartment while checking out an area and deciding on long term accommodation. This isn’t strictly necessary, though, and with a good agent, long-term rentals can be secured without the need for temporary accommodation.
Apartments, condos and bungalows can be rented furnished or unfurnished – it really comes down to the tenant, and whether they have the capacity and desire to ship furniture from their home country.
Making an application
Having found a suitable place in a suitable neighbourhood, expats will need to inform the landlord of their interest as soon as possible seeing as, in a city short on land and high in population, there are likely to be many interested parties.
If the expat decides to submit an application for an HDB unit (the entire unit), they should ensure that the landlord has the appropriate permissions from authorities. Technically, HDB owners in Singapore aren’t allowed to rent out entire apartments without special permission from the government, so expats are advised to ask for the permission slip to avoid getting into trouble.
The next step is for the prospective tenant and the landlord to both sign a Letter of Intent (LOI), which should state the expat’s intention to rent the place, along with the price, the term, and whatever else the tenant and landlord agree on. If expats choose to work through a property agent, the agent will likely set up this document for them.
It’s also prudent to have references and testimonials from current and former employers and former landlords, as these will improve the expat’s chances of securing the lease.
Tenants, upon signing the lease, will have to pay a security deposit, which is usually the equivalent of a month’s rent, and is customarily paid prior to the start of the lease along with the first month’s rent.
Deposits can’t be non-refundable, as it remains the property of the tenant, but landlords are allowed to make deductions from the deposit or keep the whole amount for various reasons, including to cover unpaid rent, for damages in excess of normal wear and tear, other breaches of the lease agreement, unpaid utility bills, or – if pre-arranged with tenant – to cover the last month’s rent.
Additional fees to consider include the agent’s commision fee (if an agent was employed) which usually comes to about half a month’s rent for every year of the rental term agreed to in the lease; and a stamp duty which amounts to 0.4 percent of the total rent for a lease up to four years, or 0.4 percent of total rent (divided by the number of years in the lease if the term is longer than four years).
Leases or tenancy agreements
Once the LOI is signed, the tenant and landlord will have to sign a lease agreement. A lease specifies the period of tenancy along with other important terms and conditions that both parties need to agree on. Expats are urged to finecomb the agreement and to make sure that all verbal agreements with the landlord are in print and acknowledged by both parties. Both the tenant and the landlord should also agree on an inventory list at the start of the lease.
At the termination of the lease, the landlord and tenant can either choose to agree to renew the lease or end it. Importantly, expats should insist on a Diplomatic or Repatriate clause in the lease agreement. The clause is vital, as it would allow the expat to terminate the contract in the event that their employment is terminated or if their company decides to transfer them to another country. It also ensures the expat’s security deposit is returned.
Once everything is final, the agreement will have to be stamped by the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) for it to be considered a valid contract.
It is important for prospective tenants to scrutinise a lease agreement very carefully to ascertain which utilities are included in the rental cost before committing.
Usually though, in Singapore, utilities and maintenance are for the tenant’s account. Expats looking to rent should be aware that they’ll be expected to pay for internet, electricity, water and gas. It’s possible to pay all utilities through one company, namely SP Group, but expats can also shop around for affordable deals on electricity and gas. TV licence fees aren’t required in Singapore.