Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Househunting in Singapore

It's a funny old thing. People putting their house on the market in Britain and the US are so often advised to do things to make their property more saleable that it becomes a cliche. Brew some coffee, put some bread in the oven, tidy up and eliminate all signs of individuality from their home, so the buyer feels capable of stamping their own mark upon it. So much so that perhaps first time buyers and renters believe that every home they could move into smells only of coffee, freshly baked bread and Glade air fresheners.

In Singapore, it doesn't work like that. Because of Singapore's planned approach to housing, instead of the bubblelicious market almost everywhere else in the world, we have unfettered capitalism run rampant, and public housing, the 'HDB's, to choose from. I'm not a Singaporean so I don't get direct access to HDBs, but since a Singaporean can rent one to me, it looks like a cheaper alternative to a condominium with a swimming pool I'll never use.

However, perhaps because of the overbearing nature of the state in Singaporeans lives (can you hear the word "mollycoddle" in the background?) it seems like the people trying to rent out their HDBs haven't quite figured out what they're meant to be doing.

Like Rachman, maybe they understand the role of the landlord to collect rent from his tenants ... And that's about it. Nobody has explained to them that you might want to make the place you're showing to prospective tenants at all pleasant.

I'm not talking about another loaf of bread, just extracted from the oven as I walk in the door. It's things like the pile of junk in the living room, the cupboards full of piled up ephemera, the way the toilet seat in the bathroom is entirely adorned with Hello Kitty stickers, the way the kitchen looks like they were expecting Withnail and I to pop round at any moment.

Ok, I get it, I'm lazy and when I move in, I'll probably leave my clothes on the floor. That doesn't mean that you can leave your clothes on the floor while people are coming round for a viewing. My wife only accepted my intrinsic slovenliness after I'd hidden it for months behind a wall of entertaining personality quirks and a big vocabulary. If all you've got going for you is my desperation to find a place to live, then you should probably think about putting those clothes away.

Maybe I'd caught the landlady by surprise. In fact, everyone seemed to be surprised. The estate agent showing me around was surprised that there was traffic congestion in Singapore. The estate agent at the flat was surprised that somebody was coming to visit the flat, so he left me standing outside the Good Time Tea Shop for twenty minutes while he figured out how to talk to me about the English Premier League. The landlady and all three estate agents (where did the third one come from? What was he for? Reinforcements if I turned violent?) seemed confused and surprised when I wanted to photograph the flat, as if my wife, four hours' flight away, was just going to say "sure, take the first one you see. Don't bother letting me know what it looks like."
The people renting these places out are living in them - which explains why they're in such a higgledy-piggledy state. Well, no, it doesn't, does it? Surely they've realised that if I'm going to pay rent, they're going to have to move out, and all their stuff is going to go with them. And if it's going to have to go, why isn't it gone already? Somebody wasn't thinking things through properly...

At least the apartment was so dark I couldn't see much detail in there, or I'd be even more angry.

Still, there was plenty of opportunity for rage, when my agent got lost driving me to the next place. I'm sorry, but Singapore is not a large place. If you're an estate agent, your job consists of taking people to see different places to live. If you don't know how to do that efficiently after three years, either buy a GPS for your car or stop wasting my time.

I kept my mouth shut. Another agent rang my agent up and raged so loudly that I could hear the vitriol spilling out of my agent's headset. We got a bit more lost. In two hours I'd seen one apartment. Did I mention that I have two days to find a place before I leave the country? No? Did that urgency go completely unremarked?

Eventually we got to apartment number 4. (2 was the angry phonecaller, 3 my agent got lost and gave up on. Well, he doesn't need to worry. He has somewhere to live.)

This apartment, also an HDB, was pleasant: clean, tidy, nice views, a kitchen that hadn't apparently just been built by a madman with a baseball bat, and an estate agent who hovered around, insisting that I didn't take any photographs. Why? Was she scared I'm going to start my own property website on the net, based on photos taken with a crappy cameraphone, and rob her of all her trade? Oh, never mind.

I got back to the office (my agent got lost driving there too, and eventually I gave up, got out of the car and walked back) and somebody told me that the second place I looked at was in a rough area.

A rough area. Of Singapore. What, there's drive-by chewing gum incidents?

And tomorrow morning I'm going through this, all over again. Could this be a prank of some sort? Does the unused GPS bracket stuck prominently on the dashboard of the car not give the game away, as we get lost for the umpteenth time?

In closing, it must not go unremarked that there's some sort of irony in a man who had his entire education paid for by the state, who had his healthcare paid for by the state, his gym paid for by his company, his coffee provided gratis by the office, etc etc ad infinitum ... and was then given a free ride to Singapore by his company to find a house, calling somebody else "mollycoddled". I'm not sure quite where that irony is, so I'll leave it to you to find it. I'll just point out that I'm not the one who needs government-sponsored advertising in order to remember to wash his hands after going to the toilet / not to eat food that's gone mouldy / not to make his domestic helper clean his 21st storey windows from the outside.


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