More S'porean millennials thinking of renting flat after being stuck in parents' home due to Covid-19


Nyi Nyi Thet | November 09, 2020, 05:03 PM

See if this rings a bell.

You, a 20-something working adult, are in the middle of a pandemic, most days you stay indoors thanks to a nationwide circuit breaker. Going out is strongly discouraged, only certain professions are allowed back to work, and no social gatherings are allowed outside.

Most of your time is spent at home or, depending on how good your relationship with your family is, perhaps even in your room.

Maybe some voices were raised during day 27 over what was in normal times a trifling issue, you storm into your room and slam the door. The room seems smaller somehow, more stifling. A place which adequately served as a sphere of independence suddenly doesn't feel all that removed from dependence.

That emotion swirls, festers, and eventually gives rise to an idea.

"Wha, I need to get my own place."

A certain idea of rent

Rental volume in Singapore was up by over 49 per cent in September, according to property portal SRX.

Nicholas Mak, ERA Realty's head of research and consultancy, however told The Straits Times that a big reason for the increased rental numbers was the Malaysian workers who were coming back to Singapore after the border reopened in August.

According to another property portal though, it is the interest shown for rental units where millennials seem to have made their mark

Edgeprop CEO Bernard Tong made some observations regarding the inclination towards rental.

According to Tong, three out of five rental searches were usually for HDB's, while the rest were for condominiums/ apartments. That number has shifted to four out of five searches for HDB's now.

Tong said that this is likely due to shrinking expats’ budgets and millennials’ preference to rent.

A property agent Mothership spoke to also noted that rental queries were up this year. However the queries were mostly for non-central areas, where she says the demand was still quite strong.

Both concluded that the lack in demand for rental queries in the central area, as well as the decrease in searches for rental units in that area was due to a decrease in expat spending.

But does that in itself signal a cultural shift?

Rent for independence

That was the question a recent South China Morning Post article sought to answer.

The SCMP article featured Nat, a 19-year-old polytechnic student, who worked until around midnight so she could pay for her share of the rent (S$1,050) for a two-bedroom private apartment she lives in with three other housemates. Her 28-year-old videographer boyfriend who stays over four days a week chips in about S$300 a month.

Life for Nat prior to moving out on her own was a "spacious semi-detached house", the impetus for change came during a period of extended monotony. Her parents, fearful of the pandemic, had banned her from leaving the house which led to more fights in consistently close quarters, eventually leading Nat to perhaps think this:

"Wha, I need to get my own place."

The tension caused by the pandemic, and the lengthier amount of time constantly in the presence of the same few people was echoed by the 20-somethings Mothership spoke to.

Two of whom, Lin and Toh who are both in their late 20s, found themselves actually looking online quite a bit for rental properties.

Toh told Mothership that the common areas in her HDB flat were used by family members, so space itself seemed a rarer commodity. She also described how it felt "claustrophobic to be stuck in my room most of the day".

A sentiment shared even more strongly by Lin.

She found that spending more time at home caused increased friction with her mother and noted that they were "constantly arguing during that period of time".

Yet neither of them ultimately decided to rent a place. More on their reasons why later.

But they are not alone in searching for rental units.

According to EdgeProp, searches for rental units on their site increased 172 per cent on average in the months immediately after the Circuit Breaker.

But it is hard to consider something a cultural shift by just intent itself.

For now at least, there doesn't appear to be a significant prolonged statistical uptick in rental units, according to figures from property portal SRX.

SCMP also talked to Nicholas Mak, still ERA Realty's head of research and consultancy, who acknowledged that "local singles renting flats remain a very small group".

So why does this "very small group" rent flats, instead of staying with their family?

Groom my own room

On July 2020, as Singapore gingerly loosened up after the recently concluded circuit breaker, 27-year-old Luke was also in the midst of carving out a bit more space for himself.

He had finally settled on a place that, while he wishes it could have been cheaper, was the best offer on his plate -in terms of safety, accessibility and comfort- after two to three months of research.

The actual house hunt might have taken just a few months, but Luke had been thinking of moving out for over two years. While in university, Luke tells Mothership he had cultivated an independence he was "not willing to lose".

Rachel (not her real name), 25, made the decision to move in 2018, also after finishing university, where she stayed on campus. She ended up renting a place with two others, each paying S$600 for rent.

"I wanted the independence, it was ultimately a part of moving forward and into a new chapter of my life."

While ideas like freedom and independence were also rightfully brought up when discussing the merits of the move, Rachel also described just how much practical thought went into renting a place.

"After college I knew I wanted to start building up my savings so it was a big concern of mine and was probably the biggest deterrent. But at the end of the day, once I got my first job I did the maths and figured out out I could have some savings."

A point brought up by some real estate agents we talked to warned that the idea of renting is somewhat akin to "lost money".

The default plan, for now, appears to be staying with your family till you find someone to get a BTO with, or start home ownership at the age of 35. Both considered much more financially sensible decisions rather than renting before either those marks are hit, thereby depleting the lump sum you would have theoretically saved by staying with your parents.

A scenario Rachel contemplated as well:

"I did get cold feet a couple of times because I would start comparing to my peers and thinking about how much more savings/disposable income they would have..."

She however reminded herself that moving out and renting a place "is a reality for lots of fresh grads in other parts of the world".

Luke also acknowledged the issue of "lost money", agreeing that if house ownership was the eventual long-term plan, the issue of renting itself might be detrimental to that goal.

Not renting though, to him, came with a price as well.

"But if having a home in 8-10 years time would mean losing 8-10 years worth of independence, freedom to network and grow differently from our parents, that doesn't sound like a nice trade-off."

There are of course other factors, very real factors, that play into why someone might not want to rent. A point Rachel acknowledges:

"I think it’s important to note that I’m fortunate to be in the position to make this decision at all. I had supportive parents and don’t need to worry about supporting my family financially - these were definitely two key factors that I know is not a reality for many."

In fact, one of the reasons Lin eventually decided not to rent was because she still wanted to "check in" on her mother to make sure she was ok, thus eliminating rental options too far from her home. Future rental was also unlikely as she will have to take care of her mother and "cover expenses at home", a balance she deemed financially unsustainable.

But broadly speaking, Singapore millennials appear to be facing a tug-of-war between the desire for more freedom/independence and the equally understandable urge to save more money in Singapore.


Nearly all the millennials we talked to agreed, to varying extents, that younger people were more open to renting.

That sentiment was surprisingly championed most strongly by one of the two that had ultimately given up on rental plans when the Circuit Breaker (CB) period ended.

Toh insisted that if renting gave the person the "space and peace of mind" they were looking for, then it is money well spent, finding the idea of "lost money" as a "pretty silly" idea.

So a change in mindset appears to have been expedited over the last year. Perhaps the space that they were ok with when life was normal, when home was not a place you were necessarily basically confined to, feels much smaller and constrained now.

However, it might still be premature to crown permanence to this discontent.

Toh for example, who still sees herself perhaps renting a flat before 35, felt that once the CB period was over, she didn't feel too many other push factors for her to try to find a place to rent.

But there are at least some changes that appear to be a bit more long-lasting than others.

The concept of working from home, in no small part due to the virus, has changed as well. Working from home has transformed from something you do when you have a stomachache but not too bad of a stomachache, to a genuine alternative to working in an office.

While renting a place is broadly seen, by the younger people at least, as a viable societal move, Toh succinctly explained why that path might still take a while for some.

"Can I just tell you something? So I was looking at rental prices too. And after and Property Guru, my next Google search was Singapore Pools."

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Top image from Getty.