Seeing my childhood home through rose-tinted glasses

By Christalle Tay


I was five years old when my parents decided to move the family from a terraced house we shared with my uncle and two aunties, to a shiny new BTO in Sengkang. The terraced house – which was owned by my paternal grandparents, who lived a few houses down the street – was not as spacious as it sounds. The first floor housed my granduncle’s family. The second floor housed eight of us – spread out across three rooms. This meant my immediate family of four had to sleep in the same room, on the same bed.

When we moved, my parents gave the excuse that they didn’t like the idea that my brother and I were growing up in Geylang, where unsavoury characters roam in search of prostitutes and their next gambling fix. In retrospect, they likely just wanted their own place – and bed. Sengkang then was the hotspot for young families, with heartland malls, childcare centres and primary schools peppered around the young estate. It was perfect for our fresh start.

It didn’t matter to my brother and I that living in a four-room flat meant that we could each have our own room or that we had a playground right downstairs; I loved sharing that bed with my parents. At our old place, I was living the dream. While other kids had to throw tantrums to sleep in the same bed as their parents, our living situation meant mandated sleepovers. I missed having my grandparents in such close proximity, whom I would bother for snack allowance when my parents were off at work. I missed my childcare centre I went to after my mornings at the kindergarten. It was in a shophouse, with rickety spiral stairs I would always perch on, peeking at my teachers and friends through the gaps between the steps.

Then after eight years of living in Sengkang, our parents told us they had entered the ballot for a new flat. My brother and I protested. We didn’t want to move again - out of a flat we had made our home. We knew it meant once-again abandoning the familiarity of our neighbourhood – where our neighbours would often bring us food, where we knew the buses that came to our bus stops by heart, or the meanest aunties at the mama shop we should avoid. All we could do was pray for divine intervention. Our prayers were answered at the first ballot, but not at the second. My parents got us into our second BTO, this time in Punggol.

Today, as a 22-year-old who has spent hours in front of a laptop reading up on BTOs, HDB housing and resale prices, I have started to review my housing history through a new lens.

Over the past few years of young adulthood, relatives and colleagues from part-time jobs have alerted me to the moneymaking aspects of BTO homes. Aiya anyhow find one guy get married and buy your BTO when your income level is still low, they half-jested. Got more grants!

I don’t have to know much about BTOs and the housing market to know that BTOs are cash cows. Just how much of a cash cow was something I found out after my research.

BTO flats were already a lot cheaper than resale flats due to its subsidised prices, but they were especially affordable after the delinking of BTO prices to the resale market in 2011. Even with the steady decline of the resale price index, BTO flats could still make around $100,000 on the resale market. This profit margin could be widened with the generous housing grants, particularly the new Enhanced CPF Housing Grant which offered up to $80,000 for those under the income ceiling of $9,000. Although buying a second BTO flat meant paying a resale levy, the levy was at $45,000 for five-room flats, less for smaller flats – leaving a significant profit from trading your first BTO for another.

So when I asked my parents why they had sold our Sengkang flat, expecting them to say it was for capital gains or a chance at the ballot while they were still under the income ceiling, I was caught off-guard by my parents’ answer.

They sold the place because they were bored, they said. They had grown tired of our Sengkang home and its badly-placed windows that captured the full brunt of the rising sun. The house was too warm, my mom said, and the living room too suffocating.

“We don’t even know how to profit off the house,” my mother admitted sheepishly. HDB’s policies were too convoluted for her to find loopholes for financial gains.

To be sure, selling our four-room Sengkang flat resulted in a windfall of about $100,000 (after they paid off the agent and insurance), but the sales proceeds – and more – were used to purchase the larger and more expensive five-room Punggol flat. They had to cough up another $40,000 to renovate our new home.

My parents had initially claimed the upgrade from a four-room to a five-room flat would provide the space we needed to accommodate my new sister, who was born seven years after we had lived in Sengkang. This – I argued, was a lie. They had abandoned plans for my sister’s room for a larger living room, opting instead to make us share a room.

Our Punggol home would be the final one, my father said. He didn’t know much about the lease buy-back scheme that would allow the conversion of remaining lease years into money once he was 65-year-old, but had heard bad things about it from his friends. What exactly, he didn’t know – but that was enough for him to distrust it.

My siblings’ room and my own room would be rented out once we left the nest, but downsizing was not in the picture – unless there came a desperate need for money, he said. Bringing up the morbid issue of his and my mother’s eventual death, my father told me the house was something he would like to leave to his kids.

While my parents traded in their BTO for an upgrade, my paternal grandparents were looking to downgrade. They owned two properties, my childhood home (now occupied by my uncle’s family) and their own house, which was on the same street.

Their three-bedroom house, my grandmother complained, was too big for her to clean.

Asked if they had considered selling their freehold homes, my grandparents said they were holding out for someone to buy the stretch of terrace houses that lined their street – a two birds, one stone solution for making a killing off both houses.

I asked if they would miss the house they had been living in for almost a third of their lives. They waved the idea away. A smaller house would be better.

Sentimentality, it seems, is overrated.

Prompted by our conversation on housing, my grandmother invited me to see my childhood home. Upon entering the house, the rose-tinted glasses through which I had been revisiting the memories of my childhood home were shattered.

I remembered how much I hated the steep stairs that led to my house, on which I would trip at least once a week and bruise my knees. They were also a huge pain whenever we left something at home. I cringed at the disturbingly narrow shower and toilet – unlike HDB flats, they were built separately with dimensions similar to those of shower cubicles at swimming pools – with grimy water pipes protruding near the ceiling and sides; which I could now easily brush by accident with my larger statue. My old room was smaller than I remembered – bigger than my current room, but would definitely be too cramped for my family today. No California King size mattress would fit the five of us, especially not with my brother and I who now tower above our parents.

Perhaps sentimentality is truly overrated – at least when compared to making a tidy profit or moving into a brand new place. My memories of my childhood home were after all, that of a child: obscured by innocence, with the luxury of not having to think about finances or the future.

Sentimentality, I suppose, erodes with age, as one gets better at sensing the impracticality of holding on to old things.

Single and inept at long-term relationships, the thought of getting my own place was something I had pushed to the back of my mind, to be entertained a few years later. But – as naive and contradictory to common advice this may be – I always thought I would stick to the first house I bought, regardless of the profits. My emotional attachment to my first two homes, I thought, was a testament to how much I would grow to treasure the first home I could truly call my own.

Although my thorough research on BTOs did little to budge this sentiment, the conversations with my parents and grandparents introduced factors I never considered and had me re-evaluating my position. Upgrading or downgrading my house according to the size of my family unit was something I had forgotten about. It would be impractical to buy a five-room flat as newly-weds in anticipation of children, on a young couple’s salary.

Perhaps it is too early to say that the first home I own will be my last. Given the unpredictability of life, how could I be so sure my first home would tailor to the needs of my family – or if I would even have a husband or children? How could I say with absolute certainty that I would love my first home, for all its bad fengshui, rude neighbours, or overbearing heat? Would my financial needs later lead me to prioritise capital gains over sentimentality?

These are questions I will keep in the back of my head, for an older me to answer.

But first, to find a husband. Or three happily single friends for a bachelorette pad.

Who knows?

Read about the buzz on housing here.

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