For most expats, condos are the most popular choice of accommodation.
Increasingly, however, many are venturing into the HDB heartlands to live among the locals.
Probably the most famous example is author/funnyman Neil Humphreys. Originally from the UK, Humphreys lived in Toa Payoh in the 1990s and survived to tell the tale. His experiences – often humorous, sometimes touching – are chronicled in several books, and available on Amazon.
Neil Humphreys' Complete Notes from Singapore (Image Source: Amazon)
But for many Western expats, HDBs do not even register on their radars because of the image of public housing. British national James Foreman, who works for digital agency Essence and lives in an HDB, says that many of his expat friends live in condos but none live in HDBs.
“Coming from the UK, the image of public housing is of often-terrifying, horrible architecture where you’re going to get stabbed by children wearing hoodies. Singapore is not beset with real or imaginary mobs of knife-wielding children, but it probably takes some people time to adjust to this,” he writes on Quora.
Then there is the perception that HDBs are not as well-designed as condos. While this is true to some extent, there are many beautifully appointed HDBs that would put any condo to shame. We found 10 such examples that you can admire here.
Choosing to rent an HDB has many advantages. In general, not only will you be paying less in rent each month, you will also be lowering your cost of living.
For example, while condo maintenance fees generally range between $250 and $400 a month, HDB conservancy fees rarely exceed $200. Tanjong Pagar Town Council – which governs popular central districts such as Tanjong Pagar, Tiong Bahru and Queenstown – levies a maximum of $160 for a 6-room jumbo flat.
When it comes to food, HDB towns – especially mature estates like Bedok, Bukit Merah and Toa Payoh – are amply supplied with ‘coffeeshops’, hawker centres and food courts that sell cheap and tasty local nosh.
For the health-conscious, there are fresh fruit stalls, fruit juice stands and, increasingly, salad bars. If you need your fix of speciality coffee or gourmet sandwich, a growing number of roasters and cafes are sprouting up in the heartlands.
Living among locals affords a quintessential Airbnb experience, a chance to witness the hustle and bustle of daily life at the wet market, or colourful practices during religious festivals. This is as real as it gets.
French-Indonesian florist, Aude Girard, says that she enjoys living in Tiong Bahru because “It’s a neighbourhood life (and it) feels like living in a small village. Plus, we don’t mind not having any facilities.”
She and her husband have lived in their 1,000 sq. ft. walk-up for three years, and do not mind moving to another flat when their current lease expires. However, they are hesitant to leave the neighbourhood. “Tiong Bahru for life!” she exclaims.
Fellow Tiong Bahru resident Felix Pels, an Australian who works for ad agency Societal, says that “Living in Tiong Bahru is not like anywhere else in Singapore. The thing that matters to me is the sense of community here. If I wanted to live among a bunch of ang mohs (Caucasians) then I could’ve stayed at home.”
And there’s also a family connection to the area. “My grandfather was sent over to cover the Malaya Emergency as a journalist in the 1950s. There are pictures of him in a Tiong Bahru walk-up just like one I live in now. That connection to the past makes me proud to live in the same area that he was in.”
Now, if you are a public transport user, you will find that HDB flats tend to be slightly more accessible than condos. The LTA (Land Transport Authority) makes it a point to run at least one bus service within 400 m of a flat, as well as a bus service between a HDB neighbourhood and a nearby bus interchange or MRT station. You can read more about this here.
If you enjoy entertaining or having guests over on a frequent basis, your guests will find it easier to visit you since they do not have to contend with complex security measures that some condos have. Being public spaces, HDB blocks are open to all. However, this does not mean they are not secure. CCTV cameras installed at lift lobbies, lift landings and lift interiors provide some measure of security.
Conversely, being open means there is a chance it could be noisy because of human traffic, especially if your flat is situated along a common corridor. To gauge the noise level, pay a visit to the flat you are considering renting at different times of the day. If you are averse to noise, or prefer a bit more privacy, ask your housing agent to look for a corner unit, or a unit with few others on the same floor.
But if your lifestyle is oriented around activities such as going to the gym, swimming or sunbathing, HDBs are probably not for you. Most HDB estates have pools and gyms, but these are public spaces and can get crowded on weekends and school holidays.
If you’ve read this far and still think condos are a better fit, check out our list of the most affordable condo rentals right now. If your budget is under $3,000 but you want a centrally-located apartment, these listings might be able to help you out. And if you want to make connections with fellow expats, here are five affordable condos in areas popular among expats.