Realtor fills niche, serving housing needs of LGBTQ+ clientele

By Ng Qi Siang
/ EdgeProp Singapore |
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SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - Buying a house together is a rite of passage for most Singaporean couples, with the question “BTO?” tantamount to a marriage proposal, if not a prelude to one. But for the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community, this rite of passage may not be as easy.
Tan: When I went into real estate, I realised that there were so many things I could have done that would have made buying a flat easier (Photo: William Tan/SRI)
It is a challenge that real estate agent William Tan understands first-hand, having purchased his first HDB flat in the resale market as a 35-year-old single. Even though a resale flat, he had to fulfill the minimum occupation period (MOP) of five years before he could sell and purchase another resale flat at 41. “At this age, securing bank loans becomes more difficult, and your housing options become more limited,” he says.
It was only when he became a realtor two years ago that he realised there were many things LGBTQ+individuals could do to make property buying an easier experience. He has since started a Facebook page this year offering advice to the LGBTQ+ community in hopes of easing the homebuying process.
“When I went into real estate, I realised that there were so many things I could have done that would have made buying a flat easier,” Tan tells The Edge Singapore. While he does not limit his work to the LGBTQ+ community alone, word of mouth among his circle of friends and associates has led to a significant number of clients being LGBTQ+ individuals. Consulted by both couples and singles alike, he advises clients on issues such as how to time their entry into the market and structure their property portfolios to minimise taxes.
The dining and kitchen alcove of a renovated three-room flat at Farrer Park purchased by one of Tan's clients (Photo: William Tan/SRI)

Filling a niche

“I believe in developing a great long-term relationship with clients built on integrity, trust and a genuine friendship,” Tan writes on his website. Not a fan of high-pressure sales tactics or cookie-cutter solutions, his approach to advising is upfront and personalised to help each client achieve their real estate goals. “I like to ensure that my clients are enjoying their properties, and assure them that I am always there to help them with anything from design and renovation to monitoring their property values and alerting them if there’s an opportunity to make a profit,” he says.
Tan believes that he is filling an important niche within not only the LGBTQ+ community, but also the real estate industry. At the moment, civil society advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community tends to be more directed at serving health and mental health concerns, with less attention paid to financial and professional issues. Despite the LGBTQ+ market being largely untapped, few real estate agents — even those from the LGBTQ+ community — provide services tailored to LGBTQ+ clients, adds Tan.
Fortunately, LGBTQ+ individuals are beginning to organise themselves into online communities to exchange housing information and real estate advice. One moderator shared that she often put members in touch with resources and advice. At one point, the group organised emergency housing for an individual who had been subjected to verbal and emotional abuse at previous lodgings.
En suite master bedroom with extended wardrobe area of the flat at Farrer Park (Photo: William Tan/SRI)
Tan has reached out to existing civil society groups to conduct workshops to better educate LGBTQ+ individuals about purchasing a property. “The LGBTQ+ community in Singapore is small and friendly; we try to help one another,” he remarks. In the process, he has come across professionals from other related industries like insurance and finance whose work has strong synergies with his real estate practice. Many of them were recommended by friends and acquaintances through the grapevine.
With these contacts, Tan is now in the process of starting Prident — a portmanteau of the words “pride” and “prudent”. It is a professional collective to advise the LGBTQ+ community on wider financial matters such as insurance, property and investments so that they can “think prudently [and] live proudly”. The hope is to provide more holistic financial advice and solutions to the LGBTQ+ community so that members can gain a sense of financial security.
The master bathroom of the three-room flat at Farrer Park (William Tan/SRI)

Square pegs in round holes

Despite often lumped into a single group with common stereotypes, the LGBTQ+ community is in fact very diverse, says Tan. Nevertheless, there are common challenges that LGBTQ+ individuals face, particularly when it comes to HDB property ownership laws that are generally pro-family and favour the traditional married couples with higher grants and less restrictions, he adds.
The lack of a legal marriage contract between LGBTQ+ partners can often create legal grey areas. Tan recounts the story of a friend whose partner — felled by a stroke — was unable to sell a property he owned after being declared mentally unfit by his doctors. By virtue of not being legally married and not being joint-owner of the property, the friend was unable to sell the property to raise cash for the medical bills, hence running into financial difficulties.
Tan therefore advises members of the LGBTQ+ community to seek legal advice when buying a property as a couple, with regards to drawing up a will, giving each other power of attorney and protecting each other’s rights. Ian Lee, a gay 35-year-old recent home buyer, estimates that he had to spend an additional $500 on estate management to ensure that his partner would be able to inherit his property should something untoward happen to him. There are tangible financial costs, he observes, of having to navigate real estate regulations that do not cater to the needs of the LGBTQ+ community.
A nicely renovated four-room flat on Kim Tian Road in the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood (Photo: William Tan/SRI)

Is this home, truly?

Often, LGBTQ+ individuals who rent a place prefer to remain in the closet for fear of discrimination by landlords or housemates. Property listings in Singapore are often very specific about gender and ethnicity, says Tan.
“I was renting a place with my partner last year, and the initial search was relatively smooth thankfully,” relates Lee. “But we understood from our agent later, that a few landlords had turned us down when they found out that it was a gay couple looking to rent the place.” Hence, he is glad that he is now a property owner.
Even when it comes to buying property, it is often better to have a real estate agent from the LGBTQ+ community as they can understand the specific needs and challenges the client is facing, says Tan.
The dry kitchen counter of the flat at Kim Tian Road, which could also be used as a workspace or a bar (Photo: William Tan/SRI)
While the LGBTQ+ community is diverse, there are some general preferences in terms of where they want to live: condominiums with predominantly compact apartments (studios, one- and two-bedrooms) and therefore, less family-oriented; city-fringe areas close to the CBD and accessible to amenities as well as those with a unique charm, such as Holland Village, Joo Chiat and Tiong Bahru, says Tan.
Emai Lee, an LGBTQ+ expatriate from Indonesia, says that she experiences little overt persecution from Singaporeans and few problems when renting an apartment in Singapore compared to her native country, where societal attitudes were significantly less open.

The times they are a changin’

Despite the challenges that LGBTQ+ individuals face on the property market, Tan is optimistic about the future. The younger generation, he believes, is more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community than their elders, and could prove a powerful impetus for change in the years ahead.
A two-bedroom condo at Bartley Ridge whose owner is a client of Tan's (Photo: William Tan/SRI)
In a 2019 study by the Institute of Policy Studies, nearly half of Singaporeans aged 18 to 25 saw nothing wrong with gay sex while six in 10 had no issue with gay marriage. This greater receptiveness, says Tan, will likely allow LGBTQ+ issues to become more visible to the wider community, allowing more conversation on these issues to take place. This could potentially see property legislation becoming more inclusive over time as society evolves.
It was only since 2013 that single Singapore citizens have been allowed to buy HDB BTO flats. But they have to be 35 and above. Even then, they are restricted to buying two-room-flexi HDB flats in non-mature estates. Prior to that, singles above 35 were only eligible to purchase resale flats. Singles can now purchase flats under the single or joint singles schemes, and since last September, singles who are first-time home buyers with monthly income of less than $4,500 are eligible for enhanced CPF housing grants of up to $40,000. This applies to new or resale HDB flats, with no restriction on flat type and location. However, only those above 35 are eligible for these schemes and grants.
No age restrictions apply for singles buying private property. “If I could have bought my house earlier, I would have done so,” declares Ian. “We may be queer but we are also Singaporeans; we are very practical about this kind of thing.”
Check out the latest listings near: Tiong Bahru, Bartley Ridge
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