Sunday, October 14, 2007

Who says Singaporeans are an introverted bunch? They are snapping up cluster properties which offer good ol’ kampung-style living.

Who says Singaporeans are an introverted bunch? They are snapping up cluster properties which offer good ol’ kampung-style living.

INSTEAD of a phone call or a knock on the door, 11-year-old Cornelius Lee says hello to his neighbours with five loud claps. Within seconds, the pitter-patter of hands in a similar rhythm resounds through a Mediterranean-style courtyard that provides a centrepiece for a grouping of terrace houses.

Welcome to cluster housing living - the modern-day kampung, or village, where neighbours who live in individual landed dwellings share facilities and their lives.

Cornelius, his elder brother and his parents live in Kew Residencia in the East Coast. It is one of Singapore’s early cluster housing developments, having been launched in 1996.

Cluster housing refers to uniformly designed, landed properties that are built in clusters within a gated estate.

Inhabitants get to enjoy the perks of condominium-style facilities like security, a swimming pool and gymnasium, as well as private basement parking.

According to real estate company Colliers International, 20 cluster housing projects have been launched so far this year, the latest being The Ambience at Punggol by developer DB2.

Inspired by old kampung communities where people ‘enter a community before their own house’, architect Andrew Tan of ATA Architects submitted the idea in 1991 to a contest by the Ministry of National Development seeking new housing designs.

His design of groups of houses surrounding a courtyard, which is in turn connected to a main courtyard, won top honours but was never built.

The public, too, initially took a while to latch on to the idea.

Ms Tay Huey Ying, director of research and consultancy at Colliers International, says early developments such as the 20-unit Northshore Bungalows in Punggol built in 1995 took over two years to sell. Prices were between $3.1 million and $3.7 million for a house of about 4,000 sq ft.
Meanwhile, Kew Residencia took 11/2 years to sell 25 of its 37 units at an average of $980,000 each, says Ms Tay.

She adds that it is difficult to compare prices of the cluster developments with that of existing landed or condominium projects then because they were an entirely new market.

But four years later, people were cosying up to clusters.

D’Manor in Tanah Merah and Horizon Garden in Ang Mo Kio - launched around 1999 at prices ranging from $880,000 to $1.5 million - hit headlines for being snapped up within two weeks.

Mr Tan says the initial apprehension in the early 1990s was probably due to worries about forking out large sums for a house for which you still had to share communal space.

‘Then, terrace housing was still widely available and people probably thought if they had to pay over $1 million for a house, why should they share,’ he says.

New generation

BUYERS of cluster homes - regulatory guidelines state they must be Singaporean or seek permission from the Government to buy if they aren’t - have changed their tune amid soaring property prices and an increasingly scarce amount of available land.

Knight Frank realty adviser Eddie Koh says Singaporeans tend to buy cluster houses in prime areas, such as the 163-unit Hillcrest Villa in Dunearn Road, for investment.

A check with home owners show that those eyeing projects outside the central region tend to be looking for a roof over their heads.

At Horizon Garden in Ang Mo Kio, the mix between local and expat residents is currently about 50:50, says resident Eleanor Foong, who is in her 40s.

Under the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s ruling, expats can only be tenants, not owners, of cluster houses.

Meanwhile, at Gardens At Gerald, a 25-unit cluster housing project in Seletar Hills completed in January, resident Roger Tan, 36, says all his neighbours are Singaporean.

And contrary to the notion that Singaporeans are a conservative, introverted lot, all seven families LifeStyle spoke to say they enjoy the community-centric living that cluster housing provides.

All are fairly young couples in their 30s and early 40s with young children, which Ms Tay says is the pattern among such home owners.

In May, for example, Mr Tan invited the five other families who had moved into his estate at that point to his house to celebrate his daughter’s sixth birthday.

At Kew Residencia, it is common for residents to have dinners and wine-drinking sessions or go bowling together.

‘It’s really like a modern-day kampung,’ says Kew Residencia resident Bernard Teo, who is in his 40s.

‘You have to be open to the idea of mixing with your neighbours if you are moving into a cluster house. If not, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb.’

Best of both worlds

UNDER URA guidelines, a strata title arrangement is used to mark public and private space within cluster housing. The strata title ensures that individual homeowners have rights not only to their own unit, but also communal facilities.

Simply put, it is a marriage of condo- style facilities with the luxury of staying in a landed house.

Gardens At Gerald resident Roger Tan points out that children can run about more freely because of the availability of security.

At the same time, unlike condominium living, where parking can be quite far from your apartment, cluster housing allows residents to ‘park your car, walk and you’re inside (your home)’, says Mr Olivier Honore, 40.

He lives in the Sixth Avenue cluster housing project The Teneriffe. ‘Cluster housing is really designed for the people,’ he says.

Prices of cluster homes have shot up with the boom - Hillcrest Villa, for example, went for $870 psf at its launch last month in comparison to the nearby Teneriffe, which was launched at $410 psf in 2000. But industry experts and buyers say the cluster is still good bang for your buck.

Mr Malek Ali, who was a real estate consultant for two years until he switched careers recently, says cluster houses are usually between 10 and 15 per cent cheaper than condos.

‘Developers tend to give a bit of a discount when they take into consideration that spaces in cluster houses such as the carpark are actually unusable space,’ says Mr Ali, who lives in a cluster development in Gilstead Road.

Knight Frank realty adviser Eddie Koh agrees.

‘A condominium in the vicinity of Hillcrest Villa would probably cost $1,000 psf,’ he says. ‘And, these days, you’ll never find a condo as big or with five rooms as you would in a cluster house.’
Investors, too, are increasingly game to put their money into the once-alien market.

In fact both Mr Koh and Ms Audrey Wong, an agent with JC Properties (Singapore), say all the Singaporeans they have dealt with bought their cluster homes to reap rental yields.

Cluster housing is popular among the expatriate community because of the quality of life it provides and can fetch monthly rentals of between $10,000 and $13,000, Ms Wong says. ‘Especially when it’s in a location close to international schools and amenities.’

A retiree who wants to be known only as Mr Fong is one such investor.

‘Many of these properties tend to be leasehold projects that would eventually be returned to the Government. It thus makes sense to invest instead of stay in them, especially when they give fairly good returns,’ says Mr Fong, who rents out three cluster houses he owns in the expat-friendly Bukit Timah area.

Too close for comfort

BUT cluster housing is not all kampung glam. Mr Tan says some developments take integrated living too far by incorporating too many elements onto the land.

‘I had seen so many before Gardens At Gerald that were very cramped and lacked exclusivity, which defeated the purpose of upgrading from a flat,’ he says.

And not everyone fits in with the friendly vibe of the tribe.

‘As much as we have good neighbours, we also have very strange ones,’ says Ms Joyce Lim, who lives in Kew Residencia, but declines to divulge more.

However, if and when your neighbours get too in your face, you just have to go inside, says The Teneriffe’s Mr Honore.

‘Just like in a college dorm.’

‘Then, terrace housing was still widely available and people probably thought if they had to pay over $1 million for a house, why should they share’ - Architect Andrew Tan, who submitted his concept drawing to a contest by the Ministry of National Development in 1991

Source : Sunday Times - 14 Oct 2007

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