- Tobby Toh and Goh Kai Yi downsized to a three-room public housing apartment in Singapore in 2021.
- The couple paid 300,000 Singapore dollars, or about $220,000 for the house.
- They turned the place into a vintage-inspired home, and say they no longer have any housing debt.
When Tobby Toh and Goh Kai Yi were looking for a new home, they knew they wanted a smaller place.
At that point, they were still living in their four-room public housing apartment in Singapore. It was a built-to-order, or BTO, flat that they bought in 2017, a year after they had gotten married.
BTO flats are new apartments sold by the Housing Development Board on a 99-year lease. In Singapore, there are strict rules around who’s eligible to buy a BTO apartment. These rules vary depending on marital status and other family situations, including non-Singaporean spouses and multigenerational households.
Despite being lucky to score a home, Toh and Goh found it difficult to make their monthly payments. “We were always bogged down by our mortgage,” Goh, a 35-year-old user experience designer, told Insider.
After doing some calculations, the couple realized they would no longer have to deal with housing debt if they sold their home and downgraded to a smaller apartment, she added.
In December 2021, they took the plunge: They sold their BTO home for 628,000 Singapore dollars, or $460,000 — close to double what they had paid five years earlier — and bought a three-room apartment for SG$300,000.
Based on the latest data from local real-estate platform StackedHomes, others who recently sold their 4-room BTO flats in the same part of Singapore have made profits of over 70%.
By paying for their new house in cash, they no longer need to service a mortgage.
In Singapore, apartments developed by the Housing Development Board, or HDB, must be occupied for a minimum number of years before they can be sold on the open market.
When the minimum occupation period ends, some of those living in BTOs will take the chance to flip their homes, make a profit, and buy a bigger place, Toh, a 36-year-old who was working in finance, told Insider.
“But having a bigger house, or a bigger car doesn’t necessarily translate to a better quality of life for me,” Toh said. “For us, we downsized to free up the obligations to pay every month. Then we can have the additional funds to go and do what we want.”
In fact, they are planning to take a long holiday overseas soon, he added.
The flat they bought also has sentimental value: It was Toh’s childhood home.
When the couple decided to downsize, they already knew that they wanted to buy over Toh’s childhood home.
At the time, Toh’s mother still owned the apartment but had moved out to live with his aunt a few blocks away. The flat had been rented out for the past nine years, he said.
“It’s like killing two birds with one stone: I thought if I bought the house back from my mom, she could use the money as well,” Toh said.
Their apartment measures about 731 square feet and was built in 1978.
Due to its age, the 45-year-old apartment wasn’t exactly in the most well-kept condition, Toh said. Some of the wall tiles were cracked, and the window grilles were falling off.
Everything about the look and feel of the space was outdated, and walking into the home felt like stepping into the past, he added.
To put the age of their home into perspective, the first HDB apartment blocks in Singapore were completed in 1960 — only 18 years earlier than their apartment block. In other older housing estates like theirs, the government even ends up buying back the properties to demolish them and redevelop the area.
Appearance aside, one thing the couple was sold on was the location: The apartment was located in Geylang Bahru, which is in the central region of Singapore.
The couple finds it hard to describe their interior design aesthetic.
“We feel like our aesthetic is a little raw and slightly vintage,” Goh said. That said, the couple admits that they didn’t follow a specific aesthetic when trying to design their home.
“We just wanted to keep things functional and basic. Even with the color palette we decided to go fairly neutral, with green, white, raw wood finishes, and exposed concrete,” Toh added.
The layout was planned based on what worked and what didn’t in their previous home.
Their current home was slightly smaller than their previous house. To open up the layout, the couple knocked down a few walls and created new doorways.
They wanted a kitchen island this time around, as Goh said she remembered them fighting over the stove when they had it lined up against a wall.
Their new kitchen island doubles as a dining space to accommodate guests.
“We wanted a place where everyone could hang out. From our previous experience, we learned that people will gather wherever there’s food,” Toh said.
Having an island between the kitchen and the living room helps bridge the two common spaces, he said.
“This is like the centerpiece of the house where we can cook, host, and serve,” he added.
Some prominent interior design features are the exposed concrete beam and feature wall.
The decision to have these exposed concrete features was inspired by some design references they had found.
“We originally intended to just have one wall, but as they were hacking, we saw corners of plaster on the overhead beam peeling, and we thought we should just expose it as well,” Goh said. Thankfully, it came out the way they wanted.
The couple tried to do something similar in their previous house, but it didn’t look natural that time around.
“It’s only in old HDBs where you can do this because in the new HDBs when you try to hack the walls, the materials are different,” Goh said. “You won’t get this kind of effect.”
The couple designed the place on their own and worked directly with the contractors.
“We did approach designers, but we didn’t go ahead with it because we just felt that we already knew what we wanted,” Goh said.
The couple ended up managing the entire renovation project on their own while juggling full-time jobs. It taught them the importance of being specific when it comes to design directions.
“It’s just that I think these contractors, they wouldn’t have aesthetic inputs,” Goh said. “Basically when it comes to alignment or certain materials, you have to be very specific on what you want.”
The couple remodeled almost the entire home — the only things they kept were the old tiles that they incorporated into the floors in the coffee-making corner.
Their renovations took about three months, but they moved in before the house was complete. There were still some minor installations left, Goh said.
Since the couple downsized their home, they also had to declutter. Apart from getting rid of items they no longer wanted, they also sold off their appliances to buy smaller ones that would fit more comfortably into their home.
The couple also did some DIY projects around the apartment.
They wanted a microcement finish in their bathroom, which was supposed to be completed by an external contractor.
However the cost that they were quoted ended up going beyond their budget, so the couple decided to take things into their own hands.
“When we did the bathroom, it’s like, there’s no way you can just do it halfway and leave it,” Toh said. “Because once you start you’ll have to do three layers. And for every layer in between, you have to wait.”
Things were further complicated by their decision to turn the common bathroom into a half bath and the master bathroom into a shower-only washroom.
“Basically we couldn’t use the shower for about a month,” Goh said. They ended up installing a temporary shower head in the common bathroom during that period.
The couple has a piece of advice for anyone who wants to design their own homes: Don’t blindly follow trends.
It’s more important to design something that fits with your own tastes and preferences, Toh said.
After all, a home should be a reflection of the owner’s personality and not a reflection of the latest trends because “trends will just die,” Goh said.
“To me, functionality is also important,” she added. “I mean you have to design a space around your own habits. If you are a messy person and you try to go with a minimalist theme, it’s just not going to work.”
The couple provided Insider with proof of their house sale and purchase.