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Singaporean couple living apart during COVID outbreak gave up BTO flat selection to find a ready home through SBF

·17-min read

Twenty-seven-year-old Social Media Manager, Lynette Chang met James Neo, a 29-year-old HR consultant, in January 2020. At the time, she lived in Bukit Panjang while he was staying in Tampines. Usually, when an Eastie and a Westie fall in love, they would meet in the middle, say town, if they were to start dating at the time.

However, COVID-19 struck in February, and Singapore went into DORSCON Orange (still remember that?). Most budding relationships then evolved into a series of phone calls, Zoom videos and WhatsApp messages as everyone had to stay home. It would be through face masks and social distancing once they were able to step out and meet again.

Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat
Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat

Being the only child in their families and having only just started their careers (they’ve worked for 4-5 years in their respective first jobs), deciding to go into a relationship during the outbreak meant being serious about one another and forging a strong commitment to being together.

“Before we met, we were at stable stages of our lives – individually, financially and in our careers. So we went into the relationship committed to building a life together someday, and it became natural for us to talk and take tangible steps to start our home journey together,” Lynette said.

Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat
Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat

The BTO flat selection that never happened

In August 2020, Lynette and James applied for HDB’s August 2020 BTO exercise under the MGPS scheme (multi-generation priority scheme). If you recall, HDB merged May’s exercise with August’s due to COVID-19 restrictions. In total, 7820 units across eight HDB towns were launched – making it the largest BTO sales exercise ever.

But for Lynette and James, destiny had a way of changing one’s plans when it was least expected.

“We got a ballot number of #12 under MGPS then. Unfortunately, we had to let go of the opportunity to pick our BTO flat (initial selection date: 9 November 2020) because of some changes. Letting go was painful, because, really, what are the odds we’d even get a number, let alone such a good one, right?

“Since we only got #12 by virtue of MGPS and did not get any number by Public Scheme, letting go of this did not mean that we forwent a chance (i.e, we still have 2 first-timer chances left, thankfully)

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,” Lynette shared.

Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat
Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat

In November 2020, instead of the BTO exercise, the couple went for the Sales of Balance flats exercise.

A month later, they got ballot number #42/108.

“When the selection process started, we began receiving daily messages about SBF units at different neighbourhoods we shortlisted being taken up by others. Fortunately, the units we shortlisted turned out to be too close to neighbouring blocks. After thinking through about convenience, cost, wind/sun direction and neighbours (haha, but yes, really), we found a project that we really liked. And guess what, the units’ keys are already available!”

In other words, instead of having to wait 4-6 years for a BTO or 2-3 years for the SBF units they previously wanted, Lynette and James can readily start planning their move-in and renovations earlier than expected.

Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat
Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat

Sale of Balance Flat selection

Since the project was already completed, the couple was able to “walk the grounds” and visit the neighbourhood.

Granted, Lynette’s home is in the west, while James’ home is in Tampines, so they really wanted a place which makes travelling from east-west less arduous.

“We saw the merits of staying near one of our parents’ places (for increased ballot chances, and also the practical support of having our parents around when the kids come),” James shared.

“So we selected Tampines SBF and not Bukit Panjang SBF because there were more units available (which meant a higher chance of securing a unit).”

“It took a while for me to get used to the east (even till today),” Lynette added, “but thankfully, there is still a sense of familiarity, considering Tampines is a mature estate with old school shops around, rather than a completely young estate. It also helps that there are three big malls here, and home is a 30-minute drive away.”

Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat
Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat

But selecting the actual unit required some internal soul-searching for the couple:

Ideally, their home should have an unblocked view, high floor, and corner unit away from the neighbours. They realised they had to also manage their expectations considering there were limited units available.

“We were torn between two units: a fourth floor flat, or a top floor unit,” James said.

“On paper, the top floor unit checked every box – high floor, unblocked view, almost corner unit. However, it was facing the neighbours’ door (a 3Gen flat, whose door was often open), which was too close for comfort. The top unit also had direct afternoon sun and was more costly. The fourth-floor unit, however, had a large corridor – a nostalgic factor because Lynette used to play soccer with her cousins by the corridor when she was younger.”

“Our neighbours were also around the same age group,” Lynette chimed in, “and there was a huge space between each unit. Strangely, even though the fourth-floor unit was not “perfect” on paper: near the lift, near the rubbish chute and low floor, it felt most like home.”

The couple eventually settled for the fourth-floor unit – a 133-square-metre (1432 sqft) 5-room flat in Tampines, which cost under S$500,000.

 

Sourcing for an ID while planning their wedding

The couple collected their keys on 30 July 2021. Surprisingly, they waited until September before looking for contractors/ interior designers. Usually, most couples tend to start researching 6-9 months before key collection.

“We wanted to focus on planning for our wedding at the time. Also, James was studying for his post-grad. Once most of the wedding arrangements were confirmed, we began looking around. But we did tell ourselves we would take things step-by-step – if we managed to get the house ready before the wedding, great; if not, we’ll not stress over it,” Lynette said.

Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat
Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat

There’s probably another reason why the couple delayed their renovation plans:

“Honestly, we didn’t know what or how to start. We’re thankful to have met with contractors who were patient in asking us questions. We soon realised there were many things we hadn’t thought about: power socket arrangements, what are our must-haves, what material we want for the countertop, what material for the backsplash, tiles or vinyl, do we want a feature wall or nah?”

One reason for their hesitance is one of the contractors they were considering could only start work 6-8 weeks after signing. This meant the house wouldn’t be ready in time for their wedding in December 2021.

“We were almost about to just accept that fact – that we were quite last minute (in planning), so it’s kinda fair that we manage our expectations also

��
��

. “What will be, will be”, or so we thought. (So… plan ahead if you can!)”

Fortunately, out of the blue, James saw a Facebook post from an ID called Interior.box while on reservist. What was initially an “oh hey, look at this, let’s add it to our mood board” thing became a “why not?”

The couple got in touch with Douglas from the ID firm – who asked them for their:

  • Expected key collection date.

  • Expected commencement of their renovation.

  • Project brief of their renovation.

 

To which the couple said, “ASAP, ASAP, we don’t know”. While surprised by the timing, the ID met the couple the next day, put in his pitch a week later, and the rest was history.

Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat
Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat

James admitted he was initially hesitant with the ID because it didn’t have many reviews or an online portfolio. “What if it’s a scam? Should we go with “trusted” contractors instead?”

However, further interactions with Douglas assuaged his concerns.

“Besides being knowledgeable, he was prompt in his responses and made time to meet us the next day. What impressed us was his attitude. He asked us about our lifestyles, and habits, how we spend time at home, what we envision the space to be, and how we’d like to use the space.

“To which, we said that we enjoy hosting our loved ones and envision having them over often. In our downtime, we enjoy curling up to a good show. It was also important for us to have sufficient storage space as we grow along with the home.”

“Thankfully, he said he was able to complete renovations by December,” Lynette added. “Truthfully, we weren’t even considering an ID initially, mainly because we wanted to save on the design fees. But somehow, we found that his rates were comparable to the more renowned contractor we met.

“In hindsight, having him around to guide two newbies without imposing his ideas is a blessing – especially when we’re busy managing our wedding in parallel

��‍��
��‍��

. He was prompt in reporting timelines, telling us what to expect and when, and was really great with project management.”

Having received the signed renovation contract on 27 September, Douglas and his crew had less than 3 months to complete everything and get the house in move-in condition.

Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat
Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat

Home design discussions between two people

As part of the renovations, Douglas and his crew proposed demarcating the Neos’ living area with a cave-like curve.

This wowed the couple, who had seen other ID proposals which, though “trendy”, weren’t timeless or only meant to boost their portfolios.

 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by James + Lynette (@neolybuilt)

Douglas also suggested a settee area simply “because James is tall, so it would be great for him to have somewhere to sit and wear his shoes”. This attention to detail impressed the couple, who shared that many of the contractors they’d met, were more like “tell us what you want, and we would do it for you”.

While not wrong, the first-time homeowners felt that it saved them quite a lot of time since they were also juggling their wedding plans.

“Having someone think through and curate a design along with your needs and lifestyles, including project management, really helped. Ultimately, we felt that having an ID’s support was better than what we could have done. It also helped that Douglas’ price was reasonable, compared to the contractors we spoke to.”

According to Lynette, they paid roughly S$52k for renovations (excluding appliances and furniture) at the time. “But that’s the cost of renovations in 2021. I think supplies and manpower costs have unfortunately increased. Today, the same renovations might cost S$56-58k, I think.”

 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by James + Lynette (@neolybuilt)

In terms of design, the couple talked about what “home” should really feel like for them.

“Thankfully, both of us have similar tastes when it comes to aesthetic preferences. As much as Scandi-Japandi and white/wood/neutrals/pastels are a hit in local homes (and understandably so), we’ve always gravitated towards moodier, walnut interiors.

“Our shared Pinterest mood board turned out pretty consistent: greys, black accents, walnut wood and stone.” What also helped was that the couple is relatively creative, with James having an art (painting) background and Lynette being a freelance photographer.

Douglas joked that the Neos were one of the more decisive clients he’s had – they practically decided the entire colour scheme, tiles, and fixture colours in 2-3 hours, without the need for illustrations!

“But there were instances either of us couldn’t envision the big picture, so we had to trust in each other’s visions,” James said. “For example, Lynette wanted a stone basin for the master bathroom, to which I was not sure if it would fit the theme.”

Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat
Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat

“James saw what Douglas meant by using “a big tile” as the kitchen backsplash,” Lynette chimed in, “while I was not sure if the pop of blue would clash with the overall vibe. Also, we were both not sure if having the ceiling painted dark grey alongside the walls would feel claustrophobic or not.”

“Ultimately, amidst all these doubts, we trusted each other and also trusted the process,” the couple said in unison. “We’ve had several compliments for the stone basin, backsplash, and of course, the curve – which somehow expands the space. A common remark amongst guests would be, “your home is very consistent”. Pretty much sums up our theme!”

Indeed, Douglas delivered on time, the Neos got their dream wedding and moved into their new SBF flat – despite weathering a whirlwind COVID-19 romance, failed BTO flat selection and stressful renovation/wedding deadlines.

Insights and advice

Sale of Balance Flat exercise:

Positive:
“Sales of Balance Flat exercises make it possible for us to head down to survey the sites, rather than relying on imagination from a 2D drawing. We enjoyed cycling down to various projects, visiting different units and seeing which ones feel more like home to us.”

Negative:
“Because it’s Sales of Balance Flats, it also meant we were not left with a lot of choices. We were also unable to decide if we wanted the default HDB flooring or not. Our home came bare, without HDB flooring, which turned out to be a blessing because we could dress it up to our preferences. However, that also meant more reno costs, considering we have to pay for tiling and wet works.”

Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat
Lynette and James - 5-room SBF Tampines flat

Renovations and furniture-hunting:

1. “Start finding your ID/contractor at least 6 months ahead, and factor in at least 2 months buffer for your appliances/furniture – not all furniture pieces are ready-to-ship, and custom pieces might take time.”

2. “Whether contractor or ID, find someone you can trust, who sees your home as more than just a portfolio. We’ve had designers suggest erecting a half-wall in the middle of the living room to separate the space – we were swayed at first, but felt it might not make sense for us in the long run.

“Also, a regular person’s definition of a half-wall would be an awkward height for James (who is 195 cm tall). Also, Douglas and the various contractors told us it would be difficult to install a rainshower, but a rainshower was a non-negotiable for Lynette.

“When told it was difficult to have a rainshower that matches James’ height, James contemplated using the common toilet to shower, or to sit down and shower instead. Thankfully, Douglas knew how much having a rainshower meant to Lynette and thought around the box (pun unintended).

 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by James + Lynette (@neolybuilt)

3. “Plan appliances and fixtures according to your needs. Our more petite friends come over and note that our countertops are “higher than normal” because they were made to match our taller frames (James’ 195cm, Lynette’s 168cm).

“Also, think about how many power plugs you need – like, we personally think we can almost never have enough power plugs, or would someday need a robot vacuum cleaner? If so, where would you charge it? Frivolous as it may sound, where would you want your Christmas Tree? Where would you plug in your hotpot at the dining table? How many appliances would you use in the kitchen? How would you organise wires? How many plugs do you need in your study? We might have installed more plugs in the home office.

“Furthermore, Lynette would’ve wanted to have a bedside lamp so she could use her phone in bed at night!”

4. “Your house is a home, not a showroom – these are some of the wiser words someone told us. Homes are meant to be lived in. It is okay for a home not to always be perfect – perfect is not real!”

What’s next on their home-buying journey?

For the Neos, they foresee staying in their new Tampines home for quite some time. They plan on truly enjoying the living journey and neighbourhood.

“Our next home will probably be chosen with our kids, maybe in an entirely new neighbourhood so we can grow together as a family, or who knows, maybe overseas,” James said with a laugh.

“Sometimes we wonder if we’ll ever be tired of the current theme,” Lynette quipped. “Maybe then we’ll have a white-wood-neutral home! Right now, we still wake up feeling “wow, this is our home”, and we still look forward to coming back home whenever we are overseas.”

You can also see more of Lynette’s and James’ home and lifestyle in this video by Castlery.

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496B Tampines Street 43 Photo

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497F Tampines Street 45 Photo
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355 Tampines Street 33 Photo
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257 Tampines Street 21 Photo
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624 Senja Road Photo
624 Senja Road Photo

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631 Senja Road Photo
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175 Lompang Road Photo
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146 Gangsa Road Photo
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167 Petir Road Photo
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277 Bangkit Road Photo
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Interested in sharing your home-buying or home-selling journey with us? Reach out to us or give us your comments below.

If you found this article helpful, 99.co recommends Millennial couple wanted to live in the East, secured a BTO flat facing the sea and Millennial sweethearts found 5-room dream resale HDB after two failed BTO applications.

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