Are you and your partner planning to apply for a HDB BTO (Build-To-Order) flat this year? If so, you are not alone – for many Singaporeans, a BTO flat is their number one choice of first home, mostly due to its lower price tag as compared to homes on the open market, as well as the various grants and subsidized pricing offered. However, as a first-time homebuyer, you may find that applying for and selecting a new HDB flat can be an intimidating experience. Below are some helpful tips to help you successfully select the right BTO HDB flat and come out a winner.
Understand latest HDB Policies & Developments
For those who have not been actively following local property news, it is very important that you start now. Recent policy changes such as the extension of the MOP (minimum occupancy period) from 3 to 5 years may have significant implications on your decision to apply for a BTO flat. Also remember that the loan term for HDB flats can be significantly shorter than that for private properties: private banks can offer loan terms of up to 40 years, while the HDB concessionary loan is only available for 65 years minus the buyer’s age or 30 years, whichever is shorter. Also, although you may not be thinking of buying a 2nd residential property now, do bear in mind that HDB flats cannot be used for getting a 2nd mortgage to leverage or “cash-out” for financing another property purchase – unlike private homes.
Timing Your Application for A BTO Flat
If after considering all the factors involved with buying a BTO flat, and you still decide to go ahead and apply, bear in mind one of the most critical factors: your timing. To give some background, prior to around May 2011, HDB would usually release smaller batches of BTO units on a monthly basis, a process which would result in a frantic rush where everyone would apply for the next consecutive month’s BTO release, without even knowing if they had been successful in the previous exercise. The good news HDB has since revised the system to put up flats in bigger, less frequent releases, meaning that the applicant to flat ratio has been much improved. This is good to know of course, but how can you use this to your advantage?
Maximizing Your Chances of Getting a Good ‘Q’ Number
While luck certainly matters, there are steps you can take to maximize your odds of getting the best queue number. Although the tangible cost of submitting a BTO application is only S$10, and HDB does not limit the number of BTO exercises you can participate in, the larger, less implicit cost lies in how multiple applications will be used “against” you. In a move to discourage buyers from being “picky”, HDB has programmed its balloting system to place applicants who have rejected an invitation to select a flat more than twice at the back of the queue. Because of this, it may not be advisable to apply for a neighborhood which has been oversubscribed over 10 times for a popular release, as your chances of being able to get a good queue number are very small. You might be better off applying for another neighborhood to increase your odds of getting a better queue number instead. Bear in mind that HDB’s offer to you to select a 2nd floor, rubbish-dump facing unit also counts as an invitation, making it even more important you use your application chances wisely.
Use the Tools at Your Disposal
With over 25,000 BTO flats slated to be released in 2012, make sure you don’t miss out on any of them by signing up for HDB alerts on the HDB website. HDB will send you an SMS or email prior to the release of a new BTO launch, when full details of the units, including indicative pricing, are available. Keeping abreast of latest releases is even more critical now that the time frame for submitting your application online has been reduced to one week. Many have missed the deadline for a BTO launch by not keeping track of when applications close – make sure you are not one of them.
Your Patience Will Be Rewarded
In your desire to quickly ‘secure’ a new home for you and your partner, the urge to quickly apply for every BTO exercise there is can be overwhelming. However, do bear in mind your goal is to maximize your chances of getting a good flat, not just any flat – which means it pays to wait for the right launch at the right time. In particular, those eyeing popular areas such as Clementi and Bedok might want to wait for new flats in these areas to be released rather than simply applying for every launch and being invited to select a flat for an area you don’t actually want.
The SBF (Sale of Balance Flats) Exercise (Or HDB’s Special “Bonus” Exercise)
For those with a little more patience (and time on their side), it may be well worth your while to wait for the announcement of the SBF exercise. This may be conducted on an annual basis, but really depends on the number of ‘surplus’ flats HDB has built up in its reserve. The key benefit of the SBF exercise is the absence of the 2-3 year construction period, as SBF flats are typically already completed or near completion. The September 2011 SBF exercise was a good example of how good things come to those to wait: units in highly sought-after areas such as Queenstown and Tiong Bahru were released to 1st-timers, who were able to collect their keys to these completed units within 6 months after applying. With the hot competition for SBF completed flats, it becomes even more apparent why it is important that you ‘conserve’ your chances so you can use them at a time when it really matters.
Keeping An Eye on the Competition
Once you have decided you are interested in a particular launch, watch the live updates on the HDB InfoWEB website like a hawk once HDB starts accepting applications. Do not submit your own application yet. Why? Very simple: By identifying the neighborhoods which have the least number of applicants, you maximize your chances of getting a good queue number. Checking the number of applications versus the number of units available on the day before applications close will give you a good idea of what your likelihood of drawing a good queue number is, and help you decide if you should use one of your precious first-timer ‘chances’ during this particular launch.
Scoping Out the Site
Buying a property off-plan, while having the benefit of ensuring you get a brand-new unit, does mean that the buyer has to do additional due diligence because they will not have the benefit of inspecting the actual unit. For example, you will have to rely on materials such as floor plans and the SLA (Singapore Land Authority) announced plans for the next several years to figure out if a 40-storey high-rise will be built on the plot directly in front of a BTO site, or if an MRT or Chinese temple will be constructed near-by. Tip: going over to the nearly existing blocks in the neighborhood and taking the lift up to the highest floors will give you an idea of the view the new flats will have when they are finally constructed.
Choosing Your Unit: Balance Out Your Must-Haves vs. Nice-to- Have
So you have submitted your BTO application – and lucky you – have received a good queue number. What to do next? Before breaking out the champagne to celebrate, bear in mind that your work has just started at this point. Preparing for your selection date involves doing your homework by understanding the features on the different units offered, including potential negatives such as the amount of afternoon sun the bedrooms will face as well as the extent of street noise that will travel up. While going over the pricing list, if the main reason for your preference for a unit on a high floor is for the view, bear in mind that you may be able to choose a unit on the 20th floor vs. one on the 40th floor and yet still be able to enjoy the view you desire. As HDB charges a substantial incremental for higher floors, the money you save may be better used toward other expenses such as paying for your granite kitchen countertops or customized floor-to-ceiling shoe cabinets – or any ‘what-ifs’ that may come up during the 30 years you will be financing your flat for.
What To Do on Selection Day
As there may be around 8-10 couples selecting their flat that day, be mentally prepared for the possibility that your choice flat may already be taken up by the time you get to the front of the queue. To mitigate the anxiousness you will feel when sitting in front of HDB sales officers and not knowing which remaining unit to select, make sure you show up early for your selection appointment slot, and more importantly, fall in love with 15 units instead of just one or two beforehand. Also bring detailed reference information and photos of each site you’re interested in to avoid panic because the units you had your eye on are all already taken up.
Do you have other tips for first-time BTO flat buyers? We encourage and welcome any tips you may have to add in the “comments” section below.