Straits Times Saturday Review
Packing up your troubles is a mere cop-out
Tan Hui Yee
21 June 2008

A RECENT Saturday Special Report I wrote on Singapore landmarks drew an indignant call from a homeowner whose graceful 30-year-old development had been declared worthy of conservation.

She said there was no point in conserving the condominium because it was leaking. She and her neighbours hoped to sell the development in a collective sale, or more popularly known as an en bloc sale.

Did you try to fix the leaks, I asked.

Whatever for, she retorted. The estate was too old and the pipes were embedded in the floor.

Buildings are meant to outlast human beings - unless you live in disposable Singapore. Here, cars can be scrapped after five years and people suffer a pay-cut - while still doing the same job - after hitting 50. In all likelihood, there are many homeowners like Ms Too-Old-To-Be-Fixed out there.

Heritage lovers will have you believe that property owners gunning for en bloc sales are philistines all too willing to trade their spacious (but leaky) homes for gleaming new boxes in the sky.

These are the same people, they charge, who see no point in fixing leaks if they can still get good money for renting out their deteriorating properties.

These cardboard villains are products of a deeper problem. About 15 per cent of Singaporeans live in private homes today. Although that figure has been rising in recent years, it has not been matched by a growing awareness of how private estates should be run.

The colourful advertisements selling the pleasures of condominium living make it easy to forget the responsibility that comes with owning a private home.

The key difference between public and private housing lies in the parties which own and maintain common spaces. If a leak occurs in the common area of a public housing block, the town council fixes it. If that same leak occurs in a private estate, all its owners are responsible.

Laws governing strata-titled properties soften the weight of this responsibility by requiring owners to appoint a council among themselves, which then usually outsources the care of their estates to managing agents.

The resulting structure somewhat resembles that for public housing, except for the fact that the homeowners themselves hold the purse strings for expenditure on the estate.

Assuming that the estate's council works in the best interest of the estate, it still would have to contend with its ignorance of building maintenance. This is a specialised and grossly underrated field of practice, especially where residential buildings are concerned. It is a major component of study in the Project and Facilities Management degree programme offered by the National University of Singapore.

Estate management is a thankless job, made worse by the tendency of homeowners to stint on maintenance fees because they have splurged on their homes. Homeowners who suggest raising maintenance fees are quickly shot down by sceptical neighbours. Too many people, it seems, think they know what it takes to maintain a building and not enough are willing to spend money on the professionals.

The result is a race to the bottom: homeowners pick the cheapest managing agent, who picks the cheapest contractors, who hire the cheapest staff.

Adding to this recipe for neglect is the unregulated nature of the facilities management industry. There are currently about 30 managing agents accredited either by the Association of Property and Facility Managers or the Association of Management Corporations in Singapore.

Anyone, regardless of credentials, can set up a company to 'manage' properties. If his rates are low enough, he will have no shortage of business. From then on, it is simply a matter of keeping up appearances.

As long as the appointed contractors keep the lobbies spanking clean and security guards patrol the boundaries zealously, cracks and leaks in hidden areas go unchecked. In the long run, it is the cracks and leaks that will prove to be expensive - and perhaps even dangerous.

Barring cases of truly shoddy construction, the truth is that leaky pipes embedded in floors can be fixed. All it needs is an owner to raise the red flag and a managing agent to investigate and rectify the problem.

But it is so much easier for a lone homeowner to shrug off the problems and proclaim one's property 'too old'. Doing otherwise might be to set oneself up for a huge expense, a whole lot of heartache and nasty comments from penny-pinching neighbours.

For a nation obsessed with property, we haven't quite got the hang of caring for it so as to make it last. Such wasteful behaviour does not make good sense at a time when climate change and unchecked development are driving up construction costs worldwide.

The buck needs to stop somewhere, before our residential districts become a perpetual construction site as homeowners pack up and go at the first sign of physical deterioration.

It is time we learnt that stumping up the cash for a condo is not the end of private homeownership. It merely marks the beginning of a long journey.

[email protected]