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Will the ABSD affect the popularity of Good Class Bungalows in 2023?

There is a certain charm when it comes to black-and-white colonial houses in Singapore.

People view them through rose-tinged glasses as they are reminders of our storied history and rich culture. 

Recently, however, there’s been a debate going on about the Ridout Road saga in which several accusations were made by online critics over ministers renting black-and-white colonial houses.

Much has been said, with questions raised about how they are able to afford to rent such “pricey property” and if such heritage properties can be classified in the category of luxury properties more commonly known as good class bungalows (GCB)?

Let’s dive in and find out more.

What constitutes a GCB?

An aerial view of a GCB. PHOTO: AsiaOne

So what is a GCB? It’s a term coined by the Urban Redevelopment Authority to describe a certain type of property. 

Considered a “prime status symbol”, GCBs are highly sought after and can cost as much as $250 million if one is thinking of buying such a property. Furthermore, GCBs can only be purchased and owned by Singaporeans.

Rental, on the other hand, can reach up to $250,000 monthly depending on the condition and location of the house. While most GCBs are the very picture of a modern luxurious home, the older GCBs may be available for less, ranging from $30,000 to $100,000 per month. 

Most GCBs are the very picture of modern luxury, but there are older GCBs which haven't been renovated as well. PHOTO: AsiaOne

But not every landed property can be considered a GCB; their rarity in the local market means that there are several criteria that must be fulfilled.

For starters, Darren Teo, a realtor from Realstar Premier Group who specialises in landed properties and GCBs, said that GCBs are typically located close to the central part of Singapore and usually fall within the Tree Conservation Areas. He went on to state that there are only 39 gazetted sites and that scarcity adds to the “elite” status of such properties.

Besides the location, GCBs are also defined by the unique land definitions and restrictions that property owners have to abide by. 

A GCB must sit on a plot of land no smaller than 15,070 sq ft, which is equivalent to the size of about four basketball courts, and be no more than two storeys tall. 

Aside from that, a GCB also cannot occupy more than 40 per cent of its total plot of land. This is not only to ensure that such houses are well spaced out from each other, but also to maintain some of the surrounding lush greenery.

In addition, Teo added that there are additional building restrictions in place that govern the position of the house on the piece of land. For example, he shared that there are rules in place that state that a GCB must be built a certain distance from its perimeter walls. 

Black-and-white colonial houses 101

A vacant black-and-white colonial house which is being managed by SLA. PHOTO: AsiaOne

So now knowing what a GCB is, the question to answer is if a black-and-white colonial house would fall under the same category of property. And more importantly, are they in the same bracket when it comes to price?

A black-and-white colonial house in Singapore generally refers to the whitewashed walls and dark timber beams terrace houses built between the early 1900s and World War II. 

Blending English and indigenous Malay design elements, the colonial house design has been attributed to British architect Regent Alfred John Bidwell, who also designed the famous Raffles Hotel.

In Singapore, there are only around 500 black-and-white colonial houses left with most owned by the government. Managed by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), some of them have been earmarked for commercial uses.

Unlike GCBs, a black-and-white colonial house is not available for purchase. There are only 262 of these heritage homes available for residential rental, and they are periodically up for tender through SLA via a vigorous process.

Interested parties can check on the available black-and-white colonial houses for residential rental on the SLA website, before submitting a blind bid via post. After the tender period is over, SLA contacts the winning bid and publishes all the relevant information on the State Property Information Online (SPIO) website. 

A quick check on SPIO shows that, in the last six months, the monthly rental for a colonial house can range from as little as $4,879 to $42,800 a month. This is certainly more modest when compared to the high rental prices quoted for GCBs.

But like GCB owners, the tenant of a black-and-white colonial home is also subjected to building and land restrictions in order to preserve its history. And because of the cultural heritage behind such properties, tenants might find themselves facing even more stringent constraints than GCB owners.

First off, while SLA upkeeps the maintenance of empty colonial houses, they keep the works to a minimum so as to preserve their original state as much as possible.

Some of the roofing maintenance work being undertaken by SLA on the black-and-white colonial houses. PHOTO: AsiaOne

Most tenants are handed the house in its original bare state, which is the exact condition in which they must return the property to SLA at the end of their lease. Add to the fact that black-and-white colonial houses’ facilities are rather dated, it requires quite a bit of investment and effort to update the property for modern-day living.

As such, the rental demand for black-and-white colonial homes tends to be significantly lower than that of GCBs. 

So, what's the fuss about staying in a black-and-white colonial house?

Frontal view of the black-and-white colonial house occupied by Singaporean entrepreneur Lai Chang Wen. PHOTO: AsiaOne

A current tenant, Singaporean entrepreneur Lai Chang Wen, shared that living in a black-and-white colonial house has taught him and his wife the charm of “being able to live in a constant state of disrepair”. 

Having moved into their home three years ago, Lai dropped the bomb that he has spent close to six figures in doing up the heritage house alone. And that didn’t even include the bill for electrical works.

Besides fitting up the house, he is also required to maintain the huge garden, including caring for all the trees on the property and other landscaping works, while adhering to SLA regulations that prevent him from building any new permanent structure on the lush greenery.

All these expenses are on top of his monthly rent, which Lai shared “cost around $10k to $20k”.

But why make the plunge to rent a colonial home when it is such a costly investment of one’s money and time?

“We wanted home to be a place where it feels a bit different and we like to be connected to nature.

“The beauty is to do it (improvements) bit by bit, kind of understand how you like to live, which areas you use a bit more. It’s really about the loose furniture and small things which add to a lot of the ambience,” explained Lai.

Lai shared that he spent close to six figures just fixing up the black-and-white colonial house. PHOTO: AsiaOne

Hence, the 35-year-old was willing to accept all the building and land restrictions laid out by SLA when he rented his black-and-white house.

Besides wrestling with the expensive upkeep of the house and garden, Lai said that he is not allowed to change the colonial house’s facade in any way, as well as being prohibited from building any new permanent structures on the plot. 

Despite this, Lai has no regrets about the decision to move in and shared that he plans to renew his lease when it is up.

“On the one hand, you appreciate the nature, the openness. But you realised that a lot of things (modern amenities), you’ve taken for granted and these are the compromises you have to accept,” before going on to joke how he has learnt to appreciate a working toilet bowl since moving into his black-and-white home.

The view of the surrounding garden from Lai's living room balcony. PHOTO: AsiaOne

On top of that, he also feels that the monthly rental cost is fair considering the other options out there.

“Rental is kind of proportionate to a certain extent. You pay a lot more to live in a GCB. In a GCB you never have all these problems,” stated Lai matter-of-factly. 

He went on to elaborate that in a colonial house, “you’re inviting everything outdoors in because what’s inside the house is small”. GCBs, on the other hand, are “houses that are great at keeping the outdoors out and keeping everything within”. 

Therefore, Lai feels it is unfair to make a comparison between black-and-white colonial houses and GCBs. 

Teo elaborated and went one step further in saying that the people who would rent colonial houses are unlikely to be the same crowd that would be interested in renting a GCB due to “different preferences”. 

Ending off with an analogy, Teo compared the GCBs to prized thoroughbred racehorses, with their modern luxuries and state-of-the-art design by famous architects.

Black-and-white colonial houses, however, are like zebras according to Teo. Besides being obviously black and white, they are protected for conservation purposes and usually found near to greenery.

An overview of Lai's black-and-white home. PHOTO: AsiaOne

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