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Adulting 101: Navigating the ups and downs of home renovation in a pandemic

SINGAPORE — Like many others in this inexplicable pandemic housing boom, I stepped into a barren and unfurnished flat for the first time last week, only to be awash with conflicting feelings of excitement and dread.

Adulting 101: Navigating the ups and downs of home renovation in a pandemic

Renovation and house-moving can be a frustrating process even after one has sorted out the details, says TODAY correspondent Ng Jun Sen, who stepped into his family’s barren new flat recently.

Adulthood is an invigorating stage of life as young people join the workforce, take on more responsibilities and set their sights on the future. But its many facets — from managing finances and buying a home to achieving work-life balance — can be overwhelming.

In this series, TODAY’s journalists help young Singaporeans navigate this stage of their lives and learn something themselves in the process.

 

SINGAPORE — Like many others in this inexplicable pandemic housing boom, I stepped into a barren and unfurnished flat for the first time last week, only to be awash with conflicting feelings of excitement and dread.

Have you heard of pineapple-rolling?

This uniquely Singaporean custom dictates that when moving into a new place, it is auspicious to roll a pineapple into the home with both hands, while exclaiming — possibly to the chagrin of one’s new neighbours — the auspicious phrase “huat, ah!”, which means to prosper.

The spot where the pineapple stops is where all the good luck is, apparently.

My family isn’t superstitious, but maybe we should have been.

That’s because our first new-flat experience was to recoil at the number of lizards scurrying away on our arrival to hide in crevices and behind peeling paint, as well as at the tacky cupboards that the previous owners left behind.

Oh boy, this place needed some serious renovation work.

It is my family’s newly purchased resale home, and the previous owners had handed over the keys to the flat on the contractual due date of Oct 1 — half a year after we signed the sales agreement.

You can imagine our delirium in the lead-up to this major household event.

There was the sheer number of consequential decisions that needed to be made and things that had to be done: Which mover, renovator or contractor should we hire? What’s the budget? Where will all my stuff go?

Moving from one home to another is an intensely emotional process because it is disruptive to our sense of familiarity.

Yet it can also be positively symbolic — a much-needed change of environment and a fresh start.

A change in one’s residence is on a list of major stressful life events drawn up in 1967 by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe. A 2017 longitudinal study on children by British social scientists also found an association between house-moving and the development of behavioural difficulties later in life.

It is no surprise that a poll of 1,000 Americans last year concluded that moving house was more nerve-racking than having children or starting a new job.

Then there is the Covid-19 pandemic. TODAY reported last month about delays and rising construction costs due to a shortage of migrant workers as well as higher raw material costs.

In the first half of this year, Singapore’s consumer watchdog reported a near doubling of complaints against renovation contractors to 621, from 312 in the same period last year.

Almost half (48 per cent) of the complaints were from people unhappy with the quality of renovation services rendered, the Consumers Association of Singapore said. And around a third of the complaints were against renovation contractors who failed to complete the renovation projects on time or according to agreed project milestones.

Mr Jon Ho, co-founder of renovation platform Homeez, said that homeowners have plenty of worries and concerns about the renovation process because the industry generally lacks transparency.

“They have to make a decision on which firm to hire based on initial impressions and the quotation by the interior designer that, more often than not, comes with hidden costs, which can lead to many misunderstandings and unhappiness.”

Into this opaque and fraught territory of life-changing decisions I went.

Fearing for my sanity and armed with this Adulting 101 assignment, I reached out to the pros to help me navigate the potential pitfalls.

FIRST STEPS

The first steps in this process, as I’ve been told, happen way before one sets foot in one’s new home.

Ideally, one should begin looking for a contractor or an interior designer two to six months before key collection, Mr Ho said. That is, if one’s intention is to move in as soon as possible.

Ms Madeline Chen, head of marketing at home improvement platform Qanvast, recommends speaking to three to five designers at a minimum.

“We recommend speaking to this many designers to get a sense of the quotation based on your design requirements. They may be able to advise some ways to keep within your budget,” she said.

Window-shopping as early as six months before key collection buys you time to make key decisions on how your home will look and which firm can carry out that vision.

Ms Chen said that homeowners generally shortlist their preferred firms based on user reviews and the companies’ design portfolio, but there are human factors other than what is on their marketing materials to consider as well.

For example, many homeowners Qanvast spoke to said “chemistry” was key.

The designer should be able to understand what you’re looking for in a home and must be someone whom you aren’t afraid to approach with questions.

Communication and trust are key to a smooth process, Ms Chen said. “Finding a renovation partner is like finding a life partner.”

In general, there are two options for the homeowner at this point — hiring an interior designer who can manage the project for you or, if you prefer a more hands-on approach to building your home, going with contractors. 

The second option can be more cost-effective, though miscommunication can happen.

“Their interpretation of a ‘Scandinavian-themed’ home could be different from what you envision it to be,” Ms Chen said.

Even so, for smaller-scale and less complicated renovation projects, it may be more ideal to hire a contractor who will liaise with sub-contractors and suppliers to find the best rates.

Ultimately, which route is better will depend on your renovation budget as well as the scale of the work that you have in mind.

Hence, start looking and getting quotations early.

Mr Vincent Goi, design director at interior design firm Arkhilite, said that the recommended cut-off time to appoint a designer is two to three months before the expected date of key collection.

“Good design takes some time. For an apartment, it can take two to three months for the design firm to create a design concept, discuss it with the client, do up the drawings and confirm the documentation with the client,” he said.

“Many new homeowners appoint their design firm too late.”

BUDGETING

Good design will also cost you, and deciding how much to spend on the computer-generated interior design plans by designers and contractors can be a mind-boggling affair.

For renovations of resale flats, Ms Chen suggested setting a higher budget to factor in the cost of any teardowns and repairs, which can add up.

With renovation of a government-built flat costing anywhere between S$18,000 and S$120,000, depending on the extent of work needed and excluding furnishing and appliances, she also recommends putting aside another 10 to 20 per cent of the budget for any “top-ups” along the way.

After all, Mr Goi from Arkhilite said, two wardrobes of the same dimensions may not cost the same if the homeowner picks a different material or detail.

Mr Ravindran Shanmugam, regional head for Southeast Asia at design firm Livspace Singapore, said that most people spend between 8 and 12 per cent of the value of a house on interiors.

This is a good rule of thumb.

“However, there is no ‘right’ budget,” he added. “The interior designer’s responsibility is to ensure you can get your dream home for the amount you’re comfortable spending.”

He, too, warns about hidden costs — an unfortunate side-effect of the renovation industry’s general lack of transparency.

The prices of furniture and products, design and management fees, service charges, delivery and installation costs as well as taxes can lead to "bill shock".

“Many interior designers and contractors don't give customers complete transparency in their quotations, and costs can spiral. Transparent pricing is vital,” Mr Ravindran said, adding that his firm is among those that stick to its upfront prices.

PREPARING FOR PITFALLS

Then there are the deliverables: Will the final product be up to mark? Are the floor tiles what I picked? Will the wardrobes fall apart after a while?

“After spending a bomb on designing, homeowners look for quality interiors that last a lifetime. However, in many cases, quality is mediocre, with the finishes superficially attractive but unlikely to last over one to two years,” Mr Ravindran said.

Project delays are another troubling development, made more acute by the pandemic.

Experts told me that labour woes and material supply shortages were causing delays of at least a month.

While there is a lot of anticipation and excitement about moving into a new home, Mr Ravindran said that delays owing to unrealistic or false commitments can cause immense frustration.

Ms Chen said: “It’s rare that a renovation will be 100 per cent smooth-sailing.

“Go in with the expectation that there may be a few hiccups, such as material or manpower shortages, or unforeseen site constraints like building restrictions, that may require you to change your plans.”

Fortunately, finding inspiration, visualising designs, getting quotations and searching for the right contacts can all be done on a rising number of “omni-channel” platforms that try to become one-stop shops bringing together designers, contractors and suppliers, while pledging quality at good prices.

These are platforms and design firms that have also adopted technology to smoothen the process.

Gone are the days when homeowners had to trawl furniture malls and peruse hundreds of barely navigable “designer” websites.

If you’re like me and belong to a part of the internet generation who decides what to eat or buy based on online reviews, some of these tools can come in handy.

Homeez, which is powered by artificial intelligence, allows users to create three-dimensional interior designs and receive quotations based on these plans. It also has a dashboard to manage renovation projects.

Qanvast’s listings feature interior designers, renovation contractors and architects. Its website also has a budget calculator to help set budgets based on past data from more than S$20 million worth of renovation contracts.

To quote former United States president Dwight Eisenhower, who commanded the Allied forces in World War II: “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Renovation and house-moving can be a frustrating process even after you have sorted out the details.

Everything goes according to plan until Murphy’s law kicks in.

When hiccups happen, as they inevitably do in complex projects during a pandemic, remember to not be too hard on yourself.

Sometimes, it’s just bad luck. Perhaps that is where the pineapple-rolling might help.

ABOUT THE WRITER:

Ng Jun Sen is a correspondent at TODAY whose interests include economics, property, politics and technology.

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