I hailed from an upper-middle class family where both my parents were well-educated professionals. My parents were frugal, avid investors, just like many of my next-of-kin. They poured as much of their savings as possible into investments like equities and residential properties, and rarely spent on frivolous items like designer shoes or toys.
Growing up, my weekends were spent accompanying my parents to showflats and open houses, and my school holidays were filled with wonderful memories of travels abroad. As a young child, I did not understand why my parents were always taking us to dusty, dirty construction sites and dilapidated houses with large, overgrown gardens. I was envious of children who had a closetful of toys to play with, instead of a closetful of showflat brochures.
My parents would purchase brand new, spacious apartments with full facilities, but we never got to live in any of them. We would only see the apartments when my parents roped us in to clean them before the new tenants shifted in.
When I graduated from law school, Singapore was in the grips of the Asian Financial Crisis ("AFC"). Businesses were shuttered, jobs were lost, people were evicted and properties were repossessed. It was a very trying time for many, but the general litigation firm I worked at made roaring business from people and companies seeking to stave off bankruptcy and insolvency.
I was thrown into the thick of things and was tasked with interviewing clients and drafting affidavits. These were extremely successful individuals from the region who had built up conglomerates, but had found themselves in a very tight spot along with the rest of Asia. They needed litigation as a tool to buy themselves breathing space till the situation improved.
Hearing first-hand how these masters at trade built their businesses was enough for me to realise that, if I had to spend time worrying, I might as well spend that time worrying for myself than for others. Hubby and I had tied the knot during the AFC, but had deviated from the norm of applying for a flat before settling down. We were fortunate to have supportive parents whom we could stay with. Our dream was to start our own business in a building of our own.
During the week, I worked day and night drafting correspondence and preparing court documents. My weekends were once again spent property hunting; this time with Hubby instead of my parents. We had limited savings after celebrating our nuptials in a lavish way, so our search was limited by an extremely tight budget.
Vacant units sat empty for months and years during the AFC, and mortgagee sales were all over town. From pounding the streets and looking at mortgagee sales listings by auctioneers, we noticed that the cheapest freehold or 999-year leasehold shophouses were located in Little India, an area where many locals held the misguided belief was dirty and unsafe. Hubby and I looked beyond what locals typically saw in Little India, and we both felt its competitive pricing, central location, high foot traffic, proximity to Bugis MRT (at that time, only one MRT station served the area, but there are 4 now!), absence of ERP, and abundance of free on-street parking from 1700 hrs to 0830 hrs made it a diamond in the rough.
We explored the streets of Little India thoroughly, and noticed that they were especially crowded on Sundays when the blue-collar foreign workers from India and Bangladesh gathered to do their shopping and socialising on their weekly off-day. The streets would be packed with thousands, but once the lorries and buses picked them up to take them back to their dorms at night, cleaning crew would swoop in to clear the litter and the streets would return to normal once more.
We walked amongst the thousands of men, were watchful of our belongings as we would in a crowd, practised common sense and never once encountered any problems. It gave us the courage to make an offer for a conservation shophouse in the heart of Little India we had fallen in love with. This was despite my seasoned investor parents' disapproval of our choice of location. My dad literally said "Go ahead, but don't expect any support from us on this."
Our first shophouse was a mortgagee sale property. The concept of listing properties online was still in its infancy in 2002, but auctioneers had begun to publish their listings and reserve price online. I could see that the property had been on the market for quite a while, and that the reserve price had been steadily dropping.
We approached banks to seek an in-principle approval for a mortgage loan and obtained one from Hong Leong Finance. Buoyed by the success in getting our first loan, Hubby attended the next auction for the property. He had our bid price in mind, but when it was clear that no one else had turned up to bid for it, Hubby approached the mortgagee bank's representative directly to strike a deal instead. After some formal back and forth, the seller agreed to our price of S$680,000.00.
We sank every penny we had into the downpayment and stamp fees. The 999-year leasehold shophouse had 2.5 storeys and 1,800 sq ft of built-up space. It had concrete flooring throughout and was in relatively good condition. We put all our efforts into renovating the property ourselves, with Hubby doing all the plumbing and carpentry work himself, and me helping with the painting. The satisfaction we derived from setting up our own business from scratch with our own 2 hands in a building we could proudly call our own was immeasurable.
The business we started was the first of its kind in Singapore. Word of mouth spread like wildfire and we soon had a lengthy list of waiting customers every day. I was working at the law firm in the day, and moonlighting there at night. My heart was with our own business, but I couldn't leave my day job just yet. We had our eye on a second larger shophouse and needed a stable income to support our second loan application.
Within a year of our first purchase, we made our second purchase. Like the first, it was a mortgagee sale property without any bidders for a long time. The property had been vacant for years and neighbours had begun to squat on it with their belongings blocking the doorway. Again, Hubby approached the mortgagee bank's representative directly to strike a deal. We were stunned when our offer price of S$1,100,800.00 was accepted. This was less than half of what the original reserve price was for the property.
Our second property was also financed by Hong Leong Finance. The 999-year leasehold 2.5- storey conservation shophouse had almost 4,500 sq ft of built-up space in full concrete flooring. We sought the help of a contractor in renovating the place and quickly set up shop. The year was 2003, just as Asia was recovering from the AFC, the SARS outbreak hit out shores. Business was badly affected for a while, and fortunately, I still had my day job to keep our mortgage payments current.
Before the end of the year, business activities had resumed and we were booming once more. After 5 years with the firm, I thanked them for opening my eyes to the world, packed up and left to start a new life. I was 28 years old, and had 2 shophouses to my name.
I toiled day and night until a difficult pregnancy with severe morning sickness forced me to take a break for several months. Once the nausea subsided, I was back at work again and I didn't stop till my water broke. About 2 weeks after childbirth, I was back at work. Probably unheard of in today's Singapore, but there was so much to do and so little time. During that time, my breastpump saw more of me than my baby.
In 2005, Hubby ran into an ex-schoolmate of his in Little India. The man was marketing a 99-year leasehold conservation shophouse around the corner from us. The company which owned the property was well-known in the construction industry. It had run into financial difficulties and was looking to raise funds urgently.
I was initially reluctant to even consider the proposition of purchasing a 99-year leasehold property, as I knew the value would plummet to zero after 99 years and buyers would have a hard time getting bank loans once the property went beyond a certain age. Even if I had no difficulty in setting up financing, the next buyer might and that would certainly drive the price down. These were all drilled into me by my parents since I was a child, and they avoided 99-year leasehold properties like the plague.
I remember getting into a heated argument with Hubby about the matter. He was rather taken by the unit after viewing it, as it could easily be renovated to yield a greater built-up space. He also didn't think the leasehold issue was such a grave matter since it had only been renewed in the 1990s. The property had almost 90 years of lease left on it. Eventually, he convinced me that we should make an offer for S$500,000.00, and if the seller did not agree, we would walk away from the matter.
The desperate seller accepted our offer, and that was how we added a third shophouse to our collection. The shophouse had about 3,200 sq ft of built-up space and we ran a new business from there.
We poured our blood, sweat and tears into building our businesses and property portfolio. In the span of 3 years, we had paid a total of S$2,288,000.00 for 3 conservation shophouses with a combined built-up commercial space of almost 9,500 sq ft. Had we not liquidated our portfolio, based on the latest market valuation, the 3 properties would be worth roughly S$14 million today. More than a 6-fold increase in price in less than 18 years.