It has been well over 50 years since the Housing Development Board (HDB) first came into being and took over the Singapore Improvement Trust, spawned by the Housing and Development Act of 1960. In those early years, it hit the ground running and overcame the serious housing obstacles that lay before it. Decades later, many changes have occurred, many policies were created and obsoleted, and many economic cycles have come and gone.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that a plethora of rules and regulations have been drawn up to govern the purchase, usage and resale of public housing. Of late, this issue has cropped up in mainstream periodicals, as some people have written in to question seeming disparities in HDB housing policies and regulations.

Most Singaporeans are familiar with the purchasing regulations; income ceilings, family units, age restrictions for singles, and the ethnic quota. For the HDB resale market, similar rules apply on the part of the buyer, with further restrictions on the seller as well. For example, the minimum occupancy period (MOP) must be met before a HDB flat owner can sell his flat.

But that’s just scratching the surface. What about the rules regarding renting out your HDB flat? What happens if you acquire a private property while still owning a HDB flat? Is it possible to downgrade to public housing after owning private property, and if so, what are the regulations for doing so? What happens if a family unit fragments, due to unfortunate circumstances such as divorce or death? The regulations governing these aspects have changed so much over the years that very few people have a clear picture of what the current situation is, and which rules are most applicable for a given scenario.

The income ceiling has changed over the years, as well as the minimum occupancy periods for selling and renting out HDB flats. Some think it is 10 years, others 5 years, but as it currently stands, it may be between 1 to 5 years, depending on the type of flat, when and how it was purchased. In fact, one-room flats do not even have a MOP at all.

Things are further complicated when it comes to renting out public property, and owning more than one property whilst still being an owner of a HDB flat. What rules apply if someone inherits private property while still within the MOP of his HDB flat? Frankly, we do not know the answer to this, as some information is available, but it only covers generic situations.

This information should not just be available at the point when someone is considering selling his flat. It should be available at all times, to inform the property-buying public’s decisions, whether buying or selling. Clarity for all rules and regulations is a pre-requisite to a savvy market that can properly judge the true value of the property involved, and wisely weigh the pros and cons of their decision to buy or sell.

Imagine for a moment, you are thinking of selling your HDB flat. Perhaps you have an agent helping you, or perhaps not. As it stands right now, you have no way of corroborating what your agent tells you about the HDB rules and regulations. Moreover, relying purely on information from someone who has a vested interest in the outcome of your transaction, may not be a wisest course of action.

Even if you do not use an agent, trying to find information means searching across multiple documents on HDB’s website. Should you make a mistake, for example selling to someone who is ineligible, it could mean a lost opportunity for a successful transaction; other more eligible buyers might have already gone on to another flat while you were discovering your mistake.

To foster and maintain a transparent and efficient market, the first step would be for HDB to make available a comprehensive rule book that details all criteria governing the purchase and sale of all public property, including not just HDB flats, but also Executive Condominiums (EC) and Design, Build and Sell Scheme (DBSS) apartments. Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDC) apartments still classified as public housing can also be included.

This rule book should be made available in both hard-copy and soft-copy format, with prompt updates for any changes in rules. The hard-copy, print version should always prominently state the date it was printed, and preferably the expected validity period as well. Such a guide should include as many scenarios as possible, not just the basic first-time direct buyer situation. It should help clarify cases that we have highlighted above, and explain why some Singaporeans own both HDB and private property, while others have been denied that privilege.

The second suggestion we have, is to create an online web application, with a questionnaire interface, that users can fill in with the details of their situation (such as income level, family members, past ownership, parental proximity, etc). From the information they provide, the web application can then display the exact regulations that apply for their specific situation.

With such tools, not only can real estate professionals present a clearer picture of all public housing transactions, buyers and sellers will also be better armed to tackle the daunting questions that are involved in making such an important decision. It will no doubt be a challenge to collate all this information and present it in a user-friendly format, but with more than 80% of Singaporeans owning HDB flats, it should be a major consideration. And if any government agency is up to this Herculean task, it would be HDB.

What do you think can be done to further understand HDB rules? We are always open to fresh angles and perspective, and welcome your views and suggestions.

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