Shoebox units a lifestyle choice?

Sales of small apartments, also known as shoebox apartments or mickey mouse flats, skyrocketed last year. And demand continues to be robust this year.

A total of 696 flats of 500 sq ft or smaller and another 1,285 of between 500 and 800 sq ft were sold last year.

Buyer interest has remained strong this year with 533 units of 800 sq ft or less sold in the first four months.

Such apartment sizes comprise about 23 per cent of the 2,300 units sold in the primary market.

Some industry experts have attributed the strong demand to a change in lifestyle choices in an increasingly cosmopolitan environment.


Hotel rooms are typically about 300 sq ft. A 500-sq-ft apartment is not much bigger. I would say nobody, not even singles, would choose to live in one, given the choice. It is more a case of having no choice.

It is no secret that developers continue to provide such units to an increasingly investor-dominated market. In a rising market, investors prefer such units as they are more affordable than family-sized flats. Developers can also maximise their returns by selling these units at a higher price per sq ft.

There is nothing wrong with the market providing micro units. The problem is when they form a significant proportion in a development – as high as 70 per cent in some cases.

The most likely occupants of such units are singles, with some couples. And the overwhelming majority of occupiers would be tenants. So, there is a transient feel about the place, with the occupiers more likely to use them as temporary shelter until they can afford something better. Singles relocate much more quickly than family tenants.

With singles dominating, there is also the lack of a family environment. Singles prefer to be out rather than cooped up in a tiny apartment. So, it can be very quiet at certain times and very rowdy when the singles invite their friends over to enjoy the common facilities.

The characteristic of a landlord-dominated project is also such that the majority of owners prefer to spend less to upkeep the estate. In a downturn, the small units become even more affordable and attract more financially-disadvantaged tenants. There will be even greater resistance to “unnecessary” maintenance expenditure.

So, the estate tends to age prematurely. Should home prices continue to stay down, the estate acquires an unsavoury image.

This trend is not easily reversible when prices return to high levels. No owner will want to take the lead and spend more to upkeep his unit if his neighbours do not do the same. Nobody wins in this waiting game.

If such projects are in a central location or close to the business district, some may be used as office premises when office rents are high. This will translate into more visitors and increased use of the lifts, which will mean longer waiting times and more noise.

So, if you are an owner- occupier, single or otherwise, do think carefully about whether you want to live in such projects.

By Colin Tan, Head of Research and Consultancy at Chesterton Suntec International.

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