BTO After Breakups: A Modern Singaporean Love Story
Top image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo

Aristotle famously said that love is “composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.” In Singapore, modern love looks more like two millennials inhabiting a single Build-To-Order (BTO) flat. 

Still, it’s not for lack of trying. As much as we’d like to get swept off our feet in a Romeo and Juliet-style romance where nothing else matters but our paramour, reality beckons. 

By the time most couples hit their twenties and thirties, they are confronted with a choice: To BTO or not to BTO? If you’re both looking to get married eventually and have a place of your own, applying for a BTO early seems like a logical choice over buying a resale flat a few years down the road. 

It’s a practical choice. Couples often go for BTOs due to the relatively lower absolute price and the fresh-out-of-the-oven 99-year lease. 

The downside, though, is time-based. Currently, you’ll have to wait about four years for a BTO flat—six at the height of the pandemic. But that’s not an issue if you’re in it together for the long haul, right? 

Not exactly. Even the best-laid plans have a chance of going awry; the most stable relationships aren’t immune to bumps in the road. 

So if you’re planning a BTO proposal this Valentine’s Day, maybe take a moment. And take it from someone with firsthand experience—timing matters when you’re part of a BTO breakup. 

Video: @marcusluahsg / TikTok

The Anatomy of a BTO Breakup

When my partner and I broke up eight years into our relationship, we were fortunate that we’d only just embarked on our BTO journey. 

At that point, we decided to apply for a flat simply because it seemed to be the next logical step for us. At least, it was what everyone around us had done. In fact, with a majority of our friends getting married and moving into their own homes, we felt like we were way behind the curve. 

After a failed application in May last year, we secured a good ballot number in the August exercise for a project in Bukit Merah, an area we both loved. 

Ironically, our good fortune accelerated some tough conversations we had been putting off. Did we still see ourselves together in the next few years? If we weren’t 100 percent sure of our relationship, would it be wise to start choosing our home and putting down a $2,000 option fee?

In the end, we decided that we were better off as friends. All we sacrificed—in terms of money, at least—was our $10 application fee. 

Breaking the Bank

The more (former) couples I spoke to, the more I began to realise that we were one of the lucky ones. As lucky as we can get, at least, given that we’re now both single after spending the bulk of our twenties together. 

It’s a small consolation that we never really had to deal with the Gordian knot that arises in many BTO breakups: Finances. 

At every step of the BTO process, the stakes are raised, and the amount you stand to lose escalates. 

Singapore BTO breakup
Image: Stephanie Lee/RICE File Photo

Once you choose a flat and sign an Agreement for Lease, you stand to lose your application fee, option fee, stamp duty and legal fees, and your down payment amounting to 10 percent of the cost of the flat (5 percent if you’re eligible for a staggered down payment). 

If you opted for a four-room flat, one of the most common BTO flat types, your downpayment could be anywhere from $25,000 to about $61,000.

And if you break up after collecting your keys, you have to surrender the flat to the Housing and Development Board (HDB). As for the amount of money you’ll get back, it’s apparently up to HDB’s discretion. I surmise, though, that it’s never a good idea to let things get to this stage. 

It gets even more complicated when marriage and kids are added to the mix. 

In a recent case, a couple with two kids had applied for a BTO while still married and subsequently divorced before getting the keys to the flat. If that isn’t proof that a lot can happen even after you’ve sealed the deal with a marriage certificate (and children), we don’t know what is. 

A Family Justice Court originally ruled that the flat would be returned to HDB, and both parties would receive refunds for the amounts they’d paid. 

However, the woman eventually won a court appeal for her ex-husband to transfer his share of the flat to her instead.

The judgement came after the woman agreed to reimburse her ex-husband the money he’d paid for the flat. There was also “no good reason” to force the woman to go through the whole house-buying process again, especially since she has two kids to care for, the appeal judge noted.

Singapore BTO breakup
Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo

Who Gets the BTO?

Thankfully, in Singapore, modern problems have modern solutions. At the very least, you won’t have to see the inside of a courtroom in most BTO breakups. 

If you don’t want a pesky breakup to get in between you and your dream BTO apartment, all you have to do is find someone new to replace your ex and take over ownership of their share. Simple.

Romeo and Juliet? At this point, it’s starting to look more like The Apprentice—combing through a sea of candidates to find the right person for the “role”. 

There’s nothing like starting a new relationship with so much on the line (break up again and you’ll most definitely have to give up your BTO flat and lose a whole bunch of money). But it has worked for some.

For Joash*, who successfully found a new partner to take over his ex’s share of their BTO flat, it was all simply opportune timing. 

The 33-year-old architect had applied for a flat in Bedok North Horizon with his ex in 2017. But cracks began to appear in the relationship. “Instead of growing in the same direction, which I believe was still largely possible, our trajectories grew further apart—up till a point of glaring misalignments.”

One of the “misalignments” was their position on marriage. 

“She no longer had the desire to get married and shifted to believing that long-term companionship without the contractual weight of marriage could be more romantic,” Joash says. “I did not agree with that.”

Their clashes about the meaning of marriage presented an insurmountable hurdle. After all, with a BTO on the way, marriage was non-negotiable. Couples who aren’t married at the point of application have three months to submit their marriage certificate to HDB after they collect their keys. 

Fast forward to end-2018, the couple inevitably parted ways, leaving their BTO flat in limbo. It was simply too much to think about at the time, Joash said. 

Singapore BTO breakup
Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo

Thank You, Next

It was only in 2019 that his ex started to push for their housing issue to be resolved. Even then, it was still hard for him to discuss the topic with her. “You’ve broken up and you don’t want to interact much anymore. It seems way too transactional a relationship to keep.”

Fortunately, his new partner—a longtime friend who he’d started dating in mid-2019—was open to the idea of taking over the flat from his ex. To quote Joash, it was as if the “stars aligned”, as the flat was nearby several of her friends’ homes and she got to “cut the queue”, in a way. 

Today, the couple is happily married and living in the flat, and Joash wouldn’t have it any other way. Despite the risks of losing out on his down payment, he says he doesn’t regret applying for a BTO due to how smoothly things worked out in the end. 

“I think it is important to know the full commitment of applying. It means marriage, and with that comes a commitment to grow together, even if individually, but hopefully in the same direction.”

Image: Pexels

When Things End Badly

Conversely, as someone who initiated the breakup, Michelle*, 29, is very much anti-BTO proposals. 

Back in 2016, her then-boyfriend suggested applying for a BTO, and she’d agreed—it was her first serious relationship and breaking up was the last thing on her mind then. But she didn’t know what exactly she was getting herself into. 

He was more financially savvy, so he ended up taking care of all the logistical details, she says, admitting that she wasn’t even aware of the amount of money that she would have to forfeit if things didn’t work out. 

“I just left it in his hands. That’s how kind of stupid I was. I wasn’t a financially independent person.”

They hit the jackpot with a four-room flat in one of the most sought-after estates somewhere in central Singapore. About a year into the BTO process, however, Michelle felt her outlook on life shifting. 

She slowly realised that she wasn’t keen on settling down and starting a family. The only problem was that her ex was “a complete family person”. 

Michelle readily admits that the roughly $20,000 sum they would each have to forfeit if they walked away was a huge factor in trying to make the waning relationship work. 

With their BTO flat hanging like a cloud over their heads, they tried to work things out and even took an overseas trip together. But to no avail.

“It was fucking stressful because I don’t think you should be thinking of these things when you’re considering whether should I be with this person.”

Singapore BTO breakup
Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo

Of BTO Payments and Awkward Encounters

Another stressor that emerged was the contention over who would bear the cost of the downpayment, says Michelle. The pair hadn’t split on the best of terms, and he’d insinuated that she should bear the total cost. While she insisted the breakup was “100 percent” her fault, having to potentially shoulder that huge sum of money weighed heavily on her for an entire year. 

During that time, she ruminated about everything from sinking into debt to not being able to afford a home of her own in the future. Michelle spent countless hours consulting friends for their advice.

Fortunately, in their time apart, he managed to find someone new. Michelle was all too happy to give up her stake in the flat. 

All the loose ends were finally tied up when the three of them met at an HDB branch to sign the paperwork. It was awkward.

“She didn’t want to acknowledge my presence at all,” Michelle recounts with a wry laugh. Aside from the cold shoulder, they settled the handover easily enough. She could finally close the book on the relationship.

In hindsight, Michelle says she wishes she had been less ignorant of the repercussions of applying for a BTO. Calling her BTO experience a “horror story”, she says that she’ll probably never apply for one again. 

“I don’t know how anyone can be so sure four to five years before. To me, the only thing you can be sure about is that things will change.”

Is the BTO System Ruining Romance?

While the BTO system has inevitably become tied to the idea of marriage and romance, it wasn’t exactly launched with that in mind. 

Back in 2001, the BTO system was first launched to better estimate housing demand. This was in the wake of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, which resulted in a large number of flats being left vacant and unsold. 

Nevertheless, it’s become an inescapable (and almost expected) element for any heterosexual couple in a long-term relationship nowadays. BTO proposals have even become a thing.

Before a marriage proposal comes the decidedly unromantic question: “Will you BTO with me?”

Singapore BTO breakup
Image: Zachary Tang / RICE File Photo

At every single gathering we attended back when we were together, my ex and I would often be needled about where we were in the BTO process. When friends learnt we hadn’t yet applied, we’d then be grilled on why. 

In hindsight, I wish I’d replied “Why not?”. Instead, we gave hazy answers about being broke. The real answer was that we simply weren’t ready for the concrete commitment. 

It’s hard to tell how many couples have withdrawn their application after they end their relationship.

According to The Straits Times, an average of 3,640 buyers per year requested to cancel their BTO flat in 2020 and 2021. This was a drop from the 4,020 requests per year received in 2018 and 2019. 

But these cancellations can’t be pinned on breakups alone. Some cancel their flats due to long waiting times and opt for the resale market instead. The numbers also only reflect the number of requests; actual cancellations may be lower as requests may eventually be withdrawn. 

It’s Not You, It’s Me

On a more positive note, if the number of weddings and housewarmings I’ve attended over the past few years is any indication, at least some millennial couples are getting their happily ever after, making it through the completion of their flats. 

Just because it didn’t work out for me or Michelle doesn’t mean the system is flawed. It simply teases out issues within a relationship that couples have become adept at ignoring. It points to a common pattern that inhabits most relationships among Singaporeans: The fear of confronting each other with hard, introspective questions.

In my case, we could have saved $10 and possibly years of our time if we’d sat down and communicated properly before putting in our application.

I still haven’t given up on finding the type of love Aristotle described. I might even find myself embarking on the BTO journey again. 

Despite how unromantic housing and finances are, you can’t put a price on a life with someone who would really like just doing utility bills and CPF contributions with you.

*Names changed for anonymity

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