The landlord’s domain

It’s always crazy busy when you’re trying to find a home in Singapore. You’re whisked off to apartment after town house after condo and before long, they all blur into one. The pressure builds to find something quickly because you have limited time in your serviced apartment. Finally, when you do find a place that (more or less) meets your needs, within a very short space of time you’re signing a lease document. The ink barely dries on the contract before your shipment arrives.

However, if you can find a spare moment between sorting out Starhub and SP Services, it’s well worth making the effort to fully document any existing damage – however slight – in your new home. And at the risk of sounding particularly paranoid, try and have a third party present to any conversations you have with your landlord about the condition of the premises.

We had a pre-inspection last week and it was disappointing to see the owner try and hold us accountable for pre-existing damage. However, we were fortunate that our relocation agent had taken loads of photos of the apartment before we moved in. Not only did he take shots of individual rooms, but he took extra pictures of all the existing damage. Stains on curtains, cracked tiles, discoloration of the sinks and basins – you name it, he filmed it, labelled each file with a clear description of the photo and burned them onto a CD for us.

Thanks to him, we were able to find the photos from three years ago highlighting the damage in all its glory. There’s nothing like photographic evidence to finalise a dispute!

One thing that never occurred to me was to fully check the state of the curtains. They were just there, hanging over the windows and the ones that needed to be opened were opened, and the ones that didn’t stayed prettily tied up with a sash. But unbeknownst to us, those decorative drapes had been baked by the sun for the last 15 years and were falling apart. When we took them down for dry cleaning, the laundry lady rang up to say the fabric was rotten and they’d fall apart if she tried to clean them. At this point I’m not sure whether we’ll have to foot the bill for new curtains, despite the fact that they’re older than my firstborn child. Whatever the case, I’m kicking myself for not being more thorough when we moved in.

When we moved to Singapore the first time, the apartment we rented was filthy and the owner wouldn’t have it cleaned. I spent about 14 frantic hours scrubbing mould from the cupboards the day before our shipment arrived and I swore I would never do that again.

This time I asked for the house to be professionally cleaned but the landlord assured me they’d leave it spotless when they moved out. I insisted but my protests fell on deaf ears. When we did our final inspection before signing the contract, the place was grubby and it was apparent that no particular effort had been expended to clean the place.  I was livid and I made sure that the owner, her agent, my agent and the relocation agent were aware of the dirty tissues left in drawers, stray socks and sticky stuff that was splattered all over the cupboards.

And so I lost another day to cleaning someone else’s mess the day before our container arrived. So when the landlord asked me if I was going to organise professional cleaners before we moved out, I had to bite my lip so I didn’t laugh out loud.

The first time you move to Singapore, knowing what your landlord’s expectations are can take some figuring out. Some are brilliant and happy to maintain their property but in our case, we’re expected to return the apartment in a much better state than when we rented it.

As there is no Residency and Tenancy tribunal here and landlords hold a substantial deposit, it’s daunting and difficult to know what rights you have here, as a tenant. For a little self-preservation, I’ve found the following has helped in our situation:

  1. Taking photographs of every single room in the house and detailed close-ups of marks/scratches/dents, no matter how trivial the damage appears to be.
  2. Keeping emails/text messages or any other form of communication that transpires between you and the agent for the duration of your lease.
  3. Ask the landlord to have the place professionally cleaned before you move in. Otherwise, if the house isn’t up to scratch when you sign the contract, make a point of it in front of both agents and the owner. We’re leaving the house much cleaner than the way we received it and this will definitely be pointed out at checkout.
  4. Are they going to polish the marble floors? If not, take note of any scratches, marks and chips. Also, check for cracked tiles in the wet areas and look up! Is anything amiss on the ceiling or around the light fixtures?
  5. From when your contract starts, you have 30 days to point out any repairs that the owner should make right. Otherwise the liability will fall onto you. Highlighting everything – preferably in writing – is a good start so you’ve got a record of your requests.
  6. If the landlord organises something to be delivered and the contractor causes damage to walls etc, take photos and send them to your agent immediately. We were held accountable for damage that the fridge deliveryman had apparently caused, but thanks to our photos, we could prove that the dent in the door frame was actually there well before we – and the fridge – moved in.
  7. Keep a journal that records the date and time of requests for repairs to be made and the name of the repairmen who show up.
  8. Have friends who are lawyers!

Anyway, to keep things fresh, we’ve moved onto the battle of the leaky water hose. It flooded the floor from the day we stepped foot on the property and after multiple requests to have it fixed, it got dumped in the “too  hard” basket and she turned off its water supply. It’s our problem now, it seems, to get it fixed properly before checkout. Another day, another issue. Can’t wait for tomorrow’s problem to surface!

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Suitcases and sea freight

I find that it doesn’t seem to matter how organised you think you are ahead of time, the week before the packers come is manic. All of a sudden, everything needs to be done right now. Time disappears faster than the kids at homework time and you can always rely on the school to come up with an event that you simply can’t miss.

So when the packers delivered some empty boxes last week, I was filled with that sudden sense of dread that comes when you know you have to fill them. I stared at them for a long while – then put the kettle on and started doing what I do best: procrastinating.

I always feel a little overwhelmed by the fact that I’m responsible for what we have to take with us for immediate use. Holidays I don’t mind so much, you can always make do unless you’ve left a swimsuit behind but packing for six weeks in two different countries until the sea freight arrives is a nightmare. Throw in two weeks of school and a swim carnival and the list of what we need before we get remotely close to the airport is astounding.

Every suitcase we own is lined up against the wall of our bedroom and that’s just the start to get us through two weeks in a serviced apartment here, and another four weeks in a Melbourne apartment.

Walk a little further and you get to the spare room. It looks like a little Minecraft village of randomly-stacked brown boxes and yes – I feel like I’m the zombie, walking around in a daze trying to figure out what we’ll need in the airfreight. Currently I’ve packed winter/spring clothing, an estimate of what the kids will need to start at their new school and some random kitchen items that’ll make my life easier at the serviced apartment. The kids have been tasked with sorting out their entertainment needs so I’m hoping they’ve got the balance right or it’ll be a long few weeks until the sea freight arrives.

I’ve resorted to lists – and lots of them – to try and provide some structure to the random thoughts bouncing around my head and they go something like this:

  1. For the serviced apartment in Singapore
    – school uniforms/lunch boxes/sports gear (to be donated the minute they’re done with them)
    – summer clothes/swimmers/goggles/sunscreen for Singapore
    – travel bags with toys/books/games for the aeroplane
    – chargers/computers/adaptors/cameras
  2. For the serviced apartment in Melbourne
    – mini coffee plunger (for everyone’s health and well-being)
    – jeans/jumpers/jackets/covered shoes for Melbourne
    – toys/books/games for the aeroplane
    – sharp knives(ever noticed how blunt the knives are in rental accommodation?)
    – stick blender and Tupperware turbo chopper (a gadget I just can’t live without!)
  3. Air freight
    – Rest of winter clothes and shoes…but some summer stuff (I’m ever the optimist that Melbourne will turn on a heat wave when we get there)
    – Basic kitchen items
    – A few more toys/books/games/pencils – it can be a long month for the kids without some games to keep them occupied. The trick is trying not to take too much!
    – Bedding/towels/sheets so we can wash it and have it ready when the sea freight turns up
  4. The rest – sea freight, which will include a fair amount of stuff that I should have included in the air-freight but completely forgot.

Now, after re-reading my lists, I’ve just realised something important – so far I’ve only packed for the kids and the kitchen. Better throw in a change of clothes for me too, before the packers come on Monday. I’ll do that in between cake baking and party planning for H’s birthday which is tomorrow.  I think it’s time to put the kettle on again!

Stockpiling – how much is too much?

No matter where we’ve lived, I’ve always craved things from home that I just can’t find easily overseas, if at all. Nothing major, just a few familiar items that help stave off the homesickness a little. Marmite won’t do, it has to be Vegemite. The only sunscreen my kids don’t react to is found in just a few pharmacies in Australia. And let’s not get started on chocolate treats…

Even bra shopping goes on the back burner until I manage a trip home. The fitting, the style – the fact that the lady I go to knows exactly what I need just by looking at me – makes it difficult to go elsewhere. As a result, I think I’m one of her best customers, despite the fact I only shop there once a year.

So like a squirrel stockpiling for winter, I’ve been hoarding stuff for years, because I know that when my stash runs out, that’s it. My long-suffering husband – my regular link to all-things-familiar – became my mule, along with relatives and close friends to keep the stocks up. Business trip, honey? Great, the kids need their eczema lotion. And lots of it please, it’s not that heavy! Sure Mum, come for a holiday – got time to shop before you fly? My list is short, truly it is.

I’ve been trying since May to reduce my stocks but still, we have an abundance of lotions and potions to get through, although the gin has dwindled rapidly in recent times.

So now our skin is extremely well-moisturised and sun-protected, I’ve pickled myself with duty-free and the kids turn green at the thought of yet another Vegemite sandwich. So I’m left with a slight sense of dread – what will I do with all the stuff left over? Can I take it into Australia?

Fortunately, body creams, shower gels and medications seem OK to put into our sea freight. Food-stuffs, I’m not sure about. I know that Customs in Australia is very strict (and rightfully so), so much so that in the past I’ve always ticked the box stating “food to declare”. I figure at least one of the kids will have shoved an apple or some other contraband into my handbag just as we’re about to clear Customs so I’d rather err on the side of caution, just in case.

But what about items that were purchased in Australia, brought over here and are still in a sealed container or packet? As I’m typing this, I’m eying off my collection of T2 teas which I’ve been drinking by the gallon and am loathe to dispose of. That stuff is expensive!

What I think I’ll do is take anything unopened and fairly innocuous in my hand luggage and declare it when we land. With a bit of luck it’ll all get through, particularly as I haven’t opened any of it and it’s returning to its country of origin.

And if not, then cheers guys, enjoy the tea and biscuits. There’ll be plenty more where that came from in the container!

The ones left behind

We’re rapidly approaching our leaving date and the thought of sneaking out a day or two earlier to avoid the farewells is appealing – I’m such a coward when it comes to goodbyes and I’m dreading it. I even got a bit teary yesterday when I told my favourite coffee shop lady I was leaving. It didn’t help that she cried too…

But as I’ve been brooding over our impending exit, I’ve realised that I’m not alone. A lot of my friends will be gone by the end of the year too. What’s happening, Singapore? Why are so many moving on?

Moving countries is hard work: emotional, tiring and a huge strain on you and everyone else within shouting distance. However, once you get over the initial shock, it’s an exciting prospect. A new country, new people, friends you haven’t met yet – it’s all out there waiting for you. And the opportunities that the kids will experience while immersed in another culture is the gift of a lifetime.

But what if you’re the one left behind? Constantly?

I guess when you’ve been in a place for long enough, you see a pattern forming. Some people really do come here for two or three years, and then leave on their appointed date. On the other hand, a lot of people come over for a stint in the sun on a short-term contract and find themselves still here many years later.

These long-termers do it tough as they see their support networks dwindle with alarming regularity. Although electronic media is great for staying in touch, it’s no substitute for a coffee and a chat when the chips are down. Every now and then you need someone to lean on – literally, not virtually.

The kids feel it keenly and despite dealing with your own sense of loss, you have to keep it together to sort them out. Sometimes they take it on the chin. They’ll breeze in from school and announce that “such and such is leaving on Friday…” – shrug – and wander off to play. Other times, you’re sharing the tissue box and wondering how we’ll all cope on Monday with the absence of those smiling faces in the playground.

So you start over. As it happens, when a group of your besties leave, another influx of newcomers arrives, but finding people you “click” with takes time. And no matter how hard you try, when you’re in a conversation with a newbie that niggling little question always fights its way forward – how long are they going to be here for?  This feeling certainly doesn’t stop you making friends but you go into that relationship knowing there’ll be sadness down the track when they, too, announce that they’re leaving.

The people you meet have a profound effect on your lives and we’re enriched with every meeting, long or short-term. Whether you’re staying, going or stuck in limbo-land while the powers-that-be decide your fate, know that you’ve touched our lives and we’re all the better for it.

And somewhere down the track, those people who blew out of your lives all those years ago, may just blow back in again. That’s the crazy nature of the expat life – you just never know exactly what – or who – is around the corner.

Stay strong.

It’s never too early to start

Just under six weeks to go now, with only four left in the apartment. Factor in long weekends, public holidays, pupil-free days and the school bus company axing the morning bus with immediate effect today, time is becoming quite scarce.

So where do you begin?

Today’s task was to remove the paintings. My husband scurried around the house with his screwdriver and putty pot, busily removing hooks and filling in the holes.

My job was the glamorous task of removing three years worth of dust from the backs of the paintings. What I didn’t anticipate was the ridiculous amount of gecko poo found lurking at the back of the canvasses. And let me tell you, that stuff is harder to remove than the smiles on my kid’s faces at Christmas.

Subsequently, the task took a lot longer than anticipated and has made me look at the house in a different light. What other jobs will hold little surprises? The humid climate here is brutal and mould grows on just about every surface, including the kids. Our furniture took a beating the last time it went into storage and still bears the scars.

So armed with a spray bottle of vinegar, water and peppermint oil (great for killing mould and deterring ants!), I’ll start to wend my way through the house bit-by-bit in the hope that the final clean won’t be too arduous. I’m conscious that time is ticking by awfully fast at the moment.

When the kids came home from school this afternoon, they were quite positive about the empty walls. Deep down they seem to be worried that our things will get left behind but seeing the paintings sitting around ready for packing appears to be comforting for some reason.

Right now I’m watching a gecko roaming aimlessly around the walls, looking for his house, which was the blue painting we’ve removed. He’s in the same boat as us now – seeking a permanent home. I hope he finds one soon. I know all too well what it’s like to be displaced.