"Do you want to apply for a BTO together?"
So goes the unromantic question that many a pragmatic Singaporean man has asked his girlfriend - even before proposing marriage.
With an average wait of three to four years for the completion of a Build-To-Order (BTO) flat - often the most affordable option for young couples - planning far ahead has long been the norm.
But a slew of initiatives announced by the Ministry of National Development in March aims to help couples find a flat faster and more easily.
New measures include a new batch of BTO flats with a shorter wait of about 2 ½ years, and lowered monthly rental rates for first-timer families under the Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme - where families can rent units while waiting for their Housing Board flat to be completed.
These schemes come hot on the heels of a debate sparked last year about how the long wait for a flat has delayed some couples' plans to get married and have kids. Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Josephine Teo had said in an interview with The Straits Times that couples do not need a big space to have sex.
To save time, some Singaporeans have chosen to cast their lots at a younger age, even before getting engaged. Unmarried couples can apply for an HDB flat under the Fiance/Fiancee scheme, but are given three months to register their marriage after getting the key, earlier if they have applied for grants.
A check with HDB found that an average of 6,500 applicants who apply for new HDB flats under the scheme are aged 25 and younger. HDB says this figure has remained fairly constant for the past five years. This group made up a third of the applicants for the scheme last year.
HDB declined to say how many young applicants end up giving up their flats, although there have been stories of break-ups. These couples may end up forfeiting the sum they have already paid, which is about 5 per cent of the flat's price.
While some may think these applicants too young to make such a big decision, sociologist Paulin Straughan says this is an encouraging statistic.
"It'll encourage them to think seriously about marriage and parenthood. People think that before 25, you're still a kid, but if you turn back the clock 20 to 30 years, people were getting married at that age.
"Once you've made that decision, you better start investing in your courtship - it's the start of a long commitment," she adds.
Applying for a BTO flat way before marriage may seem unromantic, but couples point out that it is still the best way to secure good locations at good prices, especially if they want to get married by a certain age.
Some start when they are in their early 20s and still in school.
One of them is undergraduate Isabelle Lim, 21, who is in her second year in Singapore Management University (SMU) studying social sciences. She has been dating Benjamin Wong, 25, who is studying banking and finance in SIM Global Education, for more than three years.
"It would be nice if I could find a home when I graduate and have the money to buy one, but I'm in Singapore. I don't think houses will get much cheaper, the longer I wait."
They successfully applied for a four-room BTO flat in Clementi in February. The location - which is near Mr Wong's parents' home - was too good to let slip. The flat costs about $520,000.
This is her third relationship and his second. They are not engaged, although she says they have not entertained the possibility of a break-up.
Other couples are more wary of the financial commitment.
Before applying for her BTO flat with her 27-year-old financial planner boyfriend, marketing executive Amanda Seow, 25, decided that if they should break up, they would split the cost of the down payment - which would be forfeited - equally. They were successful in their bid for a four-room flat in Bidadari last year. It costs about $485,000.The long wait for a flat put pressure on her to "BTO earlier" as she wants to get married by 28.
While most people The Sunday Times spoke to bought a flat as a precursor to getting married, not all agree it is crucial to secure a flat before marriage.
SMU undergraduate Gary Wong, 23, and his wife Tan Yi Ying, 21, a project analyst, who got married last September, did not defer marriage to wait for a flat - even if they had to live with his parents afterwards. They successfully applied for a flat last November.
He says: "I would prefer a shorter wait time, but my wife prefers to live with family for the time being.
"At the end of the day, the most important thing is to consider the wishes of your other half."
Motivated by friend's failed home-buying attempts
For undergraduate Guo Jing Yang, 24, and administrative clerk Janice Ng, 23, it was a "BTO horror story" that prompted them to apply for a Build-To-Order (BTO) flat.
After hearing that a good friend had failed in six attempts to get a BTO flat, Ms Ng was motivated to start searching early for a home with her boyfriend of four years.
"I didn't even tell him the first time, I just went ahead and applied. I thought I would give him a surprise," says Ms Ng, who applied for a BTO flat in Bidadari in May last year using Mr Guo's identity card number. They did not get the flat.
Thankfully, the laid-back Mr Guo was not offended by her actions, but agreed that applying for a BTO flat early was the most pragmatic thing to do.He is in his fourth year studying architecture at the National University of Singapore.
Their second try in applying for a flat in August was successful. Their four-room Housing Board flat in Tampines costs about $350,000 and is expected to be ready in five years.
The timing suits them. By the time the flat is ready, Mr Guo would have graduated and been working for a few years.
Ms Ng has already been working for more than a year now.
The couple feel their relationship is stable, especially as they have seen many relationships around them fail multiple times. Marriage will come later, says Mr Guo, as he is still concentrating on his studies.
In fact, he worries less about breaking up than paying his share of the down payment.
"I'm not sure if she can come up with the down payment on her own," he says, adding that as he has little money in his Central Provident Fund account, he cannot contribute to the flat now. His greatest worry is that he would have to ask his parents for help with the flat, which he feels "isn't right".
Still, they say the risk is worth it as they want to get married before 30.
He says: "I encourage my friends to consider getting a BTO too if they think they're with the right one. You might think it's early, but when the flat is going to be done in only five years, that's too long."
Discussing a home six months after dating
Some couples may have just shared their first kiss after six months of dating.
But half a year into their relationship, Ms Denise Chng, 21, and Mr Yee Jen Siong, 25, began talking about marriage and getting a flat together.
"We were quite sure of a future together when we started dating, and after a few more months, I guess we decided we can spend the rest of our lives together," says Ms Chng, a final-year undergraduate at the National Institute of Education (NIE). The couple have been together for 2 1/2 years.
Well aware of the often long wait for a flat here, they started searching for their future home one year into their relationship after realising they would qualify for a better grant amount as their combined income was low.
Mr Yee is in the education sector.
They got their five-room Housing Board flat in Bukit Batok, which cost about $420,000, at a Sale of Balance Flats exercise in May last year. It is expected to be ready by the end of this year.
The two, who are staunch Christians, want to start a family before turning 30. They entered their relationship keenly aware that they are dating with the intention of getting married.
"I want to start a family early. My parents are getting old, I want them to have grandbabies soon too," says Mr Yee. He is the only child of a 68-year-old retiree and a 63-yearold housewife.
"Getting a bigger flat, we can all live under the same roof, so it'll give me a better chance of looking after them."
Early planning helped them snag a bigger amount from the Additional CPF Housing Grant, which offset most of the 10 per cent down payment for their home. The remainder was paid using Mr Yee'sCPF Ordinary Account.
To get the flat, they will need to produce a marriage certificate - which means Mr Yee has to propose soon.
In fact, he says the flat pushed his proposal plan forward by half a year.
"I don't mind it. I will marry her eventually, so the only pressure is the shorter time span in selecting a ring and getting a good location (to propose)," he says with a laugh.
Planning for a flat at age 15
PhD student Abigail Leon, 22, has been preparing for a Build-To-Order (BTO) flat since she was 15.
In Secondary 3, she subscribed to an e-mail service which would give her alerts every time a new BTO flat launch was announced.
"I like to calculate these kind of things, like to find out how much it would cost, how much we'd need to save and how much we'd need to save by what age," she says with a laugh.
Planning ahead for the future has been something that her father, a 51-year-old professor, had encouraged her to do since she was young, she adds. She is studying underwater acoustics communication at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.
Last year, she and her fiance Lee Kern Choong, 25, a programmer analyst, applied for a flat in Bedok. They had been engaged for two weeks.
Their three-room Housing Board flat, which costs slightly more than $300,000, is due to be completed in 2020.
They estimate their wedding date to be around the time that the flat is ready.
They both say the long engagement period is a boon.
"Isn't it nice when you can do it slowly, instead of having to do everything in one year at one shot?" says Ms Leon.
Mr Lee says: "It adds an element of certainty so you can plan better for a certain outcome."
This article was first published in The Straits Times on June 4, 2017.