When customers who have booked appointments at Cin City Nails arrive at the nail salon in Kembangan, they will be forgiven for wondering if they have come to the right place.
The salon is housed in manicurist Cindy Chang's home, a three-storey terrace house that looks just like the other houses in the quiet residential neighbourhood.
But past the living room filled with children's toys is a mediumsized room where the 31-year-old runs her business - a two-year-old nail salon catering to 10 to 12 customers weekly.
The mother-of-two, who spent about $5,000 to renovate the room, quit her branding and marketing job in 2009 and started freelancing as a nail stylist. She decided to open her home business a few years later as it gives her the flexibility to pursue her interests and spend time with her young children.
"Working for myself means I can adjust my schedule and make time for acting and my other interests," says Ms Chang, who has snagged roles in television advertisements for companies such as Malaysian bank Maybank and digital telecommunications operator Circles.Life.
She works about four hours a day and has time to prepare her sons, aged five and six, for school, pick them up after and spend time with them in the evenings.
Working from home also means saving on rent, she says, allowing her to charge lower prices. A classic gel manicure at Cin City Nails costs $38, less than the $55 to $85 charged at most commercial outlets here.
The number of home-based beauty businesses such as Ms Chang's seems to be on the rise in recent years.
Although no official figures are available, local beauty appointment booking app Vanitee - which allows users to search for beauty services by location, post reviews, chat with service providers and book and pay - has seen a big jump in the number of home-based beauty businesses listed on it.
Half of the businesses on the app - about 800 of them - are homebased. This is up from 55 in 2015, when it launched, and 386 last year.
Singapore Polytechnic senior retail lecturer Sarah Lim, who says that there "definitely has been an increase", reckons that over the last three years, "thousands of new home-based salons have opened".
The lure, she adds, are the flexible working hours and fewer overheads such as rent and transport costs. She says the cost of running a home-based business, compared to running the same business in a mall, would be at least 50 per cent less.
Starting a business from home, she adds, is also a way for entrepreneurs to test the market before deciding if they want to plough in the capital to open a full-fledged outlet.
"It is a great chance to experiment. If you have a passion for something, a home-based salon is your chance to see if people like your style and skills," she says.
Singapore Management University associate professor of marketing Seshan Ramaswami says the ailing retail industry has propelled the growth of home-based businesses as entrepreneurs are more careful about taking risks.
The rise of social media has also paved the way for such businesses, which use Facebook, Instagram and apps such as Vanitee, to expand their customer base.
Vanitee co-founder Kuik Xiao Shi, 32, says another benefit for customers is that home-based businesses can accommodate clients outside the typical operating hours of, say, a mall.
Business for these beauticians can be lucrative. The top 10 per cent of the home-based beauty service providers on Vanitee generate an average of $13,000 a month, says Ms Kuik.
The Face Canvas, a facial salon in a five-room Housing Board flat in Tampines, has a three-month waiting list. Ms Nareeza Abdul Rahim, 29, who opened it in 2015, says her customers mostly live in the east.
Over at Fling Nails, a nail salon in a four-room Woodlands HDB flat, manicurist Ng Huiwen, 30, says her customers have increased by 30 to 40 per cent over the past three years. It opened in 2014.
Such home businesses are above board, but there are rules.
According to HDB and the Urban Redevelopment Authority, such small-scale, home-based businesses are allowed as long as they do not cause disturbance.
No external advertisements are to be put up, business owners cannot hire anyone and there should be no loading or unloading of goods related to the business.
Massage services and plastic surgery are a no-go. No prior approval is required.
Student Amos Ang, 23, who frequents a home-based hairdresser near his home in Yew Tee, says he likes going to her because she understands his style and it is a comfortable environment. He pays $8 for his haircut.
"I've known her for so many years, so it's easy to talk to her."
Her HDB flat is also only five blocks from his, making it more convenient.
"A man must have three constants in his life - his wife, a tailor and a hairstylist," he quips.
Personal assistant Grace Tai, 38, who sees Ms Ng every month for a manicure and pedicure, says she does not mind travelling to Woodlands from her home in Braddell as she trusts Ms Ng's skills.
"I'll send her pictures of nail art and sometimes, they can be very intricate or abstract, but she'll still find a way to replicate it."
Ms Tai also appreciates the homey and friendly vibe. "I know her well now, so I'm very comfortable there. We are like friends."
Wait three months for a facial here
Her mother used to run a facial service at home, and now Ms Nareeza Abdul Rahim, 29, does the same.
The full-time speech and drama teacher says having her own facial salon has always been her dream.
"My mother used to run her own home-based facial service. As a child, I would watch and be fascinated by how she was able to make people feel refreshed and relaxed," she says.
She is doing a good job: The Temasek Polytechnic business school graduate's facial services are so sought after that customers have to book slots three months in advance. There has also been an 80 per cent jump in the number of customers over the past two years.
Her business, The Face Canvas, started in 2015, is run out of a room in her parents' five-room Housing Board flat in Tampines - an average flat with a traditional kitchen and a living room with a huge wide- screen television.
But as you enter the bedroom where Ms Nareeza runs the facial spa, the atmosphere shifts. The room is softly lit with fairy lights hung along the walls. There is a proper spa bed with clean, fresh towels and Ms Nareeza dons a white coat when attending to customers.
She and her husband, a safety officer at a construction company, are waiting for their own flat, which will be ready in two years.
Ms Nareeza, who has worked as a beautician at commercial spas for two years, left in 2015 because "customers could be very demanding and sales targets were stressful".
Not wanting to start a full-fledged business without her own customer base, she decided to work as a fulltime teacher and opened a homebased salon. "I didn't want to start my spa cold. I've always loved drama and acting, so the teaching job is perfect for now."
She adds that when she has her own house, she will most likely run her home-based salon full time.
Her facials range in price from $65 to $100 and she makes about $2,000 a month, working two hours in the evening from Mondays to Thursdays and six hours on Saturdays.
She accepts only female clients and uses Facebook, Instagram and beauty service booking app Vanitee to bring in customers.
Asked why she thinks people like going to her salon, she says: "It is very private and casual. I get to know them after a while as well, so we become friends. They also don't feel pressured to buy any packages."
Open till 5am for CNY
At Fling Nails in a Woodlands Housing Board flat, mother-of-two Ng Huiwen spent the two weeks before Chinese New Year working for up to 22 hours straight, peering over her customers' nails until as late as 5am.
The 30-year-old manicurist says the period is "the craziest of the year", with customers showing up for appointments at odd times.
"I'll ask them if they mind coming at 2am and they'd say ok."
She adds that she earns $10,000 to $12,000 in the two-week stretch.
"It is a really busy 14 days for me. I get very little sleep, but it is worth it to see so many people satisfied with their nails, and I see it as my annual bonus."
Running her business at home means that Ms Ng, who charges $28 for a classic gel manicure and $30 for a gel pedicure, can operate at such irregular hours. Malls typically require their tenants to follow retail hours, which usually means closing at 10pm daily.
Ms Ng, who left her administration assistant job in 2009, says she also appreciates the independence that working at home offers and the time that she can spend at home with her 10-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter.
The business diploma holder, who says her desk-bound job was "so boring (she) really could not take it", attended a beauty course the year after she quit.
She bagged a professional manicurist certificate in 2010, then went on to do ad-hoc nail work, mostly for friends and family members for a fee. She started off travelling to people's houses and working at beauty brand events.
"At the time, home-based beauty services were not as popular and I wasn't confident enough to start my own salon, since I was still fresh and had no customer base," she says, adding that she felt ready to start a salon in 2014.
But even then, she did not want the commitment of a long-term lease - malls typically require tenants to sign three-year leases - or the heavy upfront payments to renovate an outlet.
Instead, she put in $10,000 to renovate one of the bedrooms in her four-room flat, turning it into a nail salon, complete with a pair of armchairs that sit on a wooden platform, textured wallpaper and a shelf filled with bottles of nail polish.
Ms Ng says she regularly sees two to three clients a day and earns about $3,000 to $4,000 a month.
Her customers find out about her mainly through word of mouth and social media.
She does not advertise her services, but has a Facebook page and an Instagram account for her salon.
Her clients run the gamut from young students and office executives to older women in their 60s.
"I think nail art can be very personal, so being able to express my style is important. I'll discuss designs with customers and give them something customised. I think a regular salon will not have time for that," she says.
Big-name boutiques and home salons can co-exist, say experts
While home-based businesses have proliferated here, commercial boutiques still dominate the beauty service industry in Singapore.
In fact, both types of businesses can co-exist harmoniously without one cannibalising the other, say experts.
Singapore Management University associate professor of marketing Seshan Ramaswami says the two types of operators are vastly different.
"Large chain salons have a professional marketing operation and will continue to draw the mass market, while home-based operators may be restricted to those in their immediate neighbourhood and relationship circles," he adds.
Singapore Polytechnic senior retail lecturer Sarah Lim agrees.
"The crowds drawn to big-name and trendy boutiques will be those who want a fuller set of services. They want the best equipment, the best ambience and the prestigious image," she says, adding that commercial outfits still attract the masses.
Those looking for a more laidback, convenient and personalised atmosphere, she says, are more likely to choose a home-based service.
She adds: "A personal relationship is built between the customer and the beautician after a while. I think there is a niche clientele that appreciates this friendly and relationship-based service."
Home-based beauty services, with lower overheads, also give people a more affordable option at price points that commercial chains cannot offer. A classic gel manicure can cost between $25 and $35 at a home-based salon. The same service costs about $55 to $85 (without a package deal) at a commercial boutique.
Such home-based businesses also act as a test bed for entrepreneurs, who are then better placed if, and when they decide to open a commercial outfit.
Big names in the industry here are unfazed.
Ms Cynthia Chua, founder and chief executive of home-grown beauty brand Spa Esprit Group - which includes waxing boutique Strip, eyebrow salon Browhaus and We Need A Hero, a men's grooming salon - says business has not been impacted by home-based service providers.
"Our numbers are growing steadily and we have not seen any noticeable change in direct competition or gotten any feedback that our customers have moved to home-based beauty services," she adds.
Browhaus, for instance, has seen customer numbers growing for the last four years at an average rate of 6.75 per cent a year.
She is confident that people will continue to visit commercial salons as they are deemed to be more reputable.
"Customers think that the quality and service of their treatment will be of a high level and that these are reputable operators," she says. "Commercial salons also employ skilled therapists and the equipment used is also generally of professional standards."
From 2013 to 2015, the Housing Board received an average of three cases of feedback a month regarding home-based business activities and had issued one written warning. The Urban Redevelopment Authority did not receive any feedback on home-based businesses in the same period.
Mr Loy York Jiun, executive director of the Consumers Association Of Singapore, says it did not receive any complaints from consumers about disputes with home salons in the past three years.
However, he advises that before visiting a home-based boutique, consumers do their research by looking for reviews and ratings by other consumers.
"These may provide a good overview of the reliability of the salon in terms of its business practices, product quality and service standards," he says.
This article was first published on February 9, 2017.
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