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What Are Walk-Up Apartments In Singapore? A Guide To These Old Apartments With No Lifts

13 June 2022 | BY

Not only are walk-up apartments more spacious than the average condo unit, but they’ll also be kinder to your wallets. No lifts? No problem.

apartments

You’ve likely heard of walk-up apartments or seen one before without realising what they are. Contrary to most of the other high-rise apartments that can be found in Singapore today, walk-up apartments are residential homes that can only be accessed by stairs. 

First introduced in the 1920-1930s, walk-up apartments consist of privately-owned freehold and 999-year leasehold properties, with a smattering of them being under the 99-year leasehold of HDB.

They’re spacious and older than the average condo unit, but they’ll also be kinder to your wallets. Still, they come with their own set of cons and might not be for everyone. Here’s a quick rundown of what walk-up apartments are and what you should consider before getting them.

What are walk-up apartments?

walk-up
Old straight and spiral staircases of Tiong Bahru’s Walk-Up apartments.
Image credit: hmlet

As its name suggests, walk-up apartments are residential developments that require one to “walk up” to their homes. In other words, they lack lift access to their apartments – which to the chagrin of many Singaporeans, would mean a lot of walking up and down the stairs.

Types of walk-up apartments and their history

walk-upShophouses on Koon Seng Road.
Image credit: @katong.joochiat

Walk-up apartments can also be categorised into different types, including shophouse walk-ups, older, low-lying private developments, pre-war conservation walk-ups, and the black-and-white colonial walk-up apartments of Wessex Estate. 

Shophouse walk-up apartments

In the case of shophouse walk-up apartments, the ground floor area is typically used for commercial purposes, while the upper decks are private residential spaces. It’s amazing that many walk-up apartments date back to before the Second World War. Even ones built after the war are relatively older, and rich in heritage and culture.

walk-up
Image credit: @cherry_vi8es

Shophouses were first introduced by Sir Stamford Raffles prior to the 1900s and were typically 2- to 3-storey buildings that shared common party walls, and many sported a “five-foot” walkway. Many of the Joo Chiat shophouses also have a significant Eurasian influence in their architectural design, and they have homed many Peranakan families in the past.

Today, while the bulk of them have since been demolished to give way to Singapore’s urban development, you will be glad to know that many have still been conserved.

Privately-developed walk-up apartments

walk-upImage adapted from: Google Maps

Privately-developed walk-up apartments rose in popularity in the 1960-1980s and are typically either freehold or leasehold ones that have a smaller number of units and lack the amenities of condos, but sometimes still fall under the category of “condo” on property websites.

These apartments can be found scattered across the island and usually have a larger living space as compared to HDB flats. They also come in a variety of layouts but normally have a more practical layout as compared to that of a shophouse.

Black-and-white colonial walk-up apartments

walk-upWessex Estate.
Image credit: @jouste

The JTC-managed Wessex Estate is home to a collection of black-and-white colonial houses located in the Queensway area. Some of these comprise walk-up apartments that are available on a rent-only basis and are shrouded in lush foliage, making the estate seem tranquil and removed from the rest of the busy city.

These colonial walk-ups that are scattered throughout the Wessex Estate were first constructed for non-commissioned British personnel in the 1930s. While senior offices were housed in the semi-detached houses in the estate, walk-up apartments such as Flanders Apartments were where junior offices were housed.

Private and public walk-up apartments of Tiong Bahru

apartmentMoh Guan Terrace in Tiong Bahru is one such street with HDB-owned walk-up apartments.
Image credit: @harukovsky_jp

For particular cases like the Tiong Bahru estate, a portion of the estate’s walk-up apartments that were originally established by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) were sold as private properties sometime in the 1960s. The rest remain public, leasehold units and under the domain of the Housing and Development Board (HDB).

walk-upImage credit: Visit Singapore 

These were a product of SIT and their plans to alleviate Singapore’s overcrowding issue in the past. From the 1920-1930s, SIT began encouraging people to move out of their kampung homes into newer and better residential spaces, such as walk-up apartments.

Tiong Bahru’s apartments first became known as puay kee chu or “aeroplane houses” for their resemblance to the control tower at the former Kallang Airport. 

Common features of walk-up apartments

walk-upImage credit: LAANK

Ranging from 2-5 storeys, the walk-up apartments that still stand today are characterised by tall ceilings, large windows, and open space. Like most high-rise buildings they come in a variety of layouts, and possess 2-4 rooms. 

apartmentImage credit: @ren_jee

In particular, shophouse walk-ups are mostly rectangular in terms of their floor plan, with living and bedroom areas in the front, and a kitchen at the rear. Most share a common spiral staircase in the back.

walk-upApartments on Woking Road, Westbourne Road.
Image credit: JTC

The walk-up apartments in Wessex Estate come with a floor area of 116sqm, and are adorned with black timber beams that outline white-washed walls.

Benefits of walk-up apartments

Heritage & nostalgia of walk-ups

Walk-up apartments are beautiful architectural developments dating back from before WWII, and much of their historical elements and ideas from that period have been preserved since then. 

walk-upFlanders Apartments in Wessex Estate.
Image credit: @anewcanvas

Unlike most high-rise condominiums that populate Singapore today, these walk-up apartments also let its residents take a step back from the modern, fast-paced life in the city. In fact, the planning of the estate is reminiscent of bustling, communal life before Singapore’s urbanisation. The small number of units in each block also help to foster interaction between residents.

Unique architecture & flexibility to make modifications

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Image credit: welovewalkups.com

The high ceilings and wide windows usher in natural ventilation – just what we need for better feng shui and to beat the Singapore heat. Smaller households can also take the liberty to remove or modify fixtures like window shutters, or hack walls to create more room.

walk-up
Image credit:
WY-TO

For pre-war apartments, they often sport a cantilevered balcony, which was designed to create a transitional space between the cooler interior of one’s home and the warm Singapore climate. Homeowners get to look over the streets just downstairs, or gaze out into surrounding trees and neighbouring buildings. 

The exterior of apartments in the Tiong Bahru estate (left) and the curved layout of their windows (right). 

apartment
Image credit:
Visit Singapore, uchify

In terms of its exterior, the aerodynamic and curved style of Tiong Bahru estate’s apartments might differ slightly. Its architectural design was inspired by the Art Deco Movement which originated in the 1920s, particularly the Streamline Moderne style. 

For a more in-depth look into one of these timeless apartments, you can check out this couple’s beautiful Tiong Bahru home.

Apartments slightly over $1 Million at prime locations

apartment
Image adapted from:
Google Maps

Most walk-up apartments can be purchased at prices just beyond $1M – they might also come with perks such as freehold status, prime location, as well as potential en-bloc opportunities in the future for those that aren’t conserved.

Once in a blue moon, you might also spot walk-up apartments being listed for as low as $800,000 (for 700sqft to 800sqft). On average, the price of these residential properties ranges from $1M-$2M for a 2-bedroom apartment spanning 1,000-1,300 sqft.

Disadvantages of walk-up apartments

Lack of lifts & greater inconvenience

One of the drawbacks of walk-up apartments lies in its most distinctive feature – the absence of lifts. This entails many hidden costs, including extra labour costs during renovation and moving furniture in and hoisting up your luggage after a long holiday overseas. Even lifting your groceries up the block would prove cumbersome.

And for families looking to live with multiple generations under one roof, getting a walk-up might not be so convenient or feasible. 

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Image credit: welovewalkups.com

Higher maintenance & renovation bills

Another catch: while the prices of these walk-up apartments might not be as exorbitant as that of private condos, you’re still paying a premium for an apartment that is much older and isn’t equipped with any private facilities. 

Finally, renovation might just prove to be a major stumbling block. Being old residential properties that have been around for 50-100 years now, lots of issues might pop up during the reno process – including piping issues, major repairs to flawed tiling and paint, damage due to moisture, and so on.

With the wear and tear that the apartments undergo over time, homebuyers need to brace themselves for high maintenance and renovation costs that might exceed that of condos and resale flats.

Restrictions on build for conserved buildings

You’re mostly free to go wild with redesigning the interior of your walk-up, but for those who’ve purchased conservation status buildings, you’ll have to consider building restrictions, as historical residential estates might be conserved developments.

apartment
Information sourced from:
Urban Redevelopment Authority

Best areas to find walk-up apartments in Singapore 

Most walk-up apartments in Singapore are situated in prime locations, where there is better connectivity as well as accessibility to amenities such as markets and parks. 

Tiong Bahru Estate

walk-upImage credit: @iam_atre

Perhaps the most well-known out of the list, this mature estate is not only a foodie hotspot, but it’s also highly sought after for its authentic and rich-in-heritage architecture.

apartment
Image adapted from:
Urban Redevelopment Authority

In December 2003, URA announced that it planned for a stretch of 20 blocks of pre-war SIT apartments to be conserved. This place has now become a hipster location with cafes and creameries peppered along the area. 

It’s also this blend between modernity and communal living, which has attracted an increasing amount of homebuyers in recent years. The Tiong Bahru estate is now known for its pricier apartments, as well as the high yield it promises owners looking to rent out their homes.

Katong/Joo Chiat

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Pre-war conservation houses along Koon Seng Road.
Image credit: TheSmartLocal

Joo Chiat needs no introduction. Aside from having some of the most photogenic Peranakan-style homes, the area is also known for being a haven of hawker gems from famous wanton mee and prawn mee to roti prata and authentic Vietnamese pho.

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This area is home to beautiful murals like the Jousting Painters Mural.
Image credit: The Smart Local

The Katong-Joo Chiat area is a mere 15-minute drive away from the CBD, via the ECP. The bustling nightlife of bars and restaurants by Singapore’s waterfront is just a stone’s throw away for residents living here.

Novena/Toa Payoh 

apartmentA walk-up located along 10 Kim Keat Close.
Image adapted: Google Maps

The walk-ups located here are part of the central region of Singapore and within a 10-minute’s drive to Orchard Road’s shopping district. Homeowners in this area also get to enjoy better public transport connectivity than most other parts of the island.

In Balestier and Whampoa, the apartments happen to be nestled in a quiet and tranquil neighbourhood. And while these estates remain freehold developments, there is the possibility of an en bloc seeing as these apartments haven’t been gazetted for conservation.

walk-upA 60-year-old walk-up apartment near Moulmein Road.
Image credit: asolidplan

Walk-up apartments situated closer to the heart of Novena are furnished with generous balconies and spacious living areas. The area is also lined with old-school Chinese bakeries like Loong Fatt Tau Sar Piah and bak kut teh stalls. 

Choosing a walk-up apartment

At the end of the day, walk-up apartments are a very niche property type and the homebuyers that do go for them are mostly drawn to their unique charms and spacious interior.

While these apartments hold a timeless and nostalgic feel that cookie-cutter HDBs and high-rise condos might not be able to emulate, it’s important to do your research to make sure this is a home that suits your needs. From location and surrounding amenities, to tenures and your budget, be sure to weigh the pros and cons before buying a walk-up apartment.

For more home guides, check out our other articles:


Cover image credit: Visit Singapore, @katong.joochiat

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