A house for the millennial: Telework means not being confined to city life

In Japan, a growing number of young families are moving from Tokyo's small homes to more spacious abodes in the town of Karuizawa. In Thailand too, people are taking advantage of work-from-home to move away from congested Bangkok.

The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a rethink among millennials across the world, especially among those married with children and craving more space who now want to move away from busy densely-populated metropolitan city centres into quieter suburban regions steeped in nature.

The catalyst for this trend has been the growth of telework, which has given "out of office" messages a new meaning as white-collar workers now can clock in anywhere with an Internet connection.

This has been particularly apparent in Japan, which is no longer a productivity laggard. Large corporations like public relations giant Dentsu, tech company Fujitsu, and telecommunications firm NTT are downsizing while other firms are making telework, if not hybrid work, a norm.

The term 'datsu Tokyo' (escape Tokyo) has been coined from this trend, which has led to a real estate boom in areas such as the coastal beach-side city of Kamakura to the mountainous holiday resort town of Karuizawa.

Mr Apisit Toompakdee and his wife Ayumi, in their living room playing with their boys Shin, three, and Ryo, one. The family moved from Tokyo to Karuizawa, where they enjoy having more space, and nature. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

Among those who have "escaped" is Mr Apisit Toompakdee, the 37-year-old co-founder of real estate platform Viila.co, who moved to Karuizawa in May with his wife Ayumi Aoki, 41, and their two boys Shin, three, and Ryo, one.

They have not returned to Tokyo since they traded a 48 sq m apartment in the neighbourhood of Hiroo in the capital - which cost 235,000 yen (S$2,830) a month including parking space - for a 90 sq m apartment in Karuizawa that cost 190,000 yen a month with free parking.

"We get double the space at a cheaper rate," Mr Toompakdee quipped. "With two kids, we definitely need a larger space. I also get to spend more time with my children which, as a young father, is my priority."

There were 37,673 fewer residents in Tokyo last month compared to the same month last year. It was the eighth straight month of a year-on-year decline.

But Karuizawa, which is an hour and 10 minutes from Tokyo by the shinkansen or bullet train, has benefited with an increasing number of residents and households.

Official data show that there were 8,810 households in Karuizawa in October 2019, with 19,234 residents. As of November 2021, there were 9,082 households with 19,783 residents.

The influx of new arrivals to Tokyo has long outpaced its attrition levels - whether due to death or departure - raising concerns of an over-concentration in the capital as the rest of Japan hollows out.

Yet Covid-19 has triggered a reversal of this trend. Even the national government, which has long waved the banner of "rural revitalisation", has jumped on the bandwagon by sweetening the deal with grants and subsidies for individuals and companies that move out of Tokyo.

Two clear trends have since emerged.

One, employees of progressive firms that embrace telework have the flexibility to choose where they live, drawing Tokyo wages even as they live in suburban regions.

Two, many companies are either setting up satellite offices or shifting their headquarter operations out of Tokyo.

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In Asia, urban sprawl and the ongoing pandemic have changed the way people live. Their effects are especially visible among the millennials, who are aged between 25 and 40 years old.

Research firm Teikoku Databank found that 186 firms moved out of the capital in the first six months of this year, the most since 2011 when the March 11, 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster hit too close to the capital region for comfort.

Employees of these companies would, in turn, move house as well.

While they are renting, Mr Apisit and his family, which has taken the Aoki surname,  are not ruling out living in their own property in Karuizawa in future.

Beaming as she watches Shin play with a set of Lego blocks, Ms Aoki told The Straits Times that the family is enjoying the fresh air and produce in their new hometown.

"I can spend an hour at the local supermarket shopping for groceries," she added, noting the abundance of parks and nature for the family to visit every weekend.

Her husband now works remotely full-time, though he has a scheduled trip to Tokyo this month for a work conference.

"Our apartment in Tokyo was getting a little too small for our family, and we wanted a change of environment. We used to spend our weekends in parks like Yoyogi Park, but it was very crowded," Mr Apisit said.

He admitted to a first-world concern: Will he be able to get used to a slower pace of life, foregoing big city conveniences like Muji and electronic stores nearby.

But he has since come to realise that with Amazon offering next-day delivery, life has not changed for the most part as he now does most of his shopping online.

The trend to move towards telework shows no sign of slowing down in Japan. A survey by the Japan Productivity Centre this month showed that 22 per cent of people telework for more than one day a week. This was up two points from the last survey in July, despite the country having exited prolonged Covid-19 state of emergency measures.

Mr Anli Tan, director of EtonHouse Japan, began a full-time preschool service in Karuizawa in October 2021 as he observed more young families relocating to the resort town. There is, separately, an after-school service for elementary school children, who built the treehouse in the background where two preschoolers are pictured playing. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

Clearly with an eye on such market trends and potential growth, Mr Anli Tan, 50, director of EtonHouse Japan, launched a full-time pre-school in Karuizawa in October catering to children aged three to six. This followed an after-school engagement programme launched last year for elementary school children from seven to 12.

Children learn in natural surroundings at the school, building treehouses, climbing trees, and picking up survival skills under the watchful eyes of the teachers.

"We found that children are more calm in nature and with this calmness, they can focus more, and the learning comes with playing," Mr Tan said.

The school's launch was a big deal in the sleepy town, which is part of Nagano prefecture. Not only did it make front-page headlines in local newspapers, Nagano Governor Shuichi Abe is scheduled to make a visit this month.

"In Japan, we are seeing a growing community of young families moving from Tokyo to Karuizawa amidst the increasing prevalence of telework arrangements," said Mr Fabian Tan, regional group director for North-east Asia and Oceania at Enterprise Singapore (ESG).

"With ESG's support, EtonHouse Japan has tapped on this social trend to expand the coverage of its pre-school services from its current international pre-school in downtown Tokyo to a new campus in Karuizawa, so as to serve the growing demand."

Some people in Thailand's congested capital have also caught the telework bug, allowing them to work away from Bangkok.

Ms Suwida Thosritha holds two full-time jobs that allow her to work from home. This in turn has allowed her to purchase a 125 sq m townhouse in Samut Prakan, a 30-minute drive from Bangkok. The home, which is much bigger than her previously-rented apartment in Bangkok, has a backyard where she can spend time with her pet chihuahua. PHOTO: SUWIDA THOSRITHA

Ms Suwida Thosritha, 30, now holds two full-time jobs that allow her to work from home. This, in turn, has allowed her to purchase a 125 sq m townhouse in Samut Prakan, which is about a half-hour drive from Bangkok.

Ms Suwida, who works as a sales marketing manager by day and for a travel agency by night, bought the home in September. Before owning her own home, she was spending about 6,500 baht (S$264) a month renting a 30 sq m condominium in Bangkok.

She decided to take the plunge and bought the 2.79 million baht home - replete with a backyard and located near a lake - because she is earning about 70,000 baht a month, much more than many of her peers.

"I decided that I had enough of the city, and with this place I would have more space, privacy and fresh air," she told The Straits Times.

Ms Suwida took out a 110 per cent bank loan, over a 30-year repayment plan, to buy the house. She now pays about 18,000 baht a month to finance the loan.

"Working from home was a big part of the decision to move. I did worry about the heavy responsibility, but I assessed my finances and felt comfortable with the decision," she said.

But there were downsides to the decision to hold two jobs and base herself away from central Bangkok, she added.

"I used to go out every Friday and spend time with friends and colleagues after work. Now I'm always at home, I love my home and my pet chihuahua. But my life is not as fun as before," she said.

Mr Anri Samata, a venture capitalist, and Ms Naoko Samata, the director of an e-commerce platform, with their three children in the living room of their vacation house in Karuizawa, Japan. They still spend most of their time in Tokyo, where they live in a high-rise apartment in the Roppongi district, but said a permanent move may be on the cards. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

But this is not an issue for venture capitalist Anri Samata, 37, and his wife Naoko, 38, who is a director at an e-commerce platform, in Karuizawa.

The Samatas, who have three children aged seven, two and one, took the plunge and bought a 2,100 sq m vacation home - including a large garden and an adjacent plot of land which they intend to refurbish into a guesthouse - in Karuizawa in February.

They now shuttle between Tokyo, where they live in a high-rise apartment, and Karuizawa on weekends and during school holidays for their eldest son, in which case they work from their vacation home.

"We work remotely most of the time, and it really does not matter where we are," Mr Samata said, adding that a permanent move may be on the cards once their son is enrolled in a good elementary school.

"There is really nothing that I am troubled about with being in Karuizawa," he said.

"We do not drive, but we have found that it is a myth that a car is necessary in a rural area. We are at home all the time, and we rely on taxis when we go out and on delivery for what we need. Most importantly, we are in a tight-knit community of close friends."


Self-sufficient, airy, spacious: Developers target millennials with homes designed for their needs

Millennials want open floor plans with the kitchen, dining, and living areas all connected, say developers in India, Indonesia and Thailand.



In recent years, real estate developers have targeted the millennial population with apartments or houses that are airier, more spacious and have self-sufficient community spaces with parks, swimming pools and gyms.

Functionality is key: Designers have to use every square foot efficiently, interplay exterior and interior spaces with light, create open layout kitchens, include landscaped balconies, and make 2-bedroom apartments into 2.5 bedroom ones with home offices.

"The lockdowns during the pandemic have made me realise the importance of natural light and ventilation," said Ms Garima Komireddy, a 38-year-old software programmer in Bangalore, India.

Even in budget apartments, millennials ask for roominess, developers said. With the pandemic, many real estate companies are redesigning the home to incorporate better air flow as well.

These have led to designs with larger windows, balconies, and fewer walls. Developers in India, Indonesia and Thailand said that while Gen X and baby boomers had preferred formal dining rooms, millennials want open floor plans with the kitchen, dining, and living areas all connected.

Most do not have conventional beliefs on "good energy layouts" based on Chinese feng shui or Indian Vaastu that will impact home design.

Indonesia’s major property developer Lippo Karawaci adopts a tropical modern design, with features such as floor to ceiling windows in its latest series of houses. Millennial homebuyers make up 60 per cent of its customers. PHOTO: LIPPO KARAWACI

In Indonesia, major property developer Lippo Karawaci changed its classic American design to a tropical modern design which features cross-ventilation and abundance of light, as seen in its latest series of houses launched in March last year just after the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country.

Its storey houses now have floor-to-ceiling windows and open kitchens. The presence of "a great room" on the ground floor, with living, kitchen and dining spaces flowing into one, gives "a feeling of spaciousness", said the company's chief executive John Riady.

Millennial homebuyers constitute 60 per cent of Lippo's customers.

To create a home that is affordable - yet efficient and functional - for the average middle-income families, Lippo is collaborating with Indonesia's prominent architect Alex Bayu.

"I think this is what the people seek now as they want clean, simple and modern houses, while at the same time homey," Mr Riady said.

For some millennial couples, the home has to be big enough to accommodate parents and helpers as well.

As elderly parents, housekeepers and nannies moved in with them, kitchens and bathrooms were more heavily used, while living rooms became both congested and contested.

"My mother moved in a year and a half ago, and while I only managed to work and raise kids with her help, I had to give the television over to them, and have nowhere to sit quietly with my cup of tea in the morning or chat with my friends when they visit," said Ms Trushna Ganesh, 30, an architect in Gurgaon, India.

For people like Ms Ganesh, Gurgaon-based developer Experion has introduced high-end duplexes with dedicated spaces for parents.

"Make every generation of your family feel at home across two luxurious floors without compromising on your personal space," says a full-page advertisement for Experion's new development Windchants.

Many developers also notice a desire for ready-to-move-in units.

Dr Sopon Pornchokchai, the president of the Agency for Real Estate Affairs in Thailand, said that millennials tend to prefer turnkey properties. "They like if it comes fully equipped and furnished. Other aspects include a shared working space or areas to hold meetings," said Dr Sopon.

"The generation want a home that can represent their image," added assistant professor Pornraht Pongprasert from Thammasat University.

Millennials make up about one-third of Thailand's population and hence are a large market share for developers.

View of buildings around the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok. Millennials make up about one-third of Thailand's population and hence are a large market share for developers. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Many developments tout themselves as luxury apartments with trendy technology or environmentally friendly designs.

There is also a growing interest in sustainable homes, driven partly by soaring energy prices and greater environmental awareness especially among millennials who are likelier to occupy the home they own rather than rent it out.

"We've seen an increased demand for homes and communities integrated with nature," said Mr Kamal Sagar, founder of Total Environment. It pioneered luxury sustainable design in Bangalore in 1997 with their terrace garden in all homes including small apartments, regardless of which floor it is on.

Sustainable features include energy-efficient lighting, onsite waste management, options to install heat pumps, green rooftops to reduce run-off, wells and storm water drains that recharge groundwater, efficient irrigation system with sub-surface drip irrigation, and custom ceramic discs in each faucet to reduce water consumption.

Use of natural materials like wire-cut bricks, wood, and natural stone flooring are big draws for the millennials in countries across Asia today, driving the cost of the once-premium materials down.

"The advent of millennials in the home buyer's market has reclassified sustainability to the must-have category from its previous good-to-have status," Mr Sagar said.

Correction note: An earlier version of the story said the real estate platform founded by Mr Apisit Toompakdee was Villa.co. It should be spelt Viila.co. We are sorry for the error.