DirectHome founder unfazed by haters

Former property agent Kiegan Chia faced negative Facebook comments from his ex-colleagues when he set up DirectHome, but he persevered in his goal to provide value-for-money services to home buyers and sellers.
Former property agent Kiegan Chia faced negative Facebook comments from his ex-colleagues when he set up DirectHome, but he persevered in his goal to provide value-for-money services to home buyers and sellers.ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

Ex-property agent upsets former colleagues with his portal for DIY real estate transactions

When former property agent Kiegan Chia started his own business in February, he quickly learnt that his ex-colleagues were unhappy about his emergence as a competitor.

Negative Facebook comments soon started coming in from old workmates but Mr Chia, who spent five years as an agent, has no regrets.

He realised being a property agent was a "dying trade" when National Development Ministry statistics showed that almost a quarter of HDB transactions in the resale flat market were handled by the buyers and sellers themselves.

"The property market has always been very opaque," he says.

"Agents like to project the image that properties are very hard to sell and the transaction paperwork is very complicated.

  • Worst and best bets

  • Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?

    A In 2007, everyone seemed to be talking about penny stocks so I went in blindly and bought two, Charisma Energy and Jasper Investments. I put in around $2,000 each.

    The penny stock market crashed in 2008 and my shares are now worth around $100 each.

    I still hold the shares though. I keep them to remind myself that I should always do my research before investing.

    Q And what has been your best investment move?

    A It was buying a 1,011 sq ft top-floor unit at The Pinnacle@Duxton for $550,000 in 2010. We are renting it out at an annual yield of 8.5 per cent.

    The lease is 99 years but the price of the unit has almost doubled to $980,000 now.

    It was clearly a value buy because firstly, it is an HDB flat and we purchased it under the Build-to-Order (BTO) system, which is subsidised by the Government.

    Secondly, the development is special because of its strategic location, which helps with capital appreciation.

    It is within walking distance to the Outram Park and Tanjong Pagar MRT stations and right next to the Central Business District. My tenants tell me they walk to work every day.

    Furthermore, our unit overlooks Singapore's skyline. For this development in particular, units above the 26th floor get a wonderful view and ours is on the 49th floor.

    Lastly, a new Tanjong Pagar Centre will be built nearby, which will increase access to amenities and contribute to the view of the skyline from our unit.

    When the development was first launched, it was oversubscribed and we were lucky during the balloting.

    Sheryl Lee

"But it is not that hard, and I think people are starting to realise that there's a disparity in the amount of work done and the huge commissions agents earn for most transactions."

That led Mr Chia, 35, to set up DirectHome, an online portal that facilitates do-it-yourself property transactions at flat rates of $800 for sellers and $80 for landlords. The site garnered more than 100 listings in its first two months - and those negative comments from other property agents on Facebook.

Mr Chia says rental woes in his early 20s also factored in his decision to start his own property portal.

"Right after graduating, I got a job at TNT Express in Changi as a management trainee. The daily commute to work on my motorbike was no joke, especially when it was raining," he recalls.

That prompted him to rent a room near his workplace.

The "simple procedure by a part-time property agent" cost him $500, one-fifth of his monthly income.

Mr Chia later made the leap from corporate work to the real estate industry for the "huge commissions and freedom of time" it offered.

"I was 'top producer' at companies like Credo, SLP and Huttons, among the top 20 property agents in those firms in terms of commissions earned," he says.

"After years as a property agent, I want to provide clients with value-for-money services and so DirectHome was born."

Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?

A I came from a middle-class family and life was comfortable as long as we were thrifty.

Q How did you get interested in investing?

A During my years as a property agent, I helped people sell their properties for profits of millions of dollars.

I came to see property as a relatively safe long-term investment as long as you had taken the risks into account, because there is capital appreciation over the years.

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A I am a property person and I try to get enough rental yield from my properties such that I can cover the monthly instalments I pay for them.

When I buy a property, its value might not be very apparent at this point in time but it must have good potential to appreciate with time. I have a set of criteria I follow.

Firstly, location is important - the property must be within walking distance of an MRT station and amenities like shopping malls. Not only that, but also the neighbouring area should be built up. There shouldn't be other spare plots of land waiting for development because that might lead to an over-supply and competition for tenants.

Secondly, there should be major industries nearby that can support demand for rental. For example, I bought a condominium unit in Simei near Changi General Hospital, Changi Business Park, Changi Logistics Centre and Changi Airport, so there will always be workers who want to rent an apartment closer to their workplace.

Lastly, property investments require a lot of capital so price is important and that depends on when you enter the market.

Because of cooling measures, the prices of private property have fallen. My strategy is to buy when prices have dropped around 15 per cent. That's when prices will have bottomed out because I think that's the threshold where cooling measures will be relaxed.

For a good indicator of how well a property fulfils my set of criteria, I look at the total number of rental contracts in that condominium in the past three years. If there is a consistently high number of rental contracts, you can be confident of the rental demand for that development.

Q What is in your portfolio?

A I own three properties, two in Singapore and one overseas.

I got a 1,011 sq ft top-floor unit at The Pinnacle@Duxton for $550,000 in 2010 and am renting it out at an annual yield of 8.5 per cent. The lease is 99 years but the unit is now worth $980,000.

Last year, I bought a three-bedroom condominium unit in Simei for $920,000. The lease is 99 years, it's 1,130 sq ft and I am renting it out at a yield of 4.2 per cent.

I also bought a 366 sq ft unit in The Proscenium at Rockwell, a freehold luxury condominium in Makati, the Philippines, for $200,000 last year, to be completed in 2018.

I chose the Philippines because its gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate is the third-fastest in Asia, after China and Vietnam, and Asia is the next high-growth region. So I would expect more expatriates to come and stay in the coming years and Makati is the central business district in Manila.

Buying property overseas is more risky though, especially in less developed countries, so I went down to take a look before purchasing.

The Proscenium is a gated community, which provides more security. That also helps if there is over- supply in the area, because people would pay a premium for security.

Another thing to note when purchasing property overseas is changes in exchange rate. For the Philippines, because its GDP is growing so quickly, I expect even faster capital appreciation.

Apart from property, I have invested a high five-figure sum in Web development for my business, DirectHome. I hope to break even in a year from now.

Q What does money mean to you?

A Money reduces financial stress, allows me to do the things I want like starting my own business, and gives me space to fail and learn.

Q What's the most extravagant thing you have done?

A I am a Rolex watch enthusiast, and have bought four pieces so far.

Two of them are lapis lazuli day-dates and are for investment. The first is the 18238, I bought that for $18,500 in 2013. The second is the 118239, I bought it for $20,000 in 2014.

The other two pieces are GMT Master II 116713 and Datejust 178273 for everyday wear. One is for me and the other is for my wife. I bought them in 2011 and 2012 for $13,500 and $11,000 respectively.

For watches, only two brands hold their value over time, Patek Philippe and Rolex.

Rolex actually increases its prices around 5 to 10 per cent each year, so even after years of wearing, I can sell my watches in the resale market for the prices I bought them at, or even higher.

It just shows the true value of time when you carefully select which products - or properties - to buy.

Q How are you planning for retirement?

A I don't plan on retiring, and I don't have a fixed amount of passive income I want by some age either.

Q What are your immediate investment plans?

A I am working on expanding DirectHome and plan to invest another $100,000 in it to incorporate cloud technology.

This would enable us to progress to electronic form filling, after which we can just store the paperwork in the cloud system so it is easily retrievable by homeowners, home buyers and us.

Q Home is now/I drive...

A I drive a BMW 320i and live with my wife, two sons and a helper in an apartment in Foresque Residences, which I rent at $2,700 a month.

It overlooks the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and I love the view, but I wouldn't buy it because the patch of land that the apartment is facing will be cleared for development.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 22, 2016, with the headline 'DirectHome founder unfazed by haters'. Print Edition | Subscribe