In Singapore, it’s customary to live with your parents until marriage. The tradition is intended to cultivate strong family values, but it can create a tough environment for singles looking to spend time with their friends or with a new love interest. So many young professionals are booking nightly or weekend escapes at nearby houses on Airbnb.
The online room-rental company says it has nearly 600,000 customers living in Singapore. Not bad, considering the country’s population is just 5.47 million, according to government data. The small island has booked more stays using Airbnb than the entire rest of Southeast Asia combined, the company says.
Singapore has the highest smartphone penetration in the world, according to consulting firm Deloitte, making residents more likely to adopt new technologies. Beyond that, Singapore’s millennials are flocking to Airbnb and other rental sites, such as the local startup Roomorama, for some much-needed privacy or a place to throw a party. Among Singaporeans ages 15 to 34 who are unmarried, 97 percent live with their parents, according to a 2013 survey by the National Youth Council. In the U.S. and U.K., it’s less than half that.
Another factor that makes short-term house rentals particularly attractive in Singapore is that more than 80 percent of the population lives in affordable public housing, according to government data. That leaves plenty of disposable income to be spent on smartphones and other luxuries. The country’s unemployment rate in the first three months of 2015 was just 1.8 percent, and 83 percent of recent graduates had jobs straight out of college. Its sizable middle and upper class means people are able to splurge on a weekend of lavishness on sites like Airbnb, which let them get a taste of the good life at private condos with infinity pools and private concierge services.
Marcus Chan, a 20-year-old student who lives in a five-room public housing facility in Singapore, is on the hunt for an apartment where he can host a birthday party. He has narrowed his options to a few places on Airbnb. “Hotels have so many restrictions, and the rates are better on these sites,” Chan says. “I was also looking at condos, so maybe we can make use of the facilities, like the BBQ.”
Teo Jia En, co-founder of Singapore's Roomorama, says the number of locals renting houses elsewhere on the island rivals bookings from tourists. “At least around 40 percent of our inquiries have been for ‘staycations’ from Singaporeans—be it for hosting dinners, weddings, BBQs,” she says, citing her personal experience renting out rooms in her home. “I think it's a direct correlation to the fact that so many Singaporeans live at home. People can't chase their parents out when they want to host a party or be with their friends. They want to be able to be in their own space.”
Still, Airbnb is mainly thought of as a service for travelers today. Even in Singapore, only 4 percent of bookings are from residents looking to stay nearby, says JJ Chai, the managing director for Southeast Asia and India for Airbnb. “Singaporeans love a good staycation,” he says. “We also frequently hear from Singaporeans who book Airbnb homes when their family is visiting due to space constraints in their own places. However, this isn't a large group.”
Local rentals could be something of an untapped market globally. In Singapore, the opportunity may extend beyond tech-savvy singles who want a weekend away from mom and dad. At least 37 percent of young couples in the country continue living with their parents after marriage, according to government statistics. Grandparents make great babysitters, but by the end of date night, couples might want a private place to get away.