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THE TRAILBLAZER

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Total Investment Sdn Bhd’s impressive growth began in 1995, barely two years after its inception, when it acquired a major proposed housing scheme which the company christened ‘Bandar Baru Tambun’. The launch of its flagship project of Bandar Baru Tambun, and the enormous success which followed, signalled the coming rapid expansion of the company from a humble beginning of developing 10 shops along Jalan Kuala Kangsar in Tasek area near Ipoh, and 31 residential homes adjacent to Taman Ipoh Jaya.

“Our company was incorporated in 1993, and we just recently celebrated our 20th year anniversary,” said executive director John Chong.

Now called Total Investment Group, the company holds various big projects in the Ipoh area and prides itself as a developer synonymous with quality homes, building and delivering over 1,000 homes and fulfilling the dreams of thousands of homeowners.

TI Homes John Chong

The company later adopted the brand ‘TI HOMES’ with the tag line ‘The Lifestyle Homes’ to further reinforce the company’s business philosophy and branding, reflecting the strategic direction towards which the Group desires to satisfy the needs of its customers.

Today, the Total Investment Group comprises of Total Investment Sdn Bhd (developer of Bandar Baru Tambun, Taman Ipoh Indah and Project Manager of Taman Perpaduan  Koperasi ), Kay Synergy Sdn Bhd (developer of Bandar Pulai Jaya), Radiant Homes Sdn Bhd and Malim Bakti Sdn Bhd.

 Bandar Baru Tambun, the project that gave TI Homes a boost, was a mixed development project comprising 1,504 residential and commercial properties on 130 acres fronting Jalan Tambun and site in the fast growing neighbourhood sandwiching between Ipoh Garden East to Sunway City Ipoh.

Parcelled out by the Perak State Authority in 1980 and initially developed but abandoned, this project was successfully resuscitated and turned around by Total Investment to become the most prime and sought after housing development project in Ipoh. Dubbed ‘The little Gui Lin of Ipoh’ after the scenic city in China, Bandar Baru Tambun saw new launches of two-storey terrace houses sold within a day, and more than 1,000 registrants still in the waiting list when all the two-storey terrace houses were launched and sold.

Other than Bandar Baru Tambun, TI Homes also has developments in Bandar Pulai Jaya, Taman Ipoh Indah, Taman Perpaduan Koperasi, Tiara Lake Park and Taman Meru Mutiara.

“Our market is primarily in Ipoh. Of course, the Ipoh market has always been a little behind compared to KL or Penang, so most of our first 15 years had been more towards conventional housing – terrace houses, semi-Ds,” he told Property Insight.

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(From right) TI Homes chairman Chong Heng Kiong, TI Homes and GreenAcres co-founder Mrs Chong Heng Kiong,  chairman of the National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) Tan Sri Datuk Seri Lee Lam Thye and TI Homes executive director John Chong during the ground breaking ceremony of GreenAcres Retirement Village

“It was about seven years ago when we finally went into a more high-end market such as gated guarded community. It was a project called Uplands,” Chong described TI Homes’ responding to the changing needs of the market, when the company converted a commercial centre occupying a land area of 24 acres in Bandar Baru Tambun into a premiere gated community.

Marketed as a private sanctuary, Uplands is a tropical enclave strategically located near the Ipoh city – a home for a quiet retreat, away from hustle and bustle of life, yet near centre of activities, with the peace of mind of a gated community, 24-hour guards and outer perimeter wall.

Uplands has now been fully sold out and delivered, and TI Homes is now eyeing more launches. “We have two launches coming up in early part of 2015,” Chong shared. “One would be our next high-end project, the Upland 2 phase, a boutique development which only has 18 units of bungalows,” he added. Priced at around RM2.2m-2.3m each, with GDV of RM40 million, Upland 2’s soft launch of sales has already commenced, and the project’s showhouse is targeted to be unveiled just in time to ring in the Chinese New Year.

The other launch is an ambitious project of a 170-unit retirement village called GreenAcres. Ground breaking ceremony took place last November with prominent former statesman Tan Sri Datuk Seri Lee Lam Thye officiating.

GreenAcres-Streetscape_Final_Highres

“The space for retirement villages is new in Malaysia,” Chong said. “We are probably the first proper retirement village project in Peninsular Malaysia, and it’s a very new and exciting industry that we are trying to encourage in Malaysia because we foresee that firstly, the Malaysian population is aging – already many of the baby-boomer generation are already in their 60s and 70s and are looking for space to move into. Secondly, this aging population is only going to increase in the next 5-10 years,” he explained.

According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, the life expectancy for both men and women has increased dramatically since 1960. For men, the life expectancy was 52 years in 1960 compared to 72 years in 2014; similarly, female life expectancy was 55 years in 1960 compared to 77 years today. In addition, by 2020 the number of Malaysians aged 60 years and older is projected to increase to 3.4 million, which is 9.9 percent of Malaysia’s population.

“We feel that the need is there, because many of those in the baby-boomer generation are in the situation whether their children are not living with them, out-stationed or overseas. This is particularly true for those living in Ipoh because there are many other economic opportunities elsewhere such as KL, Singapore, Penang.

“So, there are many senior citizens whose children are not here and they don’t want to move out of Ipoh because they are used to life here. Once in a while, they will visit the children in KL and they would say, ‘Oh I don’t like it there, I want to be with my friends, the traffic jam is so bad,’ and so on. So they prefer to stay in Ipoh,” Chong said.

The concept of a retirement village has been successfully developed in countries such as the United States and Australia for many decades now. Ipoh is a city that is ideal for retirement living. In April 2014, US News recognised Ipoh as the 3rd most affordable place to retire in the world. The city boasts a lower cost of living, cleaner air, a relaxing lifestyle and a foreigner-friendly environment. Ipoh is an ideal destination for retirees who do not want to be caught up in the fast paced living of other major cities in the country.

 “That is why we decided to move into this new industry. It’s actually something that we have been thinking about for almost twenty years,” Chong said.

“The idea for this has always been at the back of the mind of my mother, Mrs Chong, twenty years ago when she first saw a retirement village in Australia, seeing how it was run, the care model, etc. That was when she thought, ‘Why can’t we have something like this in Malaysia for our own senior citizens?’

“But of course back then, we didn’t have any expertise, we couldn’t get any partners, and the market wasn’t quite ready yet,” Chong explained.

Fast forward 20 years later, the market is much more ready because the needs are becoming more apparent. “More Malaysians have travelled abroad and they have seen new things for elderly over there,” Chong said. “We also in the last few years have been able to find and work with a partner to bring this project forward. Even the planning for this project started 4-5 years ago when we finally decided to move ahead with it. We first got in touch with our partner in Australia, working through with architects on the planning, and all that.  Finally, building plans have been submitted, approved, and we can start construction.”

The unique part of a retirement village such as GreenAcres is that all the buildings, together with the facilities and activities within the project, are catered specifically for the retirees.

“The houses themselves have features that are elderly-friendly. For example, the doorways are wider to accommodate wheelchair access if they need it in the future. Even the light switches are larger and lower than normal. The standard is five feet, normally as people age, their mobility will decrease so they can’t lift their hands too high, so the switches will be lower to be reached easily.

“Most of the doorknobs, instead of the rounded types, will be lever handles, because as people age their grip strengths are not as good. So lever handles will be easy to turn. Even for drawers, we have drawers designs that have wider handles, and so on. So, there are little touches in the house itself,” Chong said.

GreenAcres will also have emergency call response so that people, in case of emergency such as a heart attack, can press a panic button.

Aside from those, the other extras will be the facilities, amenities and activities. “We want to make sure that the residents are active, so we will organise activities such as tai-chi or lion dancing. So there will be timetable for activities,” Chong said.

“There will also be a club house, the social centre of the development, where the residents can go mingle and socialise. There will be a mini-cinema, karaoke rooms, game rooms if they want to play Mahjong without disturbing their neighbours.

“The whole purpose of the retirement village is almost like a hybrid of a resort and a home. You will be living in a resort-like environment,” he added.

The home will be a small condominium unit, all on one level – so there are no stairs to climb – ranging from 730 sqft to 1,100 sqft, compact enough in size but requiring less maintenance. “You’ll have the kitchen, bathroom, lounge, dining area, just like any place that you can live well,” Chong said.

Another innovation incorporated in GreenAcres is the inclusion of age care services and facilities. “When we talk about a retirement village, it is for mobile and independent seniors. It is not meant for people permanently in wheelchairs or people needing more care and assistance,” Chong said. “So when it comes to the time that people need more care and assistance, you will then go to what is called an Age Care Residence.”

Age Care Residence model is slightly different, according to Chong. “Think of it as moving from a home into something like a service hotel suite. So instead of a big home, you’d be getting a smaller suite, say about 200-250 sqft, like a hotel suite. And instead of having to cook or do laundry yourself, here in Age Care residence, all will be taken care of. So it’s a different environment for different needs.”

Recently, there has been a revolution in how the retirement village industry grows, Chong explained.

“In the past, retirement villages have been quite separated from age care centres. The downside is that somebody mobile and independent living in a retirement village will have to pack up and move further away to another place.

“This is a little distressing especially for seniors, especially husbands and wives who, because of age and health difference, one party is mobile and independent and another party is not. So they got separated away.

“Over the last few years, retirement villages tend to be integrated into the same site. So even though the couples are at different buildings, they are still at the same site.”

This concept is called a fully integrated retirement place, according to Chong, and plans are already in motion for GreenAcres Age Care residence to debut in 2019.

TI Homes already has ambitions to venture beyond Ipoh on its retirement village concept. “Our primary landbank is around Perak area. We are looking to acquire more landbanks outside of Perak, particularly in Klang Valley and Penang. We are still in negotiations and we are still exploring for the right place and the right price,” he said.

“In Ipoh, the land here is cheap, so we are able to give GreenAcres a more resort feel with more landed type, as opposed to condominiums, and we keep our price between RM300,000 to RM450,000, which by KL standard is very cheap. Can we do this type [of retirement village] in KL? Yes, of course, but the pricing won’t be similar.”

The reason a lot of developers have not rushed into this field is the financial factor, according to Chong. “If you structure it the leasing way, as it is commonly done overseas, it is definitely not as financially attractive as conventional development. In a conventional development, after you sell, you already made and collect your profit. For most developers, the turnaround for each project is probably about 4-5 years from the time they buy a land, conceive the plan, get approvals, build, and then they start making money.

“Whereas for retirement villages, it’s a longer term, very much like hotels or shopping malls. You spend a lot of capital to develop the project, and the return is over time,” Chong explained.

The second issue is of course that the key in retirement villages is in management and services. Because this is a very new area, getting experienced professionals is a challenge. “That’s another hurdle that developers have to think about, because a retirement village development is a continuing obligation. A lot of houses, once you sell them, you are only liable for the two-year defect liability period. After that, you wash your hands, and you’re onto the next project. Whereas here, your obligation continues, just like hotels or resorts.”

The dynamics is slightly different because, unlike hotels where guests stay for a few days, the residents at retirement villages are there for years.

“For GreenAcres, we will be managing it ourselves in collaboration with our Australian partner. The key consideration for us is that because this is our project, we want it to succeed. We also don’t want to hand over complete control to strangers. We want to do this right. We have already committed significant resources to it, Yes, we have no experience. That is why we need to learn, pick up, and collaborate with our Australian partner.

“Our Australian partner also expressed that because this is their first time in Malaysia, while they may know about things in the Australian context to fit in the Australian culture, they need to localise it. They are also happy to have us partner with them to localise their expertise.

“We do want to develop the expertise and we feel that the best way to ensure that it will succeed and that we will be able to meet our vision for the project is by managing it ourselves but we bring in our partners from Australia to guide us, to advise us, and to develop operational and management models to fit the local requirements.”

The GreenAcres units are freehold; however, TI Homes will not be selling the units, but rather selling lease to the units. Explained Chong, “A person buys a lifetime lease over the unit, and has the right to use the unit in his or her lifetime.”

He added, “The difference in our leasing model, which is adopted from Australia, is that when you leave, there is a formula for us to return part of the money to you, and not only that, we will also factor in the unit’s appreciation value over time. So there is a likelihood that if you exited after, say, five to ten years, you will get a bit back more than what you initially put in.”

The reason TI Homes chose a leasing arrangement is to maintain control of the development and to ensure that it retains its character as a retirement village. “The whole idea is that this is very targeted, very purpose-built for retirees,” Chong said.

Problems may arise when buyers decide to rent out to young families, or that they decide to sell to young couples, or they pass the units to their children to move in.

“After a while, the character of the place will deviate from our objectives,” Chong said.

“We went for this leasing model, which ensures that residents have rights over the property. People don’t have to worry or feel insecure that, like a rental, they’d be kicked out. The lease will be registered in the title for their lifetime.

“Plus this model, as I said, has a formula to return some amount to the residents. This will ensure that people have this feeling that when I pass away I want to leave something to my kids. In this case, you are not leaving the property to your kids, but the cash value of it.”

Aside from GreenAcres, TI Homes is keeping busy with several other big projects.

“Bandar Pulai Jaya is still ongoing, heading towards last few phases. Meru Mutiara will be our key driver in the next five years.”

Meru Mutiara, where GreenAcres will be a part of, is a new up-and-coming township in Ipoh under Perbadanan Kemajuan Negeri Perak (PKNP). “The whole piece of land that we have there is 70 acres. We took out 13 acres for GreenAcres, and the balance 57 acres is for conventional housing, all cluster semi-Ds,” Chong said.

Previously a palm oil estate, PKNP bought over 1,900 acres with goal to transform it into a masterplanned township for Ipoh.  “The plan is to move quite a number of government departments there, so it’s almost like a mini-Putrajaya for Ipoh,” Chong informed.

“I would say Meru Mutiara about 40%-50% completed. The [state] government has already moved a number of offices there. A lot of shopping outlets are now coming up. The largest Mydin Hypermarket is in Meru Mutiara. The second animation theme park proposed in Perak will be in Meru Mutiara.”

As for GreenAcres, Chong has high hopes and is confident that the retirement village development concept will catch fire. “I would say that quite a number of Malaysians, who have seen or have heard about retirement villages in their travels, are very excited. They have been waiting for something like this for a long time, mainly because most people in Malaysia are aware of the standards of a typical old-folks home that we have here – a  bungalow or a house that is renovated, with perhaps a maid or two coming in as helpers – and many do not like that.

“They have seen, or heard about, people or friends who have been put in such homes and they say, ‘That’s not what we want. We want something of a much better quality.’”

However, Chong stressed that TI Homes are not promoting GreenAcres as an investment. “The reason why we enter this space is to provide that quality of lifestyle and care for you as you go to your senior years. That’s what we are selling. If you are looking for investments, there are plenty out there – shoplots, rental properties, bonds, unit trusts, shares – those are traditional investments that will make money for you, but those won’t take care of you, they won’t give you the peace of mind when you need help,” he said.

“GreenAcres provides that for you. If you get some extra money when you leave, that’s a bonus,” he concluded.

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