There is an emerging trend in Mumbai real estate as apartment owners - after receiving possession of their flat - are opting to stay on rent rather than in their own home. The reason happens to be the space. Homes that appeared to be worth living at the time of purchase while under construction were later deemed highly uncomfortable after completion when it was handed over to the home buyer.
It was perhaps inevitable. Unaffordable homes have been a reality in Mumbai for almost a decade. In order to combat this affordability challenge - developers, instead of slashing prices, preferred to slash the size of homes. Providing regulatory support to this move was the removal of minimum size norms.
Earlier, any habitable room had to be a size of 9.5 square metres (102 square feet) and a minimum width of 2.4 metres. While not entirely foolproof, it ensured a basic standard to always be considered. Today, there is no minimum size for a room although the minimum width level still exists.
Does size matter?
Architect Vilas Nagalkar points out that the ‘purpose was to provide freedom to developers and let market forces dictate terms.’ It did provide freedom and the key ingredient was shrinking home sizes.
Eventually, the size of homes reached bizarre levels. Today it is no longer a shock for a local citizen to see a 2BHK apartment the size of 480 square feet. Yet such has been the inherent desire to own a home in Mumbai that apartments of these sizes from reputable players often found the fastest response – especially at the under-construction stage. First-time buyers that comprise three-fourth of the market in the commercial capital booked these apartments - taken in by the low ticket size as well as the sense of being an apartment owner.
The real challenge for these buyers occurs once the project is complete and residents start occupying the apartment. Hence, sales are critical at the under-construction stage for the developer. As one candid developer mentioned privately to me “It’s easier to sell a dream than to sell reality when the space is so small.”
Are Mumbai apartments really small?
There is a school of thought that argues apartment sizes in Mumbai are not very small – especially in comparison to markets like Hong Kong or Tokyo. Factually, it is not an incorrect position. Hong Kong is probably the most outrageous housing market in the history of mankind. In 2019, 13 percent of the apartments sold were less than 260 square feet. 85 percent of these ‘micro’ apartments didn’t have a separate bedroom while 70% were lacking a window in the toilet. Ditto with Tokyo which while having cramped apartments often has higher ceilings that allow for a loft. Japanese regulations impose a maximum height of the ceiling at 30x the width of the pillars supporting the structures. Thus an industry has been formed that uses thicker columns to drive higher ceilings.
Hence, while the private space may not be large for a resident – the nearby public spaces and easy connectivity act as a support. Mumbai, in contrast, has amongst the lowest per capita public spaces in the world. The maximum city has a meagre 12 square feet of public space per person. This is less than half the level available in Hong Kong, 1/6th the space available in Singapore, 1/13th the amount in Shanghai and 1/30th the public space per person available in London.
Relevance of larger private space in Mumbai
Hence, the importance of a larger private space is more relevant in a city like Mumbai. Moreover since density and family sizes are higher in India. It is little surprise that the theme of tiny-apartments is beginning to unravel. Only a limited part of the small-apartment inventory that had got rolled out from 2016 has been delivered yet.
A substantial part of the delivery will happen by 2023. By then the trend would most likely have been firmed up. As Akhil Laddha of Mobius Architects points out, “In other Indian cities, developers explicitly mention that compact apartments have been rejected by the home buyer audience. At some point Mumbai may likely witness the same and developers will have to chalk out new strategies.”
There is not much advice to be given to a person who has already purchased these homes. But, my two points of advice to prospective home-buyers of these apartments: 1) Don’t rush to buy an apartment due to societal factors. Prices aren’t running away higher for a while. Take your time in making the right choice 2) Evaluate micro-apartments in projects which are ready-to-move. That will help in deciding whether the space is adequate. Alternatively in under-construction projects, buy an apartment after spending hours (literally) imagining the space you will have and if it will be comfortable for at least the next five – seven years. Remember selling an apartment is not easy – especially at a lucrative price.
At its core with small apartments the inherent clash is between the innate dream to own a home vs the reality of living in that same home. There will be a winner.