How to Get an Affordable Designer Apartment

Ryan Ong



Getting an affordable apartment is one thing. But getting an affordable apartment that also looks stylish? That’s an art. Look at my place: spacious, affordable, and looks great if the date happens to be 1972. Yeah, it’s a major stop on the senior citizens’ tour, because every geriatric who steps in feels young again. But how do I get that “designer look” at an affordable price? This article takes a look.

Guest Interviewee: Mr Andy Seah

Our guest interviewee is Mr. Andy Seah, Director of 9 Lives.  This talented Interior Designer spent a year in Qatar, helping to build key structures like hospitals. He worked in the demanding United States market for four years, and his recent project was building a part of Universal Studios in Sentosa. We spoke to him about getting that “top designer” look in an apartment. Preferably, without depriving our children of an inheritance.


Picture of Mr. Andy Seah sipping coffee
Mr. Andy Seah, Director of 9 Lives Pte. Ltd.


1. Get an Interior Designer

In some cases, trying to follow a high-end design is only viable with a designer’s help:

“A lot of clients approach us with pictures from books or magazines. The budgets in these showrooms are unrealistic,” Mr. Seah says, “but we can come close to it. We can find materials or furniture that look exactly the same, but cost a lot less. So an $8000 Eames chair, for example, we can probably find a similar one that costs $2000. Or sometimes we have the contacts to get you parallel imports.”

So if you want to follow a design closely, don’t try to work it out yourself.


Magazine image of 9 Lives kitchen, with glowing purple bands
I want what you did for this client Mr. Seah. But my budget is $50 and a lot of reflective tape.


2. Use Laminated Flooring

The three most common flooring materials are homogeneous tiles, timber strips, and laminates (vinyl). Laminated floors can resemble the other two, and even duplicate the surface of marble and granite. The best part is, they’re the cheapest of the lot. Mr Seah told us that:

“Laminated is the cheapest of the three options. There’s a lot of patterns to choose from, and it’s very durable. It’s also very fast to lay down the flooring, and you can save on hacking costs.”

Hacking costs refer to the process of breaking up and clearing out the existing floor tiles; a major expense if you’re renovating. The price can go up to $10 a square foot, depending on the contractor.


Laminate flooring that looks like wood
Laminate flooring, looking more wooden than Keanu Reeves’s face in any movie.


3. Paint / Mirror Your Walls

Wallpaper looks lavish, but costs significantly more than paint. Mr. Seah advises that wallpaper should be used sparingly, in order to create the occasional accent. It’s not financially sane to try to wallpaper every surface:

“The cost difference between wallpaper and paint is about 300%. You can get someone to paint a four room flat for close to $1000. Putting up wallpaper for just one wall can already be $1000.”

Mr. Seah also encourages the use of mirrors as decorations:

“The mirrors will make the space look larger, and they have a very contemporary look. Compared to something  like an original painting, a mirror might be cheaper, and the effect is just as good.”


Bedroom with large mirror on wardrobe
This mirror doubles the visual space in the bedroom, and coincidentally, would remind me to diet.


4. Maximize Your Accent Wall

The accent wall, or feature wall, is the focal point of the room. That’s where you want everyone to look when they step in. It’s often what the TV is mounted on, and the design can make it expensive. Mr. Seah suggests getting everything you can out of this expensive detail:

“When I design the feature wall, I try to make it more than just a decoration. For example, I might a feature wall with niches, so that it can also double as storage.”

It’s a good way to drop furniture costs in general: make sure that everything you buy can serve different functions. The more utility you squeeze into something, the less furniture you’ll be buying. Speaking of buying furniture…


Accent wall in living room, with storage ledges on the side
This accent wall doubles as storage. Displayed items also lend personality to the house.


5. Look at IKEA Furniture

Custom furniture is always great, but there are design and carpentry costs involved. In general, expect to pay 40% more for it. Likewise, think carefully before buying branded furniture: odds are, you’re paying for the brand name, and very similar designs are available for less.

“IKEA furniture is pretty nice and cheap,” Mr. Seah says, “it goes well with a lot of things. It has clean lines, and usually uses safe colours that won’t clash.”

Any important tip is to build on what you already have:

“When designing a home, we try to create something which incorporates the existing furniture. That saves the owner the cost of buying new things.”

So if you’ve got a lot of Chinese rattan furniture, for example, you might want to reconsider that Minimalist do-over. The cost of a new couch is nothing to sneeze at.


Folding chair with cover in IKEA, concealing the top half of a person
The only piece of IKEA furniture that goes well with my face.


6. Forget the False Ceiling

Mr. Seah warns that, however trendy they are, false ceilings can quickly bust your budget:

“False ceilings look nice, but the added wiring costs are a killer. When you want a false ceiling, you have to pay for a lot of electrical engineering. It’s very troublesome to run wires all across the ceiling, to accommodate the light fixtures.”

False ceilings are also time consuming; skip them and you’ll find your renovations go faster. Remember: the shorter it takes to get everything done, the less you tend to pay.


Dining room with perfectly clear ceiling
Clean, simple ceilings look good. Notice this dining room doesn’t need the too-common chandelier.


7. Keep to a Single Style or Theme

If you have multiple themes or styles going on, your costs will sky rocket. Try to settle on one particular direction, so you don’t have a kitchen that’s French country style and a living room that’s Industrial. Especially avoid mixing styles from different cultures: not only is it expensive, you’ll have an apartment that looks like China threw up on Europe.

Mr. Seah gives us an example with regard to style colours:

“If you have a contemporary style, with a colour scheme that’s white and grey, your painting cost will drop. Because you won’t have to buy so many different shades and hues. You just buy the same colours in bulk.”


Blue and white pantry
Uniform doesn’t mean dull. In this case, the simple blue / white blend adds some sparkle to this pantry.

Image Credits:
Lee J. Haywood
Special Thanks to 9 Lives for their great project images!

Interested in getting a designer apartment? Comment and let us know, or head to 9 Lives for an expert opinion!

Keep updated with all the news!


Ryan Ong

I was a freelance writer for over a decade, and covered topics from music to super-contagious foot diseases. I took this job because I believe financial news should be accessible and fun to read. Also, because the assignments don't involve shouting teenagers and debilitating plagues.