New Straits Times
A place to call home
The Katil offers a great solution for young people looking for affordable, convenient and long-term accommodation, Airbnb-style, writes Oon Yeoh
EVERY year, thousands of young people move to Kuala Lumpur, whether it’s to find work or to pursue their tertiary education. One of the biggest challenges they face is finding suitable accommodations. Hostels may be an option for students although hostel life isn’t the most comfortable. And it’s not even an option for a young worker. Renting a room is what many young people do but there’s very little quality control and all you usually get is use of the room, but not the creature comforts of a whole house.
Airbnb is a great alternative to a hotel but it’s not meant for long-term rental. How great it would be if there were an Airbnblike option but for the long term.
Former real estate agent Alwin Aw thought so too and has created something just like that. Dubbed The Katil, it’s an online service that allows young people to find affordable, comfortable, long-term accommodation, Airbnb-style.
HOW DID THE IDEA OF A LONG-TERM AIRBNB-LIKE BUSINESS COME TO YOU?
I guess the genesis goes all the way back to my time as an international student in Australia. Renting just a room was expensive so what I did was rent a whole house and sub-let the other rooms to students. The rent I collected from the other students was enough to cover my own rent, so I basically got to stay for free. That gave me the first taste of what it meant to be a landlord.
DID YOU START THE KATIL STRAIGHT AWAY AFTER GRADUATING?
No, I’d planned to stay in Australia and actually got permanent residency but when my father’s health deteriorated, I decided to come home. I worked as a property agent in KL for about three years before I started The Katil with two other friends.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE KATIL?
The easiest way to describe it is that it’s Airbnb for the long term. You’ll get your own room but you’ll also have access to the kitchen, the living room and so on. There’s free WiFi. Utilities like electricity and water are covered and there’s even cleaning service for the common areas.
ARE THESE ROOMS IN HOUSES OR APARTMENTS?
No, all our rooms are in renovated shoplots. There are two key reasons for this. Firstly, we want all our units to be located near the LRT or MRT lines so that it’s easy for our tenants to get to work or their universities.
Most of these young people don’t have their own cars yet so public transportation is important. In Malaysia, most LRT and MRT lines are located near commercial areas, not residential areas.
Secondly, it’s much cheaper to renovate shoplots which are very simplistic in design. You’re dealing basically with an empty rectangular shape. Bungalows and apartments have rooms and bathrooms and other living areas already built in so it’s much harder to renovate.
HOW MANY ROOMS ARE USUALLY CONTAINED IN A SINGLE SHOPLOT SIZE UNIT?
We typically have 10 rooms — four bathrooms, a living room and a kitchen. It’s all fully furnished.
HAVING SO MANY PEOPLE STAY IN ONE UNIT IS QUITE CRAMPED, ISN’T IT?
Well, everyone has their own rooms and there are common areas too, so it’s quite okay. Bear in mind that most of our tenants are young working adults just starting out in their careers. They’re at work most of the time and many of them work overtime. They usually eat outside and come home only to sleep. They don’t spend a lot of time in the unit itself other than to rest and sleep.
WHAT’S THE COST FOR RENTING SUCH A ROOM AND FOR HOW LONG CAN THEY RENT IT?
Each room is RM800 per month and they can rent it for as long as they like.
WHAT’S THE LONGEST TENANT YOU’VE HAD?
We have one tenant who has been with us from the start — about three years and counting.
CAN TENANTS RENT FOR SHORT TERM TOO?
Sure. If there’s a vacancy in one of our units, they can rent short term.
HOW SHORT IS SHORT?
Even for just a day is possible. But since many are working or studying here, they tend to rent for the long term.
WAS IT EASY TO GET SHOPLOT OWNERS TO AGREE TO THIS CONCEPT?
Yes, because we looked for shoplots in the middle floors which are usually more difficult to rent. The top floor is usually the cheapest so those get rented out and the ground floor offers the most exposure so those get rented out too.
Shoplots in the middle level tend to be harder to rent. We know of some landlords who weren’t able to rent out their middlelevel units sometimes for as long as two years. So they were glad for us to lease those units from them. We usually take a long-term lease for 10 years in order to get a very good price.
HOW MANY TENANTS DO YOU CURRENTLY HAVE IN THE KLANG VALLEY? THAT MEANS SOME PEOPLE SHARE ROOMS?
Yes, usually couples. There are some young couples who moved together to KL and wanted an affordable place to stay.
DO YOU PLAN TO SCALE THE BUSINESS?
Yes, we’re looking at becoming property managers rather than being the landlord. When you’re the landlord, you have to do everything yourself. You have to lease the property, you have to spend time and money renovating it, you have to go out and find the tenants. It’s a very slow process and doesn’t lend itself well for scaling up. But now that we’ve proven that we know how to make it work, we’re able to convince property owners to do the same thing. They engage us to help them with best practices and managing their properties. Since we no longer have to do the renovation, we can expand our reach much faster and wider and spread to other states as well.
WHAT ELSE DO YOU DO FOR THE PROPERTY OWNERS IF THEY ENGAGE THE KATIL TO HELP MANAGE THE PLACE FOR THEM?
We’ll help source for tenants for them. So that takes a big hassle off their hands. At the same time, having them undertake the renovations takes a big hassle off our hands. So it’s a win-win solution. It’s really a partnership we are looking at.
HOW DO YOU STAY AHEAD OF THE COMPETITION?
I don’t think anybody’s doing exactly what we’re doing but for sure there are people offering affordable accommodations for rent. What we need to do is to keep on adding value.
For example, we currently have units in Johor Baru as well. If a tenant has to make a working trip to Johor or Singapore, they can stay at one of our rooms at no charge because they’re one of our tenants. As long as there’s a vacancy, they can stay for free. It is things like this that allows us to stay one step ahead of the competition.