Malaysian Housing Crisis

Suffering our first major setback before we even file the residency paperwork, Diane and I are back to being homeless expats with nowhere to go. Unexpected but not really surprisingly, the Malaysian we met on the now defunct MM2H forum backed out on his rental offer. Owning a 12th floor apartment in the Penang apartment complex we’d been eyeing, his never-ending American work ambitions somehow keep him from maintaining or even renting the unit out while he lives somewhere on the East Coast. Informing us we’d have to make special trips to meet and exchange information, we decided an extra plane trip in the opposite direction didn’t make much financial sense.

 kicked out before we even got there

kicked out before we even got there

Adding to the enormous leap of faith required for expatriation somewhere you’ve never stepped foot in, the disappointment quickly led to a realization that selling your house and all your possessions when your date of birth is anything earlier than 1972 is quite scary. Hoping to secure another apartment from overseas before our home closes escrow next spring, our quest for a new housing contract started anew exactly one year after my unexpected layoff. 

Now that I got your attention, let me clarify. Of course the picture above is not from Malaysia; it’s the South Bronx during the height of New York City’s financial woes of the 1970’s. Rather than hash out tales of woe, let’s instead focus on the positives. Blessed with abundant housing at reasonable prices, Penang’s options are impressive for a country a whisker away from “fully developed status”. Diane doesn’t seem too concerned but the neurotic New York Jew in me rears its ugly face in times of anything less than 100% certainty.

Thinking that blogging is more about entertaining than complaining, I’m reminded of my last adventure as an expat. OK, Canada barely counts when you’re American but nonetheless Diane and I were newly married with limited financial means when we packed all our stuff and sent it away up Interstate 5 on its way to Calgary, Alberta. Housing the 1988 Winter Olympics, site of a huge flood that submerged downtown but was largely unnoticed last year and in the shadow of North America’s best mountains (sorry Colorado), Calgary sits nestled in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. Recounting better times may help ease my nerves so here’s a little piece of Canadiana.

 Beautiful Calgary, Alberta

Beautiful Calgary, Alberta

During my first expat experience, the housing market boomed, fueled by a surge in the oil and gas industry. Located in the heart of “tar sands” country, Alberta is America’s most important province regardless of what the Torontonians say. Technically named bitumen, the tar sands are really a black viscous mixture of hydrocarbons obtained naturally or as a residue from petroleum distillation and used for road surfacing and roofing.

oil wellAlberta helps fuel the carbon footprint industry and keeps the Koch Brothers richer than most Saudi princes. Requiring a lot of skilled workers, Alberta became the place to be in 2002. Lured in by triple digit salaries, thousands of small town Saskatchewan farm boys,  fishermen from the Atlantic  and everyone in between flocked to Fort McMurray, an otherwise boring hamlet near the Northwest Territories with minus 45 degree temperatures most of the year.

Unlike San Francisco where space is at a premium, Alberta’s cities are geographically huge with ever-expanding limits and have no suburbs to speak of. When the city needs more land, they simply buy up any available outlying countryside and create new neighborhoods. And create they did. Ontario notwithstanding, Alberta defined Canada in 2002 and throngs of large corporations deserted the East in favor of modern new corporate headquarters in “The New West”. Outdoor enthusiasts and everyone else enjoyed spectacular scenery as seen below on one of our hikes called Goat Trail.


Faster than an Olympic speed skater, the City of Calgary began selling plots of land to large developers anxious to  create new suburban housing tracts, despite a serious lack of supporting infrastructure. Looking like the end of World War III, it seemed an entire nation returned home from war in need of a place to settle down. Surging house prices rose fast. Very fast. California style fast.

what our house looked like before it was a house

what our house looked like before it was a house

Wanting an opportunity like everyone else, Diane and I ventured out to nothing land to view a large pile of dirt soon to become “Springside”, the last phase of a shiny new neighborhood conveniently on the West Side of the city, allowing easy access to the Banff and the Canadian Rockies without the traffic jams.  Did I mention I had no paid work at this time either? What a useless bum I’ve been but in my defense there were only a handful of financial opportunities up there.

Magically, the “preapproved mortgage” followed us into Canada from the land of the overextended and without much hesitation, we became proud first time homeowners. Unlike most American homes, new developments come à la carte, allowing the homeowner a bevy of choices from eight designs of backsplash to sixteen different options of doorknobs. Designed to add an enormous amount of cash to the closing statement, the “design upgrades” tacked on about another 20K to our purchase price. Impressing the neighbors is loads of fun and Albertans poured millions into the economy, spending every weekend at design studios larger than The Home Depot.

Spending my first role as a House Husband without a house, I routinely drove to the plot of dirt and watched it rise from nothing into a magnificent two storey single family home. Skilled laborers from every corner of Canada looked more like The Village People than the mostly unskilled versions from everywhere south of Texas seen performing every conceivable blue-collar job in California today. Finishing ahead of schedule, we signed the papers in February and took possession in late August.

February in Western Canada is cold. Bone chilling cold.

 A Toque

A Toque

But time is money. I watched them day by day, week by week. They pounded nails in the 25 below zero deep chills with practically no breaks. Building the roof often required four pairs of gloves and a huge toque*

*Translation for Americans:  a type of hat with a narrow brim
or no brim at all. Think ski-mask

Installing flooring and cabinets in twelve inches of blinding snow was no problem  and getting it done effectively and efficiently was a given. Operating on time and on budget is imperative or workers are either not paid or quickly replaced. Canadian built with pride. Summertime brought the occasional hot day (75 degrees Fahrenheit) and that makes Canadians work even faster.

Pride. Workmanship. And a well-built house. Mike Rowe would be proud.

The Host of Dirty Jobsand a real working man

The Host of Dirty Jobsand a real working man

It’s all gone now. Actually it’s not really gone; we visited the old neighborhood last summer and found so much more traffic, development and noise that we barely recognized anything. Progress reared its ugly head. Looking forward to one last cold holiday season, Diane and I are spending the last two weeks of the year with family in Alberta next month. Unaware we’re moving, Diane is spilling the news to her parents so please keep our secret should you run into them before then. Asians will understand the cultural aspect of not worrying parents with small details like moving to the other side of the world with nowhere to live.

Feeling better already from writing this post, perhaps I should concern myself with the bigger and possibly more important problem. Apparently the Malaysian government has implemented a new rule for MM2H applicants stating their intention to reject should your financial institution refuse to return their request for “verification of the verification of income” they ask for when filing. Getting American banks to release personal financial information to foreign governments is practically akin to treason in the eyes of the OCC (Office of the Comptroller of the Currency).

mm2h rule

Dealing with one issue at a time is probably best so look for the skinny on the new MM2H rules in the next post. And look for us in Thailand should we not find a proper place to live in Malaysia or have our application rejected after we’ve already closed escrow and have no address, country or possessions other than what fits in 25 medium moving boxes, the maximum allowable for a “less than container” shipment.

If you have any suggestions or can offer housing assistance, please comment or email.

Nasib Baik to us !!


2 thoughts on “Malaysian Housing Crisis

  1. Mike

    What is the housing market like in Penang ? I know that here in BKK there is an oversupply of condos for rent (not that it stops more going up all the time !) While I did check out the online listings, I waited until I arrived before looking for a place, although I did have the advantage of being here before and knowing roughly where I wanted to live.


    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Well, since we still live here in California it’s hard to know for sure. We really only know what we learned on the now defunct MM2H forum plus anything else we’ve seen or read on other forums and on the internet. We do know there is an overabundance of reasonably priced conods (by our standards. Like most developing nations, they overbuilt prior to the financial crisis and many units sit un-rented or with owners that can’t re-sell so they try to rent instead. Everyone tells us there is no problem so I’m sure it’ll be fine

      We do know what neighborhoods we want to live in so we’ll probably wind up renting a short term vacation place while we search for a place. It’s easy to do that from overseas via the internet. This is a leap of faith for sure hence the “experimental” part of our plan.



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