HOMEOWNERS are increasingly being caught illegally turning their homes into lodging houses and dormitories as they try to make a quick buck from foreign workers, students and even tourists.
They build partitions in their apartments and houses to increase the number of rooms they can rent out - boosting their rental income.
While renting out rooms is not illegal, building partitions in existing apartments to create more space for rental is an offence which can send homeowners to jail.
The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) told The Straits Times that it has looked into 1,000 cases of unauthorised use of residential properties this year.
This is a sharp rise from the 500 cases last year and 400 in 2008. More such operations are being exposed due to public feedback.
Under the law, the illegal conversion of premises can be punished with a fine of $200,000 and a year in jail. If the offender carries on with such activities after being convicted, he can be fined $10,000 a day.
Property agents said the practice has become even more rampant as the influx of foreigners in recent years - from 755,000 in 2000 to 1.25 million last year - has driven up demand for rental units.
In some cases, even tenants partition their apartments to sublet to others.
An agent who has been in the industry for eight years said: 'They can rent out an apartment for $3,000 but if they partition the unit into 10 rooms and charge $500 for each room, they can collect up to $5,000 in rent. This is good money.'
A Straits Times check online found some operating a hotel-like business - renting out partitioned rooms in Orchard Road condominiums to tourists for between $89 and $350 daily.
Malaysian tourist Trish Lee, 40, a housewife, said she was ushered into a small partitioned room at Lucky Tower when she visited in March.
'The apartment had no living and dining rooms. From the entrance, there was only a corridor leading to numbered rooms partitioned using chipboard. The experience was terrible,' she said, adding she had booked the room through a website which had touted it as a boutique hotel.
Agent Kelvin Tan, 38, said some owners also knowingly let out their apartments to firms who cram up to 30 foreign workers under one roof.
'They close one eye by charging them a few thousand dollars extra. The living conditions of these places are usually bad and the workers are just given mattresses to lie on,' he added.
The activities have also drawn the attention of the Singapore Civil Defence Force, which is concerned about fire hazards created by the illegal partitioning.
It issued 443 Notices of Fire Safety Offence to residential premises for unauthorised change of use in the first nine months of this year. The number of such notices went up from 356 in 2008 to 613 last year. Offenders will be brought to court if they continue the violations.
A URA spokesman said that the occupancy of a residential unit should satisfy a minimum of 10 sq m per person, subject to a cap of eight occupants, to ensure a good living environment and prevent overcrowding.
'The presence of transient occupiers may create disturbance and disamenity to the other residents in the development,' she added.
Of the 1,000 cases the URA looked into this year, 700 were found to have built partitions in their apartments without permission, among other infringements. More than half of them have since ceased the unauthorised activities.
The remaining ones are subject to further inspection and warning notices, among other enforcement actions, from the URA.