Not long ago, shopping for a home to rent in the UAE was typically a painful and frustrating experience, as welcome as a trip to the dentist.
Success required tenacity, a bucket of money and, if you were lucky, a friend in the property business. After weeks of inspections, you would probably end up settling for an apartment you didn't want for a price you couldn't really afford.
These days, the game has changed. It's still not fun to hunt for a rental, but if you are well prepared, know the market and start the process armed with a few tips, it doesn't have to be a nightmare.
Robert Bruce quickly discovered a fundamental shift in the market when he started shopping a few weeks ago in Dubai for a new apartment for his wife and two children.
"People are a lot more willing to negotiate than before," says Mr Bruce, who works in the oil and gas industry.
He still described shopping as a "horrible" experience.
But he eventually found a three-bedroom, 1,800-square-foot apartment on Sheikh Zayed Road near the Dubai World Trade Centre for Dh93,000, down from the asking price of Dh100,000.
"You don't have to commit to the first place you see," Mr Bruce says. "There is so much variety out there, you really need to burn the shoe leather."
To find the rental of your needs, if not your dreams, it's important to understand the nuances of the current market, experts say.
There are deals available, but only if you understand where to look, what to ask and when you can push for a deal. There is no mystery as to why landlords are open to negotiations. Overall, the vacancy rate in Dubai is between 15 per cent and 18 per cent and it is likely to increase to 20 per cent by 2012, according to Landmark Advisory, which tracks the market.
Rental prices in Dubai fell 17 per cent last year, after a 24 per cent drop in 2009, according to Asteco, the property management firm.
Even in Abu Dhabi, one of the world's most expensive and competitive rental markets, rents are falling steadily as new developments are completed. Rates dropped anywhere from 8 per cent to 16 per cent, depending on the neighbourhood, in the fourth quarter of last year alone, according to Cluttons, the property company.
Five thousand units are due to arrive on Reem Island and the Corniche in the next six months, giving renters a wide variety of new options.
Those numbers are good news for renters. But many landlords are still holding to their prices. In better neighbourhoods in Abu Dhabi, the average price for a one-bedroom apartment is still Dh110,000 a year, according to Cluttons.
"Rents have come down, but in certain areas they haven't come down as much," says Chandni Petre, a residential leasing consultant for Better Homes. In Dubai, some of the biggest recent price drops have been in Jumeirah Lakes Towers and Jumeirah Beach Residences, where there are always multiple units for rent.
But deals on villas in Arabian Ranches and Victory Heights may be harder to find.
In Abu Dhabi, older buildings off the Corniche and villas in the rapidly growing Khalifa City can offer bargains, according to agents. However, standalone villas may present a challenge. "There is a big demand for villas [in Abu Dhabi]," says Paul Preston, the managing director of Elysian Real Estate. "There are not that many of them."
Any search for an apartment must start with a strategy, experts say.
Even before you start to look at homes, it's best to get to know the city and decide what is important to you, they add. Do you want to live near the beach? Where are the best schools? Are you willing to commute? What amenities are must-haves? A gym? A pool?
Rather than criss-cross the region looking at apartments that sound good on paper, only to discover they are nothing close to your needs, it's best to focus on the neighbourhoods you already know fit your tastes, agents say. It's also best to avoid buildings in construction zones - with so many developments stalled, there's no guarantee when the project may be finished.
"Look for locations that are in developed areas or where road works are complete," says Loshini Lawrence, the operations manager at the Abu Dhabi office for Better Homes.
Once you've narrowed the choices, you have to decide whether or not to work with an agency. Without a doubt, a trained professional with a handful of listings can make the entire experience much less painful.
An agent who knows the market can also negotiate a deal and help to translate documents in Arabic. And some offer to assist with the move by setting up the water, electricity and internet services.
But agencies usually charge 4 per cent to 5 per cent of the first year's rent, which can add a hefty expense to the initial costs. Many companies that are paying rent for an employee won't cover the agency fee.
Agents can also be a mixed bag. Some try to steer clients to projects where they have a business relationship with the owners.
Not long ago, many asked for a viewing charge of about Dh100 simply to show an apartment. Viewing charges are rare these days, but you should be wary of any agent who asks for money up front, experts say.
The alternative is to track ads on internet sites such as Dubizzle or the listings in local newspapers, which can be a frustrating process. You can spend days following up on ads that may not reflect the real quality of the unit or the neighbourhood.
Amanda Tavares, an engineer from Brazil who is looking for an apartment in Abu Dhabi, eventually decided to do both - she called agents and looked on her own. "I left my number with agents and they never called back," Ms Tavares says.
Despite the recent price drops, she still found it difficult to find a one-bedroom apartment in her price range, which was Dh85,000. With the help of an agent, she eventually found an apartment in the city centre that suited her needs.
The landlord was willing to lower the rent from Dh90,000 to Dh85,000. He also agreed to let her pay for two months and then let her company pay for a full year, starting in April. But the landlord wanted her to move in right away, which she couldn't do. So her search continues.
"You need to get information from people you know," Ms Tavares says. "Sometimes you find a place you think is a good deal, then you find out it is not such a good deal."
Once you find a suitable apartment, it's important to gauge whether or not it's possible to negotiate a better deal than the advertised price.
It's not realistic to expect a huge discount on seaview apartments on the Corniche in Abu Dhabi or for a one-of-a-kind penthouse in Dubai Marina, agents say.
In lieu of lowering rents, some landlords are advertising "easy rental payments". In some cases, especially in Dubai, that can mean anything from two cheques to 12 cheques, instead of the customary one. Monthly deals are still rare in Abu Dhabi, but it's not unusual for landlords to accept up to four cheques, management firms say. But there is a catch to the multi-cheque deals. In many cases, landlords charge more rent in exchange for flexible terms. Landlords typically charge a 15 per cent to 20 per cent premium for a year-long contract allowing 12 payments, agents say.
"Some offer month to month, but you can get a better deal with one cheque," says Frank Dert, who was recently looking for a one-bedroom apartment in the Burj Khalifa area.
Conversely, landlords may be eager to offer a discount to tenants willing to pay the full year in one cheque. More than ever before, it doesn't hurt to get creative in discussions with landlords, according to property experts.
Many aspects of the deal can be negotiated beyond the price.
Some landlords may cover water and electricity costs. Others may be open to reducing the penalty assessed for leaving before the end of the contract.
Landlords may also be willing to negotiate a better price in exchange for a two- or three-year contract, forgoing the usual 5 per cent annual increases. The owner of a villa in Arabian Ranches in Dubai agreed to add furniture for Karen Cable, who works in the oil and gas business. For her, that clinched the deal for the two-bedroom villa, which is costing her Dh160,000.
The lesson for Ms Cable: "If they are not offering what you want, then go back to the landlord."
That's the key, experts agree. These days it's always worth asking for what you want.
"You might even put offers on two or three properties and see what you come back with," Mr Preston, from Elysian Real Estate, says.
That type of aggressive approach would have been rental suicide a few years ago. But tenants are now in the power seat, property experts say.
Tips for apartment hunters
As you start your search, property experts suggest setting a few ground rules.
* Focus on neighbourhoods you know
* Investigate the maintenance
* Be realistic about what you can afford
* Don't pay for space you don't need
* Decide what amenities you can't live without
* Don't be afraid to ask for a deal
* Negotiate elements besides price
* Beware buildings in areas still under construction