ABU DHABI // Before moving to the capital, many imagine life in a spacious villa with a pool and garden. For the past few years, those dreamy expectations have been dragged down to earth by Abu Dhabi's cramped, overpriced housing options. But the situation is beginning to change as off-island developments blossom, offering more space and better amenities.
Homes in the Al Bandar development at Al Raha Beach were handed over to owners last month, providing some of the capital's first premium waterfront accommodation. And improved access to developments such as Al Reef Villas, near Al Shahama, is also encouraging residents to look at existing mainland homes that they once would not have considered. Villa prices on Abu Dhabi Island are, on average, more than 35 per cent higher than those of communities on the mainland, according to an Asteco report published this week that described a "flight to quality". That price gap is expected to widen as developments on Yas Island, Al Reem, Saadiyat and Al Raha Beach are finished during the next five years.
Joanne Rajch, 29, said that when she moved to the UAE with her family two months ago, mainland living was the obvious choice. "It's much more quiet, that's one of the main reasons," she said. "You can just go out and there's no traffic, and you can rest in peace during the weekend." Mrs Rajch, from Poland, and her husband paid Dh1.2 million for their two-bedroom villa in Al Reef. With new hotels at Yas Island offering leisure facilities, and less-crowded schools and nurseries springing up to meet demand, the lack of amenities is not as dire as it once was.
"It's hard to get a flat in the city near a park, where you can take the children to play," said Mrs Rajch, the mother of two children, aged one and five. "Here, there's a playground one minute away by foot. It's 10 minutes to school, 15 minutes to the supermarket and there's no traffic. It's much better." Julia Knibbs, a senior analyst for Abu Dhabi at the real estate firm Asteco, said the housing situation had changed dramatically during the past few years.
"Two or three years ago, tenants didn't really have a choice," she said. "Quality was irrelevant and people would just do anything to have somewhere to live." She said "master-planned" developments, with communal facilities such as pools and gyms, are the most popular and are mostly built off the main island. That is driving a flight to suburbia that will continue as more units become available, she added.
"There's definitely a move out of the city, particularly for villas, and that kind of community living fits in with the 2030 plan," Ms Knibbs said. That plan sets out a vision for island living and development of the area around the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the new Capital District on the mainland. With Al Reem and most of Al Raha Beach still unfinished, however, it is the once-unpopular Al Reef villas that are responsible for most of the movement off-island since the Saadiyat highway opened, halving commuting times to the city, according to property firms.
Karen Johnson, 37, has been living in Al Reef since September. She moved from her Mushrif apartment, where she paid Dh110,000 a year for one bedroom, to a two-bedroom villa with access to a pool for the same price. "That is the dream when you move to the Middle East - you expect a villa on a compound with a pool," she said. "But two years ago when we arrived, it was just the worst." Golf Gardens, near the Abu Dhabi Golf Club on the mainland, is one of the few areas to buck falling rental prices during the past quarter, with villa prices rising by as much as 12 per cent, Asteco said. The development now has a waiting list.