You may not remember who first told you about Dubizzle, but be you a fresh-faced expatriate newbie or a veteran desert dweller, you're most likely only a degree of separation away from its influence. As I type this at my dining room table, the housemate I found on the website last year is tucking into a bowl of fruit opposite me. Behind me, my other housemate is sitting on the sofa and playing with our cats, two more of the many online finds in our household.
Since being launched in 2005 by JC Butler and Sim Whatley, Dubizzle has become a go-to portal for Dubaians looking for accommodation, furniture, cars and employment. It now has more than 160,000 users and earlier this month it extended its reach to Abu Dhabi. For people like Hassam Hashish of Khalifa City, the localised version is good news, as, like others in Abu Dhabi, his only option until now has been noticeboards, word of mouth or a drive to Dubai to source second-hand goods. "I have used Dubizzle many times to buy and sell my cars, but having it in Abu Dhabi makes life easier. I think everyone uses it; it is where most people post, and it is the easiest and quickest of all the websites that offer a similar service. And it's free."
Cars are the most popular category in Dubizzle's classifieds section but you can buy and sell almost anything, from baby items to boats. Currently being advertised is a Dh73,000 French pedal harp "available to play or put as decoration", and a request from a "friendly expat" to borrow a goat for a night for a house party. "It will be part of the party theme. Needed from 8pm this Thursday till 4am Friday morning," the posting read.
"The advert is definitely true," says Sudhir Krishnin, a purchasing executive from Dubai, when questioned about his posting for a free two-hour public speaking lesson. He goes on to explain that he is part of the Apple International Toastmaster's club and that the offer is intended to introduce potential new members to the group - no obligation to join, of course. Amanda Ricci, meanwhile, is offering free manicures in return for the chance to acquire a new skill. "I'm not working at the moment so in the future this could possibly be a business, who knows. I'm teaching myself, so I need people to practise on." Amanda has seen two clients so far, both through Dubizzle. "It's a good site for things like this because so many people look at it. About 20 people have replied to my advert. I've had to turn some away already."
Nora Abdel is giving away her three Shi Tzu dogs - but only to a good home. "I've been in the UAE for a year but I am leaving and need to re-home them. I want them to go to someone in a villa because they are used to the space and need a garden to play in. And I would prefer if they were kept together, as they're used to each other's company." Since placing the advert two days ago, Nora has had two replies.
Aside from classifieds, the site offers nightlife and restaurant reviews and a forum to talk about the topics of the day, from perennial property debates to advice on choosing a gym. One current topic getting Dubizzlers talking is entitled "Never mess with a Lebanese woman", discussing a news item about a woman who beat up a would-be attacker when he broke into her bedroom in the small hours of the morning.
Like many others, I've used Dubizzle to find housemates. It is a truism that the internet can be a magnet for weirdos, and one response I received was particularly memorable: A man e-mailed a list of requirements that included "no Indian food or sick/pregnant ladies" in the house, while proudly assuring his "excellent nature" and the fact that he "dresses very smart and wears Armando smell". He finished off by saying: "Remember, I am crazy about my girlfriend (decent lady professional with dragon tattoo), so she will be around regularly." Needless to say, he did not get the room.
In the real estate market, while agents, developers and investors may claim one statistic or another, the real judge is Dubizzle: the marketplace in action. "You can check thousands of properties, especially in rental," says Samir Kazzaz of Bond Real Estate. "As an estate agent, we started using the site when the market slowed down; we noticed that as the recession started, Dubizzle started picking up and the number of properties being advertised there grew."
This time around, I'm not looking for a new housemate; I'm looking for a home. According to the forums, rent prices have yet to bottom out, so I'm holding out for that cute little bungalow with a garden of its own, soon to be in my price range.