The massive building drive to ease Abu Dhabi's chronic housing shortage is finally coming to fruition. By the end of this year, about 11,000 new properties are scheduled for completion and in the last months alone, almost 3,000 new properties have entered the rental market. And it's not only the capital's skyline that's changing. With more developments emerging off-island, in places like Reem Island and Al Raha Beach, a new standard of living is being established and the city's residents, it seems, are on the move.
Agents are reporting that the wider availability of affordable, quality housing is prompting significant numbers of residents to upgrade from older, city-centre properties to well-finished, well-planned developments in prime locations. In their latest quarterly report, the property analysts CBRE referred to this migration as "a flight to quality" and, citing the rapid take-up of rental properties in Al Bandar and St Regis Saadiyat, they say people are also moving quickly.
"Parking issues, access to schools and properties that offer better value for money are pushing people into outlying areas," says Loshini Lawrence, operations manager at Better Homes, Abu Dhabi. "We are witnessing more moves from the city centre to outlying areas. Ocean facing developments and locations are proving really popular."
Avoidance of traffic is another factor. "Our clients want to live near to where they work," says Paula Walshe from the property brokers Cluttons Abu Dhabi. "They want to avoid commuting, be near good schools and live outside of the inner city areas, closer to beaches and malls. There is also less traffic around these areas."
The popularity of premium off-island developments means rental prices aren't falling like they are in other parts of the city. At Al Raha Beach, for example, a steady stream of eager takers means prices are expected to stay the same until well into next year. That said, a two-bedroom property there is currently on offer for Dh120,000, a significantly lower price than you would expect to pay in the capital just 18 months ago.
The slide in rental costs is obviously long overdue, but the fact remains that Abu Dhabi is still a very expensive place to live in; if you are looking to move, careful viewing and research is advised. In addition to the perennial problem of promised-yet-non-existent gyms and pools, standards of build and finishing can vary widely even in the same development. But with the market becoming increasingly favourable to renters, expectations of standards have been raised and the developers can't afford to take shortcuts.
"The most important factor to get right is the actual finishing of the apartments, the choice of fixtures and fittings," says Imran Ellam, senior property consultant with Better Homes, who works in Al Raha Beach. "Unfortunately a lot of new developments fall down when choosing how to finish, say, kitchens and bathrooms. Pools and gyms are always welcome but these don't seem to be the determining factors when tenants enquire about property. One question tenants always ask is: 'if the building will or has a history of being maintained', as those moving from older buildings are frustrated by their experience of things not being fixed for days on end."
So, if you are looking to uproot and upgrade, where should you look, and what will you get for your money?
In terms of location, amenities, standard of finishing and overall quality of living, here are the three best new places to put down your deposit.
Bloom Gardens, Eastern Road, near Khalifa Park
As a model for planning, Bloom Gardens is a project for other developers to learn from. Winner of the Best Arab Regional Development award for its community friendly features, the first phase comprises 120 three- to five-bed houses, with a design influenced by the classic Italian villa.
Built by local developers Bloom, the community extends directly into the grounds of its sister project, Brighton College. Its proximity is a significant selling factor here. Children can walk to class from home in minutes and the school offers a curriculum of after-school and weekend activities.
Bloom prides itself on the thoughtful approach taken throughout the development's evolution and, according to Raed Al Hadad, the company's marketing manager, it's a policy that will be maintained as the community grows. "One of our original plans was to build one big clubhouse, for example, but instead we've opted to build more, smaller facilities so that no residents will be too far away. We also realised we hadn't built enough play areas so now we're putting in more."
Quality of environment has been another priority. In a pedestrian-only area, terraces of handsome townhouses flank a 500-metre, tree-lined walkway and recreation space with benches, fountains and planted areas. It's a place to encourage a sense of community among the residents, to socialise with your neighbours.
Landscaping is a signature feature. Sumptuous planting schemes line the streets, each stocked with a different type of tree and named after a species of flower - so much more welcoming than characterless, numbered streets.
As indicated by the generous plots, the villas' interior comprise of spacious, airy rooms and a well-planned layout. Quality materials and finishing comes as standard throughout - but then, this isn't a development where you'd expect to find shoddy workmanship.
What's particularly impressive about Bloom Gardens however, is its non-linear layout, the wider-than-average streets and generous, well-spaced plots, which add to its low-density character and sense of open space. As is often the case in villa developments, restricting the width of the streets in order to squeeze in more units only ever results in the place looking cramped and downgraded.
Also, thanks to Bloom's use of a variety of materials - cobbled stones on the roads, timber on the villa facades and wrought iron gates and fences - the houses, albeit largely identical, avoid looking bland. And in a modern housing development, that's not an easy thing to achieve.
Al Muneera, Al Raha Beach
Al Raha Beach has brought big changes to the geography of the capital and how we live in it. The space in its off-island location means it can offer affordable accommodation with all the trappings of resort-style living within easy reach of the city centre.
Sitting in between Al Bandar and Al Zeina, Al Muneera is the second completed phase here. The wide canal that runs through the centre of the development, overlooked by 650 apartments and townhouses, creates two distinct areas - on-island and off-island. With its wide, tree-lined promenades and waterfront cafes, this area is designed to be a marina-style hub of the community.
Each of the three developments has its own architectural style and identity and crossing the canal into the main part of the community, you see Al Muneera's is shaped by its extensive landscaping. The four curved apartment towers are set within large expanses of lawned areas and lushly planted walkways which lead you past shaded communal picnic areas, pool gardens and playgrounds down to the beaches. In this area, there are 636 apartments ranging from one to four bedrooms, plus a selection of four-bed townhouses and five-bed deluxe beachside villas.
Given how well it's done on the outside, it would be disappointing if it didn't deliver on the internal quality of its properties, and though the skimpy floor space of the one-bedrooms is a let-down (the smallest do, however, start at Dh75,000), the quality of materials and finishing is outstanding.
The two-, three- and four-bed apartments have generously proportioned rooms with polished hardwood floors as standard in the living areas and bedrooms. In the curved towers (Al Rabha), the floor-to-ceiling windows offer a partial or full sea view in the majority of units - prices vary according to the view. The kitchens have granite worktops, integrated appliances and laundry rooms. All types of apartment have larger than average balconies. Each of the 12 apartment blocks has its own gym and a concierge service is on hand to take care of maintenance issues.
Though there are plenty of retail units waiting to be filled, right now Al Muneera relies on its neighbours for shops and restaurants. Spinneys and a clutch of restaurants are already up and running in Al Bandar, and a branch of Waitrose is built and awaiting imminent opening in Al Zeina.
Construction is ongoing at Al Zeina, but during our visit, there was no evidence of noise disturbance. Even though it is yet to be fully occupied by both businesses and residents, Al Muneera already feels like a complete, established community that offers an exciting glimpse of a new way of living.
Rihan Heights, Zayed Sports City
These five towers that sit among the football pitches and tennis courts of Zayed Sports City may seem an incongruous location for new luxury residences. Then again, this is a prime on-island location (with direct access to Khaleej Al Arabi and Airport Road) that doesn't have to negotiate downtown traffic issues. The traffic from the two main roads is inaudible and the residences are set far back enough to give a significant sense of space and seclusion.
It's also its sporty environment that gives Rihan Heights its USP. This is the first phase of what will be known as Arzanah, a 1.4 million square-metre development billed as the capital's new "active urban landscape", comprising residential, sports and leisure facilities, offices, shops and restaurants. A new branch of Spinneys is due to open there this month.
The emphasis on sport and leisure runs right through this development. The huge moat-like swimming pool that wraps around the perimeter of the residences includes a 50-metre lap pool. Next to a tennis centre is a clubhouse with a huge gym and fitness suite, and, of course, fields for football, rugby and other sports are all with walking distance. If you live in one of the 14 luxury villas, you can even watch a game without leaving home.
While some of the existing stadia and facilities here look more than a little dated, once you're inside Rihan Heights, it's clear this is an inarguably high-end development. Even the dazzling double-height atriums, with their contemporary lighting sculptures, indicate that quality is to be expected here.
The 854 apartments inside the towers comprise a mix of one to three beds. The emphasis here is on superior finishing and these units have it down to a tee. There's a solid quality here that can sometimes be lacking in tower block developments, with good ceiling heights and a generous, well-used floor space. You don't lose in the lounge what you gain in the size of the bedroom, for instance.
In the two bedroom units, engineered mahogany floors come as standard. The family-sized bathrooms have floor-to-ceiling marble tiling, dark granite tiled floors and high-end sanitaryware by Hansgrohe. The three-bedroom apartments, which start at Dh175,000, accommodate a sizeable, family friendly lounge you'd expect to see in a villa. All the apartments have integrated kitchens and floor-to-ceiling windows, although the views can vary: from the western mangroves and the Grand Mosque, to a vast sandy pit awaiting inevitable construction. Overall, though, this is a major new asset to the capital's housing stock.