The day before we were scheduled to move into our new apartment in Abu Dhabi, my wife, Alison, excitedly stopped by the flat to take a few measurements. The workers who had been renovating around the clock were gone, and the bedroom was painted in the soft shade of periwinkle Alison had picked out. As she surveyed where the refrigerator would best fit in the kitchen, a young Filipino couple appeared in the door.
"What are you doing in our apartment?" the man wanted to know. Uh oh. We slowly discovered, in the hours that followed, that the landlord had promised the apartment to both of us. Fabulous. Recounting the tale to my colleague proved equally maddening. They mostly shrugged and said: "Oh yeah, that sort of thing happens all the time here." Welcome to Abu Dhabi. When my wife and I arrived in the capital from the US last December, we felt encouraged by headlines about a softening property market. But we quickly realised that finding the perfect apartment - for the right price - is still an exhausting and infuriating process.
Most of the best villas are set aside for large corporations, and the top brokers, it seems, would prefer to collect commissions on bulk deals with large firms rather than escort small-potatoes like us all over the city. And who could blame them. That service model, however, was based on a supply and demand equation that is slowly changing. Or we hoped so, anyway. We came from New York, where property is a contact sport that requires quick reflexes and sharp elbows. But it's also a pretty efficient market, where the sheer volume of available apartments means that brokers are forced to price units competitively or risk having them sit unoccupied for months.
It also helps that property is the subject of roughly 95 per cent of New York cocktail party conversations. "How much do you pay?" is the standard greeting at any housewarming, and websites such as Craigslist allow browsers to compare and contrast every detail of available properties without having to tramp all over the city. But in Abu Dhabi, we were completely in the dark, and no one seemed able to point us to a light switch.
When we left New York we knew we were plunging into one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world. But we had several acquaintances here expound at length about how "lucky" we were to be looking now. Unlike when they arrived, in the frothy days before the financial crisis, we wouldn't be forced to pounce on the first livable flat we found, and we may even be able to negotiate a discount off the listed price.
Before we formally started our search, we concluded that we preferred to live in Abu Dhabi, rather than spend multiple hours in the car each day getting to and from Dubai. And my wife, a marathon runner, gently insisted that we focus on areas that were within shouting distance of the Corniche. Fine, I said, but our budget is firm at Dh80,000. Absolutely, Alison agreed - and then never showed me a listing for less than Dh90,000 again.
She mostly searched local websites, including dubizzle.com and propertyfinder.ae, but discovered that brokers post the bare minimum of details - and decent photos are a rare treasure. It became clear to us early on that most promising listings we found were little more than lead generators for brokers. We'd make an appointment to see an apartment listed for Dh90,000, for example, and get shown a place for Dh110,000. Or the apartment would be in a completely different neighborhood than the one described in the listing.
It didn't help, of course, that streets and neighborhoods are so confusing to newcomers. It took us three weeks to piece together that "Muroor Road" and "4th Street" and "Old Airport Road" were the same thoroughfare. Alison spent almost two weeks calling brokers, whiling away many hours sitting in our rented Nissan Tiida waiting for the brokers to arrive at the appointed destination. She saw tiny, shabby flats in Khalidya and spacious, affordable villas further out of town, which seemed like islands in a sea of concrete and sand. But nothing felt like a reasonable price for the money.
We finally found our dream apartment, quite by surprise. Through a listing we found online, a broker showed us a ground-floor flat that, at Dh95,000, was just north of our initial price range. As I gave it a look, which mostly involved wandering around mumbling about the lack of closets and outdoor space, my wife slipped out a side door and up to the apartment upstairs. That one featured a balcony off the bedroom and, even better, a terrace off the kitchen perfect for taking coffee in the morning, and perhaps grilling out on weekends. We loved it, even though the upstairs unit was more expensive at Dh105,000.
The broker, an agreeable young Indian fellow, spoke zero English with the exception of two words - "No problem." We asked whether the kitchen would be renovated to include new cabinets and appliances - "No problem." We asked if he would lower the price to Dh100,000 if we were willing to pay with one check - "No problem." As it turned out, there was a problem. When I asked to speak with his manager, just to confirm the details we'd seemingly agreed upon, she informed me that the apartment was already rented - perhaps foreshadowing things to come.
Back to square one. It wasn't long before Alison fell for a studio apartment in a new high-rise off of Airport Road, with a gym on the roof that featured stunning 360-degree views of the city. Even though I loved the idea of an in-house gym - not to mention finished cabinets and underground parking - I'm no fan of heights and didn't relish the idea of sleeping with my head next to the 34th floor window. The next near-miss was the apartment that, unbeknownst to us, was also promised to the Filipino family. When we first saw it, the walls were papered with what appeared to be Pepto-Bismol, and the landlord was early in the process of carving a kitchen out of the extra space in the master bathroom.
But we convinced ourselves that a paint job and a few personal touches could transform the interior, plus we loved the terrace off the bedroom. So we were crushed when the other family laid claim to the place. The landlord assured us via mobile phone that it was a simple misunderstanding - the apartment was ours. Minutes later, he assured the other family the same thing as Alison stood nearby. After an agonizing night of deliberations, we decided to walk away. The whole deal felt sketchy, and besides, the family of five needed a place to live more urgently than just the two of us.
A few days later, Alison found an advertisement on dubizzle that sounded moderately promising and made an appointment to meet with the broker, Mutamed, of West Life Real Estate, at 11 am. He warned her that the first unit was in a great building across from Khalidya Park, but it was practically ancient by Abu Dhabi standards. "It's maybe six years old," he said. We loved the building, but the kitchen needed considerable work. Not to worry, Mutamed said, "This next one will make you say, 'Wow.'"
Sure enough, Alison called me a few hours later with a lift in her voice that I had not heard in several weeks. "I found our apartment," she said. Our new place is further out than we initially planned, near 29th Street and Airport Road, but it's got 14-foot ceilings, a spacious kitchen that opens into the living room and plenty of parking. And we didn't blow our budget - at Dh100,000, it's only 30 per cent more than we were paying in New York.
After two nights there, it already feels like home. We look forward to filling it with carpets, tapestries and art from our travels planned throughout the Middle East. The lesson for the next batch of newcomers off the plane: keep your guard up for tricks and traps, but be persistent. Finding the perfect apartment is not impossible, it's just exhausting. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org