ABU DHABI // Sitting on the deck of his 40-foot sailing yacht as the sun beings to set, Marcus Kirchner smiles and says he has no regrets about giving up a highly sought-after flat to set up home on a boat. Gone are the long, often fruitless searches for accommodation, with not enough property to meet the growing demand. Relaxing on his floating home, the 48-year-old construction contract manager is content in the knowledge that he may never need to pay another day's rent in Abu Dhabi.
His first foray into the rental market saw him move to a flat near Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai three years ago. When he moved to Abu Dhabi two years later, he joined hundreds of other expatriates hunting for a place in the capital. "It is extortionate what landlords are asking people to pay for accommodation these days. Just giving money to some greedy landlord, it is just throwing money down the drain," Mr Kirchner said.
"I was paying around Dh10,000 a month in rent and I thought, 'It's just a waste and I am not going to do it any more'." Looking for alternatives proved frustrating until he decided to switch his search for a home from land to water. Almost a year later, the divorced father-of-two has completely settled into life on a boat. "I had always wanted a boat so I thought I would give it a try," Mr Kirchner said.
He bought his vessel outright, but many others choose to use the housing allowance provided by their firms to repay a loan used to buy the yacht. Mr Kirchner said anyone looking to follow him should budget to spend about Dh2,000 (US$545) for berthing charges, which include water and electricity, about the same on monthly maintenance and repairs, plus repayments on any loans taken out to buy a boat.
"In one year, my loan would have been paid off and the company would have effectively bought me my yacht," he said. "I can go sailing at the weekends and whenever I have a few days off. It is perfect." The Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimates there is a shortage of at least 28,000 homes in the capital, while the figure is expected to hit about 70,000 by 2010. Rental prices for a mid-range, one-bedroom flat start from about Dh130,000 a year, with top-end luxury apartments commanding almost Dh255,000 a year.
Compare these prices with the Dh170,000 Mr Kirchner paid for his six-year-old Van Der Stadt Norman sailing boat and a house on the sea can seem very attractive. His boat sleeps six, has hot and cold running water and electricity, and his berth at the Wagih Mansour Marine Club, formerly known as Abu Dhabi Marina, close to Le Meridien hotel, puts him only a stone's throw from bars, restaurants and a mini supermarket.
The boat's interior is wood panelled, with a double bedroom where he sleeps and a spare double room for visitors. The yacht is fitted with all the modern conveniences you would expect in a luxury apartment, such as a colour television, digital decoder, DVD player and stereo, while his air-conditioning unit keeps the cabin a comfortable 20°C. A former German sailing champion, Dr Speckardt Raener, 52, had similar problems finding a flat in the city before buying his customised 62-foot Sundance commercial power yacht a year ago.
He and his wife, Margarita, and their dog, Colin, live in a marina close to Abu Dhabi's Marina Mall. "I grew up sailing yachts around the lakes near Munich so deciding to live on a boat was not a big decision for me," Dr Raener said. "We really enjoy it but it is not the kind of thing that would suit everyone. "You have to be comfortable living in a smaller space and it can be very costly to buy a yacht in the first place. You have to expect to pay between Dh1.5 million and Dh2m.
"It is almost impossible to find a berth available here. You cannot buy a boat and bring it here hoping to find a berth. You have to buy the boat and berth together." The lack of available berths is a major barrier to anyone hoping to adopt the houseboat lifestyle. There are four marinas in Abu Dhabi; the Wagih Mansour Marine Club, the Intercontinental Marina, Al Bateen Marina and Marina Mall Marina.
A 3,000-berth marina is being built at Raha Beach but it is not likely to be completed before 2010, while there are plans for other marinas on Reem and Saadiyat islands. "If you can find a boat and berth, you can have a wonderful time," said Dr Raener. "The social life at a marina is much better than at any property complex. You support each other. There is more of a community feeling. "Sometimes you really need the help of your neighbour. Last year there was a huge storm which came through here. I was up the whole night securing my boat and ropes and so was everyone else. I would help them if they needed help and they would have been there for me."
A spokesman for ship brokerage and construction firm Elite Marine said the number of enquiries for live-on boats had soared in recent months. Yacht Capt Berend Lens Van Rijn, who looks after a 74-foot Azimut luxury power yacht named Lulu, owned by a local family, said the credit crunch was causing panicking boat owners to sell. "There is a lot of yachts on the market at the moment, particularly from the United States, because of the current financial crisis," Capt Van Rejn said. "People are worried about the economy so they are selling their boats. There are some real bargains out there.
"There is such a shortage of housing in Abu Dhabi right now that it makes sense to live on a boat. If you use your housing allowance to pay for it, after a couple of years you get to sail away on a yacht paid for by your boss. "We have had a lot of requests from people trying to find a boat and berth. The number of inquiries has increased dramatically over the last 12 months." The general manager of Wagih Mansour Marine Club, Mabrouk Mohd Ali, said requests for a space at the 250-berth facility had outstripped demand.
"We have around four families who live full-time on their boats. The marina is always full. There is a serious shortage of space," Mr Ali said. "I have a waiting list of six or seven people who want to stay here but there is no room." Residents who live on the boats are charged a set fee of Dh1,000 a month for water and electricity, plus the berthing charge of Dh500 a foot, a year. Lukas Lukincic, 29, a television producer from Stuttgart in Germany, bought his 50-foot customised dhow in August and says he has never looked back.
"It is a fantastic lifestyle," Mr Lukincic said. "I take it out at least once or twice a week and, together with some friends, we will either go fishing or just for a tour around the coast. "It's always the high life. What would I change about the arrangement? Nothing." firstname.lastname@example.org