x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A battle for survival in Abu Dhabi's brutal housing market

Moving to Abu Dhabi was a dream. Moving into an apartment was a nightmare I'm still recovering from.

Moving to Abu Dhabi was a dream. Moving into an apartment was a nightmare I'm still recovering from.

Before my wife and I left New York earlier this year, we'd grown accustomed to rental markets strained by low vacancy rates and outrageous prices. We'd lived our share of housing fiascos, too, from slightly manic roommates to endless samba baselines, courtesy of a first floor Mexican restaurant.

Abu Dhabi, with far fewer people than Manhattan, could never be as gloomy for house hunting couples like us, right? Wrong.

These are supposed to be glory days for renters in the emirate; apartments are plentiful, and rents, sky-high a year ago, have fallen. But what looks good on paper is in practice a litany of bureaucratic hurdles, outdated payment plans, and a seemingly endless run of red tape.

"It's you against them," one agent seemed to suggest as we began our search. Armed with her advice, we prepared for battle.

The first place my wife saw was a filth-ridden nightmare of a flat that had been advertised on Dubizzle.com. Even the tenant seemed embarrassed as she swung open the door. "Maybe for you, not so nice, since you are from US," she told my wife. Its current inhabitants - an inquisitive roach and the stench of stale cooking - greeted them at the entryway.

The floors, musty and ill-kept, were carpeted in an ancient blue hue. A dark room at the back of the flat - the bedroom, perhaps? - was shielded from the afternoon sun by a window plastered with yellowed newspaper. My wife didn't stick around to see what was on the other side.

Next stop was a gleaming tower near the Etisalat building, behind Marks and Spencer. "The advantage of this one," our new agent beamed, "is the mall is right here, right downstairs." The one-bedroom apartment was spacious and well-lit, but the price we were quoted was more than Dh120,000. Shopping malls are convenient, but worth raising the rent to stratospheric heights? Not our top priority. "We're looking for something with a bit more character and street life," my wife said. Like New York, she silently added.

From here it was off to a new building in an old neighbourhood, and a pair of apartments that we liked, both quoted at Dh110,000 (although the price mysteriously fell to Dh90,000, no questions asked). One was flooded with light, freshly painted, and on the seventh floor above approximately eight lanes of traffic. The second apartment, on the fifth floor, was a bit dark with lovely views into the office building next door, down to the coffee cup on a stranger's desk.

Bathroom fixtures aside, the flat on the seventh floor showed promise. Three weeks into the search, we'd done it, we thought. We've got a flat, with a view, a gym and easy access to the Corniche. Thank goodness ...

Our mobile rang the next day. It was one of the two agents who were jockeying to get us into the building (two agents, we learnt the hard way, is not better than one).

"No can do," he said apologetically. The landlord wouldn't rent to a company because it made it more difficult to raise the rents. The only option was to pay the entire annual rent ourselves, up front, which was roughly the equivalent of everything we'd ever saved in our lives. "Are you sure?" we pled. "Nothing we can do?"

"I am sorry," he said, and hung up.

Abu Dhabi's housing units range from princely estates with ocean views, to mangy nests with crumbling walls and peeling floors. On this front, the Big Apple shares much with the Diamond in the Desert. You get what you pay for.

But that's where the similarities end. Abu Dhabi's rents are still out of sync with reality, a problem property researchers and real estate agents have documented in detail.

It had been a few weeks since our let down with agent No 1, and after a dozen or so more musty kitchens and poorly carpeted living rooms, a fabulously competent agent helped us settle into an acceptable flat in the city centre, complete with in-building parking. Our mattress arrived a few weekends ago, nearly two months into the adventure of a lifetime. Cable has been hooked up, ESPN is humming, and we even have a refrigerator, a key component of any new life.

But while our housing hunt has ended with a restful conclusion, chances are there's another couple out there about to dive in. To them, I say, good luck. You'll need it. Call me if you need a good broker.