x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Houseboat owner says paying UAE rent is for landlubbers

How many homes in Abu Dhabi feature a slide into the waters of the Gulf? And also saves its expat owner hundreds of thousands of dirhams? Carine Bruyninck's does.

Carine Bruyninckx tapped her sense of adventure and discovered a great love for the boathouse life in Abu Dhabi. She also found that living on the water can make strong economic sense. Delores Johnson / The National
Carine Bruyninckx tapped her sense of adventure and discovered a great love for the boathouse life in Abu Dhabi. She also found that living on the water can make strong economic sense. Delores Johnson / The National

Carine Bruyninckx was not the first expat to be shocked by Abu Dhabi's rental prices, instinctively recoiling at the prospect of spending a huge chunk of money on a home she didn't even own.

But the Belgian pilot found a way to do something about it. And, just like her, it's unorthodox.

It all began when she was eating a meal in the Tourist Club marina (now closed), soon after arriving in Abu Dhabi and still rankling at paying in rent a sum that would easily service a mortgage in Europe. Then she spotted a sign saying a dhow converted into a houseboat in the harbour was for sale. At that point she had never spent a night on a boat of any kind and had effectively no sailing experience.

"Within one hour, I'd bought that boat. I didn't even run the engine," she explains.

"It was €50,000, or about Dh300,000 at that time. I thought 'That's interesting because if I invest in it, I'm not losing the money by renting'."

At the time, the price of the boat was only about twice as much as the annual rent for an average apartment. Even if the boat lost all its value, she'd still be ahead after a couple of years.

That 2006 purchase began as an economic decision but quickly morphed to being an emotional one.

"It was really, really, really wonderful living on a boat," she recounts.

In 2007, her job was made permanent, which meant she was eligible for a furnished apartment. A little reluctantly, she left the houseboat and moved into a proper building, leaving the boat moored at its berth.

"We neglected the boat for 15 days. Then we received a phone call: the boat was underwater," she said.

"It was a wooden boat and a little water would come in. Every three hours the bilge pump would automatically expel the water."

But one of the other people who lived on the boat occasionally had been disturbed by the automatic bilge pump going off in the middle of the night so he turned it off. Over time, the ingress of water was enough to sink the boat.

"I wasn't insured. The boat was taken by the police to Mina Zayed. I didn't know anyone who could repair a boat. A company came to us and said for Dh100,000, we can fix it," she adds.

"I said yes and they remade it perfectly."

Bruyninckx got more than she bargained for out of the deal. The man in charge of the rebuild won not only her business but also her heart. They're now engaged to be married.

She also decided it was time to go back to boat living, albeit not the boat that had recently sunk. So she sold the just-renovated vessel and commissioned a purpose-built, low-maintenance fibreglass houseboat.

"I had that three-bedroom apartment for six months. It was horrible living in an apartment," she adds.

"I loved living on the boat. It's a very cheap life, a super cheap life.

"The marina [at Marina Mall] costs Dh2,000 a month, and that includes water, electricity and internet.

"This part of the world is the perfect place to live on the boat - in the middle of summer it's not that hot here. There is always a breeze."

The houseboat design began with a blank sheet. Bruyninckx was intending to live on the boat with her daughters, Roxanne and Delphine, so she asked them what they wanted.

"They were aged 13 and 15. The 15-year-old, Roxanne, wanted a slide. Delphine wanted a Jacuzzi," she adds.

And that's why at the bow of the houseboat, a panel lifts up to reveal a hot tub on the deck under the gaze of a larger-than-life painting of Tintin, to remind them of Belgium. At the stern, there's a slippery slide allowing people to glissade from the top deck into the Gulf.

The boat also features three bedrooms, each with an en suite and its own air-conditioning system, and a bijou galley kitchen. The top deck is living space, with a mix of covered and open areas.

Life was good. Almost every weekend, they would motor to places like Lulu Island or Bahraini Island.

"You don't need to go far - Lulu takes five minutes and you're in a another world. It was 45 minutes to Bahraini.

"Wherever we go we just anchor and we become our own island. All our friends on small boats come to see us. We could fit my daughters' entire class on board."

Midsummer was tolerable thanks to the combination of the moderating effect of the water temperatures, which are often 20 degrees Celsius cooler than the midsummer air temperatures. The breezes in the marina and while island hopping also mitigated the heat, as did the aircon units in each room.

But life took another sudden turn when she lost her job in Abu Dhabi a few years ago. She took a job with Oman Air, still keeping the houseboat and returning frequently.

Then Bruyninckx got a job in Doha and moved there, again still returning frequently to Abu Dhabi and the houseboat.

"I've love to bring it to Doha. But it's the same as Abu Dhabi 10 years ago - there are no marina berths," she adds.

"It's impossible to have one. There's a 10-year waiting list. There are wonderful berths in the Pearl but you're not allowed to live on board."

With no immediate prospect of returning to Abu Dhabi, she put the houseboat up for sale. With advertisements featuring photos of the slippery slide in use off Lulu Island, it was no surprise that she found herself fielding "thousands" of inquiries.

But they included few would-be buyers and none of them were serious enough to stump up the Dh450,000 price tag.

It is, after all, an unconventional lifestyle compared with Abu Dhabi's mainstream renting scene. And living on a boat, says Bruyninckx, forces a change in your own lifestyle.

"There was one woman who said 'I can't put my dresses in the wardrobe' and that's why she didn't like it.

"If you live on the boat, you can't keep everything. If you get rid of it, it's so much easier.

"I would certainly have only half as much as I had before. You have to choose."

But for Bruyninckx, the rewards of living on a boat far outweigh the drawbacks - though she admits it's not for everyone.

"A lot of people aren't like me. You have to have guts to live here. You have to dare to do it," she adds.

"I love when the boat is moving when it's windy. Some people don't like it so much. But when you wake up in the morning, it's perfectly silent. You wake up and you see birds and fish and sometimes turtles too.

"You have to dare. You have to jump there and do it. It's rented for Dh142,000 a year. Every three years, this boat is fully paid. I don't know any investment like that."


The houseboat advertisement can be seen on www.apolloduck.ae/feature.phtml?id=95637


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