x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

The property mafia is running a proper racket in this town

When you're looking for a place to live, property agents do what they can - but not necessarily for you.

When I was finishing high school and about to embark on life's bumpy road on my own, my father warned me to be extra careful when dealing with banks, people selling cars (particularly second-hand ones) and property agents.

"They are sharks, remember that. Those with the biggest smiles are probably hiding the sharpest teeth," he said.

I already knew about banks and car salesman, but property agents ended up surprising me the most with their sharp teeth.

Anyone who has ever looked for a place to rent or buy (here or anywhere else) has probably encountered the species. In my experience, they are better known as the "property mafia". If you are searching for a home in a community, you get marked and they track your moves.

And if you are a woman, right away you are at a disadvantage when looking for a place in the UAE. I can't tell you how many times, when I called an agent, even before I mentioned what exactly I was looking for, I heard that annoying: "I will call you back." Of course, they never do.

As a test, I had a male friend call the same agents almost immediately after I did. Nine out of 10 of them listened to him finish his entire paragraph-long wish list, and they even suggested a time of day for viewing places. Only one or two told him: "I'll call you back".

Second, the country of origin card is often flashed, which is offensive. Agents blatantly ask your nationality, especially if you're inquiring about a villa. I play around with that one: I have been Egyptian, French, American, Russian and Indian. I just pick whatever comes to mind, just to see the reaction. One agent went so far as to tell me: "This landlord rents only to Europeans, sorry."

I recall a landlord in Lebanon who rented his apartments only to certain sects and families. I had to hide the fact that I have Syrian relatives, because I knew that he would have rejected me.

Sure, it is your right to do what you want with your property, but dismissing someone over the phone based on accent, gender or nationality, without knowing anything about the person and her background, is just plain ugly and unfair.

On the other hand, I have found it hilarious how one property can have as many as 10 agents from different companies circling it like vultures. In one case, at least 10 called me about the same place. When that happens, some will keep coming back if they think you are rich or say you'll pay in one cheque.

The market price of a particular location is easy to check using classified websites such as Dubizzle, so agents play around with the commission (which can be far more than the widely accepted 5 per cent) and with the deposit (which you often don't end up getting back).

At a single property, the stories can vary about who, and what nationality, the landlord is. Promises - to fix a fence or tilework, for example - can range from the unlikely to the farcical. So can theories about maintenance fees and services.

It's all stressful, especially if you are in a hurry, and they can take forever to get back to you about any question you may have.

From luxury places to small studios, it's all a headache, and needs lots of research. In a rare case, you can skip the agent and deal with the landlord directly, but even then, there are pitfalls. I know someone whose "landlord" turned out to be a scam artist and almost ran off with her money.

If something sounds too good to be true, it often is, especially if the promise is accompanied by the toothy grin of a property shark.



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