November 16, 2009

Looking for a Place to Call Home

House hunting is something I was actually looking forward to. It's always a treat, I think, to see how other societies live. And the chance to stock another household -- especially with inexpensive furnishings -- was appealing to me. I would get to nest all over again.

I had heard that the housing market in Abu Dhabi was tight and that affordable places were practically non-existent. Having had a nightmare of a search in Hong Kong, I was expecting this. What I didn't expect was the difficulty in actually seeing places here in Abu Dhabi.

There are three ways to find an apartment, from what I can tell: word of mouth, online listings or an agent. But the agent doesn't work quite the way you'd expect. An agent will only show you properties he (or she) represents. So if I see a place online that looks appealing, I have to contact the particular agency that handles it. And then the problems start. Bait and switch is definitely an issue here. It seems that whatever apartment you see an ad for has just been rented. But there's another one that's almost as good ...

Also, I'm not comfortable in this society -- whether I have reason to be or not -- going to viewings alone with a man. This means I have to drag Paul along, whereas in the US or even France I would simply find a place I liked and then bring him in at the end. Much easier.

I'm not sure either of us has mentioned this yet, but there are no proper addresses here in Abu Dhabi. You identify where you live by the closest known landmark. It's not unusual for someone to give you party directions that read like this: Walk behind the White Furniture building until you see a pile of dirt. Go around the dirt to a pathway on the left. Cross the street and go over the fence. The house you want is on your right.

So, if I find a place online that I like, I have to find it. This can't be done by taxi, really. I have to get the owner or the agent to pick me up and take me to the apartment. Again, a very specific commitment that both of us must make.

I have seen eight apartments. All but one were in villas and several were of new construction. The construction standards here appear shoddy. I think because there is a lot of pressure to get things up., the finishing touches are often missing. Frankly, it feels like the fancy vacation homes in Mexico. Almost complete but not quite. (Nice ironwork on the stairways, but the steps aren't edged properly, for example).

The first two places were spacious. They had really high ceilings and roomy rooms. But they were too far away, just off Abu Dhabi island in a place called Between Two Bridges. These places would require a car. They were also a little pricey. Not by local standards but by my budget standards. (We are here, after all, to try to save a little money.)

(An aside: apartments are paid for by the year. Yes. One check. For the whole year. Fortunately, the company will take the apartment and then take the rent out of our paychecks. Phew. Imagine trying to come up with $25K in advance??)

Next we saw an apartment owned by the company. We had hoped to get one of these, but the only one(s) available were two bedrooms and too expensive. I noticed when we looked at that apartment that one of the bedrooms had a lock on it. That's because people here tend to share apartments. Sometimes whole villas. One of the options we (briefly) considered was renting a room in a villa with a colleague. He is here and his wife is back in England. The other tenant was moving to Dubai. I never had much luck with roommates when I was younger. I'm having trouble imagining it at this stage of my life. But it's quite common here -- and was moreso, when apartments were scarce.

We heard a tale the other night of four employees -- photographers, perhaps? -- who had a four-bedroom villa with a small building in the back. They made an arrangement with a Filipina woman to stay there for free, and in return she cooks for them. Sounds too much like a fraternity house.

But I digress.

The upside of the company apartment was its proximity -- 10 minute walk -- to the office. The downside was its location in a fairly undeveloped neighborhood filled with furniture makers and dirt roads. And the price.

So I went back online and started to make more inquiries. I found a place that, until today, had been a front-runner. It was offered by the landlord (thus no agents fee) and it was within walking distance (100 meters or so) of the office. It was in a nice neighborhood and had fancy cars in the garage, so probably the neighbors were fine. So what, you ask, was wrong with it? Well, it was billed as furnished. This translated into "whatever the last tenant left behind." It was all decorated. Each room had walls painted in brilliant colors: hot pink, turqoise and canary yellow. But still, it was really close to work.

The next place we saw was a bait-and-switch. It turns out the apartment that was advertised was still occupied, but we didn't know that until we arrived. It was in a great residential neighborhood, a good start. So the landlord took us up three flights of stairs to the top of the villa. It was a nearly-new apartment, with tall ceilings and big rooms. It also had a great wraparound rooftop terrace. And a price tag 40,000 dirhams (nearly $11,000) higher than the apartment that was advertised.
Too bad for us. By the time we saw the originally advertised place, we'd been ruined by the lovely spacious one.

It didn't help that the other one was ground floor, with low ceilings, and bad carpet and a hole-in-the-wall kitchen. The landlord said it would all be cleaned up, and that he'd pull out the carpet (which covered granite floors). But I don't think so.

On to another set of apartments and another agent. Another aside here -- we have had dealings with agents and landlords from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, India and Syria. Sort of sums up the UAE.
The last two apartments: The first was in a nice neighborhood, and very close to a good mall (good mall = good grocery store). It also was close enough to a big road that taxis wouldn't be a problem. The apartment was relatively new, but badly built. It was spacious, on the second floor of a villa, and had big windows. We liked it well enough. Certainly more than anything else we'd seen.

Then, on to the next one. Here's where there's a little more trickiness. I thought we were going to see three apartments, but after seeing the second one, it turns out the third one -- the one I had originally expressed interest in -- was rented. Like magic. Things like that seem to happen here.

But here we are at the last apartment, and it may truly be the last one. We liked it. It's pretty close to work, although not really walking distance unless the weather is really comfortable. It's very tiny, but is indeed a one-bedroom. The kitchen is small -- most of the kitchens here are not very impressive -- and is part of the living room. But the place is furnished, and has wardrobes and the furniture isn't awful and if I want new furniture, the landlord will take away the old. And there was a washing machine! And a little patio out front! So this is where we stand.

Do we take the tiny but cute place? The price is right, and so is the location. But is there a better place out there?

We don't have to move for another month, but we also don't want to get caught short. And Paul is loathe to be dragged to anymore places once he's found one he finds acceptable. Having looked at all the online ads, I know that there aren't a lot of options in the price range we're looking at. I know there are a lot of really awful places out there, and we've been pretty lucky so far.

I'm used to knowing instantly when I've found the right apartment or home, and that was not the case today. But it came close.

We'll post pictures when we finally make a decision.

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