House Hunting Internationally: Dubai Edition

Categories Moving Again (And Again), Moving to Dubai0 Comments

Written on September 16, 2016.

We have now spent two nights in our new home in Dubai.  We are (mostly) happy and (very) relieved to be at this point in our move.  The kids were off school all this week for the Eid holiday, which has made the progress of organizing our belongings very slow.  With all the hiccups we had with the move-in process, I am truly glad they did not have school.  It would have been quite stressful to get them out the door on time in the mornings with all that was happening.  More on that at the end.

We spent 60 days in temporary housing this time, compared to around 35 days when we moved to Singapore.  I conditionally enjoyed our stay at the Grand Millennium Hotel in Dubai (it is hard to enjoy a hotel when you only have 1% of your belongings and your future hangs in limbo).  I am back in some of the darker throes of culture shock, but it lessens each day as I get more things put away in the new house.

House Hunting in Dubai

In Dubai, driving is the norm.  Public transportation exists but won’t get you everywhere.  A commute that keeps your sanity intact is important, so we aimed for neighborhoods that made it easy to get to work and school.  But “close” as the crow flies means almost nothing out here.  The on/off ramps for major roads, along with the required U-turns in a lot of areas, can make for a maddening trip, so be sure to use Google Maps for checking the timings for every home you visit.  Be forewarned that Google thinks certain roads are in existence that are actually just partial roads ending in a huge pile of sand, so try a route before signing the papers.  Map out the “there” and “back” trips, as the former can be double the latter sometimes.

Waiting seems to be the name of the game out here:

  • We landed in Dubai on July 14th.
  • On Monday, August 15, we began our search for a home.
  • In temporary housing days, a month is a VERY LONG TIME.

Why?  It took a long time to receive the Hubs’ Emirates ID and get our banking sorted so that we would be ready to write a check for the down payment et al once we found a great home. We were told homes get snapped up quickly, so we needed to be ready to put down money immediately.  This sounded great to me!  I could not wait to be settled in.  We emailed our home preferences to the agent who was assigned to help us, and she lined up a handful of places to visit.

Homes in Dubai can be divided as follows:  apartments, villas, and compounds. Apartments are just what you would expect, and many of them came with a built in maid’s room just like in Singapore.  Villas are usually stand-alone homes, but townhouses also get lumped into this category as well.  In general, you cannot have pets in apartments but you can in the villas.  Compounds are more of a mystery to me; we did not look at any.  But from what I understand, they have many rooms, like a sitting room for women, a sitting room for men, a room where visitors are welcomed to hang out, then all the typical rooms as well.  No open plan design—just lots of rooms.  I think they can be very large and have lots of room for extended families.  But anyway, I am only scratching the surface with this… onwards to what I saw.


The Springs

The Springs is a community that has many small, numbered, gated neighborhoods, each with a guardhouse.  It is rumored that Springs 1 and 2 are the nicest and most well-built (and the most expensive).  We started looking in Springs 4.  The 3-bedroom homes ranged in size from approximately 2,000 sq ft to 2,400 sq ft.  They each have a small, walled yard out back.  Every single home we visited in the Springs looked the same; they only varied in outdoor landscaping, and the general wear and tear level.  We saw one unit with wood floors, otherwise it was tile throughout.  After the third home we saw, with everything looking nearly the same, I stopped taking pictures and notes.  We were pretty bummed out.  The homes were okay—they looked worn, windows and doors were a bit wonky, everything was dusty and dirty.

This is par for the course for house hunting in the summer time, with the sandy air making everything dirty and dust-coated very quickly.  The yard was either dirt/rocks, grass that was brown from lack of water (of course, it is the desert), or turf.  I liked the turf yards the best—nice and green, plus no maintenance, though there is a strong, waxy smell.  Most of the units we saw here were by the road and came with loud road noise in the bedrooms.  The last one we saw had dark wood flooring in the living room, was not-so-near to a major road, and was near to a big lake with a fountain.  It was a possible keeper.

Pros:  The Springs has a nice community center mall, with a few restaurants (McDonalds, Shakespeare Café, Tim Hortons), a frozen yogurt place, a bunch of other helpful shops like florist, nails, Fitness First, etc, and a big Spinney’s.  Spinney’s is an expensive grocery store, but at least it has everything you need.  There are nice walking paths around the small and large lakes, and there are community pools, playgrounds, and BBQ pits.  Great prices for our budget (around 165,000 AED/year).  Easy to get in and out of each Springs section to major roads.

Cons:  The homes have a reputation for cheap construction, leading to leaks and other problems in the units.  The community has a very suburban feel to it; for me this is a con, as I loved the close eateries, coffee shops, and people everywhere of my life in Singapore.  No free fitness center like you get in many apartment buildings.



Jumeirah Village Circle

Jumeirah Village Circle is largely under construction.  Some housing complexes are complete, but around 70% of the area is a mess right now.  The townhouse we looked at was HUGE and totally awesome.  But it was bordered on all sides by massive construction projects.  Wah!  It had three levels, a huge master bedroom and balconies on two floors.  New or nearly so, it was in amazing condition.  The only negatives were that it had a very tiny kitchen and was three stories tall.  Three stories means lots of stairs and potential head injuries for my accident-prone toddler.  No thank you.  Plus we have lived next door to massive construction projects twice now, and the dirt that ends up inside is gross.

This area will be awesome in a couple of years.  Great location for getting to my kiddo’s school and also to the downtown Dubai malls, harbor, and beach.

Pros:  Beautiful condition, great location, great price.

Cons:  Massive construction zone, lots of stairs and risk of toddler head injuries.




Arabian Ranches

This was the third community we visited that day. On one of our visit trips in June, a lovely friend-of-a-friend invited us to visit her home.  Based on that visit, we truly thought we wanted to live in the Ranches.  Out her back gate, there was a walking path that led to a playground, pool, and lake.  There were tons of people out walking dogs; kids were playing everywhere.  Lots of birds I had never seen, floral smells—it was quite idyllic, except for the 110 F temperatures.  I know the winter will be lovely, at least that is what everyone keeps telling me.

We were looking in the Al Reem section of Arabian Ranches, as it was the only one in our budget for a three-bedroom home.  This section is the furthest away from the two entrances to the community.  As the agent drove us through the community, I realized that it would take a solid ten minutes over numerous speed bumps just to exit the community.  This seemed quite tedious, but I was trying to keep an open mind.

The units in Arabian Ranches were definitely better constructed than the units in the Springs.  They all had a walled yard out back, same as the Springs. Really the areas seemed nearly the same to me. Some of the units had a skylight dome in the master bedroom; that was pretty cool to see, though I later realized you wouldn’t be able to keep the sunlight out if you tried to sleep in. (Sleep in?  Who am I kidding?  People with kids don’t get to sleep in.) Every unit here looked almost exactly the same, like in the Springs.  The units were dusty and dirty, and just looked tired. The landscaping around the community was beautiful, but by this point, I was just tired and overwhelmed.  By the end of our morning, I was ready to cry.  I could not picture living in any home we saw that day.  I was realizing just how much of a mental adjustment Dubai was going to require.

Pros:  The Ranches have a good community feel, though it’s hard to see in the summer.  Many families are away, and people are at work when you visit during the daytime. The homes had better construction than the Springs, nearby amenities like pool, barbeque, and playground, and nice landscaping in the neighborhoods. The community center is supposed to be great; we did not look at it.

Cons:  I felt isolated there.  It was a solid 20-30 minutes away from the downtown (without making navigation mistakes and without traffic, which can majorly inflate drive time).  Because driving can be a major headache (and quite dangerous), 20-30 minutes is a big deal.  The units were just out of our planned budget for housing, and not that much more well-appointed to be worth it.  The shopping/community center is not nearby the Al Reem area, it’s tedious to get around the community, difficult to get out of the community, and there is intense morning traffic.


Day 1 Summary:  Comparison is the devil.  I was missing the modern look in many Singapore apartments and missing seeing people everywhere.  I was not happy with anything we saw, but I was willing to give in and choose a place just to move forward and be done.  I resigned myself to, and aimed for acceptance of, the situation. We again discussed the possibility of an apartment in the Marina area, but decided to look at some units in the Greens first, as they most resembled our favorite home in Singapore, with pool, fitness center, and playground right in the center of each cluster of buildings. We put in a low offer on a unit in the Ranches just to see if it would be accepted.  As the days went on though, our agent/relocation company seemed more interested in pushing with the Ranches than helping us see more units in the meantime.  With the weekend (and our agent’s vacation) looming, we didn’t want to just sit around and wait to see if our offer would be accepted (especially since our agent took her time to submit the offer, despite warning us how quickly units get snapped up out here).

We started calling listings in the Greens on our own out of desperation to find a good home; this turned out to be a mistake.  Many of these agents were quite pushy and were not even the actual landlord’s agent for the properties they listed.  Many listings are just “bait” listings.  You call about it, and they say that one is gone, but they have another to show you.  Then they call and call and call.  Then, when your own agent contacts the true landlord’s agent, the landlord thinks he has a lot of people interested, even though it was just you all along.  This makes him less willing to negotiate a good price with you.  I learned this the hard way.  We didn’t really have an option though, as our agent was not helping us view the Greens. Agents in Dubai have focus areas.  There will be a group of agents working for the same company, and each seems to “major” in a different community.  This makes viewing properties in several communities harder, especially when you really aren’t completely sure what you want.


The Greens

We visited the Greens many times, so I will just summarize.  The individual units are all nearly identical.  The Greens is a great location, with a sort of combination of city living and “ranches” living, with walking paths between each section, organized like city blocks.  Each section is comprised of several buildings, and each has its own pool, playground, BBQ, and fitness center in the middle.  There are lots of green areas for kids to play as well.  The units come with underground parking, two spaces.  There is a community center at one end, not really that far from most of the sections.  The three bedroom units came with two parking spaces, which would be nice if they were next to each other.  I am terrified of tight, underground parking with those giant cement columns just waiting to scratch your car.  I really, really, really liked this area, so I figured I would get used to it.  We found a unit we like, and we rushed to put in an offer before the weekend.  Meanwhile, I requested to view some units in the Marina area to put our curiosity to rest now that we were on board with apartment living again.  I didn’t take a ton of photos in the Greens units, so the image below contains photos from real estate sites.

Pros:  Great combination of city and suburban feel with lots of shopping nearby and walking paths to community amenities: pool, fitness center, huge playground, lots of green space.  Great location next to Sheikh Zayed (main road going through Dubai). 

Cons:  Basement parking (makes me nervous to scratch the car), must schlep bags and kids through parking lot then up elevator.  Less privacy.  No outdoor access, just balcony.  Really just the typical cons associated with apartment living. 



The Marina

This is our favorite area of Dubai (that we have seen so far). It is right on the water, with views of the sea.  You can live a “city life” with the ability to walk quickly to shops and restaurants.  Our worry was the commute, as Google pegged it at 20-minutes solid for the trip to school. We were also concerned about mold (major allergy for me); apartments in the Marina have been rumored to have mold issues.

La Riviera

The first building we looked at was La Riviera.  The unit had views of the largest highway in Dubai, Sheikh Zayed, maybe 10-12 lanes across in some places.  Also, LOUD.  The units here were nice, a decent size, but I really could not get past the noise level.  The pool was okay with nice views of the Marina area, the fitness center was even better, there was a playground right outside the building, and another (smaller) playground down by the water under a bridge.  Good kitchen countertop space, nice looking kitchen though not in great condition (like everywhere). This building was also right next to a metro station, which would be nice for getting around easily to a handful of places. It was also a very quick walk to the Marina Promenade, small grocery stores, and the Marina Mall. It also came with two parking spaces.



The Horizon

I was really excited to see this building as it was affordable and had four (!) bedrooms.  Two bedrooms had with closets inside, the other two had them out in the hallway.  This made for lots of storage space, but those two rooms could not be bedrooms as easily.  The building is cylindrical, so many rooms have round sides, making them a bit more tricky for furniture placement.  The rooms were also quite small and mostly offered views of Sheikh Zayed.  I was thinking I would need measurements to make sure our furniture would fit before putting in an offer.   The biggest issue was mold.  You could see it on the ceilings.

I guess it develops from the condensation from the air con ducts?  One unit was cleaned up and painted over, but you could still see remnants.  The landlord’s agent talked about cleaning it and painting it, but it would most likely grow back, and my allergies and my kiddo’s lungs would know it was there.  Definite no.  Too bad, as it was right next door to La Riviera, had a great location, a pretty good gym (split into two different locations, one for cardio and one for strength, odd…), a games room, and a fantastic pool and pool view.  Two parking spaces included.



Ocean Heights

THE VIEW!  Holy cow, the view was amazing.  I felt like I would be living directly ON the ocean. However, it was quite small.  The square footage was around 1600 sq ft, if I remember correctly, which is way more than our 1200 sq ft in our smallest condo in Singapore, but the layout made poor use of the space. In the living room, it was almost impossible to determine where our furniture would go. The amenities here were fantastic though.  It was very nice, even in the hallways.  The pool and deck area was gorgeous (total resort quality) and it even had a sauna and locker room.  It also had a great playground and even an indoor playroom for the unbearably hot summer days.  The walk to the Marina area proper (shopping, waterway promenade, etc) looked like it would take ten minutes, but in cooler weather that would be no problem at all.  Only one parking space though.  We only plan to have one car, but having the flexibility to park another would be nice just in case. It is at the edge of the Marina area, so you would likely avoid much of the Marina area traffic.


Marina Area Pros:  Great views (probably depending on the unit), great location, city living with nearby amenities, water nearby (I love to walk by bodies of water), and would work in our budget.

Cons:  Mold, apartment’s awkward use of space rendered it tiny, traffic noise, traffic in general.


The Big Decision

I am really glad we decided to view units in the Marina; I was truly afraid we would always wonder “what if.” But we felt good about the unit in the Greens and the offer we put in on the unit we liked.  We just wanted to whole process to be finished quickly, so we could truly settle in to Dubai.

But alas, things were not going to go so smoothly for us.  Our agent put in the offer on the wrong unit, a unit that was in such terrible shape and had a lot of bugs; the hubs was completely shocked the mistake was made with that unit.  At this point, our agent was on vacation, and everything was a mess.  We lost out on the one we wanted, and decided to pursue viewing some other similar units in the Greens, basically starting from scratch again.  This was especially stressful because if we didn’t secure a home quickly, my visitors visa would run out, and we would have to fly somewhere on vacation then come back to renew it. Kiddo 1’s school is quite picky about attendance, and honestly, after all the flying we have done and all the upheaval and money spent, a spur of the moment vacation was the last thing I wanted.

Our relocation consultant then connected us to several other people before connecting us with Reshma Paul, who honestly saved my sanity out here wholly and completely.  After a quick phone call, she helped us put in an offer on the correct unit in the Greens, and she also booked viewings at five different units in the Springs, which I was willing to view again since it really seemed like a good fit for us if we could find a quiet unit in a good spot.  She was capable, confident, and reassuring.  Thank God, because I was feeling none of those things.

She picked me up, showed me the units in the Springs, and I found two that I liked.  Upon entering one of them, which had a door from the carport that entered into the laundry area before going into the house, the limitations of apartment living hit home. The Greens units had nowhere for us to store scooters, stroller, etc., as people don’t seem to store all their belongings outside the way we did in Singapore.  I imagined the massive mess in the hallway leading into the apartment if we lived in the Greens, and found myself craving a townhouse/villa set up.  The outdoor space for things, the ease of parking and getting immediately into the house instead of hauling things (and kids) through parking garages and into elevators—it all seemed easier.  I pictured the kiddos being able to play outside while I made dinner, as I never seemed to find time to take them down to the playground in the late afternoon in Singapore plus get dinner done.  It just felt right.  And, we could get a 3-bedroom villa in the Springs for cheaper than a 3-bedroom apartment in the Greens.

I was sold.

I told the hubs I had found our home, as he could not take time off work to do all the home searching after the first day.  I had to convince him I really wanted to live in the Springs, as we were completely settled on living in the Greens at that point.  But none of the landlords in the Greens were willing to lower the rent, so we put in an offer on the Springs.

Take a look at our new home.  :)  It was not smooth sailing from this point on (see below), but at least the search was over.

Outside: Note the outdoor fitness center, some kind of court (seems like it is being renovated), and lovely pool.  There is a kiddie pool too.  I like all the walkways that go behind the yards.  Nice places to walk that are shady and safe from cars.


Inside:  Note the “foot washer” in the bathroom.  Ours doesn’t work.  Master bedroom has a private balcony.  I am glad there was room for a dishwasher, washer, and dryer.  I missed the dishwasher and dryer a lot while in Singapore.


Update:  Problems encountered with moving in.  (written October 8th)

  • Home search issues as outlined above.
  • Home problems. We have ripped out 3 dead trees, fixed 3 air con units over the course of 1 month, fixed the broken water pump, broken water tank, cleaned out the filthy water tank, changed the faucet, deep cleaned the house (it was kind of gross). Now we only have a broken toilet to deal with.  Ways to get things fixed:
    • I love the company Jim Will Fix It. Not super cheap (100 AED to come out, then 200 AED per hour), but efficient, great English, easy to work with, do great work.
    • You can find a good contractor on the community pages on FB as well. Search FB for a group for your community once you know you are moving in.
    • Ace Hardware or Speedex. Somehow though, whatever we are trying to find is never there.  Ace seems to focus more on home décor than faucets and such out here.
    • 3M refill packs of stickies do not exist out here. Please buy in your originating country before coming to Dubai, or you will need to buy all new hooks.

Be sure not to cancel your hotel stay until you are positive your new home is habitable.

  • Community fiefdoms ruled by guardhouses. We had issues with contractors coming to the home, only to be told at the guardhouse they needed some kind of pass that they could only have after paying money and giving documents. I truly don’t understand this issue but it created a lot of problems for 1/3 of the contractors who came, even if they had previously come before.  Talk to your security to understand their policies prior to moving in.
  • Five day move in rule for EMAAR. EMAAR seems to own half of Dubai.  They have a move-in form that must be filed five days in advance of moving in on your desired move-in date. The problem with this is you don’t really know how long it will take for your container to move through customs.  We knew the arrival date of our stuff, but we did not know about the form.  If your relocation company can accurately predict the time spent in customs, and they know about the form, you will have no problems.  This is did not happen with us.  So ask about the form when you are negotiating a move-in date.  And make sure your relocation company provides for storage in Dubai once your container clears customs.  Part of the problem is the heat in Dubai and leaving your stuff out to bake in the sun—most companies will not provide for temperature controlled storage.
  • One check policy. This seems to be slowly changing, but landlords in Dubai expect a year’s worth of rent up front, in one check.  Once you have paid them in full for the lease, you have little leverage when you need them to pay for something expensive to be fixed in the unit.  Yet, if you don’t agree to the one check, you may lose a home you love.  The deck is stacked in favor of the landlord for sure.
  • Hot water issues. Hot water must be turned on with a switch, like in Singapore.  But if you move in the summer, your water is already mostly hot.  We found ours was too hot to even bathe ourselves, much less our children.  Schools often start at 7:30 or earlier here, so there is little time in the AM to bathe them, but in the evening, the water tanks have heated up to uncomfortable levels.  Options:
    • Run your air con all the time to help cool the pipes.
    • Turn the tap to “hot” to access the cool water, but this will run out. Never turn on the water heater switch, just turn to “cold” to access hot water.
    • DO NOT use up your cool water ahead of bath time. If you do, you will have to fill buckets from the other taps around the house to cool off the hot bath water, but even then there is sometimes not enough.
    • Make both kids use the same bath water. Pray no one poops in the tub.
    • Fill the bath tub at 3pm to have it cooled off by 7pm. This might be an exaggeration, but I tried leaving a tub for 2 hours and it wasn’t cool by the time I tried to take a bath, so ….
    • Use baby wipes instead? LOL, or maybe a lot of perfume/cologne.

This situation was quite stressful when we moved, and we were completely unprepared.  We ended up back at the hotel that was our temp housing to take baths/showers and feed the kids on two separate occasions until we got the hang of it.  We were lucky our hotel was paid by the month and we still had the room for a few days after move in.

  • Other water issues. Most people don’t drink the water in Dubai.  The government says it is clean, and that more bacteria can be found in people’s water cooler systems than in the water from the treatment plants.  However, you cannot always vouch for your home’s water tank cleanliness.  If you live in an apartment building, you have no access to the tank or ability to see the state of the tank.  If you live in a villa, you can access the tank (our is under the ground in the carport area) to get it cleaned.  If you use the tank, you can use the water pump, which gives you good water pressure for showering.  You can also turn a little wheel near your water pump to switch to the water main and bypass your tank.  Doing this, our water pressure was bad, but it was coming straight from the main water system.  Most people use the city water for cooking and cleaning, but use a bottle service for drinking.  Pour some vinegar into your water dispenser to kill bacteria before you stack on a new bottle.  A company called Aquaplus has BPA free bottles (great for the heat out here) and slightly alkaline water (great for our modern acidic diets).  Until you get water delivery set up, you can use an app from a store called Blue Mart to order jugs of water.  If the order is over 100 AED (around 30 dollars), you get free delivery.  Water is cheap, but if you buy a few other groceries it is easy to hit 100 AED.  The order is usually delivered in 1-3 hours from the nearest store, so it is great when you are in a pinch.
Jennifer Jasensky is a Dubai resident, United States transplant, former mathematics teacher and dancer/choreographer. She is an outgoing homebody and perpetual idealist whose love of learning knows no bounds. She is most happy enjoying a good book with a plate of kaya toast, runny eggs, and kopi-c peng siew dai, but now that she has moved from
Singapore to Dubai, drinking an iced latte in the ocean is fast becoming her happy place.

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