A cautionary tale about hankering after a fairy-tale home

Many UAE residents want to live in a dream property, but think carefully before spending a fortune

Illustration by Gary Clement
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The unusual shape of the house, sitting in a sea of green and with an abundance of glass, captivated me (if I had the time, I’d study design and architecture).  But then I heard something that seemed such a pity – the family is selling up, having only lived in the house for a couple of years.

They represent so many of us who want to stamp our credentials on a space to call our own. An estate agent I met recently while abroad was regaling tales of people walking into a place and immediately figuring out how to make it bigger and better without taking into account how long it will take or how much hassle it is to do this – and what they'll be giving up as a result.

Most home owners fall for this. The redesigning of living space because it proffers some future financial reward, and, once completed, a feel great factor.

But gosh, if there ever was a cautionary tale about hankering after what you don’t have - and spending a fortune chasing it – the family whose house I refer to at the top is it.

They commissioned an architect to create a space that suited how they went about their daily life. It was a blank canvas as it was a new build. Sitting in 15.26 hectares of woodland, for many it is their idea of heaven.

Now for the hellish reality:

• It took much longer to complete than planned.

• The company manufacturing the sliding glass walls was taken over and new management decided to discontinue production - the house was based on this company’s spec and unique product.

• Halfway through build, the husband had a heart attack. A double bypass and months off work meant work stopped on the project.

• It cost significantly more than initially budgeted.

After all that drama, they only lived in it for just under three years. Their daughters are off to university, and there is nothing tying them to the area.

So, was it worth it? You tell me.

Personally I would say, 'no'. They embarked on an exciting project that seemed perfect at the time. And it would have been, had it completed near instantly.


Read more from Nima Abu Wardeh:

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Renovations and extensions - where permitted - are huge business in the UAE.

Enterprising folk take a punt on some properties: refitting the kitchen and the bathrooms, and spending on creating a nicer space than the developer did with the hope of selling for a significant profit. Others do it because they want to create their best home. According to some reports, these types of houses includes Dh150,000 slick, handleless kitchens, in white – a ‘must have’ for the disconcerting UAE resident.

They are sold as ‘adding value’ to the property. They don’t always. The roller coaster ride of property prices in the Emirates is evidence enough of this. But done well, they’ll be front runner for being sold or rented.

If you are doing it for you – as a place to enjoy every day – then here are a few pointers to take on board through the tale of the house for sale:

• Risk: they weren’t to know the glass the house design was based on would stop being made. One way of reducing this sort of risk is to incorporate elements that are standard fittings/ size so there are many more options out there. The other thing this does is it reduces cost.

• Future proofing:  time stops for no one. We’re all ageing and we see it most dramatically in our children. One day they will be grown and gone. Are you sinking your money, and time, in something that is a dream, but unrealistic for your lifestyle, work, children and your future?

• Stop living in la la land: the more rooms you have, the less you use them. That's what I think. When figuring out your dream home, start by working out where you spend the majority of your time. Make that space the space – the rest can take a back seat.

• Stick to your budget - (easier said that done). Of course we want our idea of a comfortable, cosy place to call home. And, of course this is dictated by what you can afford, but note that there is a certain price threshold your property will not cross – so don’t get carried away, even if you can afford it, unless you want to write that money off as ‘lifestyle expense’. Up to 10 per cent of the cost of the property is a good place to be.

Answer this: Is it really worth the hassle, time and disruption?

I wonder, knowing what they do now, whether that family would trade in the gorgeous modern statement home for five years of enjoying their daughters until they went off to university. The irony is that they moved there so their daughters could enjoy their childhood outside a metropolis.

We often hanker after a fairytale future that stops us getting the best out of the present.

I know many expats who have identified a place for them to move to once their children are of a certain age. Some have bought their family home there and are busy paying it off.

I know far fewer expats who have also thought through the next stage – the single story bungalow for when the children have flown the coup, and the body is not as nimble. The really smart ones have put money down on their last property – within the neighbourhood they will live in while their children are young. They know how important it is to be able to walk to a shop, a coffee house if possible, have a community and connections that will stay with them.

The idea of being in a secluded oasis appeals to many. Do you really want to live in isolation? Albeit one of luxury. Go for the smaller place, that you can start living in straight away, with a happy, friendly bunch of neighbours I say.

Nima Abu Wardeh is a broadcast journalist, columnist and blogger. Share her journey on finding-nima.com