Embrace the floating lifestyle

Houseboats are becoming popular in Abu Dhabi as an alternative to soaring housing costs, and these captains are hardly roughing it. But following in their footsteps requires planning.

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Pascal Grolaux arrives home to the familiar sound of lapping waves. He enters his spacious kitchen and tosses the keys on the table. After making himself a drink, Dr Grolaux passes his flat-screen television with satellite cable, and heads up to his rooftop terrace to watch the sunset fall into the ocean. His neighbours are also enjoying the view. He waves to a friend, who steps out from a white power yacht for a leisurely stroll with her large grey dog. Dr Grolaux, 49, an osteopath at the German clinic in Abu Dhabi, doesn't rent an expensive beachside villa. Instead, he owns a houseboat floating near Marina Mall. "Purely by coincidence I ended up on a boat," he says. "It was advertised on a bulletin board in the tourist club-area marina, and was by far the cheapest option." When Dr Grolaux first arrived in the capital from Belgium four years ago, he quickly grew tired after months of searching for a decent and affordable apartment. So he decided to take a look at the boat, named Victoria - a 56-foot shu'ai, the most common type of dhow in the Gulf, which was traditionally used for both fishing and trading - advertised on the bulletin board with an asking price of Dh400,000.

With affordable, central housing in Abu Dhabi still at a premium, a surprising number of residents in the capital choose a boat as their dwelling, which can offer them an appealing lifestyle at competitive prices. In Dubai, many residents own boats - but it's far less common for people to live on them, simply because marinas rarely allow full-time occupancy. While rents in certain sections of Dubai have fallen as much as 53 per cent since September 2008, this hasn't been the case in Abu Dhabi, according to the annual cost of living report by Kershaw Leonard, a Dubai-based recruitment consultancy. On the contrary, the consultancy identified areas on Abu Dhabi Island where prices had risen by 36 per cent over the past year due to a shortage of new properties coming onto market.

"A continuous arrival of young professionals seeking centrally located apartments keeps this sector very buoyant," says Andrea Menown, leasing manager at LLJ Property, an Abu Dhabi-based property agency. On average, mid-range one- and two-bedroom apartments fetch Dh130,000 and Dh190,000 per year, respectively, in the capital. Luxury apartments generally go for double those prices. Dr Grolaux says his purchase helped him avoid the hassle and stress of finding a decent place to live. Of course, four years ago, he didn't have the full Dh400,000 to buy Victoria. To finance the boat, he approached Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank (ADIB).

"To get a loan was very easy," he says. "The bank calculated my monthly payment, and after four years the boat is almost entirely mine." Dr Grolaux also pays an additional Dh2,800 a month to moor his boat at Marina Mall. Then there's the biannual maintenance, which adds another Dh350 to the monthly costs. All in, Dr Grolaux lives the life many dream about for Dh10,950 a month. Inside, windows and crafted woodwork give Dr Grolaux's boat a homey feel. The entrance is next to the open kitchen, with all of its little luxuries: a small cooker, a big sink, dozens of glasses in all colours and a microwave. The bathroom has a surprisingly roomy shower with hot and cold water, and the master bedroom is hidden beneath a hatch in the middle of the living room floor.

But the decision to purchase a boat as your permanent home isn't a decision you should take lightly. Before you buy, it's important to talk to financial advisers who specialise in marine loans, says Edward Allely, the director of strategy and credit at Gulf Finance. "We have a tailored boat loan and take care of everything from berthing insurance to registration," Mr Allely says. "With us, a prospective borrower should be a resident for one year, between 25 and 60 years of age, have a monthly salary of at least Dh25,000 and a 30 per cent down payment. Once we have the required information, all the customer has to do is review and sign the loan application."

ADIB also offers a specialised plan that requires a minimum monthly salary of just Dh9,000. No down payment is needed to secure the 6.25 per cent interest rate, but the loan tops out at Dh250,000 for expatriates. UAE nationals can borrow up to Dh1 million. Financing aside, a potential obstacle to living on a boat is finding a berth for your new home. In Europe, berths can be sold by their owners. But in the UAE, they can be rented only. And in the capital, reasonably priced berths are almost as hot a commodity as spacious apartments. If you're in the market for a boat, look for one that comes with its own berth, or it will be very difficult to find a safe harbour.

In Abu Dhabi, only three of the existing six marinas allow owners to live on board their boats full time: Al Bateen Marina, Marina Mall and the Wagih Mansour Marine Club. Berthing costs at the three facilities are about the same, approximately Dh600 per foot per year, including water and electricity. However, keep in mind that Al Bateen and Marina Mall both have year-long waiting lists. The Mansour marina has plenty of space at the moment, but it's general manager says they can only accommodate on a monthly basis because of the uncertainty of their future. "The contract will finish in February and they [Abu Dhabi Municipality] want to develop this area," says Mabrouk Mohammed Ali, the general manager of Wagih Mansour Marine Club. "Months ago they said they were building a temporary road and block off the water to our marina, but this has yet to happen." Surprisingly, berthing costs have remained stable throughout the financial downturn, according to Mr Ali. The best advice, he says, is to buy a boat with an assigned space. He also points out that The Fisherman's Marina at the Al Bateen development, which will have 320 berths, is scheduled for completion within the next few months. But people will not be allowed to live on the boats, and prices haven't been finalised yet. And then, buying insurance for your craft is crucial. But, of course, living on the sea is about more than money. Lucas Lukincic, 30, a Croatian -born managing director of RTV Arabia, a German production company, is one of Dr Grolaux's neighbours. "My home is my holiday," says Mr Lukincic, who lives on a 52-foot dhow. "It's a different lifestyle: you're away from the traffic, away from neighbours, and it's fun." When Mr Lukincic first came to Abu Dhabi two years ago, he moved into a villa near Al Wahda Mall that cost him Dh500,000 a year. "I had to move out because it was just too expensive," he admits. "Especially since I'm starting up a company, and here you have to pay rent one year in advance." A year and a half ago, when a friend told him about an Arabian dhow for sale, he went to take a look. "I went inside and immediately decided to buy it," he says. "I have all the facilities I would have in a flat, plus I own it. I have AC, hot and cold water, a bathroom, a kitchen, two bedrooms; it's like a floating flat." Mr Lukincic bought the boat, named Lafi, together with his two business partners in Germany. And the boat's 30-foot terrace isn't merely part of his home, but also a meeting place for prospective clients. By getting funds from his business partners, he didn't have to deal with banks to finance Lafi's purchase. Another expense to consider is maintaining your boat. Capt Berend Lens van Rijn, the founder of an Abu Dhabi-based yacht charter company, Belevari Marine, knows all about taking care of boats. "Once every two years a boat needs to be docked and treated with a double prime and a special antifouling paint," Capt Lens van Rijn, 34, says. "This will cost a boat owner around Dh150 per foot." Anti-fouling paints are used to coat the bottoms of ships to prevent sea life, such as algae and mollusks, from attaching themselves to the hull, which slows down the ship and increase fuel consumption. "The maintenance fees for a yacht will add up to about Dh10,000 per year," Lens van Rijn says. "But all in all, you still end up cheaper than renting an apartment." But where to find one? The good news is it's not impossible to find a boat for sale with a parking spot. A recent scan of local publications uncovered four boats in the Marina Mall Marina for sale. These two-bedroom vessels, each 50 feet in length, are being offered for around Dh500,000. If you prefer high-end luxury, the 74-foot Azimut, a yacht moored in Al Bateen might be more your style. Complete with four bedrooms, a bar, large living room, fly deck, and crane with a dinghy, the Azimut will set you back around Dh4.4m. Other places to look for your dream vessel include Dubizzle.com, Emirates Yacht magazine, and bulletin boards at marinas, restaurants or local supermarkets. "You belong to a family if you live in a marina," explains Dr Grolaux. "People in small apartments downtown generally don't even know the people who live in the same building, I know everyone here. Plus, I'm not throwing money out of the window for an overpriced, undersized apartment." lhecke@thenational.ae