The UAE is known for its glitzy skyscrapers and luxurious residential towers, but a new trend is taking hold in the country's property market: custom-built homes.
With an increasing number of expats putting down roots in the Emirates, more people are opting to buy plots and construct bespoke homes that reflect their needs and personalities.
From infinity pools to two-storey slides and cinema rooms, these DIY developers are proving there’s no place like a home that’s built just for you. And, according to the UAE’s property experts, there’s never been a better time to roll up your sleeves and start breaking the mould.
In Dubai, an increasing number of homeowners are choosing to demolish and rebuild their current homes to stay in desirable areas where empty plots are limited, such as Palm Jumeirah, Jumeirah Islands, Emirates Hills and Jumeirah Golf Estates.
In Jumeirah Golf Estates, Sophie Murphy has torn down and rebuilt half of her five-bedroom villa, with plans to rip out the second half this year. “For us, it was all about the location and Jumeirah Golf Estates has become a community we really love,” says Murphy, a mum of two. “The trade-off was that we had to buy an older property, but it’s nice to be able to rebuild it to our requirements and put our own stamp on it.”
Two years ago, Murphy worked with a project manager and an interior designer to demolish and rebuild the rear of her home, extending two of the upstairs bedrooms and the family bathroom.
She also tore down an interior wall to create an open-plan living and dining space and replaced an exterior wall with glass bifold doors to let in a stream of natural light.
This summer, Murphy and her husband Darren plan to extend the front of the 530-square-metre house further into the 800-square-metre plot to create more space in the upstairs bedrooms, before eventually moving on to the final landscaping.
“The renovations on the house will cost between Dh1.5 and Dh2 million in total, plus a further Dh750,000 to Dh800,000 for the outside space,” she says.
“It’s worth it to stay in a fully developed community and build the house of our dreams and a lot of our neighbours are rebuilding too.”
Associate director at Allsopp & Allsopp, Jamal Tuzgani, estimates about 15 per cent of the real estate company’s current sales are made with a rebuild in mind. “We’ve seen a lot of this in Jumeirah Golf Estates, which had lain dormant for 10 years until 12 months ago when it turned into a construction site,” says Tuzgani.
“In the last three years, we have seen a shift in attitude from expatriates who previously came to Dubai for a couple of years, saved a certain amount of money and returned to their home county.
“Dubai is now home, and this money is being reinvested in the city, allowing them to build their dream home here.”
Rather than investors snapping up and reselling houses, most buyers today are looking for a bespoke home to live in indefinitely. “The practice was previously popular with investors who could purchase a villa for Dh8 million, renovate it for Dh3 million, and sell it for Dh20 million,” says Tuzgani.
“Now the rising property prices have led to tighter margins, resulting in fewer investors buying properties in the area. Instead, more end users are looking to buy homes.”
According to Lorenzo Candelpergher, chief executive of LC&Partners Project Management and Engineering, UAE residents currently favour open-plan spaces with full-height windows or glass facades, though water features, futuristic technology and even infinity pools are a growing trend among wealthier homeowners.
“Typically, we see people fitting floor-to-ceiling windows, installing a gym or a home spa and extending the garage to fit fancy cars and Tesla batteries,” he says.
“One of the most popular trends currently is infinity pools and we’ve even fitted two-storey slides directly from the children’s bedroom directly into the water.
“In terms of materials, we’re seeing a lot of marble and wood flooring. Typically, custom builds and extensive renovations use high-end finishes.”
Costs for renovations can vary wildly, although Tuzgani finds that most rebuilds start at a minimum of Dh500,000 and average at around Dh3 million.
Candelpergher, meanwhile, estimates most new builds in Dubai range from Dh60,000 to Dh150,000 per square foot, depending on the finishings.
“I’d recommend anyone considering a self-build does their research and doesn’t just go for the cheapest option,” says Candelpergher, who finds that most of his projects are corrections. “My most important recommendation is to have a reliable design architect, then the sky is the limit.”
A mansion in RAK
Lauren Doble echoes this sentiment, saying it’s “crucial to find contractors and engineers that you trust”.
The British mother-of-two is weeks away from finishing her five-bedroom property in Al Dhait South, Ras Al Khaimah, which she has designed and built from scratch.
The 1,400-square-metre plot is dominated by a grand mansion complete with a majlis, a futuristic gym, an expansive home office and a 20-metre-long living and dining area.
“When you build your own home, you can design it exactly how you want it, the world is your oyster,” says Doble, who moved to the UAE from London in 2012. “I’ve project-managed the entire build myself, from the initial designs to the final finishes, and it’s been incredible to see it all come together.”
Doble, who previously worked in sports media, became interested in interior design as a hobby, but began to pursue her passion more fervently after renovating her own home seven years ago. Initially, she designed the RAK mansion as a family home for herself, her husband Mubarak Al Shehhi, a retired footballer, and their two young sons, spending Dh500,000 on the plot and a further Dh2.5 million on the build.
As the plans progressed, however, the business opportunity became too good to ignore and Doble has now decided to put the house on the market. “A lot of people don’t want the headache of a custom build, but they still want a unique property, which is where we come in,” says Doble.
“The dream is to eventually build a small community in RAK where all the houses are built to a similar standard.”
The property, which has taken around 14 months to build, features a sprawling open-plan living space, with 15 metres of glass sliding doors flooding the space with natural light. An external service block also houses a kitchen, a maid’s room and a gym, while the main house is swathed in monochrome marble.
Recently, Doble launched her own property development company, Casa Doble, and has some sage advice for anyone planning a custom build. “Don’t rush into anything and take your time to understand what you need from a house, depending on the size of your family – don’t just start ticking boxes,” she says.