Are tales of the UAE’s ‘landlords from hell’ justified?

Unreturned deposits, rent-cheque scams, overflowing sewage pipes and unwelcome house calls – stories about UAE ‘landlords from hell ’ are as varied as they are plentiful.

You do not have to look far to hear tales of tenant trauma in the Emirates — explaining why, perhaps, landlords are sometimes lampooned and lambasted among friends and on social media, writes Ben Flanagan.

There is no popularly known Arabian Gulf equivalent of Peter Rachman, the London landlord who in the 1950s and early 1960s was infamous for his exploitation of tenant. Such was his notoriety that the word ‘Rachmanism’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary, defined as the “extortion or exploitation by a landlord of tenants.”

Things may not be so extreme here in the UAE. But tales of woe abound.

One Dubai resident, who did not wish to be named, described being ripped off by a bogus landlord.

“When we lived in Horizon Tower in Dubai, the ‘landlord’ told us he owned the flat, and we started paying rent monthly in cash,” he told Benchmark.

“One day a British Indian guy came to the door asking for said ‘landlord’.We said he didn’t live here.

The guy seemed shocked and asked us who we were. We said his tenants. Turns out the ‘landlord’ was subletting to us and the British Indian guy was the real owner.

The bogus landlord then did a runner with all our deposits; luckily the real owner was nice enough to give us a free month’s rent as compensation.”

Another Dubai resident described the unwelcome – and somewhat oddball – visits by a landlord to her villa in Dubai. “He turned up at our back door… entreating me to ‘come and visit his farm’. I certainly did not want to visit him anywhere – especially his ‘farm’,” she said.

The tenant also described nearly being buried by an avalanche of pebbles that fell from an ornamental border around her bedroom ceiling. “One night a shedload of it fell down while I was sleeping – about 30 kilos of loose stones and concrete – missing my head by inches. The landlord tried to say it was because I had the AC on too much. I could have been killed!”

Another resident described being “ripped off by a conman claiming to be the landlord, who did a runner with a year’s rent”.

Others describe how genuine landlords have declined to return deposits, illegally refused to renew tenancy agreements, or even fail to act when a property is hit by a sewage leak.

Yet is this really representative of UAE landlords in general? And is it any worse here than elsewhere?

One prominent estate agent in the UAE said that the actions of a minority are giving landlords a bad name.

“Most landlords are pretty good but the bad ones get away with it, which adds fuel to the notion that they are a bad lot,” said Ben Crompton, managing partner of Crompton Partners estate agents in Abu Dhabi.

A lack of legal action against unscrupulous landlords doesn’t help the situation, Mr Crompton added.

“Landlords are getting better but the issue is always a lack of clarity of the law on both sides, poorly written rent contracts so the parties’ obligations aren’t defined, and the lack of enforcement at the judicial level which means that landlords go unpunished,” he said.

Yet authorities in the UAE have taken action to protect both tenants and landlords. In Dubai it is obligatory for all rental contracts to be registered via the Ejari — or “my rent” — online portal. The system, in force since 2010, aims to protect both landlord and tenant in the event of a dispute, and ensure that individual units are not rented out twice. And in 2013, a specialised Rental Dispute Resolution Centre opened at the Dubai Land Department. Indeed, with such systems in place, some experts believe that tenants in Dubai are better protected than in many countries outside the UAE.

“I don’t think significant additional regulation is required. There are strict rules surrounding rental increases and notice to vacate,” said Lukman Hajje, chief commercial officer at Propertyfinder.ae.

“Some fine tuning around the maintenance of the property [is perhaps required]… But in general tenants are better protected here than in most parts of the world.”

Mr Hajje said that the UAE is a free market, and that he can understand why landlords would look to guarantee their income by asking for annual rent payments to be made upfront — something many tenants believe is unreasonable.

Landlords here as elsewhere in the world try to maximise their investment return. There is plenty of regulation in place to prevent or limit unfair landlord practice

“The UAE is an expat-dominant marketplace that is still highly transient, although people are staying here much longer these days. I can understandable those landlords that are looking to secure their annual rent payments in advance — but everything is negotiable. If you’re paying in advance you should expect a 10 to 15 percent better price than paying in four [post-dated cheques] which is now the most common,” Mr Hajje said.

“Landlords here as elsewhere in the world try to maximise their investment return. There is plenty of regulation in place to prevent or limit unfair landlord practice. More than in some advanced markets in fact. At the end of the day, landlords must compete in the open market.”

And some believe that — far from the landlords having the upper hand — things are in fact stacked against them.

Rules in Dubai that prevent tenants from being evicted, and limit rental price increases, mean that landlords do not have the upper hand, said Peter Cooper, a longtime UAE resident and financial expert who works as a writer and publisher, who works as a writer and publisher.

“What about the horror stories of landlords stuck with tenants paying submarket rents who won’t leave, and they just can’t get rid of because the laws are stacked in favour of the tenant? On the other hand, tenants can leave the moment rents drop,” he said.

So next time you hear a negative story about UAE landlords, bear in mind that there are ‘tenants from hell’ out there too.