Finding somewhere to live is stressful enough. But Oman’s property market is under attack from rogue agents fleecing clients out of their hard-earned cash. Team Y reports on how the rental sector can be a calamity for both tenants and landlords, and what we can do to fight back.
The excitement of moving into your dream home is one of life’s great pleasures.
But, how would you feel if the decision you made – to throw thousands of Riyals into a home – did nothing but feed the greed of a property scammer?
This story is one of woe, and an experience that hundreds have experienced. It’s also one that Andrew*, a 43-year-old British-expat and engineer in the Sultanate, recounts bitterly.
He says: “It all began in 2015 when my wife and I decided to buy a house at one of the leading semi-government owned residential properties in the country.
“We narrowed down a few listings but then the oil crisis hit that year. So, we had to throw our savings back to the UK and lease out a villa in the area for five years.”
Andrew then put down a RO6,500 as a deposit for the two-storey villa and agreed to pay RO1,750 per month for rent – all via an electronic transfer to an “unregistered and unlicenced” British-expat estate agent operating from Oman.
Not knowing the risks involved when dealing with illegally operating estate agents and trusting his instincts with a “fellow Briton”,
Andrew poured the couple’s savings into the house. Soon, the family moved from their company apartment in Qurum to their spanking-new villa in Seeb.
“Everything was truly great for the first two months. The kids had settled in and even moved schools to begin their new life.”
But then disaster struck.
“The landlord called me up one day while I was at work and asked me where the deposit and the two months’ rent were,” Andrew exclaims.
“That’s when I realised that my lettings agent had taken all the money and kept it. This meant that I either had to pay everything to the landlord again – which I couldn’t do due to financial constraints – or leave the villa.
“To my surprise, however, all my pleas to stay there for a month to sort out the issue with the Royal Oman Police (ROP) were not heeded.
“In fact, I had the ROP at my door the very next day asking my family to move out and I headed to the police station.
“Considering how big the threat was, I sent my wife and two kids over to her friend’s, and left with the ROP. I was held there for two hours before my company bailed me out, and also had to implore the landlord to cancel our agreement.”
Adding to his woes though was that the landlord kept Andrew’s belongings – from his television to the children’s cots – until he paid the two months’ rent. It took him a week to settle his dues and move back to the company’s apartment.
“My next mission was to sue the estate agent,” he tells us. “But, it’s something that just seems impossible. She disappeared off the face of Oman once she had someone hand me the keys to the house.
“She has since blocked my phone number and is only accessible via email – but she has stopped responding to those as well,” he adds.
It has now been four years since he opened the case against the scammer and her Omani partner.
Andrew isn’t alone. His ordeal has been suffered by several other victims of the same estate agent – some of whom are as homeless as he is – who are obliged to chase the crooks through the courts and have their money returned.
The number of cases are continuing to grow, as we analyse the property market of Oman.
Despite strict laws, the market still faces sharp criticism from foreign investors on the lax implementation of laws.
A simple glance at local buying, renting, and leasing groups across Facebook shows the extent to which the problem has arisen.
One local Facebook page – which asked not be named due to an ongoing feud with a landlord for fraud – contains several cases of victims posting their ordeals online so that residents can read and protect themselves.
Sadly, only a handful of tenants have won cases against the wrongdoers.
And there’s more than just one rogue agent at large, says Abdul Aziz al Balushi, a top real estate lawyer for 15 years.
The lawyer adds a surprising statistic to the mix: “seven out of 10 times it’s the tenant that’s the victim. And often it’s an expat”.
He says: “The reasons for this statistic are fairly simple. Omanis aren’t afraid to take the landlord or the estate agent to court while expats may not have the resources, support or the time to do the same.“Moreover, expats that do take the wrongdoers to the law must usually run in and out of the court houses often. And not knowing Arabic can cause a substantial problem while dealing with paperwork in the initial stages.
“This is why a case can last anywhere between six months and 12 months, but larger clients have cases that last for years. I’m legally bound from talking about them but there have been cases in which landlords have taken deposits from future tenants while the construction of the building was going on and the final project was scrapped due to mismanagement of funds.”
It is because of illicit activities such as this that the Oman government, in conjunction with the Ministry of Housing, has come up with the law ruling that every estate agent in the country must be registered with the authorities and have an ‘estate agent licence’ to practise their profession.
Failing this, the agent will be slapped with fines of up to RO3,000 and jail time of up to six years.
Y contacted the Ministry of Housing but had not received a response at the time Y went to press.
But according to the Public Prosecution, “the act is criminal under the provisions of Article 19 of the law, which regulates the work of brokers in real estate, and addresses both citizens and residents”.
It also adds: “The practice of real estate brokerage profession without a licence from the competent authority is a crime punishable by imprisonment for six months and a fine of RO3,000”.
It’s a tight-knit law on its own – but it’s one that’s not being practised, says Subramanian, an expat who fell victim to an “unregistered” Asian estate agent while looking to rent a flat in Madinat Qaboos.
The IT professional from India lost RO1,800 and an additional RO1,600 in rent over the span of four months, last year, for his one-bedroom flat in the heart of the city.
To add insult to injury, he too was asked to pay his dues and leave the building when his agent refused to acknowledge dealing with him to the landlord, despite signed documents.
The excuse given by the agent during a phone conversation went thus: “I’ve never dealt with him and haven’t taken any money from him”.
Not only did this mean that Subramanian was forced to move house, it also meant that he was residing in a flat without any rental agreement or acknowledgments.
He says: “The tables turned on me very quickly. From living in luxury in my own flat to downright broke (penniless) and homeless – that was a new low for me. And to be fair, it’s my fault that I didn’t check whether the man was licensed or not.
“It was a moment of brain fade and it won’t happen again. I know it’s a little late to say it out loud, but yes, it was truly my mistake.”
Unlike Andrew, however, Subramanian hired a lawyer to represent him in court. The ruling went in his favour, and as of mid-2018, his money has been returned and the estate agent has been put behind bars.
In fact, the estate agent was nabbed by ROP officers at the airport as he was trying to leave the country to fly to Dubai.
However, not everyone is so lucky.
Considering the sensitivity of the case, the ROP refuses to comment on the matter too, but our reliable source – an official from the Public Prosecution – agrees to share some instances of disputes between landlords and tenants.
“Believe it or not: verbal fights between landlords and tenants are very prominent in Oman with either party often filing complaints against each other. We’ve been seeing this since the start of our careers here and the trend continues even today.
While the fights between the two can be for many reasons, we find that most of it comes down to rogue property agents causing a rift between the two parties. These people are very crafty: all they do is speak over the phone and send paperwork without even having to meet these potential tenants.
“It’s the perfect crime, if you ask me.
“There are even several websites that look legitimate and operate with fake licences but they fail to meet you in person and often lash out at you when you pester to meet them.
“And once all the paperwork is done and the tenant has moved in, they then extort the money and put you in trouble with the landlord – that’s why both parties enter court.
“Plenty of landlords now accept the situation and take the hit by allowing the tenant to stay without a deposit, or help them fight the case – though that’s up to the individual.
“But, I do know that there are many, many unreported cases that get washed under as well because the amounts are under the RO1,000 mark.
The official believes that it is the upper-middle-class that is frequently targeted.
“These [wealthy professionals] people don’t have time to chase down an agent for a few thousand Riyals. So, some simply spend more money from their pockets and keep quiet about it.”
It’s a thought echoed by Abdul Aziz al Balushi as well: “Silence is the loophole to this law. And it’s the reason this practice goes hidden for a long time.
“This is the right time for people to come forward and use platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to publicly name agents that are known to partake in such acts.
“This way, the government can crack down on these rogue estate agents but also educate more people about staying away from these people.”
The lawyer asserts that the key to facing this problem is for residents and government to stand together to fight scammers.
After hearing about Andrew’s situation he says: “It is situations like this that breaks my heart. A family’s entire life savings has gone to a rogue estate agent.
“And somehow, somewhere in Oman, she continues to stay while cheating more people and extorting more money from the innocent.”
Everything is not lost, though. As per our source at the Public Prosecution, the infamous British expat estate agent, along with several other scammers and their accomplices, are now under surveillance. In the case of the former, the woman’s assets have been frozen.
We try contacting her for a formal comment through one of her unsatisfied clients but she blatantly refuses to speak, much less give us time for an interview.
The official says: “We cannot reveal any more details on this as it will hamper the investigation. But yes, everything from their (the woman and her Omani accomplice) websites to their foreign assets and companies are now being watched.
“It’s only a matter of time before we take the necessary action.”
As vague as that sounds, several victims – including landlords – are pursuing cases legally against the fraudulent estate agent and are now feeling hopeful.
Ajay Kotaria, an Indian engineer working with a government firm in Oman is one of them. He says: “I’ve been behind (name of scammer removed) for two years now. I’ve practically familiarised the entire court room and the people know me very well.
“But, mere sympathy isn’t enough. I’m owed RO1,200 by my estate agent and she hasn’t paid up yet. Maybe she’ll come to her senses or grow a heart someday.
“Money doesn’t come easy. We put blood, sweat and tears to make a month’s salary and here we have a woman who misuses her credentials to exploit others.
“It’s a heartless act – and it must stop immediately.”
*Names changed to protect identity