Riddle, mystery and enigma – Delhi property

May 3rd, 20114:39 pm @


Despite my original desire to live “in residence” at The Imperial Hotel for the duration of our time in Delhi, certain fiscal constraints – otherwise known as reality – intervened and we needed to find ourselves an apartment. Thus began our journey into the world of Indian property hunting.

It’s an increasingly common phrase about this place, but looking for property in India is not like looking for property back home – assuming home is Sydney, Melbourne or London. I can’t comment on property searches in other parts of the world such as Tangiers, or Abbottabad, for example.

The Search

Firstly, forget the Internet. Really, don’t even bother with the “property” websites offering great apartments in your price range. I did. And I got excited. Until I realised that all the – many – properties in my price range featured the same picture, and the same vague description. None of these places existed, of course, it was just a way for agents to collect details and try to foist other properties – ones they’d never dare to put on a website – onto you.

“You see, the thing is, that property has gone, but I have this lovely new apartment that has just literally this minute been handed to me by my assistant and it’s perfect for you.”

Is what the agent will say.

What he really means is.

“Ha! Those places aren’t real. But now that I have you on the phone, why don’t I try to palm off this godforsaken dump that’s been sitting on my books for three years and that I couldn’t even get the squatters to occupy.”

The Agent

Speaking of the agent, who you meet in the hierarchy of Indian property depends on your status, otherwise known as your salary. Come to India with a healthy bank account and a lucrative job and you’ll be whisked around town by the agent in his air conditioned car. The further down the economic food chain you get the further you move from the agent himself. Eventually you get to one of his lackeys, a guy who turns up on a motorbike to show you a property while you turn up in a rickshaw.

Whether it’s the agent or his lackey showing you around, the problem is that you’ve not seen anything of the property you’re about to inspect – not even a picture – so you never really know what you’re in for, apart from the fact that it won’t meet any of the criteria you’ve given to the agent.

“But the rent is twice our budget.”


“It’s top floor, we wanted ground.”


“There are no air conditioning units.”


“Why are you showing this to us?”


I eventually got so sick of this routine that I mutinied and refused to get out of the rickshaw if the outside of the property didn’t meet my expectations. I’d fallen for the “just come and see it, you’ll like it” line too many times. I should point out at this stage that in our hunt for a Delhi home, it was my wife who did the vast bulk of the work. While I was at my infrequently air conditioned office, she spent a Delhi summer slogging up and down stairs to see apartment after apartment. Which brings us to . . .

The Property

It will be a dump. We’re not talking places that are a bit of a fixer-upper, we’re talking properties that no self-respecting street dog would consider taking a crap in. Mouldy floors, mouldy ceilings, crumbling woodwork, bathrooms that look like a scene from Dexter, we’ve seen it all. Amid all this the landlord will dutifully follow you round, exclaiming: “That? Oh we can get that fixed. That? Yes, yes, it comes right off. Oh wait, no, that bit shouldn’t come off. We can get that fixed.”

Then there’s the decor. Often in the new builds it’s an inoffensive dark-wood-and-white-walls theme which is fine. In the older apartments the interior decoration can range from cute and cosy (our current place) to Rococo-Crossdressing-Orgy (trust me).

The Kitchen

Needs a special dishonourable mention. In most Indian rentals, the kitchen in the badlands of the property. Small, unventilated with a sad marble bench – no modular kitchens – rising damp, a sink and, if you’re lucky, a tap. There will almost certainly be no space for an oven – all cooking is done on a gas burner – and there will rarely be space for a refrigerator. Ask the landlord where the hell you might keep the fridge and he’ll proudly point to a spot in the dining or living room and exclaim: “There!”

It used to amaze me that every kitchen – with the exception of our current place – looked like somewhere from New Orleans post-Katrina, until it dawned on me that most property owners have cooks and so don’t spend much time in the kitchen. Why spend money on a room you’ll never visit?

The Price

Will not be negotiable from the moment they see you’re foreign. A large number of expats are here on company packages where the property is thrown in as part of the deal. As long as the rent falls within the budget, the company and the tenant don’t care, which means the landlord has free rein up to the maximum price. As a result, landlords love foreign tenants – one potential landlady positively squealed when she saw us and inelegantly exclaimed: “Oooh, you’re foreign.”

Often, to get you to take a property and placate the fuming rage that’s brewing in you because yet again he’s showing you a place that’s beyond your budget the agent will promise to help negotiate the price down. Since his commission – paid by you – is at least a month’s rent, it’s certainly not in his interests for the price to be lowered. As you can guess, the answer to “why aren’t you helping negotiate the price?” is “yes”.

The Top Floor

Stiflingly hot in summer, bone-achingly cold in winter, and bearing the full brunt of the rain in monsoon – a top floor apartment is the least-desired, and therefore cheapest, option. Be warned that any savings in rent will soon dissipate in higher electricity bills as you hammer the air conditioning in summer and heating in winter. Worse than the top floor is a barsati – a sort of lean-to built on the roof and not an option unless you’re really desperate.

The Servants’ Quarters

Sounds grand, doesn’t it? A house with room for the “staff”? How very Wills and Kate, you might think to yourself as you picture shuffling across the drawing room in your slippers to pull on an enormous velvet rope to summon the butler. Remember the kitchen? That should give you a clue as to the state of the servants’ quarters, which can range from a couple of sheets of corrugated tin on the roof that look like stables, to an airless cupboard in the kitchen (I’m not making this up) to a lightless cell in the car park.

It’s enough to drive you to The Imperial.


Front image courtesy of Flickr user quinn.anya. Some rights reserved.

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