Looking for residential accommodation is a herculean task for residents of Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory, who fall to exploitative estate agents, ESTHER BLANKSON writes
Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory, is known for its beautiful landscape, tree-lined boulevards and bustling metropolis. It is the seat of Nigeria’s administrative and political power. Home to various embassies, government parastatals, private companies and universities among other amenities like stadiums, hotels and an airport, Abuja embodies the promise of a better life for many migrants who flock to the city in search of opportunities.
Yet, for those who seek shelter away from home, the dream can quickly turn into a nightmare. The housing market in Abuja has become a minefield where unsuspecting renters fall victim to the deceitful tactics of housing agents who exploit their desperation.
Apart from the fact that the government and private estate developers have not been able to bridge the gap between supply and demand resulting in poorly constructed buildings, the pressure on infrastructure has overstretched the city, forcing many to the neighbouring states such as Nasarawa and Niger.
Not only is it a problem to find affordable housing but the cost of a home in Abuja is also way higher than its monetary value. It includes an incredibly long period of hunting and for most people, the physical and mental stress of choosing between waterlogged estates or a house unreasonably far from their workplace is daunting. But that is only a tip of the challenge as the road from inspection to final payment is lined with many crooked agents.
Mike Albert, a resident of Abuja, is just one of the many casualties of this housing crisis. Upon moving to the city last year, he eagerly began his search for a one-bedroomed apartment. However, his experience with housing agents was a far cry from what he had expected. Pushy and evasive, the agents refused to give him straight answers to his questions.
His worst mistake was allowing his desperation to get the better of him when he eventually paid a commitment fee for a property based solely on the agent’s description and photos. It turned out to be a disaster: the property was in a dire state with damp walls and broken facilities in the kitchen and bathroom. Regrettably, Mike’s story is not unique. Many renters in Abuja face similarly daunting challenges in their quest for a home.
The real estate market is rife with scams and the real estate agent is the latest cash cow in Abuja. Oftentimes, renters have no respite from losses as the “profession’’ is an all-comers affair and there is no accountability or regulation. Many people who shared their experiences with our correspondent narrated how these businessmen sold false hope as properties at exorbitant fees.
The lack of regulations governing the housing market in Abuja has made it easy for these agents to operate with impunity, leaving tenants with little recourse when they are victimised.
Ekas Essien said her experience with Abuja housing agents had been very unpleasant. She disclosed that the agents abandoned her to fate after renting out a two-bedroomed apartment in a storey building with damp walls.
“My experience has been disappointing, to say the least. I moved into my current house six months ago after paying 20 per cent to agents who shared the profit among themselves in my presence. My house is in Kubwa and it is a two-bedroomed apartment. The rent was N650,000. The agents charged me an additional N130,000 for the house.
“I have yet to recover all that money because they have not fulfilled their promise to me. The kitchen is in a bad shape. I have used my money to renovate the house, yet they swore they will use part of the 20 per cent to offset the bills.
“Just last week, after accepting that it is a waste of time waiting for them to fix some of the bad items, I coughed up N30,000 to fix the doors. I can’t count my investments in the house. The caretaker and the main agent are all the same.”
“During the rainy season last year, the walls got soaked in water. I am talking about a storey building. God forbid that anything happens,’’ she lamented.
A couple, Joy and Ameh Daniels, said, “Agents built a house ‘on top of our heads.’ When we first came here after our marriage, we had a budget for the kind of house we were looking for but to our shock, it became a tall dream to find one.”
“We used several housing apps to find a house targeting our preferred location. First of all, the agents charged us inspection fees. The lowest we paid was N3,500. Imagine paying about three of them daily. Their transportation fare was also on us.
“The annoying part was that many of the agents we met did not take us to the location we agreed on based on pictures and videos. We trusted them since they were from a registered platform. But it is either they told us the house key was with the main agent or that they had a better property to show us. At the end of the day, we had to pay outrageous charges to settle down and focus on other things.”
Lisa Ukpono said she moved to Abuja following her transfer from Port Harcourt. “ I can tell you that I have seen over 20 properties in this city before I finally paid for the present one in Jabi. The agent charged me 20 per cent which he said included legal fees. Yet, we did not sign any contractual agreement with a lawyer or witness. He whipped out an old form which required scanty details after I transferred the money to the landlord’s account. I was very disappointed. I had better expectations of Abuja.”
“I had horrible experiences with these agents, “ another resident, Wale Larry, told our correspondent.
“During my house hunt, one agent decided to help me find a suitable apartment in one of the estates in federal housing, Lugbe. We toured many locations around Lugbe to find one. Each time I thought my struggles had come to an end, I realised that I had only just begun. Finally, when I was about to seal the accommodation deal, six people showed up, all claiming that they were the main agent.
“One said he had direct contact with the owner, and the other one said she was the one who convinced the landlord to bring down the rent because the facility was old. The one I contacted said he brought me to the property and convinced me to pay. It was very embarrassing. Everyone had a stake including those I had never met. You needed to see the entourage of agents that followed me.
“Well, I did the necessary documentation, collected the house key and left them to settle their fight,” Larry concluded.
Yusuf Abubakar, a lawyer, said he would have been exploited if not that he had legal knowledge. “Even at that, the cost of making repairs to the house and fixing basic things cut deep into my pocket. I underestimated the amount of work to be done. At the end of the day, the amount of money I spent would have gone a long way to furnish the house.
“I didn’t meet the owner of the house. Every piece of information I got was from Jose, the agent. He downplayed a lot of things and raised my hopes in other aspects. They will act nice until the money hits their accounts and then they bolt, leaving you to deal with the landlord in terms that were deliberately miscommunicated.
“Even property sites are no different. All of them are in the same group. You will see a website telling prospective buyers not to pay inspection fees to anybody but at the end of the day, they don’t follow their rules. The average employer in Abuja cannot afford bigger real estate companies. So we have to deal with the ones on the street.”
Eric Jonathan said when he saw a listing on one of the popular property websites, the description was “a two-bedroomed apartment in a choice location in Bwari”. However, when he met the agent and set out on the journey, “I did not expect that a human being would take me on a long bumpy ride to a deserted village and expect me to shell out money to him”.
He said, “I ordered him and his friends to take me out of there. My experience has made me believe that most of them are mostly interested in the daily inspection fees. On a good day, with the housing situation, an agent can land five prospective customers.’’
Recalling what she and her husband went through during their house hunt in Abuja, Madam Rukky observed that getting a decent apartment without falling prey to the antics of estate agents is an uphill task.
According to her, they had to cough up money for various things as the agents took advantage of their desperation for an apartment.
She noted, “After weeks of searching, we finally found a two-bedroomed apartment that seemed perfect. It was located in a decent neighbourhood, and we thought the rent was reasonable, considering we were new to the city.
“But our excitement soon turned to frustration. We quickly realised that the rent we were paying was too high compared to what we would have paid for a similar apartment in Kano. Additionally, the apartment was much smaller than what we had expected, and we were struggling to fit all of our belongings into the limited space.
“The real nightmare, though, came from dealing with the housing agents. They asked us to pay money at every opportunity, charging us ridiculous fees for things like viewing the apartment or signing the papers.
“They even added extra charges for things that were supposed to be included in the rent, like water and electricity. It was like they were trying to take advantage of us simply because we were new to the city.’’
“Despite the high rent and the poor treatment from the agents, we decided to move in, thinking that we would be able to make the best of the situation. However, we soon discovered that the apartment was poorly maintained, with leaks in the roof, no running water, and frequent power outages. The agents were unresponsive to our complaints, and we felt like we had nowhere to turn.
“Living in that apartment was a nightmare, and it put a strain on our marriage because I convinced my husband against his judgment. As for me, I was tired of moving around Abuja in the name of searching for a house.
“We felt like we were being taken advantage of at every turn, and we didn’t know who to trust. It was a harsh lesson in the realities of renting in Abuja, and we were left helpless. But we have gone past that. I guess it is normal for every newcomer.’’
Glory Akaninyene shared a similar tale. In her case, she felt she had hit a goldmine when she found a “dirt cheap house” in Life camp. She said she met an agent who showed her a house she claimed belonged to a road safety officer whose rent was to expire in a month.
According to Akan, “the current tenant was not around so I could not see the inside of the house. I loved the surrounding, the neighbourhood and my prospective neighbours. And I had already dreamed of packing in.
“The agent was an amiable woman and swayed me off my feet. The outside of the self-con looked appealing enough. And although I questioned the size of the room, the agent, simply called Mrs Gwankat, tried to allay my worries. She told me that I had nothing to worry about as the officers’ children visited and stayed in the same house during the holidays.
“The man moved out as anticipated but the house can best be described as a box. The end of my mattress is close to the foot of my door. Ventilation is almost non-existent and the discomfort is not worth the neighbourhood, fine externals or discount. I felt robbed but had no excuse as I ‘inspected’ the property.”
Ike Iheanacho said he had changed houses many times since moving into the city eight years ago. He said changing his abode each successive time proved to be more difficult than the last.
“I have moved from one place to another due to personal reasons and part of the difficulty I have faced is meeting a reliable agent. My former residence was a brand-new house here in Lugbe. The agent insisted on a caution fee, agency fee, legal fees and so on.
“The caretaker also played the role of an agent. I never had to deal with the landlord directly. Unfortunately, when it was time to pay back the caution fee which they called a security deposit, he started giving me all manner of excuses. To date, I haven’t collected anything which was 10 per cent of my rent.”
As the situation worsens, the question on many people’s minds is what can be done to address the problem. A cross-section of respondents called for stronger regulations to govern the activities of housing agents, while others advocated the development of innovative housing solutions that cater to the unique needs of renters.
Regardless, it is evident that action needs to be taken soon to rein in the agents who take advantage of house hunters. Many agreed that there are underlying factors which embolden these agents.
A woman, simply called Mrs Yusuf, said a combination of factors, including inadequate regulatory frameworks, an imploding population that strains the existing infrastructure, and a lack of affordable housing, contributed to the situation.
Speaking on the possible reasons for the proliferation of unscrupulous agents, she said, “I think it happens because of the high demand for housing coupled with a lack of regulation and enforcement.
“The agents are not accountable to anybody. Their word is a law and they know that if you don’t like what they offer, someone else will be willing to take it. No group or body sanctions their criminal acts.’’
Akaninyene stated that the business of housing and real estate in proper societies is a serious business. ‘’Unfortunately, we cannot say the same for Nigeria. For agents in Abuja, it is all about the profit they can make and that is if you don’t find yourself in a house that has already been paid for. For me, the crux of the matter is that they are unregulated and unmonitored,’’ she added.
Yusuf, who shared similar views, however, added, “We shouldn’t forget the landlords. They also do not care about the total amount the tenant eventually paid so far as they receive their rent. What happens to working hand in hand with a lawyer to ensure that the right thing is being done?”
For Ukpono, the government and law enforcement should take steps to crack down on corrupt agents and hold them accountable for their fraudulent activities.
Despite the challenges they face, coupled with a weak contractual environment, people like Rukky and Yusuf are still drawn to Abuja for its opportunities and potential for a better life.
However, the housing crisis in the city poses a significant obstacle to their dreams and aspirations. Until the government takes decisive action to address the root of the crisis, renters in Abuja may continue to face the challenges and frustrations of finding shelter.
From the findings, addressing the complex and multifaceted Abuja housing crisis, especially with agents, demands several solutions, including enforcing rent control policies.
A house owner in Abuja, who preferred to speak anonymously, noted that people fell victim to the antics of agents because they failed to do due diligence. He noted that “we want to copy real estate operations in foreign countries without efficient execution.”
He said, “Most renters deal with any contact that pops up on the Internet as a house agent. They don’t go the extra mile to find companies that use the services of professionals. They don’t research the companies to know who they are dealing with. You cannot expect any good service from louts.”
A landlord, Ini Sylvester, raised the same point when asked if he cared to know the processes his prospective tenants had to go through to rent his property.
He said, “Firstly, serious-minded people should stop copying phone numbers from poles or walls of buildings. To avoid ugly stories, renters should deal with registered companies and lawyers. Most times, the reason for many middlemen is that the owners don’t transact directly with the clients. Most of them are politicians who want to maintain anonymity and would rather hand over the house to other people so that their properties remain untracked.”
An agent, who gave his name as Dele, said, “The higher the number of middlemen, the higher the rent. It is not our fault. As the direct agent, I may charge only five per cent but before someone eventually pays the rent, I may not be the only person in the line any longer. Several other middlemen would have been involved and the commission goes up to settle them because it is not a free job.”
Efforts to increase the supply of suitable housing, and well-constructed buildings, regulate the housing market, and enforce rent control policies can help alleviate the crisis.
Experts agreed that regulating housing agents could increase transparency and trust in the housing market, protecting residents from predatory agents. However, effective enforcement may be challenging. They also said policymakers, regulators and the private sector must work together to create fair, transparent, and accessible housing that is safe for habitation.
Affordable housing advocate and chief officer of Housing Development Advocacy Network, Festus Adebayo, decried the spate of fraud going on in the real estate world.
He said the need for the government to protect the consumers of real estate products could not be overemphasised.
“You must have seen the development control (department) of the Federal Capital Development Authority raising the alarm that there are a lot of suspicious real estate products on social media, radio and billboards.”
Making a case for effective regulations and enforcement in the housing sector, Adebayo noted, “You cannot do any advert on drugs without the approval of NAFDAC but the case of real estate is so porous that nobody is regulating it.
“Housing Development Advocacy Network for the past two years have been calling on the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to do everything possible under the law to protect subscribers of real estate products. This is a result of the daily complaints that we have been receiving. So, the need for the government to protect the consumers of real estate products cannot be overemphasised.”
Tonye Eniola of the Association of Housing Corporation of Nigeria said the major reason for the fraudulent activities in the housing sector “is simply the lack of a regulatory body to checkmate their activities. We need a formidable regulatory body backed by law that will create and set practical rules and regulations for the activities of real estate practices in Nigeria.”
Unfortunately, it has become obvious that there is no major agency which holds agents accountable for their actions as major bodies are focused on developers.
However, Aliyu Wamakko, the president of the Real Estate Developers Association of Nigeria raises some hope that those who have tenancy agreements with developers can find some respite.
Wamakko, who said the body has successfully helped many residents in the past months recover their money, said, “We have a self regulatory association which is called the real estate developers association of Nigeria which has been recognized since 2002.”
“Our association has a code of conduct and has made it public that anybody – with a receipt – who has been duped by anybody whether the dupe belongs to our association or not should come forward with his or her complaints.”
“We have a working relationship with EFCC and ICPC and will help them recover their monies.”