Is it okay to ask people how much rent they pay?

Sushmita Bose /Dubai Filed on July 29, 2021

Columnist Sushmita Bose ponders over people's incessant curiosity around how much rent others pay

Mea culpa. I am, very often, guilty of this transgression into another person’s private space. “How much rent do you pay?” is a question tossed around like freebies at a press conference — especially in a place like Dubai that’s riddled with expats who don’t own property even if they’ve been around for yonks.

In my mind, I already have the answer: “It’s none of my business.” Yet, I persist.

You see, when I ask someone about residential price points, my mind is already made up. I feel I’m doing him/her a favour: most tenants are dying to talk about how much rent they are paying, they almost feel affronted if you don’t probe. Being concerned = asking about rentals. So, it becomes a vicious cycle.

There’s another offshoot. In matters of rent-paying, one can (usually) never be right. Whatever sum you quote, you’re bound to get a “Oh, that’s way too much — my friend’s former neighbour just moved into the area where you live, and he’s paying xxx amount less… You should definitely bargain and snag yourself a better deal.”

And then, there is another theory, one that makes one feel impossibly woke. According to the old school of social economics, it was a given (give or take) that your rent amounted to anything between 25 and 30 per cent of what you earned. It’s a smart way to calculate how much a person earned — if you assumed he or she was playing it by the textbook — without having to pose the unforgivably intrusive query of “What’s your salary?” (though, I have, on occasion, come across the rare — and unfortunate — human who does actually have the temerity to ask that out aloud). I suspect, in the new economy, this equation hasn’t changed, so it remains an abiding benchmark to satiate curious minds.

Having said that, I don’t like it when I am at the receiving end of it.

If I’m paying too much, I may invoke resentment (maybe I am — undeservedly — earning too much).

If I’m paying too little, I may invoke resentment (because it doesn’t automatically mean I’m earning less, it could well be that I’m a skinflint and am saving more money at the end of every month than I should). It’s a lose-lose situation. So, I lie. Tactfully. I think of a figure that’s “par for the course”, one that doesn’t arouse suspicion or raise hackles. (Of course, I reveal the real amount only to those I believe are “well-wishers”, and will not offer sagacity beyond a token “Hmmm”.)

Someone I know recently moved to town with a new job. He put up in office-provided hotel accommodation while he scrounged for an apartment to rent. He identified one, moved in over a weekend, and when he came into work the ensuing Sunday, there were already a few (new-found and barely-acquainted) colleagues standing around in a cluster waiting to ask him how much rent he’s paying. “They somehow gathered — rightly, as the case is — that since I’m moving out of the hotel [he has no idea how they got hold of that nugget], I’d be moving into my own place,” he recounted.

The first person asked “which area” he’s moved into. My friend replied to that.

The second person asked, “Have you taken up an apartment or a villa?” My friend replied to that as well.

On cue, the third person moved in for the kill: “How much rent are you paying?” My friend said he’d rather not get into the nitty gritties. “Suffice to know it’s way more than what I was hoping to,” was all he offered with a shrug.

A couple of hours later, the same colleague (person no 3, in the pecking order) sidled up next to him, and said, “I know how much you’re paying! Man, you are shelling out a lot of money I have to say!”

Taken aback, my friend asked, “How do you know?”

“Oh, I checked out and — they both have the same rate for the property you



Sushmita Bose

Sushmita, who came to Dubai in September 2008 on a whim and swore to leave in a year's time (but then obviously didn't), edits wknd., the KT lifestyle mag, and writes the Freewheeling column on the Oped page every Friday. Before joining Khaleej Times, she'd worked for papers like Hindustan Times and Business Standard in New Delhi, and a now-defunct news magazine called Sunday in Calcutta. She likes meeting people, making friends, and Facebooking. And even though she can be spotted hanging out in Dubai's 'new town', she harbours a secret crush on the old quarters, and loves being 'ghetto-ised' in Bur Dubai where she is currently domiciled.