Beach houses on a 12-km stretch from Neelankarai to Uthandi is a magnet for foreigners living and working in Chennai

Ackmanns. Bergens. Gagnons. Akiyamas. Powells. The seaside avenues off a 12-km stretch on East Coast Road are lined with houses sporting nameplates such as these.

Attracted by the idea of living in spacious bungalows by the beach, a clutch of foreigners have flocked to this stretch between Neelankarai and Uthandi.

There are living spaces that seem to have been created specifically for expatriates. “Renting for Rs. 1 lakh to Rs. 2.5 lakh a month, these independent houses are set on big expanses of land and offer a wide variety of luxuries. All of them have generators with 24-hour power back-up, swimming pools, quarters for servants and security men, well-designed gardens and security cameras,” says Sohail Sarooshi of Ganapathy Estates.

A pool and unlimited power back-up rank high for these expatriates. In 2008, the Lacys combed the area and found the house they wanted in Akkarai. Except for a pool, it had everything they were looking for. “The owner built one for us,” says Helen Lacy. “As almost all expatriates are from colder regions, they need pools and non-stop air-conditioning to cope with the Chennai climate. And, those from Western countries rely greatly on frozen food and require constant refrigeration”

Mermaid Swimming Pools has tapped into the huge demand for pools y setting up an outlet at Akkarai. Owners who have to quickly ready their beach houses for expatriate-tenants go in for movable swimming pools offered by the company. “One third of the clients on this stretch are owners re-designing their houses for expatriates,” says proprietor Sekar James.

A dip in the beach is much desired, but only a few expatriates muster the courage to walk to the beach. Swedes Asa Holm and Marcus Karlsson, residents of Neelankarai, were appalled at the condition of the beach near their house and struck off the “walk to the beach” from their daily activity list.

Despite the unclean beaches, these foreigners prefer to live on the coast. Because it provides the illusion of being at home. Many come from sparsely populated regions of the world. As more than two storeys are not allowed on the coast, most beachside areas, especially the Neelankarai-Uthandi stretch, offer more quietude. “Only nine million people live in Sweden,” says Karlsson. “We wanted a quiet area.”

The Lacys don't see many commonalities between the sandy beaches here and the cliffy ones in Britain, but they find Akkarai almost as quiet as their native town, Dumfries. For Fraser Lacy, this quiet comes with a price. His house is a good distance away from his workplace in Sriperumbudur. However, “Connectivity has improved by leaps and bounds since we moved in two years ago. So, commuting over a long distance is not much of a problem,” says Helen. A majority of the expatriates living here occupy key positions in FI units set up in suburbs such as Oragadam, Maramalainagar and Sriperumbudur.

Expatriares with young children prefer this stretch because of the ease of access to the Amercian School. As the OMR is seldom plagued by traffic snarls, driving children to school is generally a hassle-free experience.

Another significant reason for expatriates gravitating towards the Uthandi-Neelankarai stretch is the sense of communtity they expect to find there. “My friends live in the nearby avenues,” says Helen. Slowly, spaces for expatriates to hang out at are opening up. Kipling Cafe in Akkarai is an example. Sarah Keogh finds it the ideal place to hang out with her family. “Seventy per cent of our clientele are expatriates,” says Gomathi Subramanian of Kipling Cafe.

While many expatriates are at home living on this stretch, they are not looking at buying property.

“It is too expensive,” says Sarah Laws, who lives in a house in Paniyur built on a lavish scale. “I'm stunned by the prices. They are becoming comparable to prices in England.” Ironically, demand from expatriates for houses in the area is part of the reason for prohibitive prices.

“Prices depend on a property's distance from the sea. In Neelankarai, a 2400 sq.ft piece of land ranges from Rs. 70 lakh to Rs. 1.2 crore. In Panaiyur, it is Rs. 50 lakh. In Uthandi, it ranges from Rs. 35 lakh to Rs. 50 lakh,” says Sohail. “The lifting of constraints on construction along the coast is going to push up prices. Now, if a property is located on a road that was developed before the CRZ regulations came into force, construction can be carried on it. Extension of the city limits up to Uthandi is another factor pushing up prices.”