In Bulgaria, every Ivan, Dimitar and Georgi wants to be an estate agent. Doesn’t leave much room for a Nottingham boy with a knack for spotting good land. But with a new avalanche of English property buyers about to hit the market and most of the cash destined for the Black Sea Coast, it’s all business for the agents, but are the buyers getting the most from their Bulgaria property investment?
Why here? It’s not just the good value of the land. Take a walk through a blizzard in Sofia, the capital city, like I did last winter. The snow is falling thick and fast and cars fly past me down the boulevard seemingly trying to break the world land speed record. Realising that I have a free afternoon I turn my head and through the falling snow and over the rooftops I can make out the looming white shape of Vitosha mountain. Let’s time this. Forty-nine minutes later I am looking down on the city with a snowboard attached to my feet flying down the mountain at death defying speed. What a place to live; work in the morning, snowboard in the afternoon. A lazy countryside, yet more rugged mountains and quaint villages lie a few kilometres beyond. Beaches stretch along the coast further out.
Of course there is more to Bulgaria than a few mountains and beaches. The countryside is varied and spectacular, littered with pretty villages. The people are warm and friendly and will invite you to drink a rakya with them, not caring that you don’t speak a word of each others language. On semi-major roads it is not uncommon to see a top of the range BMW overtaking a horse and cart. Eating out in a fresh seafood restaurant is cheap and the fresh fruit you find at road side stalls along the highway is some of the most delicious I have ever tasted. The country is also a major exporter of quality wine.
This mix has become a magnet for discount holiday seekers, and the Bulgarian property dealers – like myself – that follow. The Bulgarians have risen to the occasion, dropping what they’re doing and setting out their stalls to sell any property that they can.
Of course it wasn’t just the hot Bulgarian properties that put me in competition with the locals. On my way back from a reconnaissance in June 2004, I arrived early to the airport to be in plenty of time to reserve my favourite window seat. To my utter dismay there was no window on my aisle and I was lumbered with a ‘wall seat.’ The Bulgarian girl next to me found it amusing, commenting “nice view!” Within 3 months we were living together in Sofia. Three more months and we were married. Daniel Brailsford was born 5 months after that. Fast work.
So I went online with everyone else and found many punters would prefer a cheap little cottage set in beautiful mountains or seaside areas. However, due to decrepit properties that often are worth nothing more than the land they are built on, money may be spent better elsewhere. Many of these rural Bulgarian properties have ownership complications hanging over them to boot not to mention being nigh on impossible to get to during some of the most brutal winter months. It became apparent that new-built developments are a far more sensible Bulgaria property investment.
The capital is one destination many foreign investors are missing. While the coastal market has grown at an unnatural rate, and this may be of concern to the speculator, a capital city is the fairest measure of the true nature of a property market. Bulgaria will join the European Union in 2007. This will further cement stability and lead to further investment on all levels. All this combined and you have the perfect ingredients for steady and sustained urban market growth. It isn’t a bad investment for those willing to up the stakes and gamble on an apartment in the capital, especially new construction.
All things considered, in a foreign country with different laws and language it’s foolish to embark on anything without a good lawyer. English nationals can register a Ltd. company in Bulgaria when purchasing the equivalent to an ‘English freehold’ of land, or property with land attached. The law will change in this respect to bring property ownership in line with other European countries. When land is not part of the parcel – for example when purchasing an apartment – company registration is not necessary to gain freehold of the property. The daring are not finding these things to be much of a barrier.
The tricky thing is finding a trustworthy agent among the crowd, and that is where new investors in the region are stumbling. With my father as a former estate agent now specializing in surveying and having worked for him within the constraints of professional rules and ethics, with a civil engineering degree under my belt and construction experience, I was more than a little shocked at what I found in the Bulgarian property market. Enforcement and good professional associations have not cleaned up the mess that high demand is spurring.
I spent a few months working with a Bulgarian estate agency of questionable ethics and following a failed coalition with some other wannabe estate agents, I discovered anyone can be an estate agent here and have heard various stories of people being considerably mislead. That’s not to say that all agents are sharks, but it does pay to shop around.
Unfortunately there are no numbers, nor a professional watchdog to say how much of this money might find its way into dubious transactions, but English investors might do well to check out their potential agents before leaping into the market. If regulation of the Bulgarian estate profession can be implemented, perhaps through EU accession everyone will be better off. If it all works out, more Britons will be flying the flag in the balmy Balkans, broadening the pool of pub-goers, and just maybe walking with a Bulgarian wife hanging off their arm. The Bulgarian property I can find for you; a wife you have to find yourself.