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Home and Away

Buying a place abroad means looking further afield than Provence these days. But, report Judith Larner and Patrick Collinson, there are bargains to be had

Judith Larner and Patrick Collinson
Saturday April 12, 2003
The Guardian

When the first wave of Brits invaded Provence and Tuscany in a property-buying spree, they found derelict farmhouses and villas at rock-bottom prices and turned them into sought-after holiday homes. That was more than 30 years ago. Now cheap flights and wider EU membership is encouraging British buyers to look at markets from Bulgaria to Morocco in search of the next bargain-basement buy.

This month, UK mortgage broker Conti Financial Services will unveil a deal for individuals wanting to buy in Poland, ahead of the country becoming a full member of the EU. Simon Conn of Conti says the country will be the launch pad for what could be a series of loans in countries in Eastern Europe. "We are looking at Hungary, the Czech Republic and possibly Croatia as well," he explains.

More adventurous buyers are eyeing properties in countries such as Bulgaria, which are still some way from EU membership and where protection for buyers is more rudimentary. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Germans have already become big buyers in Croatia, while British buyers are focusing on the north Croatian coast, spurred by cheap flights to neighbouring Trieste in Italy.

But it is not plain sailing. There is almost no country in Eastern Europe or North Africa that doesn't have some restriction on the sale of property to foreigners. But there are ways around the problem. The most common solution is to set up a foreign company to buy a property, which can be done relatively quickly and cheaply.

Finance deals mean you don't even have to be a cash buyer. Conti's Polish deal offers buyers a 4.2% variable rate mortgage or 5.9% fixed, although the mortgage is in euros or dollars, so buyers carry a hefty exchange rate risk. The minimum deposit is 30% of the price.

Conti's man in Poland is Maurycy Kuhn. He says prices for land in the lakeside northern Suwalki region of the country are currently running at around £7-£14 a square metre compared with £100 a square metre across the border in Germany.

In the capital Warsaw, a two-bedroom apartment costs £55,000-£80,000, but the city is regarded as ugly and overpriced.

Instead, he recommends buyers should head to Krakow in the south. "Krakow is beautiful, comparable to Munich 20 years ago," he says. "Here property is about half to three-quarters of the price of property in Warsaw."

Hungary has the highest popular support for EU membership and a fast-growing economy to match. With property prices in the capital Budapest around 50% lower than other European capitals, it's not surprising the British are waking up to the country's potential. The Irish, who have enjoyed Europe's biggest property boom over the past decade, are also keen buyers.

County Kildare-based Overseas Property Investments has been helping Irish clients to find property in Hungary for the past six months. OPI's Joe Fahy says property prices just don't compare to Spain or France. "In Budapest you can buy a one-bedroom apartment in a good part of the city for £54,000," he explains.

"There are cheaper. A three-room apartment in District 6 of the city, which is very nice, is on for £31,800. At the other end of the scale, you can get a 133 square metre apartment for £79,000."

Mr Fahy says there is reasonable rental demand for well-located western style apartments and gross yields of 6%-8% can be achieved on residential apartments.

Bulgaria will have to wait until 2007 to join the EU, but this has not stopped bargain hunters heading for the Black Sea Coast. Andy Anderson and his business partner Stephane Lambert run the Stara Planina estate agency from Bulgaria's medieval city of Veliko Turnovo.

Mr Anderson says increased media attention has put Bulgaria on the map as a destination for buying a second home and compares the country now with Italy back in the 50s, when local people moved from the countryside into the towns.

"They are leaving behind old farmhouses which can be bought for about £3,000," he says. "Of course, they need renovation. Most have electricity and are connected to the water mains, but that's it."

He says the majority of people who are looking to buy have a budget of between £25,000 and £30,000, which will buy a two-bedroom apartment in the Black Sea resort of Varna. Parcels of land with building permission sell for as little as £2,000 and building work costs around £100 per square metre.

But for a combination of great weather, exotic location, and good food, Marrakesh is the most sought-after location for better-off investors. Fashion designers Yves Saint Laurent and Jean Paul Gaultier both keep houses in Marrakesh and prices reflect strong European interest. Small, traditional houses start at just £40,000, although there will be substantial restoration costs to pay.

French-speaking Abdellatif Ait Ben Abdallah is able to combine his passion for restoring the city's riads with a business selling and renting properties to overseas buyers. He says the market in Marrakesh divides into two types of property. Both are found in the oldest part of the city, the medina. "You have to make the distinction between a riad, which is built around a central garden with a fountain," he explains, "and a dar, which is a similar house without the central garden."

The price of property varies according to whether or not it has been renovated, the size of the central garden or courtyard and accessibility via the medina's maze of narrow streets. Not all of the medina is approachable by car. For a dar in need of restoration, Abdellatif estimates around £40,000. This includes two or three bedrooms and a living room. The same dar already renovated rises to around £130,000. He says an unrenovated riad starts at £100,000 while a renovated property could rise as high as £400,000.

French architect Michel Kergreis helps foreign buyers to find property in Marrakesh and other areas near the city and warns that renovated properties may mask a multitude of building flaws.

Mr Kergreis has a number of properties available, with unrenovated riads starting at £50,000 to a large villa - £750,000 buys a six-bedroom, six-bathroom villa with a swimming pool and a recreation room plus a small, separate two-bedroom house.

Inheritance laws in Morocco do nothing to ease the buying process as each person with a claim to a property must give the go-ahead for a sale - a good reason, says Mr Kergreis, to employ someone locally to go through the legalities. Some properties do not have title deeds and getting hold of the paperwork takes up to two years.

There are around 28,000 riads in the medina and 600 are owned by foreigners. Armando Paone of Moroccan estate agents Arcade Immobilier says attitudes towards foreign buyers have changed, despite anti-Iraq war protests against the Americans and British.

"Fifteen years ago it was difficult to find the right professional people," he explains. "Now things are more above board, the authorities are much more approachable and Moroccans understand the need to attract foreigners to the country."

Buying in Marrakesh is not for the faint-hearted, but riad owners will live to tell their own tale of 1001 Nights.

How much you'll pay: Huge variation in prices. Prices for a completely unrenovated town house, offering 2-3 bedrooms and living room start at £40,000-£50,000. Expect that to be double after renovation. Unrenovated riads (courtyard houses) start at £100,000, while a renovated property can fetch £400,000. Luxury homes in the Palm Grove area outside the city with swimming pools currently on sale for £750,000.

Plus points: You can buy traditional houses in a beautiful, unspoilt old city. Good rental market for winter holidaymakers. Rub shoulders with locals such as Jean Paul Gaultier.

Minus points: Expect to pay heavily for restoration costs. Finding the original title deeds is often problematic, and paperwork can take as long as two years to clear bureaucratic hurdles.

How much you'll pay: City centre apartments are around £1,300 per square metre. For example, a 90m2 apartment in Mala Strana is on for £120,000, while a 70m2 apartment in Vinohrady is on for £90,000.

Plus points: Agents say housing market is set to explode with entry to EU in 2004.

Minus points: Restrictions on foreign ownership. Limited supply of quality apartments.

How much you'll pay: Coastal apartments from £50,000, houses £80,000-£180,000. Apartments in Dubrovnik from £80,000. Islands from £1m.

Plus points: The breathtaking beaches and scenery, Venetian-style towns and villages.

Minus points: The Germans, Austrians and Italians got there first. Prices have already risen steeply.

How much you'll pay: Prices are £250-£650 per square metre, highest in Old Town centre. For example, a 58m2 city centre apartment is on for £35,000, rising to £120,000 for a listed 187m2 pad is on for £120,000.

Plus points: Highly competitive prices for Europe. Prices extremely low outside city centres.

Minus points: Reliable estate agents are hard to find. Try German websites.

How much you'll pay: Apartments start at around £40,000 upwards. For example, a 95m2 apartment in need of renovation in the centre near Margaret Bridge is on for £70,000, while a renovated 59m2 apartment is on for £40,000.

Plus points: Fast growing economy, long history of pre-communist era private ownership

Minus points: Poor maintenance standards, half of all apartments in need of renovation.

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