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Rural Research by Scott Huggins

Homes Overseas, October 2005, Bulgaria Expert Advice

Scott Huggins

After being put off for years thanks to a fluffy television character, Scott Huggins was finally bowled over by the charm of Bulgaria and the investment opportunities the country offers.

When I was very little I used to be an avid follower of The Wombles. My favourite was Orinoco, due to his cheekiness and general love of life. I have to say I was quite frightened of Great Uncle Bulgaria, as he always seemed irritated by what the younger wombles were getting up to.

At age five, I did not appreciate that the whole family were named after distant parts of the world. I just thought they had weird names to go with their unusual features; furry critters with short legs and long pointy noses. In fact, I was not to hear the term 'Bulgaria' until many years later when, aged 11, I was asked if I wanted to go on a school skiing holiday to some foreign part of the world with the same name. I didn't go myself, but in subsequent conversations with friends about the trip, the main point I remember people telling me was how 'backward' the country was; the food was fairly bland, the accommodation very basic and communism seemed to have a dreadful hold over people there no-one seemed to smile.

As a consequence of such feedback, I grew up with a pretty negative view of Bulgaria. I have to say I have had numerous chances to visit the country but could not be bothered due to this vicarious opinion I had formed.

Many years have passed since then and over the last three years I have been following the Bulgaria property story with increasing interest. Certainly 18 months ago I was starting to advise clients to buy there but had not done so myself, largely due to my preconceptions of the country's more touristy resorts.

Recently, however, was asked to go there for some TV work, right into the healt of the country. I ended up being taken around the countryside surrounding the ancient capital of Veliko Tarnovo to look at properties, land and local villages, as well as the city itself: a fantastic mix of river gorge, ancient castle and cathedral, and small houses hanging off of cliff-tops, seemingly piled on top of one another, all of which is surrounded by modern living. As someone else was paying, I was more thon happy to be chauffeured around to various locations. At the end, once filming was completed, I found myself very much hooked on the location and, as I had a couple of days to spare, I used the time to investigate the location and try to find a suitable investment property. This, however, was to be-an investment property with a difference for me - my usual approach is to ensure that I can get a good yield on the property so that I can pretty much get it to self-finance from the start. Prices in this part of the world are so cheap that I felt I could end up with a very impressive bolt-hole in the countryside without having to be concerned on the overall cost of financing it.

My estate agent spent a whole day with me, driving me around from village to village, looking at the properties I had short-listed in his office earlier. I have to say that I was so impressed with the estate agent I have since agreed something with him that I seldom do; - I actively suggest his company to my clients above all others in the region. Quite often I will suggest companies that my clients should be buying through but I make sure that I recommend more than one agent for them to contact so that they do not feel they are being rail-roaded down a certain path. With my contact in Veliko Tarnovo, I know my clients will get the best service available from an ethical agent with integrity and knowledge that I seldom see in their profession.

The day started early (for me anyway - the wrap party the day before had taken it's toll). I sat down with the agent to go through a huge folder of around 250 similar properties for sale. The properties all had one or two characteristics in common: they were very cheap and offered an immediately inhabitable accommodation along with a fair sized plot.

The Bulgarian countryside is a mix of France and Tuscany

I selected about 15 to view based on which village they were in and the look of them and their location from the photos. We then set off in the car into the countryside. I have to say that I now agree with whoever suggested that Bulgaria is a mix of France and Tuscany. There are the green open spaces so familiar to those who have driven around the French countryside; long roads with huge fields of sunflowers and seemingly endless acres of land sitting fallow (but this is without the Common Agricultural Policy to blame for it) with small villages of mainly stone-build barns and houses. The Tuscany element comes in the style of the houses. Nearly every one has been arranged around a small courtyard that is accessed through lovely big wooden barn doors and a coach-house style entrance. The main houses seem to have been lifted out of the 1950s but, in fact, were all much older. Their interiors were stuck in the past and were more in need of an update than my mum's 12-year-old computer. The actual features had often been hidden or covered up at some point in the last 50 years but were clearly still there. In each house I viewed I was almost deafened by the house screaming out for attention and adjustment. I walked into each ane and was immediately filled with images of what I would do with the space to achieve that idyllic rustic bolt¬hole in the country. As I strolled around the (substantial) grounds I would, in my mind, convert all the barns and outhouses into the most useful and attractive of living and bedroom spaces. At the end of the day, in typical clothes¬shopping style, I bought the item I went out for and it was the first thing I tried on (or visited, given we don't wear houses). But not only that. Just as when 1 go shopping for a particular clothes item in the sales, 1 also came back with a number of 'bargains'. In the end I bought two rustic farmhouse-style smallholdings with lovely views over the surrounding countryside. Each place came with over 1,500 square metres of land and outbuildings in little quiet picturesque villages where geese, hens, goats and donkeys roam around untethered. They were £9,000 and £15,000 -the price of an average second-hand car here in the UK.

I also bought a 3,000 square-metre parcel of land on the edge of one of the more popular villages, with fantastic views across the beautiful valleys and hills. The parcel is big enough to build some impressive homes on and cost only £5,400. I a1so put an offer in on an unfinished' building with views to die for where the developer had run out of money. This item will be for my syndicate investment club, the members will invest in it to benefit from the completion of the project.

The two smallholdings projects are the most interesting, giving great scope for individual style to be imposed on beautiful architecture. I have a vision for a Tuscan-style courtyard inside a ring of old stone refurbished barns and a terrace off of that overlooking a large swimming pool and landscaped gardens. And how much would I have to pay for that work? My agent advised me that a typical conversion or refurbishment cost on my projects would range from £20,000 to £40,000 depending on the overall quality of finish. Basically I could have two projects completed for under £35,000 each. That covers everything; new roofs, drainage, electricity, plumbing; the works. My contact also oversees the work for a reasonable fee and reckons that the resultant properties will show a 50 to 100 per cent profit if I decide to sell them upon completion. Or I will have that idyllic farmhouse-style home to retreat to in the country, if I so wish.

Imagine how I felt when, as I was ferried around the surrounding countryside of Veliko Tarnovo, I realised that I shouldand could have investigated Bulgaria in much more detail save the fact that my overriding impressions of the place were formed around my memories of a small, fairly grumpy puppet on children's TV in the 1970s. If it hadn't been for the wombles patriarch Great Uncle Bulgaria, I'd have probably been investigating when things were three-to-four times cheaper than they are now when my new purchases could have been picked up for £3,500. As for the future of the Veliko Tarnovo part of Bulgaria, I still feel it is a relatively undiscovered part of the country and will see thousands of UK and European nationals flocking there to pick up similar bargains. If you feel you want to buy a classic French/Tuscan-style refurbishment project for under £15,000, I. then you best get your skates on: I can foresee 40 to 50 per cent price rises annum over the next couple of years.

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