You will, I am sure, be glad to know that I am not an estate agent. Yes, I have done some silly things in my life, but I have never worked for a real estate company and no, I am not sponsored by the Bulgarian government.
Now the first question that many of you may have is this one: where is Bulgaria? Well, it is tucked away in the south-eastern corner of Europe, bordering Serbia, Greece, Romania, and Turkey. The capital is Sofia, which is in the western half of Bulgaria, and the second city is Plovdiv. To the east is the Black Sea coast and the ports of Burgas and Varna.
Veliko Tarnovo is more or less in the center of Bulgaria and it was the old capital before Sofia became the capital. Greece is just around the corner and there are overnight trains to Romania and Turkey, so you can go to bed in Sofia and wake up in Bucharest or Istanbul.
In Bulgaria, the main language that most people speak is – surprise, surprise – Bulgarian.
This is a Slavic language and there are many similarities between Bulgarian and Russian. Bulgarian is also quite similar to Czech, Ukrainian, and Serbo-Croat. The Cyrillic alphabet is used throughout Bulgaria and, for some people, this can be a bit strange and confusing at first. Actually, learning Bulgarian is not quite as difficult as it looks, once you get over the shock of learning a different alphabet. (At least Bulgarian has an alphabet, unlike Mandarin Chinese!)
Bulgaria’s entry into the European Union has made learning English very popular. A lot of signs are in both English and Bulgarian and most young Bulgarians will speak at least some English and so, with a phrasebook and a bit of effort, you should not have too many difficulties with the language.
Because Bulgaria has joined the European Union, Bulgarian estate agents would like you to believe that buying a house in Bulgaria is a wonderful investment. Why? Because they will tell you that house prices in Bulgaria are bound to go up, now that Bulgaria has joined the E.U. Well, I do not believe it.
It is usually a good idea never to believe anything an estate agent tells you.
Perhaps some property prices have gone up a bit, in the center of Sofia and maybe on the Black Sea coast, but overall I think that it is unlikely that there will be significant price rises throughout Bulgaria. The population of Bulgaria is relatively small for the total land area and in fact, it has gone down in recent years, mainly due to young people leaving for America and for other parts of Europe, especially England and Germany.
There is, therefore, a surplus of property on the market, especially in the rural areas. And that has to be very good news if you want to buy a cheap house in the country.
However, I should warn you that at the moment some foreigners are not permitted to buy land in Bulgaria, but you are allowed to own a Bulgarian company and the company can own the land. That is why you might need to become a company director!
You own the company, the company owns the land. It is a bit silly, but it should not put you off the idea of buying a house in Bulgaria.
So why do I think that it is a good idea to buy a property in Bulgaria? Well, here is the best reason that I can think of, our own home in Bulgaria. My wife and I bought this house twelve years ago for €30,000.
We have put in a new bathroom to replace the little wooden shed at the bottom of the garden and made a few other changes, and it is now a three-bedroom house and that’s quite big enough for us.
Now here is the really good news: prices in the countryside have gone down since we bought twelve years ago!
After you have had a long walk in the beautiful Bulgarian countryside, you will be thirsty and here is a photo of me collecting some mineral water from one of the many natural springs in the mountains. The water is cold and it tastes delicious, quite different from the so-called water you get in many places the Middle East (and in Shenzhen). Of course, as well as being thirsty after hiking through the countryside, you will also be hungry.
Bulgarian restaurants are not as cheap as most Chinese ones! The food is usually simple. There’s plenty of it and the beer’s good too! Of course, the restaurants in Sofia tend to be a bit pricey and touristy, but after a while, you get to know the places where the locals go.
When we were in working in the Middle East, we needed a change from concrete, sand and date palms and maybe the Bulgarian countryside is just what you need. Our village is called Kalotina. It is about sixty kilometers from Sofia, the capital city.
Here is another photo, this time showing the lakes that are about ten minutes’ walk from our house. Very pretty, but the fishing is not so good. Well, I did not catch anything! If you do manage to catch some trout, I can thoroughly recommend a glass or two of well chilled Bulgarian Chardonnay.
If you are fed up with the traffic in a crowded city, here is some traffic from the Bulgarian countryside.
The winters in Bulgaria can be very cold, with snow for a couple of months each year. By the way, ladies, some cold weather is supposed to be good for the complexion, but you do need a few Bulgarian wood-burning stoves. It is not quite the same as switching on the air conditioning. So here am I with my chainsaw, trying not to lose too many fingers. Some of the larger wood burning stoves have water tanks and pipes at the back so that you can connect them to radiators and keep your whole house as warm as toast. I asked a Bulgarian friend of mine, “What do you do in the winter when it gets really cold?” And he said, “Oh, it’s no problem. I just take my chainsaw up into the pine woods.”
As I said earlier, Sofia is the Bulgarian capital and I would recommend buying a property within an hour or maybe a two-hour drive from Sofia. This is probably the best thing to do if you are going to be working abroad for the foreseeable future. If you have friends and family in another part of the world, then it makes sense to be not too far away from the airport. The airport has just been upgraded with a new terminal and the air links to the rest of Europe are good. The main road from Sofia to Belgrade has also been resurfaced.
Even more important than good travel links are good vegetables. My wife tells me that the vegetables in the Middle East were awful because they have all been imported, they have not been ripened properly and then they have been sprayed with chemicals.
The vegetables in the markets in Sofia are wonderful: fresh, locally grown and delicious! Bulgaria is just around the corner from Greece, so the olives are fantastic.
Vitosha Boulevard is one of the main streets in Sofia and from it you can see Mount Vitosha, a large mountain, national park and ski resort. I am sad to say that The Happy Grill is our regular haunt in Sofia and we really should find somewhere more unusual and better value. The beer is good and the food is – well, it’s okay, but not such good value as most Chinese restaurants!
I hope you’re feeling hungry!
This is the statue of Wisdom, representing the spirit of Sofia. She does not seem to be wearing a bra, but some of the public buildings are impressive.
In the summer, you can sometimes see an open-air art exhibition and Sofia is full of al fresco cafes, so you can sit outside with your cappuccino and watch the world go by. The main drag in Sofia is Vitosha Boulevard. In the Spring, you can just see the snow-covered top of Mount Vitosha, which is a National Park just outside Sofia.
As I said earlier, I think that most of you will probably be interested in properties an hour or two from the capital. However, it was about eight years after we bought our house in Kalotina, on the western border of Bulgaria, that my wife and I decided to buy an apartment in Veliko Tarnovo, the old capital, which is more or less in the centre of Bulgaria.
Now I would like to talk about some of the things that can go wrong when you are trying to buy a property in Bulgaria. The first thing is that some of the Bulgarian estate agents we dealt with were helpful, professional and honest. However, I have to say that some of them definitely were not.
One of the annoying things that they did was to advertise a property that did not have planning permission. We wanted to buy it and a month or two months later, after we had been expecting to complete the sale, the agents finally told us that there was no planning permission and so the local council might have come along and demolished the house! This meant that we had to pull out of the sale and organize another trip to Bulgaria to find another house.
Most internet-based property companies are selling to foreigners, not to Bulgarians, and my guess is that their “markup” or profit margin is around 30 or even 40%. In the U.K., estate agents’ profit margin is around one or two percent. Now it is probably true that running an internet-based estate agency for foreigners is a bit more difficult and expensive. Of course, many of these Internet-based companies employ English-speaking staff and some of these staff are really helpful and good at their jobs. However, I still have the impression that some estate agents in Bulgaria are making a lot of money, while at the same time the service they provide is not as good as it could be. Why are there so many internet-based property companies selling houses and apartments to foreigners? The answer is simple: because the estate agents can sell at significantly higher prices to foreigners than if they were selling the same properties to Bulgarians. So does that mean that you are going to get ripped off, simply because you are a foreigner? Well, it is a buyer’s market and it is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future, so do not buy anything if you are really not happy with the price. In many cases, foreigners want to buy properties that many ordinary Bulgarians would not want to buy or else they could not afford them. That means that you are actually in quite a strong bargaining position, so look around, take your time and make sure that you get value for your money.
This is a picture of the Bulgarian border, when we arrived there after a very long drive, all the way from England. And this is exactly the same border crossing, about eight hours later, after the border guards told us that we did not have the right documents for our vehicle and so we should turn around and drive back to England again! Actually, we did manage to get round the problem by hiring another vehicle in Bulgaria, to take all of our belongings from the border to our new house. Of course, it meant extra expense and hassle, but it does go to show that you need to do your homework. (Perhaps the estate agents could have warned us that we might have problems with a hired vehicle, but they didn’t.)
I have included this picture of the stove that is in our house because the previous owners decided to take the old stove with them. Unfortunately, just because you have seen some fittings or furniture in the estate agent’s photographs, that does not actually mean that those things will still be there when you move in. Of course, this is really stealing, but we did not want the old stove anyway and so we did not make a fuss.
Sooner or later, you will need to the services of some local builders. Most internet-based estate agencies in Bulgaria will be able to put you in contact with some builders. Some Bulgarian building companies do a lot of work for foreigners and so they will have some bilingual staff working for them. On the other hand, you may buy a house that does not require any major work at all or maybe just some paint and a new carpet or two.
To show that it is possible to get some building work done, here is the septic tank we had installed when we had a new bathroom put in to replace the smelly little wooden shed at the bottom of the garden.
Here are the wrought iron banisters made by some local workmen. I told an English friend how much the work and the materials had cost and he said, “Oh, that’s what I have just paid a plumber for one hour’s work!”
The most recent work we have had done is our new garage. As you can see, in Bulgaria the bricks that are used in the construction of most buildings are quite different to the ones used in northern Europe. Because they have large pockets of air trapped inside them, these bricks help to keep our house warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Here am I with some Bulgarian friends of mine, Raina, and Rangel, who live just down the road from our house. Like so many parents, their children now live abroad because there are so few job opportunities for young people.
You will find that foreigners who buy houses in Bulgaria are made very welcome by the locals. Why? Because you will be helping the local economy and providing employment. There is some real poverty in the countryside in Bulgaria.
If you buy a house, you will be helping to keep a rural community alive by creating more demand for local services. If you are buying a house in the countryside, then you are not depriving a Bulgarian family of a home because there are so many country houses that are already standing empty. If foreigners do not buy these houses, they will simply be abandoned and be allowed to fall down.
This has already happened to quite a few properties in our village. (This is, of course, exactly the opposite to what has happened in some parts of the U.S., in New Zealand and in Australia, where so many Chinese buyers have pushed up prices and made it very difficult for locals, especially young people, to buy their own home.)
Here is the view from one of the balconies of our home. Now, all that you need in order to enjoy the view properly is a comfortable chair and that delicious glass of well chilled Bulgarian white wine.
So, in a nutshell, how do you go about buying a house in Bulgaria? Well, first you need to decide how much money you want to spend. I would not recommend arranging a loan or mortgage through a Bulgarian bank. Save up the cash. Then get some sort of idea about the location and what kind of property you want to buy. Then start looking on the Internet. Just go to Google and type in “houses in Bulgaria” or “Bulgarian Properties”. When you have found three or four properties that seem to be what you are looking for, contact the estate agent and arrange a viewing trip. EasyJet and WizzAir both fly to Sofia from Europe. Once you have found a property that you want to buy, the estate agents will put you in contact with English-speaking lawyers who can complete the sale for you.