The prices are almost irresistible, but buyers must beware dodgy deals and 'iffy' infrastructure, writes Cheryl Markosky
With recent reports that Bulgarians and Romanians have been forging documents to sneak into Britain, it is ironic that at the same time British home-buyers are flocking to the latest hotspot of Bulgaria to cash in on cheap property. While it is said that Bulgarians are paying as much as £3,000 for the papers they need to enter Britain, you can find a Bulgarian wreck - in need of much tender loving care - for roughly the same amount.
New house being built on Vitosha Mountain, outside Sofia, four bedrooms, £43,972 through Properties in Bulgaria
There is almost a gold-rush mentality when investing in new markets - and Bulgaria is no exception. After a couple was filmed searching for a second house for only £5,000 on Channel 4's A Place in the Sun, the country has been flooded with speculators, investors and those hopeful they will pick up an East European residence for the cost of a new kitchen over here.
A splurge of advertising has added to the grab-'em-quick-before-prices-soar mindset. "Bulgaria - the last undiscovered property secret in Europe where speculative opportunities exist and brave buyers can benefit," is a common theme.
One website, www.bulgarianproperties.com, has an interesting stance on ownership: "It will probably be shocking for you how many . . . properties are still waiting for their proprietor to appear and earn a fortune from their charm or natural beauty . . ." Another offers a solution: "For those feeling uncomfortable at the notion of wrenching houses away from the poorer - and absent - locals, how about paying a £600 fee to an agent that 'helps local charities'?"
I joined a group of househunters on the first inspection trip operated by a new company, Properties in Bulgaria, to find out whether investing in up-and-coming nations is all it is cracked up to be. My initial impressions of Bulgaria were mixed. Although mountains in the distance held scenic promise, the landscape I saw first-hand was an unremarkable plateau. The journey from Sofia to the coastal resort of Varna is either a short flight or a four-hour trawl along the two-lane main highway.
British buyers in my tour group, however, were not easily deterred. Nicky Platts, 23, has sold her flat in Barnsley, Yorkshire, to put her money into a one-bedroom apartment at the Black Sea resort of Sunny Beach, Varna. She plans to use the fourth-floor flat, bought off plan for under £40,000, for holidays with family and friends for several weeks a year and rent it out the rest of the time.
"I saw it in the press and took a good look at the floor plans on the net," said Nicky, who flew to Bulgaria with her mother, Shirley, to look at the property, for sale through a British developer, Ian Shepherd. "I like the communal roof terrace, Jacuzzi, restaurant and kids' playground on site," she said, reckoning they will make her apartment desirable for holidaymakers.
As in all new endeavours, there are risks attached, but Shepherd reassured Nicky that he is trying to locate the owner of the neighbouring plot and make an offer to buy it.
A 200-year-old house in the mountains near Veliko Tarnovo, two bedrooms, £23,318 through Properties in Bulgaria
Unfortunately, the Bulgarian government does not appear to be taking much interest in improving the infrastructure at this popular resort. "If you want something done, you have to do it yourself," says Shepherd. The developer, therefore, is sorting out the sewerage and roads, which might work in the short term, but leaves it unclear who will be responsible in five or 10 years' time.
Because prices are so low, a surprising number of people are buying property unseen. Even discounting the hyperbole of the £5,000 palaces the British think are for sale, you still can pick up a decent house for £20,000 to £50,000 in the mountains. Expect to pay more like £60,000 plus on the coast.
Nick Lavtchiev, from Properties in Bulgaria, says he is getting "many enquiries from Americans who are buying without coming out, as the airfare costs more than the property".
Jenny and Steve Luckhurst, from Kent, did at least travel to Sofia, but were tempted to buy a house without looking at it. It was on a lake in the mountains a half hour from the capital. "We are prepared to take a gamble," explains Steve, "although this is not really like us at all. The house cost only £18,500 and came with a third of an acre, so I thought we couldn't go wrong." However, when an investor from Hampstead, who was also on our trip, went to see the property and showed interest, they felt under pressure to make a quick decision. The property also needed a new roof and huge renovation work, so they pulled out. They have since bought a farmhouse in Normandy for €80,000 (£54,000).
"This is a haggle economy," points out David Johnson, from the currency broker Moneycorp. "They expect you to haggle, but Brits are too polite." He warns of the "puppy-dog close" - a sales technique to get buyers to sign off: "It is like giving someone a cute puppy and then threatening to take it away. Here you are tempted with cheap property, but told you will lose it if you do not snap it up right away."
Plenty of retired couples are looking to buy in Bulgaria, principally because of the extremely low cost of living (the average local salary is about 300 leva - £115 - a month).
"They sell up everything and come here to retire," says Lavtchiev. "After getting £150,000 for their house in the UK, they find something here for £30,000 to £40,000, which leaves a lot to live on."
House with wine cellar, in one third of an acre, near lake, bought by a Hampstead investor for £18,654
However, as with any emerging market, a two-tier pricing system exists. Chris Northam from My Bulgaria, a Surrey-based trade association, warns that property for sale to Westerners is at a much higher price.
Although Bulgaria is on the up, the infrastructure does have a long way to go. Horses and carts are a typical mode of transport, and foreigners expecting sophistication might struggle in areas away from coastal resorts and main cities. Visitors should brace themselves for Soviet concrete-block architecture and piles of rubbish. James Barnes, the UK managing director of Newfound Property International, says "This could be a good time to buy, but be prepared to wait 10 or 15 years before the country catches up with more developed neighbours."
On plus side, there are well-priced villas in charming hillside villages. And it's truly hard to spend much money in restaurants where local wine and food - similar to Turkish and Greek flavours - is excellent. Some might enjoy the former Soviet holiday camp in Albena. But after an evening at the casinos and restaurants - where gypsy bands play jaunty tunes - the fun of a disintegrating Communist-style Butlins might wear thin.
Many investors, however, will be thinking purely in terms of prices. A two-bedroom property at Sunny Beach which sold for £36,000 in 2003, is now on at £52,000.
Todor Vlaytchev, PricewaterhouseCoopers's Bulgarian consultant, reports that growth is on average 10 to 12 per cent a year and expects this to carry on until 2007, when it is likely that Bulgaria will be admitted to the European Union.
And what of organised crime? Vlaytchev says it is no longer a problem, although some locals talk of protection rackets. One couple on our trip were hoping to buy a small restaurant, but were so put off by tales of the Mafia they decided against.
Others have found their Bulgarian dream turning sour. Marc Shaw, a financial consultant from Marylebone, looked at land with his Bulgarian wife in the area between Plovdiv and the sea. The plan was to build a house with his brother-in-law.
"The whole episode was disastrous," he says. "The guy we were dealing with demanded 2,000 leva [£770] up front before he would show us the land. It was all very dodgy and he wouldn't provide evidence that he owned the land." Shaw walked away.
The couple were also put off by over-development at Sunny Beach. As it begins to resemble the Benidorm of Bulgaria, there appears to be little planning, which Shaw believes Bulgarians may regret.
"We found some agents very rude and because you are from the West, they assume you eat gold for breakfast."
Black and all right.
By JAMES MOORE.
17 April 2004 Daily Star
The Black Sea is turning out to be a bit of all white.
Bulgaria's sunkissed beaches are the new hotspot for holidaymakers.
With bargain deals and cheap food and booze, the country has recently been named one of the Top 10 international destinations.
And Brits are voting with their sun hats as they ditch traditional resorts in Spain and Greece for a brilliant Balkan break.
Bulgaria's stunning capital, Sofia, is great for weekend breaks and easily accessible from coastal airports for a beach holiday.
But the real draw of the former Communist state is its 240-mile coastline known as the Black Sea Riviera.
Here, after lazing in the sun on pristine sand, you can sink a bottle of local wine for about £1.50 or a beer for just 50p.
A meal for two costs no more than £5 and there's plenty of pizza joints, burger bars and Greek and Italian restaurants to try, alongside the Bulgarian taverns and folk venues.
Despite the bad reputation of eastern European fare, Bulgarian food is surprisingly tasty. Favourites include minced meat rolls and speciality salads.
But more humble feeds are a bargain, too. An ice cream will set you back just 40p, while a burger is typically around 30p.
And although it is a relatively poor country, crime is no worse than in any of the traditional destinations.
So here's our guide to some of the best Bulgarian beach resorts ...
ALBENA named after a local beauty, this resort just south of the Romanian border is getting a top-notch reputation for its buzzing nightlife and seven-mile sandy beach.
It is child-friendly and activities include everything from parascending and Jeep Safaris to mini-golf.
At night, the Variety Club is a must, while great bars include Arabella's and the Fisherman's Hut.
For a quality traditional eaterie, stop at Slav's Corner. But there's every kind of food here, including a Norwegian steak restaurant.
GOLDEN SANDS Bulgaria's second-largest resort is set on a pretty hillside, but the fabulous beach shelves gently and is ideal for youngsters.
There is an array of water sports on offer and the resort is famous for its diving centres.
There are plenty of food options, including pizza and hamburgers. But for a real Bulgarian experience try venues such as Sheepfold and Izvora.
Golden Sands also has a string of Western-style discos. The best is called Bonkers.
SUNNY BEACH with glorious sands and soaring summer temperatures, this resort certainly lives up to its name. Its fivemile beach has an attractive promenade with a mini-train.
It's the biggest resort on the Black Sea and a great place for water sports of all kinds. Check out the great local cabaret at Khan's Tent, one of the resort's superb discos. There are also plenty of top restaurants.
Perfect for families, there's a brilliant water park and many of the hotels have great clubs for children.
There is easy access from the airport at Bourgas 30km away and twoday round trips can even be made to Istanbul in Turkey. It's also near the fishing village of Old Nessebur.
ST KONSTANTIN a quieter resort near the bustling port of Varna, excellent for couples and older visitors. It is beautifully positioned in woodland and dubbed "the garden village".
The beaches are superb. Best nightlife in the town is at the Grand Hotel Varna.
FACT FILE A seven-night half-board holiday at the three sun plus Hotel Laguna Garden in Albena costs £1478 from First Choice for a family of four with two adults and two kids.
By Fiona Govan
Bulgaria shakes off grim image to become top holiday choice
It was once the epitome of grim Communist uniformity, but Bulgaria is emerging as this year's hot destination for British tourists.
Sales figures indicate that up to 200,000 Britons will travel to the Balkan nation's Black Sea resorts this summer, where the attractions include cheap drink, large sandy beaches and temperatures in the 80s.
One British tour operator has already named Bulgaria as the top place to visit this year, while a report in America last week also named it as being among the 10 best international destinations.
The emergence of Bulgaria, and its 240-mile long "Black Sea Riviera", has been helped by the euro's rising value against the pound. This has made holiday spots such as Greece and Spain far more expensive for Britons than non-euro countries. Thomson Holidays, Britain's largest tour operator, said that it had included Bulgaria in its brochure for the first time this year.
The country, where a seven-day holiday in a three-star hotel, including bed and breakfast, costs from £259 per person, was already one of its three best-selling destinations, along with Florida and Cyprus.
"Bulgaria's biggest selling points are the great beaches and sunny climate combined with attractions including wine tasting, aqua parks, ancient monuments, nature parks, music and flower festivals," said a spokesman for Thomson. "It's also really cheap when you get there - a pint of beer is 50p, a meal for two can be had for under £5, and a decent bottle of wine for around £2. The holidays are considerably cheaper than the equivalent in Spanish, Greek or Portuguese resorts."
Bulgaria's Black Sea resorts boast white sandy beaches, warm seas and temperatures that average 80F (26C)during the summer.
The country, which is roughly half the size of Britain, also has mountains and lakes and claims to be the motherland of the mythical songster Orpheus and of the gladiator Spartacus, who led a slave revolt against the Romans.
The principal Black Sea resorts in Bulgaria are Albena, Golden Sands and Sunny Beach. Golden Sands lies close to Varna, another resort where Leonid Brezhnev, the former leader of the Soviet Union, holidayed during the Communist era. Todor Zhivkov, the former Communist leader of Bulgaria also used to take his holidays on the Black Sea, at the resort of Evksinograd.
Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents, said that Bulgaria was the fastest growing holiday destination for 2004 and that at least 200,000 Britons were likely to visit this year - nearly double last year's total. "Previously holidaymakers have been put off from visiting the country because it has been difficult to get there and because the accommodation was not up to standard," he said. "All that has changed in the last few years. At the moment it is fantastic value for money, but it won't stay that way for long." First Choice Holidays, which has offered package holidays to Bulgaria since 2000, said that the country was its "star performer".
Richard Curtis, its spokesman, said: "At a time when holiday bookings are down almost 25 per cent on last year to destinations across the board, Bulgaria's performance is phenomenal. We have already increased our sales of holidays to Bulgaria by 100 per cent and it is only the second week in January."
A report in the The Washington Post last week named Bulgaria as one of the world's top 10 international destinations of the year, alongside more predictable choices such as Botswana, the Bahamas and Ecuador.
The country is not only attracting package holiday makers: the capital Sofia is luring weekend visitors with its historical churches, museums and boulevards.
Marin Dimitrov, a spokesman for the Bulgarian Embassy in London, said that his country welcomed the influx of British tourists.
"Bulgaria has a rich cultural and historical background that has a great deal to offer foreign holidaymakers," he said. "We are delighted that people are recognising this and coming to visit our country. This is a very good thing for Bulgaria."
The Sunday Times – Property December 28, 2003
Cheapest on earth? To bag a bargain holiday home, widen your horizons. Deany Judd goes off the beaten track to find a place in the sun for under £25k
At the end of the day it’s no more expensive than a caravan in Bridlington,” says Jan Turner, a public-relations director, of the new three-bedroom flat she and husband Robert have just bought in Goa, India. Spurred on by the glut of holiday-home programmes and cheaper and more regular long-haul flights, Britons are widening their horizons when it comes to buying abroad. The stampede for overseas homes is switching to further-flung destinations where low price tags are attracting more British buyers: Turkey, Thailand, India, Brazil, South Africa and Croatia are increasingly popular targets.
But prices of £25,000 or less for a place in the sun tend to bring some disadvantages, ranging from unstable political systems and long flight times to complex legal systems that can make property ownership a minefield.
Stephen and Wendy James, from Fareham, Hampshire, began to look abroad when their two sons went to university. They had holidayed in Bulgaria and decided to investigate buying a retirement base there. Searching the internet, they were overwhelmed by what they could get for their money, and in May this year they bought a four-bedroom villa in Samokov, a mountain resort about 40 miles from the capital, Sofia, for £13,500. Built in 1976, the Swiss-style house is on three floors, with the master bedroom on the top floor, a huge galley hall, an open-plan lounge-kitchen area and half an acre of land.
The process of buying property in Bulgaria — if done through a reputable company — is fairly pain-free, says Stephen, although he admits a lot is done on trust. The first time they arrived at their property they found a horse and cart being loaded with furniture he’d agreed to buy, and no electricity or water because gypsies had stolen the electric cable.
“We returned to the estate agency and they arranged a good security system, and the electricity was restored in a few days so all was well, but it was certainly an interesting start to property-ownership in Bulgaria.” Now when they visit they hire a car for about £8 a day when they land at Sofia, rather than pay the £20 taxi fare for the hour-long journey to their villa.
On Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, a villa can be bought for £10,500 — less than the deposit on a similar-sized Spanish seaside property. Even a three-storey, five-bedroom house in a smart suburb of the coastal city Varna, with a sea view, would cost less than £60,000 and could rent for £700 a week during the summer. Properties have risen in value by 16% in the past 12 months, and the cost of living in Bulgaria is about a fifth of that in western Europe.
However tempting it sounds, Chris Northam, managing director of Bulgarian Trade Partners, warns: “It is very important that you take steps to ensure your purchase is watertight — there is a two-tier price market in operation, with one price for local purchasers and a higher price for non- Bulgarians. The legal ins and outs of individual ownership are quite complicated, as are the number of days a year that can be spent in the country.”
The James family is regularly approached by others interested in buying in Bulgaria. “Always make sure you deal with a reputable estate agent,” advises Stephen. “It’s vital you go to visit the area too — browsing on the internet, my brother-in-law couldn’t believe that we hadn’t gone for a beautiful house overlooking a lake, but in reality there’s the most ugly electrical generator right beside it. If you’d bought that blind, you ’d be sunk.”