Good weather, lovely scenery and bargain prices abound, says Chris Partridge
Bulgaria was another Eden before the Fall - the fall of communism, that is - at least for the party faithful, who could relax in luxury villas on the lovely Black Sea coast. The country has seen hard times since then. Its heavy industry was wiped out, leaving Bulgaria among the poorest nations in Europe. The outlook, however, is bright: the economy is stable and EU membership is pencilled in for 2007.
Much of Bulgaria's fabulous legacy of churches, monasteries and castles has been restored by the UN-funded 'Beautiful Bulgaria' programme, which used volunteers from the West to train local people in restoration and town planning, to avoid the more brutal effects of the free market. Roads are being upgraded by the EU.
The country has also been discovered by the British, who see it as one of the last opportunities to get in on the ground floor on a property hotspot. Some go so far as to claim it is the new Tuscany - with lovely, mountainous countryside studded with ancient farmhouses crying out for stylish restoration. The weather is nice too.
The Bulgarian countryside is stuck in the 1950s, with few cars and mains electricity a rarity. But it is easy to escape to as the country is the size of England and Wales and only has a population of 8 million.
Many British buyers go for villas on the Black Sea, Bulgaria's playground. Some parts of the coast were brutally treated by the communists, who built huge concrete hostels. Newly rich Bulgarians have built their own brash holiday homes shoulder-to-shoulder along some parts. But it is still possible to find beautiful fishing villages that rival Spain, at a tenth of the price. The ski areas in the Rhodope Mountains in the south are beginning to attract investment. It is also possible to buy cheap and lovely properties along the Danube, Bulgaria's northern border with Romania.
Christo, the artist famous for wrapping monuments in clingfilm, has a villa on the Black Sea, as has John McVicar, the former gangster and writer. The three Maleeva sisters, all tennis stars, have country houses. King Simeon of Bulgaria, returned from exile in Spain, was given several palaces and castles as part of the restitution process. He is now serving as the elected Prime Minister.
There are few estate agents in Bulgaria, with property selling mainly by word of mouth. Several enterprising British agents, however, have set up as intermediaries. Former town planner Andy Anderson runs Stara Planina Properties. Employing a middleman is expensive - Anderson charges 10 per cent - but for that you get a nationwide perspective and an English speaker who is working for you, not the vendor. Check out Anderson's website at www.stara-planina.com.
Most agents can set up a visit of a week or two to see the country and view a few properties. Anderson will also arrange a power of attorney if necessary so he can continue the process without requiring the buyer to hop on a plane every few weeks to sign things.
It is usual for a 10 per cent deposit to be paid when the sale is agreed, and the vendor must repay up to three times the sum if they renege on the sale.
Foreigners cannot own land personally in Bulgaria, so you have to set up a company to own it. Unlike some countries, there is no requirement for local ownership of the company, so this is perfectly safe. This requirement will be abolished before Bulgaria joins the EU. Stamp duty runs at about 2.5 per cent and it costs about £600 to set up the company. The process should take a couple of months.
A remote farmhouse in the hills with no mod cons can cost under £10,000. You would need to install a generator, a well and pump, then modernise the house. A small villa or apartment on the Black Sea coast can cost around £30,000.
Bulgaria is the up and coming area in Europe, with unspoiled landscape, a lovely climate, cheap property and good long-term prospects.
The immediate outlook for the economy is squally, and although the low-cost airlines are rumoured to be about to open up routes there, until they do getting there is expensive.