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Low cost of the high life

Mountain homes in Bulgaria are fast finding friends, says Andrew Eames

So many people have jumped on the Bulgarian property bandwagon in the past 12 months that it is surprising it still has a full set of wheels.

new-build property in Bulgaria
Going quickly: a new-build property

Two years ago there were just two British estate agents in the country; now, there are more than 100, all talking up the market.

Speculators are buying village houses in their dozens, with a view to doing them up and re-selling, and new developments are mushrooming all along the Black Sea coast.

Specialist tour operator Balkan Holidays reports that 50 per cent of its customers at the beginning of the season were property-seekers, and that hotel foyers were full of estate agents, all with taxis outside with their engines running.

What has prompted this feeding frenzy? Quite simply, prices. Just as the Black Sea provides the bargain basement of package holidays, so Bulgarian properties are perceived as entry- level holiday homes, with price tags that have lured those who had never previously considered themselves wealthy enough to afford one. Most of these customers have no interest in the destination, preferring to focus instead on

But the Bulgarian bandwagon is lurching into pothole territory. New villa complexes are being thrown up at a great rate on the periphery of the main resorts, with signs promising guaranteed rental income. Except, as yet, people don't rent holiday apartments in Bulgaria.

Coastal prices have doubled in the past two years (now, £35,000-£50,000 will buy an unfinished apartment, £70,000 a quality villa), and the cost of living – including the famously cheap beer - has gone up with them.

The suggestion is that people should buy now, before putative EU membership in 2007 drives prices further. But will it? It hasn't done so for other, recently signed-up members.

Moreover, not every agent is playing it by the book. "Hardly a week goes by without someone coming in for advice," says Englishman Garry Clark, manager of the Happy Duck pub in Sunny Beach and a Black Sea resident for the past 12 years.

"I'm not saying there's dishonesty, but estate agency is a new business here. People don't yet know how it works. You need a good solicitor."

Stara Planina, one of the two original British-run agencies, is watching this frenzy with the detachment of a veteran – albeit one that is just four years old. "We get a lot of people coming to us who feel they've been let down," says Stephane Lambert, a co-founder of the company.

In his office in the hilltop town of Veliko Turnovo, Mr Lambert says that, while his company is active in the villa zones, his preference is for people who are buying inland; those motivated by the destination per se, and who are interested in buildings of character.

Along with business partner Andy Anderson, he is looking at ways of preserving the more skilled trades by building new houses in the traditional style, but with mod cons. "There's more to Bulgaria than just being cheap," he says.

Mr Lambert doesn't deny that business has boomed, from one deal in 2001, 20 in 2002, 70 in 2003 and well over 100 in 2004, most of them in coastal areas. But he's particularly pleased with how his company has been able to introduce the sensitive purchaser to a more beautiful face of Bulgaria, where the real bargains are still to be had.

For while the coastal areas lack charisma and towns can be downright bleak, the mountainous hinterland is very attractive. It has also been severely depopulated by recent economic migration and village houses have been left to fall apart. So by bringing in outside buyers planning to settle, he is injecting new energy into rural areas.

 

Typical of these new arrivals are Kate Rabbitte, 28, a former civil servant from Sheffield, and Jonathan Mallon, 26, an oil industry engineer from North Wales. They came to Bulgaria looking for adventure after Jonathan was made redundant.

His redundancy payment and her savings were sufficient to buy a two-bedroom house and garden in a village 20 miles from Veliko Turnovo, for which they paid £7,500. "The view, over a vineyard to a lake, was what sold it to us," says Kate.

The couple, who invested a further £2,000 plus their own labour to make the house habitable, have been struck by the welcome of their new neighbours.

"They bring us gifts, fruit and vegetables," says Kate. "The constant need to jump-start our old car was a good way of getting to know them, but it's a very sociable place. The main event of the day is the arrival of the mobile shop, where the first thing the shopkeeper does is give everyone a free beer."

Neighbourly relationships are important, because with Jonathan regularly away in the Middle East, Kate is often alone. "My mother worries about me. But we've not heard of any crime. I do hear packs of jackals at night, though, and I've heard wolves."

When the isolation gets too much, the couple drive in to Veliko Turnovo and meet up with other British residents. Among them is Bill Stephens, 50, a bagpipe reed-maker from Aberdeen, who came to Bulgaria for a fresh start after a divorce.

Bill's two-bedroom house cost him £4,000, although he's spent an additional £8,000 on renovations, including a workshop that allows him to continue his reed-making business from home. "My clients are mail order so it doesn't matter where the actual manufacture takes place."

He has had central heating installed and is unfazed by the winter temperatures that can plunge to -25C. "We hardy Scots are used to the cold. I'm getting used to the summer heat, too."

Bill has also found his neighbours welcoming. "One of them came round and planted me some vegetables. And the other day I was asked to play the pipes in the local school's celebration of its 120th birthday."

All in all, these are the sort of case histories that estate agent Mr Lambert finds reassuring and which he'd like to see increase. "I do get nervous about the impact on local life of importing foreigners," he admits. He cites the example of a hairdresser from Mallorca and his exotic dancer boyfriend, who are setting up home here. "They're nice people, but I've no idea what the neighbours will think."

  • The full range of Stara Planina properties is listed on its website (www.stara-planina.com; 00 359 88 720 3364).
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