Tuesday, October 31, 2006 

Spanish property "dented" by Eastern European market

A growing number of investors seeking to buy property abroad are searching in new locations in Europe at the expense of Spain, according to experts.

Mark Stucklin, head of spanishpropertyinsight.com, says that new developments in Eastern European markets, such as Bulgaria, have "dented" the "overall demand" for property in Spain.

However, the firm argues that the majority of off-plan-investors have left Spain and have chosen to develop property in Bulgaria, increasing the demand for speculative investments in the country rather than houses.

Questioned whether would-be holiday home owners ought to consider Spain over Eastern Europe, Mr Stucklin said: "You get what you pay for and Spain has by far the better climate as well as fabulous resources, in terms of infrastructure and leisure facilities.

"In Bulgaria they are far away from offering any comparison."

A recent report by Assetz revealed that investments in British property were more likely to deliver higher returns than in Bulgaria which no longer offers "instant gains".

Source: London Stock Exchange

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Friday, October 20, 2006 

Watch out for Romania and Bulgaria property hotspots

Romania and Bulgaria are exciting property investors now that the two eastern European countries will be joining the EU in January of next year.

'Last month, 46% of all the overseas property enquiries we received related to Spain and France,' said Mark Bodega, marketing director at currency specialists HIFX. 'But we've also begun to see a significant rise in the number of clients buying property in both Bulgaria and Romania as British investors look to cash in on the European Commission's September decision.'

Bulgaria is one of Europe's fastest growing economies, and has reasonably priced properties in mountain, seaside and city locations, while Romania is eager to cast off its label of being one of the poorest nations in Europe.

The property market in Romania has been growing at an estimated 25% a year for three years, fuelled by speculators who are banking on the country amending its property laws. When it becomes a free market it will receive more than €11billion in EU funding.

Damien Thiery of Romanian Property Ltd said: 'In terms of residential property, there are two main areas of interest amongst foreign investors. First, there is off-plan purchasing in the Romanian capital Bucharest. A studio flat, for example can cost as little as £25,000 off-plan, and if prices rise by 30% as predicted after accession to the EU, British investors could be looking at a tidy profit for a relatively small investment.'

He points out that investors are also being drawn to Brasov and Poiana Brasov, Romania's largest ski resort. An airport is scheduled to open in Brasov in 2008 and a new motorway joining it with Bucharest is also planned, both of which are good signs for the future.

However Bodega warned: 'Make sure you do your research. Does the developer have references and a good track record? Check any facts and figures you are given, be curious and don't be afraid to ask too many questions. Always engage a reputable lawyer who is familiar with the local property laws and who'll be able to give you impartial advice. The less you leave to chance, the less chance things will go wrong

Source: citywire

Thursday, October 12, 2006 

Eastern European property: Watch out for the Mafia

Overseas property has never seemed so attractive for the British investor. Flats in emerging markets from Russia to Turkey are being snapped up because they are cheap and prices are rising rapidly.

But the cheapest areas for properties come with a secret that the salesmen rarely mention - they are rife with organised crime.

Countries in the former Soviet Union are having particular problems. The majority of senior officials are left over from corrupt communist regimes and many are feathering their nests by co-operating with gangs or even the Mafia. Bulgaria's problems with organised crime are so big they are delaying the country's entry into the EU, a deadline it may well miss because it is a major transhipment area for South Asian heroin.

Even countries with long-standing stable regimes such as Turkey are struggling to contain organised crime networks.

Just because property is not a traditional area of interest for mobsters does not mean they ignore it, says Professor Gloria Laycock, director of the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science at University College London.

"Anywhere where money can be made will attract organised crime," she says.

Property prices are rising rapidly in the new EU states and the profits are attractive to organised crime, Professor Laycock says, and also constitute a handy channel for money laundering.

"Housing markets are a really good example because the sums of money are big and you can pay in cash," she says.

The consequences of handing money over to criminals can be severe, even if you are in complete ignorance. If the money can be traced to drugs, you may fall foul of money-laundering regulations.

One of the problems is that some of the countries with flourishing organised crime networks feel quite safe to visit. Latvia and Bulgaria, for example, are welcoming places with little violent crime. Organised crime works behind a smiling face, offering amazingly cheap deals.

Other countries that have recently become investment hotspots have only lately emerged from civil war, including Croatia and Montenegro. Croatia is negotiating to join the EU but this will not happen before 2010. The head of the EC delegation to Croatia was quoted last month as saying that the fight against organised crime in the country is going well, but will have to proceed faster if the situation is to be under control by the planned accession date.

Montenegro, on the other hand, is busy extracting itself from its integration with Serbia, and organised crime is still endemic. In 2004, the editor of Montenegro's daily newspaper, Dusko Jovanovic, was shot dead, apparently by the Mafia. In Serbia, the Mafia was blamed for the assassination in 2003 of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

Despite the gloom, however, investors can avoid being drawn into contact with organised crime by observing a few simple rules.

Rule one is to use a reputable estate agent who speaks both English and the local language. The agent should have a base in Britain so they can be sued in British courts if everything goes wrong.

Check out the estate agents and, if you are looking at new buildings, the developers as well. Run credit checks - they only cost a few pounds but they could save much financial grief later and will also be evidence that you made efforts to ensure you were dealing with reputable people.

Do not attempt to locate dirt-cheap investment property by chatting to local people in bars. Unless you know the area intimately and speak the language fluently, this is an invitation to be ripped off at best, and at worst you can make some very bad contacts indeed.

Locate your own lawyer - never use the lawyer recommended by the developer or estate agent.

Never pay in cash, and decline to get involved if you are asked to pay officials directly. Such payments may be dressed up in bureaucratic language as "facilitation arrangements" or "consultancy fees", but they are illegal.

Don't pay large sums in deposits. Some developers ask for up to 50 per cent of the purchase price up front.

Source: The Independent


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Sunday, October 08, 2006 

The Val d'Isere of the future?

With tiny prices, Bansko in Bulgaria is being touted as a rare chance to buy a place in the snow. But can it live up to the hype?

Bansko: Eastern Europe's answer to Aspen. So runs the hyperbole about one of Europe's newest ski resorts. It's a buzz that the resort's developers are understandably keen to perpetuate. Millions of euros are being spent transforming this small Bulgarian town, which lies three long, lacklustre hours from the country's capital, Sofia, into something Brad and Angelina might head for when in Europe and desperate for powder.

Unsurprisingly, given the hype, Bansko's property market has been undergoing a boom. Brits are pouring their pension plans into buying up cheap ski apartments in anticipation that it will become another Val d'Isere once Bulgaria joins the EU in 2007. With prices from around £20,000 it's not hard to see why investors are joining the gold rush. 'I missed out on Croatia, but I won't make the same mistake with Bulgaria,' declare one British couple with almost evangelical zeal in a property brochure.

But are they right? At first the comparisons with Aspen are hard to fathom. There are the potholes for a start. Millions of them, making a drive around the town far more dangerous than anything that could befall you on the slopes. It sometimes seems that Bansko's streets are simply a collection of holes occasionally interrupted by tarmac along which stray dogs wander. Then there's the endless building sites that make Bansko seem like the set for Auf Wiedersehen Pet and make for depressing horizons.

And the hatchet-faced staff at the lift office who stare at you like they've caught you dog-napping their favourite pooch when you attempt to buy a day pass. I can't see Jack Nicholson giving up his seat at the Hotel Jerome for this.

And then there's the skiing. Bansko's got only 65km of runs - 17 in all: one black, four blues, the rest reds. If you skipped lunch you could do them all in a day. And I'm not even sure the reds are really reds. They're more blues - or somewhere in between: purples? Admittedly there are plans to open up more of the surrounding mountains, but this will be some years off. Bansko is definitely not a place for advanced skiers or even enthusiastic intermediates.

That said, I can't think of a better resort for those on a budget looking to start skiing. My hotel - the Orphey - was pretty good. Get rid of the harsh lighting and the pastel colours and it would have been really good. The four stars it had been awarded might seem a bit generous, but it was smart and clean with big rooms, many of which had balconies, a steam room and a blinged-up swimming pool in the basement that looked like it should double for a porn set. I kept expecting Ron Jeremy to walk in dressed as a pizza delivery man.

Breakfasts and dinners in the hotels are usually buffet style. There is a good variety of fish and meat and lots of fresh fruit, vegetables and salad. Around 60 per cent of those in the Orphey were Brits and most seemed happy with the food - a traditional gripe in many ski hotels. The staff buzzed around efficiently delivering drinks.

Once up the mountain the pistes are wide and excellently groomed. The lifts are modern: the gondola that takes you the seven odd kilometres from Bansko up into the mountain would be the envy of any resort in the world.

Better still, when I went, in mid-March, the slopes were roomy with no queues at the lifts. A six-day lift pass costs £128. Six days of ski school will set you back just £100. Package deals are even greater bargains. Several people I spoke to were enjoying a week's skiing, with equipment, lift pass and a bed in a hotel for under £500. Food up the mountain is cheap too: gluhwein is about 70p, a pizza under £4, local beer £1, and surprisingly delicious kebabs £3.

Boarders will enjoy the fun park and the half-pipe while the nursery slope is an easy introduction for children. And for those who make it to the top of the mountain, where they are rewarded with glorious, uninterrupted views across to the horizon, there is the added bonus of a 16km unbroken trip down into town.

And this is where Bansko comes into its own. The mountain above the town is one giant forest which has been cleared in places to create well thought out pistes. The effect is an enchanting descent, which on Saturday nights is lit by lamps allowing for a memorable night of skiing.

Apres-ski is not hard to find. Bansko has a population of 10,000, but 150 bars. Clearly, Bulgarians are thirsty people. Most of the bars are congregated around a central spine, the oldest part of the town which has some quaint, almost medieval-looking taverns that would not be out of place on the Lord of the Rings film set. Inside you are greeted by roaring fires and irritating power ballads that seem to follow you wherever you go. Memo to whoever wrote Foreigner's 'I want to Know What Love Is': head for Bansko, you will be worshipped as a god.

In the taverns a lavish three-course meal for two with very drinkable Bulgarian wine (honest) will come to under £20 and leave you so stuffed you will wonder how you are going to make it back to your hotel.

This is something you get used to in Bansko. Many of the hotels are a couple of kilometres from the slopes making it difficult to get around.

Fortunately all of them offer regular minibus shuttles to the gondola station (a second station is in the pipeline) but at night you'll probably want to flag a taxi - not always the easiest thing to find. There is none of the street-hawking that some people have experienced at other Bulgarian resorts, notably Borovets. Incidentally, when I was there, skiers were being bussed in from Borovets, the country's foremost ski resort, because Bansko had better snow. Those I spoke to favoured the upstart over its older rival.

In the evening there is a 'Brits abroad' atmosphere in many of the taverns. There's Sky Sports in some, quiz nights in others, while pub crawls and copious shot downing seem almost ubiquitous.

For those looking for something else from their ski holiday, there is target shooting, bowling or fishing in Bansko's many surrounding mountain lakes. You suspect these activities will play a greater part in Bansko's future as the property developers look to turn the resort into a year-round destination to attract the hiking and mountain biking crowd.

Indeed, in a few years' time given the money being thrown at it, Bansko is likely to be unrecognisable. Inevitably, this means prices will rise. Learners on a budget might want to get in before Bansko's transformation is complete.


Jamie Doward travelled with Inghams (020 8780 4433; www.inghams.co.uk) and stayed at the four-star Hotel Orphey in Bansko, from £329pp half-board, including flights from Heathrow to Sofia with BA and resort transfers.

Flights are also available from Bristol, Birmingham, and Manchester for a supplement. Pre-book your skis and boots for £76, ski school (four hours a day for six days) for £99 and six-day lift pass for £128.

Source: The Observer

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006 

Bulgaria: Get the party started

This country is looking forward to joining the EU, but we're already heading over to Europe's new funky-town, says Adrian Mourby

It wasn't all that long ago that the first secretary would summon apparatchiks in black limousines to his summer residence in Varna. "Oh yes," says Anelia. "We used to say the party is everywhere. We still do - but we're not talking politics anymore!" This is the Varna joke. The people of this noisy seaside town enjoy it, but then they enjoy everything. These days it's the all-night party that rules in Varna. In fact, the place has proved so popular with British holidaymakers since British Airways launched flights here earlier this year, that it has extended its schedule to year-round.

A university town with one of the youngest populations in Bulgaria, Varna is the good-time capital of a nation renowned for its love of music, drinking and eating. Anelia and her friends save up all week for one good night out. "We are really snobs," she laughs. "We only want the best. We dress up and stay up dancing till dawn. Then we go into work the next day. I don't know how we do it."

It's all a far cry from the Communist days, and pre-Communist days when King Ferdinand of Bulgaria built his summer palace outside this small garrison port. Until then, Varna had been famous for very little except recurring cholera epidemics and Count Dracula, who, according to Bram Stoker, shipped out of here en route to Whitby. The Ottoman Turks who ruled Bulgaria for centuries preferred a long stretch of beach just to the north of Varna, which they called Ouzounkoum (Long Sands), today known as Golden Sands, the fastest-growing tourist resort on the Black Sea.

With independence from Turkey there came three Saxe-Coburg kings to Bulgaria - Ferdinand, Boris and Simeon. The first of these built Euxinograd, a faux 18th-century palace, for his summer holidays. In 1946, when the People's Republic wrested power from the monarchy, Euxinograd became the first secretary's summer home and people in Varna grew used to the limousines that swept in bearing hatchet-faced men intent on furthering socialism and their suntans. Now Euxinograd belongs to the president of the new democratic republic of Bulgaria. It's open to the public at 10 lev (£3.50) a visit when foreign dignitaries aren't in residence.

Anelia has never been there. People in Varna don't seem very interested in the past. They seem only to look forward, usually to the next party. With beer at only 1 lev (35p) a bottle it's not surprising.

"Is it true they say the sun never sets in Varna?" I ask my young guide.

"Of course it's true," she replies. "In Bulgaria all our sea coast faces east, so we never see the sun go down. Maybe that's why we forget to go to bed!"

I've never met a people with such a zest for life. It's as if generations of fizz built up under Communism and now they can't get the cork back in the bottle. Of course, having near-perfect temperatures helps. Sitting on the same latitude as Biarritz, Varna enjoys very long summer days from May all the way through to October.

The stucco may be falling off the city's gorgeous Art Nouveau buildings and the Navy Museum may consist of just one rusty old submarine but everyone is upbeat. Walking down King Boris Boulevard, Anelia and I are overwhelmed by fashion boutiques and baseball-capped skateboarders. We pass showrooms for expensive Japanese cars and cafés that double as showrooms for micro-skirted waitresses. Everyone is in a hurry to have fun or make money.

"So where do I eat round here?" I ask my cheery companion.

"Everywhere," she says. "You don't need a guide book to eat. Just go walk along the beach till you find somewhere you like."

There is a more serious side to Varna if you want to find it. The Archaeological Museum is housed in an impressive neo-Baroque building that used to be a girls' high school. It contains case after case of burial artefacts from Varna's Eneolithic Necropolis discovered only in 1972. The amount of gold worn by people in pre-Bronze Age Varna is staggering, as is the amount of Greek and Roman statuary in this museum dating from when Varna was the Roman port of Odessus.

But Anelia has not been into the museum since a school trip 10 years ago. This is a town hell-bent on present joys and future affluence. Anelia has seen the big digital clock in Sofia that is counting down the seconds to 1 January 2007, the day that her country - it was announced last week - will join the EU. Then I think she, and many of her friends, will leave in search of their European dreams. All of which makes me sad. Varna could be a beautiful city if people worked a bit harder to repair it, and the tree-lined coast is gorgeous, providing you overlook the occasional gulag-style hotel complex from the Communist era.

I say goodbye to Anelia and drive back to my hotel, the Kempinski, in Golden Sands. It's a huge new marble palace with an Ayurvedic spa and a delightful flight of broad steps down through woodland to the beach. I'm struck by how the steps are much, much older than the hotel.

When I ask inside if there was a building here before the Kempinski no one knows until I meet up with Herr Obermeir, the deputy manager, who has heard that during the days of Communism there was a grand casino on this site. "For apparatchiks only, of course. They arrived by sea and would enter up those steps. When we built the hotel we kept the staircase."

It's ironic that the locals have no memory of this at all. So, it takes a recent arrival from Germany to rootle out the past - but that is typical of Varna nowadays. Absolutely no interest in politics or the past, excited about the future, giddy and hedonistic, just like Anelia herself.


HOW TO GET THERE: Adrian Mourby travelled to Varna with Balkania Travel (020-7636 8338; balkaniatravel.com). It offers six-night packages from £285 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights and bed & breakfast. British Airways (0870 850 9 850; ba.com) offers return flights to Varna from £200.

FURTHER INFORMATION: See bulgarianembassy.org.uk

Source: The Independent

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