In the second of a two-part series on foreigners buying property in Bulgaria, VELINA NACHEVA hears from a group of people from the UK about why they chose to invest in the country.
THE beauty; the value for money; the quality of life; and for those who are coming to the end of their term in Bulgaria, a return ticket to the country.
These are among the reasons given by some of the wave of Britons who have purchased real estate in Bulgaria.
The UK's Stephen Lambert and Andrew Anderson, from Stara Planina Properties, say that property in Bulgaria currently offers excellent value for money.
The agency describes Bulgaria as Europe's "best-kept secret". "A country blessed with some of the most spectacular landscapes and a people both welcoming and open minded."
Anderson came to Bulgaria at the beginning of 1998 to take up a job offer from the United Nations Development Programme to work as a technical director for the Beautiful Bulgaria Project.
Two years earlier, he had cycled from London to Istanbul for charity, and remembered the beauty of Bulgaria's forests and countryside.
During his first year in the country, he discovered the beauty of the Stara Planina Mountains and came across lovely old traditional farmhouses, at great prices.
He bought one in 1999, and formed a company called Stara Planina Properties, with his partner Lambert, who also had been on the London-Istanbul cycle ride, and who had then worked here for the Beautiful Bulgaria project. Both are married to Bulgarian women called Maria. The company was the first of its kind in the country to be owned and run by Brits.
Anderson said that interest expressed by their friends and families in the UK in what they had done showed that many people might be interested in following suit.
"People in the UK are obsessed with buying property elsewhere," he said.
In 2001, the company featured on the UK's Channel Four when a team was sent to Bulgaria to film the first episode of A Place in the Sun, a series on the overseas property market that has become very popular in the UK.
"They were directed to us by the British Embassy as Brits helping Brits buy," Anderson said.
The broadcast coincided with Anderson concluding his four-year contract with the UNDP, and the business really took off.
For him this type of work offered a business opportunity, but also a chance to save and restore Bulgaria's architectural heritage - "a way for me to stay on after life with the UNDP," he said.
"We have clients buying derelict farmhouses and old houses which would otherwise be left to fall down," Anderson said.
To see these buildings brought back to life is one of the most enjoyable aspects of his life, Anderson said.
They said their company had clients from across the social spectrum, people from the north and south of England, young and old.
"Some like cheap beer on the beach and others the nature and culture of the mountains, so we cater for all," Andersen said.
He said that those Brits who make the move "seem to make friends quickly because of the natural friendliness of Bulgarians. For those who visit occasionally, this will take longer".
Anderson said that foreigners were mainly interested in buying property at the seaside and in the mountains. Particularly popular were the seaside to the north, around Varna, and up to Balchik, or to the south around Bourgas, including the Sunny Beach area, or Sozopol and Nessebar.
Among the mountains, most popular are places close to ski resorts, the rural part of the Stara Planina, and Strandja and Pirin.
"There is also some interest in pure investment in Sofia itself," Anderson said.
He said the property market could be divided into the categories of those purchases made purely for investment; holiday house purchases; purchases by people who are going on retirement or about to do so; and people on a quest for the good life who want to set up and run a small business.
"People with four to five years left to retire will buy now, before EU membership pushes up prices, and want to get to know the place while on holiday, with a view to retiring later," Andersen said.
Another group of property purchasers are the people living and working in Sofia.
"They find they have to buy a house before they leave, as they loved Bulgaria so much and want to come back and visit, and realise what a good investment it is," Anderson said.
People wanting "the good life" - and to set up and run a small business, may look to buy a property as a home, and another for a business, often related to tourism - an hotel, guest house, cafe, or outdoor recreation. They even have clients who have, in turn, got into the property business.
One of the business-related business purchasers is James Hughes who bought a hotel in Bansko through Balkan Ski Chalets, an agency working exclusively with property purchasers from the UK.
Hughes has renovated the place and is now happily living in Bansko and learning the Bansko dialect. The move was decided on by the whole family.
"Bulgaria is a rapidly developing country which thankfully, is still full of unspoilt wilderness and natural charms," he told The Echo.
He said that his family thinks Bulgaria will develop in a similar style to Portugal, which was not all that different from Bulgaria 10 years ago and now is thriving.
"They feel it is both an good investment and a fun project to be involved in," he said.
His father and his sister have the business skills to organise the setting up of the financing of the hotel, while Hughes is a hotelier/chef by trade.
"We decided to pool our skills and take the plunge," he said.
The Hughes family chose Bulgaria over any other Eastern European countries because of the great climate in Bansko.
"We have a good winter season, very cold and snowy, and a long hot summer, perfect considering it rains for most of the year in England," he said.
"Most people fall in love with the place and this is not an exaggerated 'estate agents' talk'," Anderson said. "But so did I, which means I can empathise," he said.
Anderson said that there are those who find the place a bit "behind the times", though for some, this is its attraction.
"It is a real contrast, that while many Bulgarians have moved West to find work or study, I have spoken to dozens of Brits who just want to get out of England," he said.
Anderson thinks that the reasons for this are complex, but basically, many people feel alienated, stressed and out of touch with nature in UK cities.
"Bulgaria is a great antidote to Western life because it is quieter and slower," Anderson said.
Hughes's family is from Dorset, the south west of England, and his home town of Shaftesbury is similar to Bansko, with its old stone streets and 200-year-old houses set right in the middle on the countryside.
But there are other reasons to choose to live in Bansko.
"Bansko is a great little town, and it is not just the ski area, the town itself, both have a vibrant culture, and the people have pride in their history, which is reflected in the local dialect and customs," he said.
"We bought the Avalon Hotel as we think there is a lot of potential in Bansko, but a lack of the personal service that we specialise in, so we think we have found a niche that we fit into well," Hughes said.
For him a walk in the beautiful old town in the morning is like a step back 100 years.
"The new ski area is brilliant with modern equipment and new pistes have transformed the mountain."
The extreme skiing is challenging, with large areas accessible straight from the lifts. Hughes thinks that there should be an end to the "rather childish" dual pricing system that comes as a bit of a shock to tourists who think that Bulgaria is an affordable place, only to find out that they must pay twice to 10 times the going rate for Bulgarians.
"The local patois a bit of a challenge, but as all the families on my road only speak Banski (Bansko patois) I get a few lessons every day when they stop for a chat and a rakia," he said.
Hughes has spent most of the past eight years living and working in nearly all the mountains between England and Nepal.
"I feel at home up in the hills," he says, in explanation of why he was attracted to Bansko.
"The Black Sea coast seems to be really popular as it is still affordable and relatively unspoiled," he said.
Hughes came to Bulgaria with no real expectations, as he had previously only been here for three days, and that was to Sofia, very different to Bansko.
"Every day I am surprised by the friendliness of Bansko people, I don't think I could count the number of times people have come to the hotel bringing gifts of home made food, drink, walnuts, meat, it is lovely as we really do not have that sense of community in England," he said.
Hughes feels very settled in Bansko. The old town and the mountains make a great backdrop to his life.
"To be able to sit outside the hotel with some of the old men who are my neighbours, and put the world to rights over a glass of home brew is a real pleasure, I think the price is very important to some people, but the lifestyle here is a lot more important," he said. When he compares his life here with friends who work in London, he really pities them. "The daily commute crammed into the tube and then a sterile office under strip lights all day is not for me," he said. "They make more money in a month than I do in a year, but what is money if your lifestyle is so harsh to get it," he said.
The UK's Simon Tweddle, who is in the process of buying real estate in Elenite, has been looking to buy in Eastern Europe for the past two years and has travelled in the region extensively.
"The main reason would be the potential capital growth in property over the coming years due to expected investment from the EU. The UK property market is looking increasing over priced," he said.
"I am not just interested in Bulgaria, though Bulgaria has many advantages (and of course some disadvantages)," he said.
For him the main reasons to buy property in Bulgaria would be the country's EU membership scheduled for 2007, which would mean large external investment, opening up of the property market," he said.
He said that it's a beautiful country, popular with UK citizens as a "cheap" sun or ski holiday, and has slightly lower prices than other places in Europe, and this means potential.
His reason to buy property in Bulgaria is purely as an investment in the short term, though it would be a nice place to holiday or live, though this is inconsequential. "Bulgaria is cheap and affordable and Bulgarian property is affordable, and slightly cheaper than some other EU countries, he said.
"It's not that property is cheap, but that it has large potential to increase in value over the next couple of years," Tweddle said.
Tweddle has experienced a number of frustrations while buying in Bulgaria, such as important questions not answered, contract delays, mistakes in the contracts, the wrong contracts being sent out, and lack of clarity around the process.
"It all hasn't given me a lot of confidence, as this is my first purchase and I was hoping to purchase several more properties, but these problems increase the risk," he told The Echo.
Tweddle said that having to phone abroad was expensive and not always possible from office phones, and that it is difficult to view properties at will while in the UK. Communication being done by email and phone is not as efficient, and less useful, than speaking in person.
"Having to use a UK agent and a Bulgarian agent, the more intermediaries, the more complicated and inefficient the process is," he said.
Matthew Clark, from Nottingham, director of Exsos OOD (Real Estate Consulting) has been living in Bulgaria for just over a year, and has run a real estate business with his father for six years. Initially they were approached by a developer from Veliko Turnovo, by way of their visa consultancy, who asked them if they could market an apartment block in Varna.
"When we researched the market, we discovered that there is great potential for foreign investors in Bulgaria, and with our knowledge of the Bulgarian system, it's highs and lows, we decided to set up a consultancy assisting foreign buyers here," Clark told The Echo.
Clark thinks that at the moment the greatest interest is in purchasing property on the coast, because "this is the most accessible area for tourists, with all the package holiday deals available," he said. At the same time, their company is getting enquiries from people who want getaway retreats in the mountains, houses near ski resorts, or even in the remote villages.
"The purchase of property is in theory more simple than in the UK, but for unwary Western buyers it is a potential minefield," Clark said.
He said that there have been countless cases of people paying extra "taxes" or "charges" in the purchase process, and the perpetrators of these charges range from sellers to lawyers to agents. "This is precisely why we decided to set up our consultancy," Clark said.
Clark finds property in Bulgaria cheap and affordable for Western buyers.
"The Black Sea, for example is very beautiful, and I think people come here and see that, and realise that for five months of the year the climate is good and the living pleasant, and then realise that the dream of a holiday home in the sun isn't so far fetched after all. "The main problem is that there is still a gap in what people believe they will need to spend in order to achieve this dream, and what the vendors think they will be able to get for their property. People still think that prices are very low here, but the vendors are now very wise to the potential of the market.
"Unfortunately, on realising that the potential buyer is a Westerner, some vendors overestimate the market somewhat."
Clark said he did not have a problem with anything here as such.
"I chose to come and live here, and therefore feel I have to accept the highs and lows as does every Bulgarian," he said.
"I do find some things a little frustrating - the bureaucracy mainly - but there are good points and bad points to living anywhere, and as I say, it was my choice to come and live here," he said.
"I think Bulgaria is at a junction at the moment, it could go one of two ways, down the Spanish and Greek road, and open up to mass tourism and immigration, and it could compete really well there, by just being cheaper than Spain - but then the next country will come along that is cheaper than Bulgaria," Hughes said.
Or Bulgaria could go down the road of Portugal and Italy where the aim is higher, and instead of building massive concrete tower blocks and selling off the apartments, investors build villas and chalets set in beautiful gardens with access to luxury facilities like health spas and golf courses, to attract the top end tourists.
"I personally prefer to go to the chic charming bars of Italy and Portugal rather than the bars of Spain and Greece filled with drunk British tourists budget tourists, but that is only my personal opinion, an economist would probably be able to say which is financially better for Bulgaria," Hughes said.