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Wanted: Desirable Holiday Property in Bulgaria - Must Have Sea View
Updated: 2007-05-10

Wanted: Desirable Holiday Property in Bulgaria - Must Have Sea View
Views and Records
By Pilvikki Kause
Helsingin Sanomat

Anna-Liisa Pirinen from Kontiolahti in Eastern Finland looks delightedly at the small ochre-coloured apartment building on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria.

"The colour is very attractive, and it looks nice from outside. I spotted this one on the Net and I liked the look of it", she says as we stand in the courtyard of the apartment block.

Pirinen has arrived from Finland with her husband Esa, in search of holiday and investment properties on the Black Sea coast. Her son Aki Alatalo has been recruited along for the ride as a taste arbiter, and for his English-language skills. Ahead of them they have three pretty intensive days: the family intends to check out twenty or thirty houses and apartments along with a small party of other Finns here on similar quests.

Possible acquisitions have been plotted on the map beforehand from the Varna district, already well known as a holiday destination. If a suitable property turns up from among those they are scouting, the Pirinens are prepared to pay out 50,000 to 60,000 euros for it.

"The most important thing is a sea view", emphasises Anna-Liisa Pirinen.

The Pirinens have their finger on the pulse, since Bulgarian sea views have become something of a hot little item at the holiday homes end of the European property investment market.

The fashion was started by the British. They noticed that this country in the Balkans was an attractively priced alternative to the #1 favourite - Spain's Costa del Sol - as a choice of location to retreat to, at least for part of the year. The summers in Bulgaria are hot and sunny and the wine is full-blooded and not spoiled for price.

Last year, the new EU recruit (Bulgaria joined at the beginning of this year alongside Romania) with its seven million inhabitants climbed to a position where it almost rivalled France on the shopping-lists of Britons looking for a second summer home. They were galvanised into action by some of the cheapest real estate square metre prices in Europe.

According to a local report, a total of 280,000 deals were signed on houses and apartments last year. Foreigners buying in accounted for roughly a third of these. The investor's return on investment through rental income was apparently the third-highest in an international comparison.

In the wake of the British pathfinders have come Irish, Spanish, and German buyers, and more recently a large crowd of Russians with roubles to spend. And now the Finns, too, have started to wake up to the idea of a second home on the western shores of the Black Sea.

It is not as though we can talk of marauding hordes of Finns moving in as yet. For instance, the Finnish Embassy in Sofia reports that over the last couple of years they have received only a dozen or so enquiries for advice on the ins and outs of buying property in Bulgaria.

But the upsurge in interest is there - why otherwise would there already be companies here offering realtor services in Finnish?

One of the estate agents is Jouni J. Pakarinen from Joensuu. He is the guide currently taking the Pirinens around.

The tour of properties begins here in the pretty little town of Baltsik, just north of Varna.

There are seven apartments still for sale in the attractive ochre-coloured building. Among the earlier buyers have been some Britons, Indians, and French people, explains the Bulgarian contractor and developer Krasimir Kanev.

Kanev is selling apartments for an average price of EUR 980 a square metre.

Pakarinen explains that in the local scheme of things, the overall size of the property measured in square metres also includes balconies, stairwells, and possibly even the yard and garden. In the standard new apartments, the kitchen may not be fully fitted, and central heating may be missing, even though the Bulgarian winter is not exactly sub-tropical.

The Pirinens examine the place with a practiced eye. They have their own small family firm in the building trade and hence they have come equipped with a sensitive nose for quality.

Anna-Liisa Pirinen strokes the back wall of the kitchen surfaces, behind the place for the cooker. "Isn't this laminate? That won't take heat very well, will it?"

The two men are in the bathroom, sizing things up. "What do you reckon? Will the water run away to mains drainage or will it wind up sloshing under the floor here?" wonders Esa Pirinen.

The Pirinens get flanking support from Tuomo Hassinen, a young building contractor from the Joensuu area.

Hassinen is planning to build properties on the Black Sea coast to Finnish tastes and to Finnish quality standards. His partners in the project will mostly be local contractors. Hence it is important for him to come here and see for himself what the standard of Bulgarian building expertise is like.

"Room for improvement, certainly. The Finns like quality in the finishing, and that is what we will have to pay attention to", says Hassinen.

In the end, the ochre-coloured house does not score very high on the Pirinen scale.

"Cheap materials, not the sort of stuff we would put into our own home. And when you come on holiday, doing a big repair and renovation job is not the first thing you want to be faced with."

They pass on this one, and move on, up and down the coast.

At many of the properties they look at, the same issues come to the surface: price and quality do not seem to be quite going hand-in-hand. On Day Two, they find something much more to their liking from the town of Byala, known for its vineyards. The apartment, with a price-tag of EUR 600 per square metre, wins them over with its large balcony and impressive views.

The investment in Byala might well be a very smart move. The town, some 50km south of Varna, is angling to attract famous names. A large reconstruction job on the port will provide for a yacht marina, and the idea the Bulgarians have is to pitch the area to prospective investors as a new Monte Carlo.The sea views are very attractive, but nobody is guaranteeting that they will stay that way indefinitely. At least not if you want to admire the view from your own balcony.

Experience of this fact comes from Jorma and Ulla Masalin. These two teachers from Kouvola are grizzled veterans of the Varna holiday homes market.

They turned up here, more or less on a whim, nearly five years ago. They were fed up with the short and unreliable Finnish summer after some years working in California. A last-minute cheap trip from a travel agent brought them to a country that they had only previously thought of as "one of those former Communist spots".

What they found was warmth and sunshine, friendly people, and not a trace of tourism-jaded sourness. "And the houses were so dirt-cheap it was crazy", recalls Ulla Masalin.

The souvenir from their spontaneous holiday was a USD 60,000 villa. In fact the property and the adjoining piece of land is owned by their Bulgarian company set up for the purpose, since foreigners are not able to own land in Bulgaria - you have to establish a firm locally. They now live part of the year in the villa, along with their three dogs.

The view from the balcony in the Masalins' home in a peaceful district of one-family houses looks down over a bay shimmering blue in the spring sunshine.

Just down the slope from them are two small apartment houses going up. The construction site spoils the otherwise gentle wooded landscape.

More and more such properties are being put up - pitched at the foreigners in search of a second home - alongside the white sand beaches of the Black Sea. The developers' feeding frenzy has in places almost completely transformed the steep slopes along the coastline. Even the imminent dangers of landslides and erosion have not slackened the pace.

"The cliffs have been stitched up everywhere with apartment buildings", notes Masalin.

Cement mixers rumble and circular saws howl as the building work goes on without a pause. The noise has been so disruptive that a number of local councils have ordered the construction sites to take a break during the coming summer tourist season.

In the centre of Varna, a bustling city of 350,000, it is impossible to resist the idea that buying and selling property is the citizens' main source of livelihood. There are estate agents' placards side by side along the street, as something like 400 real estate companies jostle to advertise their wares from numerous offices all over town.

The Masalins do not regret their decision to buy in down here, but say they are enjoying this "slowing down phase" before full retirement.

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