By KALINA VARBANOVA and TERRY BOYD
Expats go out into the world for many reasons, mostly for careers. But there is an adventurous breed of expat – often Brits – who choose countries based on sun, fun and and inviting, but affordable, quality of life.
That last bit is getting more difficult to find as housing prices are rising while the availability stock of nice homes contracting.
Much of the housing across Europe that was affordable after the Great Recession is now back to pre-recession highs. Prices are climbing in countries such as Portugal.
Ah, but there are still a few countries where real estate is – if not cheap – very affordable.
We’ve been bullish on Bulgaria since last summer for many reasons. A big reason is the cost of living there is about 50 percent lower than in the rest of the European Union, and at least 80 percent less than in Scandinavia.
Just for giggles, we went to Numbeo, the crowd-sourced cost of living tracker, and plugged in Stockholm and Varna, a large port city on the Black Sea with a mild climate and its own tourist resorts.
Some of the numbers are almost unbelievable. The biggest difference is the per-meter-cost of buying an apartment. An apartment in Varna goes for about 10 percent of the cost of an apartment in Stockholm.
Rents in Varna were about 20 percent of an apartment in Stockholm.
You’re thinking, “No kidding …Sweden is a high-functioning society where everyone wants to live. Stockholm has a housing shortage and people wait months for an apartment.”
Yeah. Which is kind of our point. Stockholm is a city where it’s painful for even rich people to live; where summer comes on a Tuesday and the sun barely clears the horizon in mid-winter.
There’s the perfect but perfectly unaffordable Europe such as Stockholm, Zurich and Amsterdam. And then there’s the less perfect Europe where you can have a reasonably high standard of living for far less money. Notice we didn’t say “comparable standard of living.” Varna is not Stockholm and Bulgaria isn’t Sweden. Bulgaria has some issues including government corruption.
But, all our sources, including friends and family, say after joining the EU, Bulgaria, Romania and other Balkans countries are coming out of their post-Soviet slumber. You can quantify that in a lot of ways including increasing tourism and rising labor costs.
And as we say, it’s always better to be early-in than late to the party.
– Terry Boyd
A little background
If you are an expat coming from the other part of the world and know nothing about Bulgaria, Bulgarians and the lifestyle in this part of the world, there are some things you need to know before you go shopping.
Bulgarians are like Americans in outlook. Genetically, we’re close to Italians, and we have similar souls.
We have our own alphabet called Cyrillic and Bulgaria is an Orthodox Christian country.
As Bulgaria is in the Balkans, we have a lot in common with neighbors – Macedonians, Serbians, Greeks, and Turks. We all have common foods with few differences in recipes. But forget the story about the Balkans – it’s for the tavern.
Starting in the 19th century right after the liberation from Ottoman rule, Bulgaria has aimed to become like Western European countries. And that’s a good thing, because this is one of the few countries in the world with both low real estate prices and good infrastructure.
The majority of expats who come to live here are Russian or British. Russians prefer the sea coast and Brits prefer villages.
I was thinking about good houses for Americans. The Villa Zone near St. Konstantine is a good choice and there are also gated complexes. I recommend Cabacum Beach Residence, which is both a resort hotel and a long-stay residence.
And just in case you were wondering, sports and fitness are popular here. Young people in Varna are fit and good looking and like to drive bikes and fancy cars.
– Kalina Varbanova
Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria and its largest city: modern, yet affordable, and close to skiing, spas and whatever you’re looking for as far as travel in the Balkans.
But many buyers are going to zero in on Varna because of the sea and climate. Varna, with a population of about 335,000, is an ancient city situated on the northern Black Sea coast, a good location for fine living because the climate is swell, the food great and the housing can be quite nice.
Merchants, manufacturers, and bankers were the first to build the nicest houses in Varna. Houses from the 19th century and the first part of 20th century are architectural monuments and are protected by the law. Nowadays, there is an ongoing initiative to preserve and restore these buildings.
The story with houses in Varna does not end with the pretty, historic houses. There are many two- or three-story houses in the different quarters. I recommend the central part of the city for the best transportation.
Bulgarians prefer to live in apartments. In past decades, developers have built many blocks of apartments, most of them luxurious and modern.
In the U.S., many Americans prefer to live in suburban areas. Here we don’t have suburbs. But we have villa zones and seaside residential settlements. Vinitsa, Trakata, Galata, Golden Sands and St. Constantine and Helena are just a few. There is public transportation, and it’s easy to get from the city to tourist attractions such as Golden Sands and St. Constantine.
Golden Sands and St. Constantine and Helena are famous for their thermal water and spas. They are surrounded by green parks and gardens. Besides seaside resorts, Golden Sands and St. Constantine and Helena are also favorite villa zones.
– Kalina Varbanova
What we found
Who doesn’t love looking at homes? We spent waaay too much time on this, but we found some remarkable bargains for all budgets. And some crazy options ranging from a 100 m2 hovel (though a hovel with promise) on a half-acre in a village outside Sofia going for 12,000 euros to a 1.7 million-euro mansion complex in Varna.
Most intriguing were lots and lots of large and attractive old fashioned farm houses in villages near Varna or Sofia, most of which can be bought for 10,000 euros or less. AND they come with a pretty good piece of property. Not sure what it would be like living in a Bulgarian village, but could be right for someone. While prices in the cities are rising, prices in the villages are dropping as rural areas lose population.
There are also a fair number of new apartments built near the beach resorts, with prices starting at 20,000 euros for studios and 1-bedrooms. By American standards, units are small and fairly utilitarian in most apartment developments.
Really, in Varna, it comes down to, “Do you want to live by the sea? Or do you want the convenience of living in the middle of the city?”
Let’s go right to the options:
• We found this swell 3-bedroom on the Express Imoti website for only 129,000 euros in a historic building near the tourist attractions. This 2nd-floor walk takes up 136 m2 (1,463 square feet) on the fourth and fifth floors and is one of the better deals we saw. The catch: There’s only a kitchenette, and there’s no photo of it. What’s that tell you?
• For you high-rollers, here’s a two building complex on Bulgarian Properties 2 kilometers from the beach going for 1.7 million euros. There’s a 1,200 m2 (13,000-square-foot) mansion and a 350 m2 house. Both are stone and the grounds are manicured and landscaped to within an inch of their lives and both have this sort of Spanish/Southern California vibe going on.
• On a slightly more modest level, we found this 4-story, 700 m2 (7,500 square foot) house for 350,000 euros just outside Varna, again on Bulgarian Properties. This is interesting because this is basically one-third of what a similar house would cost in more developed EU countries.
• On a far more modest level, we found a small unit with a sea view in an apartment complex. The 1-bedroom with about 70 m2 (800 square feet) was 85,000 euros. “Was” because it already sold.
• For a bit more money (about 100,000 euros), you can get a bigger apartment in this complex, Sunset Villas.
• It was difficult to find units for sale in the center of the city that weren’t in very basic concrete buildings that you’d see in any city from Moscow to Izmir. We did find this ultra-modern, 11-floor building under construction in the very center of the city. The apartments will be 2-bedroom and 3-bedrooms, and start at about 140 m2, or 1,500 square feet, which is considered large in Varna. Prices start at 145,000 euros and go to 217,000. A bargain in European terms.
• The best website we found is Eat Stay Love Bulgaria, written by a staff of expats. They recommend First Estates for real estate.
One of the better overall websites for info is Invest Bulgaria.
Here are the major real estate sites:
The fine print:
Obviously, this is just an overview. You have lots of homework to determine which part of a fairly large city is right for you.
As a foreigner, you can’t buy property in Bulgaria, only the house or structure sitting on the land, which is much like some areas in London.
Bulgaria has no centralized property registry. You’ll have to find a trustworthy attorney to help you with the property search to make sure you’re buying it from the rightful owner and not from a third-party scammer.