“Mum” said the footloose daughter in a Skype call. “I am in a ski resort in Bulgaria, Bansko and I am buying a flat, any advice?”
Woah! Serious intake of breath.
Well to start, me and Bulgaria have history. Back in the noughties I travelled the length and breadth of Bulgaria, in the back of blacked out Land Cruisers – with increasingly scary Russian ex-Majors and Bulgarian Oligarchs. I was being shown building plots and off plan apartments to flog as investments. It still brings me out in a rash. But hey, thats for another night. This is family and property investment alarm bell territory.
I throw the usual questions. Got a good lawyer? “Yeah, the estate agent recommended one” Argh.
The estate agent is apparently a very nice man from Bournemouth – but still. Argh.
Have you checked how long the lease is? The service charge? Ownership rights? Freeholders? Apparently the lawyer has said it’s all in order – and as it’s in Cyrillic, she just has to roll with it. Argh.
Now I should say that my daughter isn’t dim. After ten years in Australia, bored of it’s cultural limitations and distance from family she has designed a globe trotting life for herself doing very clever and creative digital stuff. Years of copy writing and digital marketing has resulted in skills that provide an ongoing online income that keeps her in decent Sauvignon Blanc and clean sheets. This is the world of the Digital Nomad. And whilst she can do it from anywhere (that was the point) she hankers after a home – somewhere to use as a base, leave her gear, decorate and have her own kitchen. Plus, as a property owner after six months she becomes a Bulgarian resident, subject to Bulgarian income tax – and guess what, that comes with EU residency too.
But Bulgaria! Argh.
Why Bansko? She tells me that Bansko is a hub for ‘Digital nomads’ like herself. A community of like minded clever and energised young people (not kids) all making their livings through their wits, with skills generally honed through years of corporate grind. Brought together by a ‘co-working’ centre where an international community taps away on crypto currency, travel journalism and weird stuff us oldies don’t know exists as a work form. Sharing ideas and giving each other support and company. They have gravitated here because of the now internationally acclaimed (in their world) co-working space and the incredibly cheap cost of living. (a one bed flat can be rented for five euros a night).
Anyhow, Mother’s due diligence attempts aside, she buys it. Of course. The paperwork is done in two weeks but it won’t be legally hers for another fortnight. The Agent throws her the keys anyway. It comes with all the furniture, bedding, TV’s and teaspoons so he tells her she might as well enjoy, “save you spending on rent”. Novel.
With my property investment head at the fore I ask “I assume you will be able to rent it out for an income when you’re not there?” “Nah”, she says, “it’s swimming in property here, so not worth it..” Marvellous.
So this summer I dragged the husband out on a visit. He showed more enthusiasm on being posted to Kandahar.
Glossing over the hair raising three hour drive from Sofia, courtesy of Lurch’s less developed cousin. (we did start discussing burial or cremation to keep our spirits up). We arrived at the daughters apartment – she had the wine on ice.. good girl.
The apartment consists of two big bedrooms and two bathrooms, it was two penthouse flats knocked into one so daughters bedroom was an entire studio with a deep balcony overlooking the communal pool and the soaring ski slopes. The sitting room has a bank of picture windows overlooking another mountain range. It needs ‘un-Bulgarianising’, it is all a bit brown but that’s half the fun- poring over Pinterest and Ikea delivery options. But, it was cosy and nice, surprisingly nice.
Daughter had a tight schedule arranged for us, determined to showcase the lifestyle, starting with a mountain bootcamp for the husband the next morning, run by ex-pat Brits. Trouble with being in the Army is everyone thinks they want to beast themselves all the time (reader, they do). I of course stayed home and prepped the contraband ‘British’ bacon I’d been ordered to smuggle.
That day a picturesque trip up the cable car to high into the mountains, there’s a terrific restaurant, serving hearty portions, surrounded by adventurous activities including the longest water slide in Europe. Husband and the boyfriend partook – apparently it is less fun than water boarding, seems every orifice received a high pressure power wash. They needed medicinal beer.
An overnight trip to the stunning Greek coast close to Thessaloniki, just three hours drive meant delicious practically twitching grilled sardines and octopus alongside azure seas.
A surprise night booked for us in the local five star spa hotel The Kempinski with an awesome spa (no really) and equally awesome breakfast spread was a very unexpected luxury treat from the daughter and frankly unexpected luxury in Bansko.
There was also mountain quad biking, daughter and I were well up for it- until the men folk opted for the ‘hard ride’ tour and we realised neither of us could reach the pedals. We went shopping.
And a few hours girly time in the local beauty parlour for ‘very good value’ eyelash extensions. Little tip ladies – if you want to look like Aunt Sally meets drag artiste, ask for ‘natural’. I did. Three weeks later and I am still seeing the world through two hairy caterpillars.
There were properly delicious lunches and dinners in sylvan glades and town taverns with wood fired ovens. Whole grilled trouts for five euros, meat and potatoes fifty different Bulgarian ways and Shopska salad, which became a must have healthy choice (with cheesy chips mind). Evenings in the town square with regular free concerts and jugs of very drinkable red wine for the price of a Heston services flat white. The vibrant and bustling cobbled streets and traditional taverns all with boulders of stone, wooden benches and bright red traditional table cloths is oddly intoxicating and really very jolly.
This is summer, in Winter I am told it’s a heaving snowy wonderland, much busier and full of skiers looking for a cheap European destination, with a buzzing apres-ski nightlife.
But Bansko obviously has it’s negatives. Many half built or unsold apartment complexes. Pavements, merely rubble in parts and Romanys towing cows in their horse drawn carts, rooting through bins. All are testament to an extremely impoverished Soviet past and extreme over-building more recently. And you can’t get an avocado for love nor money.
As I lazed on the balcony, sun setting over soaring mountains, daughter bustling around her own kitchen preparing a Bulgarian hot pot in a traditional clay pot. (layered meat, veg, spice, cheese, then bake). I mused on how dumb this all should be in the grand scheme of all things property investment.
But here’s the rub, she paid €39,000. No I haven’t missed a nought off. Service charge a couple of hundred euros, internet included. And becoming a Bulgarian tax payer means she now pays 8% income tax on her worldwide earnings – a 32% saving on her Australian tax. It will have paid for itself in three months from tax savings alone. Plus she will have EU citizenship, dodging the Brexit bullet.
Will she ever be able to sell it? With difficulty.
Rent it out for decent money? No.
Will it appreciate? in decades, maybe.
So by every measure of a good property investment, it’s not… It’s cleverer.
In a property world oft guilty of knowing the cost of everything but the value of nothing, it’s a timely reminder that sometimes it’s just a home.