Sofia is Where the Smart Property Investment Money Is

Bulgaria was the brash newcomer of the world’s property market a few short years ago. Now, after experiencing the highs of a booming market followed by the lows of a price correction in some parts of the country the situation is more complicated.

If you do your research on the Bulgarian property market it is possible to find very contradictory information on the health of the market. One the one hand, newspaper reports about unscrupulous developers and agents, and stories about people unable to sell their unremarkable new-build flats in Black Sea coastal resorts make for sober reading. Meanwhile, international sales agency Knight Frank recently published a report looking at house price growth across the globe, calculating that Bulgaria has experienced the biggest capital growth of anywhere in its report. The report stated: “While the rate of growth in the price of flats was lower than in previous quarters, it was nonetheless maintained at over 30 per cent, again being driven by the performance of areas bordering Romania such as Ruse and Vidin, as well as the capital Sofia, where year-on-year price inflation exceeded 60 per cent.”

Assetz, the property investment and sales agency, is also enthusiastic about the market, but not wholly so. “Those purchasing homes overseas in the last five years will have found few destinations to rival Bulgaria for strong capital gains,” adds its managing director Stuart Law. “However, major oversupply in the country’s most popular tourist areas means that this is set to lower significantly in the near future. Assetz has always advised caution to property investors in these areas, and rental returns have now started to fall into the negative. It is very likely that average property price growth statistics have been misleading, with rural property price growth masking poor performance in the tourist hotspots for at least the last 12 months.”

Traditionally, Brits have mainly bought in the coastal areas in the east of the country – Sunny Beach, Bourgas and Golden Sands, for example, where the tourists are predominantly British and Germans on package holidays and you can still pick up a flat for £40,000 – and the ski areas, such as Bansko and Pamporovo. It is resorts such as Sunny Beach and Golden Sands where concerns about oversupply are most valid, easily confirmed by the rows of uniform new-build apartments on display when you visit.

If you’re thinking strictly property investment, then Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, is – according to most property experts – where the smart money is. With an influx of international companies setting up offices here, an expanding middle class, and relatively recent access to mortgages, Bulgaria’s capital city is showing the best price growth in the former Soviet Bloc country.

“While many property investors have focused on the tourist areas such as Bansko, Golden Sands and Sunny Beach, the astute property investor has looked towards Sofia, which is benefitting from plenty of property investment and a year-round rental market,” says Kirsty Barry of Select Property, an agency selling in the area. “Sofia has seen a significant influx of multinational companies including Hewlett Packard, Sony and Cisco Systems. This has created jobs and therefore increased demand for a strong professional rental market, requiring new-build and commuter belt properties that are close to areas of work. While Sofia’s property prices have risen – they rose 25 per cent in 2007 – it still remains the second cheapest capital city to buy residential price in Europe.”

South Sofia commands the highest rent and is considered more desirable then north – and, according to developer Aston Lloyd, rents in south Sofia went up by 20 per cent in the last year, which is an enormous jump. “Rents rising 20 to 30 per cent in 12 months, along with good capital growth – 20 to 25 per cent per year – are unusual for any property investment market,” says Joe Upchurch, director at Aston Lloyd. “This sets Sofia apart from many emerging markets. This is a result, mainly, of local affordability. Incomes are still not high enough for many Bulgarians to get a mortgage – deposits of 20 per cent are required and interest rates are high, at seven per cent. All this means there are a large number of Bulgarians who can’t afford to buy and are forced to rent.”

For anyone interested in buying, loans of up to 70 per cent of the property’s value are available and solicitor’s fees are normally between £300 and £800. Property taxes are between four and five per cent, though this is different in the various regions. Estate agents fees are three per cent of the agent’s fees – both buyers and sellers pay estate agents three per cent.

While you need to be wary about the reputation of developers anywhere you buy in the world, you need to be particularly wary in Bulgaria. There are many Black Sea coast developments that are not achieving anywhere near the rental yields promised, and others have never been built. “Buyers are advised to check the credentials of any developer carefully and ensure that they have the capital to fund the entire development, and are not entirely reliant upon sales to finance the build,” says James Hickman of Caxton FX.

“Regular tales surface about dodgy agents in Bulgaria and unscrupulous practices,” adds James Barnes, managing director at Robson Barnes. “Examples include surveys still not being commonplace, agents charging overseas buyers more than the listed price and developers changing plans for new-builds without informing those who have already purchased. It is important to ensure that the infrastructure promised by agents and developers – such as new roads, golf courses and ski lifts – are actually planned and funded, and not just part of the sales pitch. While bargains can be had, buyers do need to have their wits about them when considering Bulgaria.”