Jack Fagan, Irish Times
AROUND THIS time of year, the newspapers are generally packed with large ads for overseas real estate. That has been going on for over a decade but, in recent years, Bulgaria and other former Eastern Bloc countries have been particularly active in targeting Irish buyers who had a reputation for being big spenders during the Celtic Tiger years.
These overseas property ads are rarely, if ever, seen any more simply because Bulgaria’s real estate boom has turned to bust and Irish and UK buyers are fleeing due to rapidly falling values and the rising number of uncompleted developments.
Other former Eastern Bloc countries are suffering the same fate.
Bulgaria became a particular favourite for many Irish investors because holiday homes were frequently available at half, or even one-third, of the price of similar properties on the Costa del Sol. Attracted by unrealistic promises of exceptional returns, Irish investors had no hesitation in borrowing heavily to buy cheap buy-to-let homes.
Dublin mortgage agents say that, because of the refusal of Irish banks generally to fund property investments in Bulgaria, many purchasers released equity from their homes or Irish-based property investments. Others used hot money in the belief that the Revenue had enough on its plate in tracing second homes and investments in Spain, France, Portugal and other popular destinations without traipsing through the former Eastern Bloc.
“A great deal of the money invested in Bulgaria never appeared on the radar. It would be hard to trace,” says one of Dublin’s largest mortgage lenders.
Tom McGrath, a Dublin solicitor specialising in the overseas residential markets, says that a combination of naivety and greed led many Irish people to buy up to five properties in Bulgaria with the intention of “flipping” them on before they were completed to make a profit.
Any number of estate agents had recommended this as a fool-proof way of making money but the reality was different and they have been left “with properties that they do not want, cannot sell and cannot afford to complete on”.
The market in Bulgaria is over-supplied and pretty well on the floor. Real estate agencies say that at least one-third of the 2,200 foreign-owned holiday flats in Bansko – one of the country’s top ski towns – are on the block again, often at half price.
One media report has suggested that some Black Sea hotel owners have offered their debt-laden businesses for sale for €1 – grim news for tourism, Bulgaria’s top foreign investment sector.
The property market in Bulgaria, like Ireland, has had a hard landing. Construction firms have been laying off workers and, with bank borrowing getting more difficult, many developers are finding it increasingly hard to complete schemes.
McGrath says that promises of guaranteed rent from developers are often unfulfilled and these properties were overvalued in the first instance to take account of this arrangement.
Investment in the property sector, which accounted for 30 to 40 per cent of GNP in the past few years, brought an immediate profit, says local economist Tihomir Bezlov: “Real estate for Bulgaria was like oil and gold for other countries.”
The same could probably be said of Ireland but, unlike Bulgaria, there was never any suspicion here that the industry was being used to launder money from criminal proceeds.
Bulgaria’s authorities have admitted they cannot prove where the money that fed the boom came from. Could some of the proceeds of the Northern Bank robbery in Belfast in 2004 be in the Black Sea? There’s a thought.