Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Retiring in Serbia - Yes, No, Maybe?

A reader just emailed me to ask about retiring in Serbia. I'm not retired yet, but definitely considering things. Plenty of expat Serbs do retire in Serbia now, and that number will increase phenomenally if/when EU ties are on the horizon. Some considerations:

o Cheap living -- Belgrade is pretty pricey (although not compared to London, New York or Boston), but other places, such as my part-time hometown of Sombor Serbia are remarkably cheap. You can buy or build a house for very little, perhaps 100k Euros for a nice house in the best part of town. Locally grown food at the greenmarket is inexpensive too. Imported stuff gets pricey.

o Bring your car -- Cars, even used ones, are really expensive. If you're coming from the US or Canada where cars are cheaper, then import your own vehicle. (Each Serb citizen gets to import one car free from customs tax per lifetime. I think the car must be less than 5 years old.) Shipping to German ports is up to 2/3 cheaper than shipping to Croatia. You can keep your US plates for a fairly long time.

o Don't move to a village or a fairly small town (unless you are from there.) Serbian villages can get incredibly claustrophobic, even for returnees. That's why we like Sombor, it's big enough to have a mix of people and not everyone is watching what you do all the time.

o Keep an 'escape hatch' outside Serbia -- Even if you sell your house outside Serbia, you might want to hang on to a cheap apartment or small condo in your old country just as someplace to go when you need some fresh air, especially in the winter when the coal-smoke from your neighbors' household heating gets too hard to breath (loads of people have respiratory problems in Sombor in the Winter) and/or when you just need to return to the thinking-cap of the wider world. Serbia can feel too parochial sometimes if you've lived elsewhere.

Some people I know consider buying a tiny condo in Belgrade as their escape hatch when they move back to smaller Serbian towns... I bet that would work for expanding your mindset somewhat, but Belgrade air quality isn't great in winter either.

o Medical and dental care isn't that bad -- My husband regularly has his dental work which would cost thousands in the US, taken care of by our dentist in Sombor for much less. I get my prescription glasses made up there. Great, fashionable frame selection and the cost is very reasonable. We've heard good things about heart surgeons in Novi Sad. You have to check through the grape vine about quality of medical care, but it's generally not bad.

o Buy clothing overseas or have it made there -- Off the rack clothing costs way too much in Serbia and there are no "outlet malls" or places like TJ Max. I've seen low-quality outfits (the sort that fall apart when you wash them a few times) selling in Belgrade malls for $400 or more. My sister in law who is planning to retire to Belgrade next year also plans annual clothing shopping trips to the US. Plus, she buys fabric and has local Serb tailors make outfits for her at very reasonable costs.

BTW: No size 10 women's shoes in Serbia (or Croatia) that I know of. If your feet are larger than US women's 9 1/2, you'll have to buy all your shoes somewhere else. It's also hard to find a large selection of books in English, so you'll need to ship them in.

o Add a guestroom -- the primary reaction of my whole circle of family and friends to our announcement that we were going to be living part-time in Serbia from now on was "When can I come visit?" We are now everyone's vacation destination - my brother plans to fish the Danube, my sister to go rug-shopping in Subotica, etc., etc.

o Visit in the wintertime - Don't base your decision to move to Serbia on a Summertime visit. August especially is very different from "regular" life, with all the ex-pat fatcats swanning around town showing off their German SUVs, fat wallets, and fatter waistlines. Come and stay for at least a few weeks in the off-season when you are the only ex-part visiting in town. See if you fit in as well, and if you like it. I loved Sombor in March, when practically no one else does, so I knew I'd be OK. But I am unusual.

o Build a silly house -- Maybe there's a law? :-) Returning expats often build houses that look nothing else in town. Either it's the house of their deeply-personal dreams, or a house that reminds them of "back home", or a house for nouveau-rich-style showing off. I've seen houses that looked like palaces, houses with only circular round windows, shocking pink houses, etc.

o Keep the bulk of your retirement funds outside Serbia -- As I mentioned in a past post, banks in Serbia are not very safe. Your deposit is only insured for a couple of thousand dollars. Even banks with famous Western European brand names, may be nothing more than Serb franchises and not as safe as their mother banks. The Serb stock market is worth playing a little, but it's so new I would not trust the bulk of my savings to it.

Have you retired or considered moving back to Serbia? Got any tips to add to this list? Please post them! Thanks.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Reunited & It Feels So Good! Found My Car in New Jersey

Yeah! As I write this I can look out my home office window at my car. She is dusty, the tires are a little soft, and I haven't gotten the wax pencil marking that says "Rijeka" on her windshield all the way off yet. But she is here and safe again, and that is all that matters.

The US-based shipping agent we used, ShipOverseas.com, had pretty much given up after his calls and emails weren't returned by the Balkan-owned shippers he'd contracted with, Demars International. I am nothing if not tenacious, so with help from my husband and step-daughter, we started a revolving phone calling campaign. Every few minutes we'd call one of the Demars numbers, get hung up on, or put on hold forever and then hung up on, or just not picked up. Then we'd start again with another one of the four phones we own between us. (If you alternate phone numbers, you're more likely to get answered.)

It took three days of phone calls, some digging in Google, and help from kind strangers (I convinced a guy who worked in an unrelated warehouse in New Jersey, near where I'd heard Demars had leased a parking lot, to walk around outside and look for my car), but at last we found her.

The small parking lot was packed with at least 50 cars that have been waiting to be shipped to various Balkan ports since Jan-early Feb of this year. If you're reading this and you own any type of Volkswagon, Austin, Corvette, Mercedes, or a Ford SUV that you think is being shipped to the Balkans, well the chances are it's sitting in Elizabeth New Jersey for the unforeseen future. It's not indoors and the security is laughable - the ancient chain link fence is missing entire sections. All the cars' titles and other paperwork is in their glove compartments. Anyone could walk off with your vehicle. It's just dumb luck no thief has figured this out yet.

The guys in the warehouse next door had the keys in an unlabled, jumbled mess in a black plastic bucket Demars had given them. "Go fishing!" one of them gaily said. "You want to take the 2007 Mercedes? I don't care, here's the key." We tried three Volkswagon keys until we found the one that matched my car.

"Lady, can you tell me why car owners trust these people?" the warehouse manager asked me. "I can't imagine just handing over my car with the signed title and keys to some strangers who do business like this." "I think it's a Balkan thing," I said. "They are all from the same small countries and when they get over here to America maybe they trust each other more than they ought to."

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Best Books About Serbia (In English)

Prompted by an email from a reader from Australia who would like literature to understand his Serb parents better, here's a list of the best books I've found so far which are translated into English and fairly readily available outside Serbia itself.

Ottoman Empire Era:
Nobel prize winner Ivo Andric wrote several novels and short stories about Bosnia during the Ottoman empire which relates to much of Serb experience (same empire after all). Most famous is the Bridge on the Drina.

Roman empire-WWII:
Dame Rebecca West wrote 'Black Lamb and Grey Falcon' at the outbreak of WWII inspired by a lengthy trip through Croatia and Yugoslavia. It's long, more than 1,000 pages. Called, "One of the great books of our time' by the New Yorker, it's brilliant writing worth reading no matter what the topic. And frankly, her deep insights into the characters and backgrounds of Serbs and Croatians are incredibly illuminating even - or maybe especially -- today. Should be required reading in Serb schools, probably isn't (my husband never heard of it until he moved to the West.)

Tito and post-Tito era:
Slavenka Drakulic's bestselling collections of essays, especially 'How we survived communism and even laughed' and 'Cafe Europa' are funny, sad, truthful, and brilliantly written. If you know any expats who left Yuogoslavia in the early 1990s, read Slavenka to understand where they are coming from ... and what's behind their obsession for bargain shopping and foreign travel among other things. Highly praised by the New York Times Book Review.

Search Amazon.com for books on why-the-civil-war-? and you'll see a virtual war of reactions to every single book available. Every book deeply offends one side or the other and is proclaimed lies and/or propoganda by one side or the other. It's nearly impossible for an outsider to figure out which title is at least slightly factual, not to mention well written.

That said, my personal favorite is Brian Hall's 'An Impossible Country:A Journey Through the Last days of Yugoslavia' -- written by an on-the-spot journalist from the UK who did just that... traveled through Yugoslavia just as she was falling apart and chronicled his experiences along the way.

Slobodan Milosevic Era & After:
Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad chronicles 14 Serbs from every walk of life (including a rock star, a top politician, an elderly farmer, a civil war refugee, etc.) who she met with personally and repeatedly during her trips to Serbia from 1999 to 2004. She doesn't seem to have any axes to grind or agenda. She just lets Serbs talk in their own voices. This book has helped me understand today's Serb citizens - the ones who never left -- better than any other. It's especially helpful when I am mystified by their political decisions.

Today's Serbia:
I read the blogs, columns and especially the comments, in English over at B92, my favorite independent national TV and Web channel in Serbia. In fact, I often learn far more from the comments expats and Serbs post on my occasional blogs there than I have from any book or conversation!

Monday, March 24, 2008

What Did You Do During the NATO Bombing?

Nine years ago today NATO began bombing Serbia for 78 days. I'm not a political creature, and don't want to consider reasons, rights, wrongs and idiocies (of which there were plenty on all three militant sides - America/NATO, Yugoslavia's leadership & Kosovo's population.)

As an American, my primary knowledge of what it's like to be bombed is the perspective of London's Blitz. (Loads of other nations have been bombed, but few have turned it into a 60+ year PR event celebrating their national stiff-upper-lip and carry-on attitude.) Although it feels far too crass, especially as an American, to go about asking Serbs, "What was being bombed like for you?" I've quietly collected stories from many friends and family over the years that I think reveal something about the Serb national character.

On the bad side, it's a sense of inevitable victimization -- as in, 'Woe is me, big bully nations are underhandedly ignoring justice, painting us as the only blackguards, and hurting Serbs to achieve their own agendas.' To which my answer is, if you think you're going to be a victim, of course you always will be. It's also a sense of political idiocy -- as in, although Serbs are otherwise intelligent people, they frequently give assholes positions of political power. (This is a lot like an otherwise smart woman who keeps on picking rotten boyfriends.)

On the good side, Serb character is also good cheer (despite all the odds), black humor, artistry, and companionship. Here are some things my friends and family did during the bombing:

- Wore silly t-shirts with a big circle painted on that said "NATO Target"

- Got together a bunch of friends for a giant group drumming-fest, to bang the fear away.

- Bought all the wine and caviar possible with grocery money instead of regular groceries, because if you're going to be bombed and possibly die, you may as well have a great time while you're waiting.

- Painted giant wall murals inside their houses, painting and painting as the bombs fell. And, naturally inviting friends over to add their contributions to the work.

- Asked neighbors who didn't have a basement to come over and sleep in your basement so they'd feel safer.

- Walked from their New Belgrade flats to Belgrade University every single day to send email to relations in the US so everyone would know they were ok. (Driving us all nuts with worry they'd be hurt while walking to and fro of course!)

The bombing also revealed a bit about NATO and US military intelligence and targeting, the best description of which is the acronym SNAFU (situation normal all fucked up). I especially can't figure out why we bombed Novi Sad and areas around Sombor Serbia where the population was already mostly unhappy about its government. To understand this: it's as if NATO wanted to stop US involvement in the Viet Nam war in the 1970, so they bombed Berkeley California.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Bee Colony Collapse Disorder Hits Sombor Serbia

Many more Serbs keep bees than people do in the US. You'll find multiple homemade honey stands at nearly every greenmarket in the country, and everyone's granny or cousin or next door neighbor keeps bees.

If you're an American with Serb connections, like my father who has now married off two children to Serbs, your kitchen is packed with jars of homemade honey, carried over each time someone is visiting from the old country. If you're an American who is married to a Serb like me, chances are your US house is the only one in the neighborhood with a beehive in the back yard.

We had high hopes that our little US beehive, hidden away in an otherwise bee-free neighborhood, would not get hit with the terrible Colony Collapse Disorder that's savaged much of the commercial beekeeping industry in the US and Western Europe in the past 24 months. But this afternoon we learned all of our bees, so happily prospering this last Summer, are dead.

Our Sombor Serbia next door neighbor, Andre, also reports he's had unusually high hive losses this winter - 50 of the 80 beehives he keeps in a field by the Danube have been completely decimated. (Andre is pictured in the 3rd photo in this past Blog of mine.) It's without precedent in his 30-odd year career as a beekeeper. While we mourn our bees, it was more of a hobby for us in the US. In Serbia, often income from bee products can make the difference between being able to get by on a tiny pension or being in terrible financial difficulty.

As for the farmers in Serbia, America and the rest of the world (Colony Collapse Disorder reportedly started hitting Japan in 2007), bee losses will in turn hurt crops. For example, California's almond crops are nearly entirely dependent on bee fertilization. And that's just the start, scientists say if all or most bees die, the human race could be next. We're more interdependent on bees than most people realize.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

New Serb-Husband Blog: Canadian Man Marries Nice Girl From Novi Sad

For me, the best and most unexpected result of this blog are the new friends and acquaintances I'm making through it. Thousands of people are now reading it each month, and nearly 100 have written me so far. I'm learning of this whole world of Serbs married to Westerners... and often vice versa. It's wonderful not feeling alone.

It's also been wonderful hearing how many people are either in the process of moving [back] to Serbia or at least considering it seriously. I have to admit, I'm only in Serbia part of each year now as we also keep a house in the US, and admire and am a bit envious of the people who are there full time. Envious but also relieved for myself. Serbia is like very strong wine -- sometimes the experience is best with a bit of water.

I woke today to the good news in my in-box that one of my new favorite correspondents, Rob Russell, a Canadian married to a Serb from Novi Sad, has kickstarted his blog to talk more about what it's like as a Serb-husband. He and his wife also run a bio-tech firm and have the experience of interviewing potential Novi Sad-based employees. Having had Serb employees in Sombor for a while myself when I headed a US Internet firm, I ruefully laugh at many of their experiences.

Anyway, check out Rob's blog and give him support if you like it as I have. Also, if you are a Serb expat considering returning home, or already returned, or a Westerner married to a Serb, do contact me if you're interested. I may start a Facebook group or something soon... we deserve our own special club!

Monday, March 17, 2008

My Car Lost; Feared Stolen by Balkan Shipping Company

Dang! Cars are insanely expensive in Europe so we decided to ship my US car to a Croatian port and then drive it to our home in Sombor Serbia. After surfing the Web and getting quotes for RORO (roll on, roll off) services, I picked ShipOverseas because they were at the median price and answered emails more quickly and politely than others.

Thing is, in the US when you hire a shipping company to send your stuff overseas, they don't do it themselves. They are "freight forwarders" and subcontract the actual job to shippers. As an individual apparently you can't deal with the shipper directly.

As directed, my step-son drove my car down to a warehouse in New Jersey in early February. It was "totally sketchy" with a lot of cars with parts taken off sitting around. He was concerned but I said, "No problem, ShipOverseas have been in business since 1983, they know what they are doing. Warehouses are always weird places."

I was an idiot. Or rather, ShipOverseas were idiots. When we never got the email announcing our car had departed, nor the email announcing our car was arriving, we began to worry. I just got off the phone with the guys at ShipOverseas and they are worried too. Turns out they entrusted our car as well as six other ones to a shipper they'd never done business with before. Now nobody at the shipper's offices, from the president on down are answering calls or emails.

"What country are the shippers from?" I asked. "Well they have offices in the US," said my rep. "No, what country are they actually headquartered in?" "They have a really really great Web site and wonderful references," my rep said. "What country are they from?!" "They ship all over Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia. They are local experts there, that's why we chose them," the rep replied.

"Oh no!" I said. "You're doing business with a company from the Balkans? We're screwed. If I had known you did business with those people I would never have given my car to you." "Don't worry," the rep said soothingly, "if there's any trouble we will register a complaint with the Federal Maritime Commission and they will launch an investigation." "Yeah, and sometime in 2009 we'll find out my car is gone forever and we're screwed."

I don't want to be undiplomatic. But here's the factual truth. Every single businessperson I've met in the Balkans has earnestly told me, "Don't do business in the Balkans." At first in my peppy naive American way I'd chirp back, "Oh come on, it can't be That Bad." Then they'd look at me like a screw in my head was loose.

By the time a close connection who was a top exec at the bank of Serbia told me this February, "Don't ever put more than a few thousand dollars into any bank here, it's not safe," I nodded my head calmly. Of course. I'd be screwed. I wouldn't make that mistake.

(Note: The golden exception to this rule are small, entrepreneur-owned companies where you know the owner personally and/or they used to be ex-pats so they've had a lot of Western business experience. Even then, watch their charactor, do they want to get rich quick? Are they a wheeler dealer type? Or are they an earnest, slightly geeky small businessperson with a passion for the business they are in? Only do business with the latter.)

Unfortunately, the ShipOverseas people don't have Balkan business experience. "We never have problems with shippers to Finland or Russia," the rep told me like this should make the Balkans OK. After awhile I just wished him good afternoon and ended the conversation. I've accepted the fact that my car is gone, almost certainly for good. I guess the grieving process now begins.

Kosovo vs US Economy: Which is the Bigger Crisis?

If you watch the TV news in the Balkans, you'll become convinced the US is going through a massive meltdown. The dollar is plummeting and the economy is rotten to the core. European commentators are making sage, saddened remarks about the looming US unemployment crisis. And the way the housing market and exchange rates are going, soon every Macedonian sheepherder will be able to afford vacation condos in their choice of Manhattan, Las Vegas or Miami.

My step-son, now visiting his old hometown in the Balkans, is getting pitying pats on the back from local friends. Never mind they have very little chance of owning their own homes or even getting well paying jobs in their own towns for years to come. He's the one to be concerned about, he's going back to America. Land of the Giant Sinking Feeling.

When I myself got back in the US a few weeks ago after six months abroad, I frantically questioned my friends and relatives. Were they ok? Was business badly off? Were there foreclosure signs up and down the streets? How were they coping with the slumping value of the dollar?

They looked slightly puzzled. What was I going on about? Oh, sure a few houses are for sale, but nothing really unusual. Gas prices have gone up again a bit, but what else is new? The media mentions a recession sometimes, but there's 287 channels on cable TV so why watch the boring old news? (Even people who used to watch the news don't anymore since Iraq began and Bush re-won; it's all so depressing and we have to wait for another president to change things, so why bum yourself out every evening? Watch Bravo instead - the shows are better and your vote really will make a difference.)

Then they change the topic of conversation. They were wondering about the Real Crisis. What's going on in Kosovo? Do we know anyone there, are they OK, are we ok, is Serbia going to be OK?? Now that's a real crisis!

If Americans had any idea of what the Balkan and European newsmedia was saying about them right now, the recession would probably be worse than it already is. Perception is reality for stock markets and currency values.... luckily Americans are for the most part blithely unknowing of how big a deal any of this is to them. It's not touching their lives... quite yet.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

American Men vs Italian Men

My step-daughter and her college roommate stopped by our US house last night to say hi before taking off for important St Patrick's Day pre-celebrations. "I'm going to Italy in May!" her roommate exclaimed, 'It's my first time out of the US. I'm so excited."

I looked at them both sitting at our kitchen table. Despite six years in the US, my Serb step-daughter was carefully dressed in a sleek fashionable outfit, with perfect hair, make up and nails. Her roommate, a typical American, was in comfy sweat pants, sneakers, and an oversized athletic team's hoodie that probably belonged to her boyfriend.

"Stand up, I'm going to show you how Italian men look at women," I ordered the roommate. For a count of five, I flicked my eyes from the top of her head all the way down to her shoe-tips and then back up again to her lovely face. "And, if you run into American men who are tourists in Italy when you are there, here's how they'll look at you." For a count of five I stared directly and unmovingly at her breasts.

Both girls screamed with laughter. "She's right you know," my step-daughter said.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

How to Invest Your Retirement Savings: Serbian Thinking vs American Style

If you are an American married to a Serb, you may have had this same experience. I bet I'm not the only one.

When my husband and I got married and started planning for retirement, my ideas were:
1. 70% into low-fee index funds tied to US, European and Asian stock markets. Let sit for years and years and years.
2. 10% into cool peer-to-peer loan accounts like Prosper and LendingClub
3. 20% into tax-free bonds
4. Pay off the mortgage and sit on our house for 30 years, then sell it when it's worth a lot and move into a tiny condo that's easier to maintain.
5. Don't expect diddly from social security.

His ideas were:
1. Buy a bunch of Euros, put them someplace safe like a coffee can in the basement, and let them sit. Forever.
2. Buy a bunch of gold and ditto.
3. Buy 3rd grade farmland, plant a whole bunch of nut trees, let sit for ten years, start to harvest annually.
4. Pay off the mortgage but never ever sell the house because you don't sell family property, are you normal?
5. Improve your Social Security standing - working more years, higher wages, whatever - because a government pension is a very useful thing.

After years of arguments (erm "discussions"), I at last wrested control of the situation. After all, I grew up in a place with stock markets and a booming economy while he grew up in a place with civil war, economic sanctions, and a black market economy. I "knew" what I was doing with investments!

Naturally about a month after I took over managing our retirement accounts, the global stock markets tanked and kept tanking. At the same time gold doubled in value and the Euro cracked the $1.50 barrier and kept on gaining. Not to mention the fact that farmland prices in Serbia and Croatia started rising steadily. If we'd invested my husband's way, we'd be at least 50% wealthier now.

My reputation and confidence as a canny money manager is shattered. Next time someone says, "Let's buy some diamonds and bury them in a box under great-aunt Jadranka's apple tree," I will nod my head and say 'Yes dear, that sounds like a good idea."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Bog, Bog, Bog, Bog, Bog

"Bog" in Serbo-Croatian means "God." It feels a bit odd for an English speaker because why would god be named after soggy land; but, mainly at first I appreciated this nice, short, easy-to-pronounce word because so many Serbo-Croatian words really aren't.

However, pretty quickly the thing that gets annoying is how often Croatians fling "bog" about in casual speech. It's bog here, bog there, bog everywhere. Bog has become a verbal punctuation mark used constantly throughout the day, mainly to mark the end of a conversation and often leave-taking. Instead of saying, 'bub bye' or 'Ciao', people say 'bog.' I've also noticed it being used as a kind of "thanks/hvala", such as if someone exiting a building holds the door open for you as you enter, both of you might say, 'Bog' in passing.

You don't hear bog used like this in Serbia. My husband says darkly that Croatians are using it to prove how much more religious they are than Serbs (Croatians are mostly Roman Catholic and Serbs are mostly Orthodox.) Maybe his theory holds up for a few people, but mostly everyone else does it because everyone does it. You just pick it up after awhile, and don't even notice you're doing it. After one short week visiting Croatia this year, my step-son was bogging away with the rest of us. I'd never heard the word pass his lips before that.

Something about mixing the sacred and the profane bothers me. By saying "God" so much, it feels like the word is being dragged across a line it shouldn't be... even polluted a little bit. OK so I've been known to swear, taking the Lord's name in vain as much as the next person when I stub a toe or something. But this feels different. It would be cool if a giant megaphone came down from heavens over Croatia and a voice boomed out, "That's my name, don't wear it out!"

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Adventures in Montenegro: A Love/Hate Road Trip

I'd never seen Montenegro, so we decided to do a quick weekend road trip this February. After crossing the makeshift and grungy Serbian border post, there's a couple of kilometers of windy no-mans-land road until you get to Montenegro's far nicer border post. As we drove between the two borders, we passed a Septic Pumper Truck parked at the side of the road dumping its load into the river below. Notably, that river flows south-to-north back into Serbia. Also notably, the truck had Montenegrin plates.

A few minutes later, as we were waiting in line at the Montenegro border, the same truck merrily skipped the line to pop right over the border without any annoying ID checks or customs declarations. Here's a pic I snapped of it zipping through while we stagnate in line:
It was fairly obvious from the border guards' attitudes that the truck goes back and forth, dumping sewage into the river that leads to Serbia, fairly frequently. In fact, about a half hour later we passed the same truck in a neighborhood of a border town, getting ready to suck up another load from a customer's house.

I hadn't realized some Montenegrins are (literally) this pissed at Serbia. Nearly 32% of the population is of Serb ethnicity, 63% oif the population speak Serbian as their primary language, and 45.5% of voters in 2006 voted against independence from Serbia (the 55.5% majority won, however.)

However, after driving through the entire country on the main highway from the Serbian border in the north to capital city Podgorica in the center(formerly known as Titograd - a fact I learned when my 70-something father-in-law called up the mobile to ask where we were, and didn't recognize the name Podgorica at all until my husband finally bellowed 'Titograd!" at the phone) and then down to Kotor on the Adriatic, I realized quickly one reason why Montenegrins might hate Serbia. The roads which were built by the Yugoslav and then Serbian government are not remotely adequate.

Aside from a few bits immediately in and outside Belgrade, most Serbian "highways" are strictly amateur-hour. They are fairly thin - mostly just one lane per direction. And they're not always very well maintained. Here's a full-breadth snapshot of typical Serbian highway taken on a grey February day as we made our way toward Montenegro:(To be fair, none of the highways in Croatia that regular people use are any better either. There are spiffy, new billion dollar highways in Croatia that were supposed to replace the older roads, but nobody uses them except for a handful of tourists because the tolls are ungodly high. So, you have this weird twilight zone experience driving on them.)

The thing is, Serbia's landscape ranges from flat to smoothly-rounded hills. If there's not too much traffic, and there's rarely serious traffic, these narrow, straight-ish highways do the job well enough. Passing is pretty easy so you're never stuck behind a slow driver for too long and the view is extremely pleasant (a lot like southern new England.)

The same roads just don't work in Montenegro's geography of steep, dense mountains. Every few hundred yards there's a blind man's curve, making passing dangerous and difficult. If there are any roadworks -- and due to rock falls, aging tunnels, and icy winter conditions there are ALWAYS roadworks -- national traffic comes to a complete standstill as only one lane can be open at a time. Northbound traffic gets the sole lane for 30 minutes, and then southbound traffic gets their turn at the lane, and so on. You can't get off the highway and take an alternate route because there aren't many exits, there aren't really any other roads you can get to. There's a mountain-face to one side of you and a yawning crevasse to the other side and that's it.
Every single truck bearing supplies to Montenegro's interior is stuck on that same, tiny, winding highway with you. With typical traffic and road delays it took us more than five agonizing hours to drive from the Serbian border to capital city Podgorica. Supplies also come in through the rail system, but it's apparently fairly badly aging.

I can't imagine how Montenegro with a total population of just under 700,000 have any hope of being able to afford substantial improvements to their infrastructure so people and goods can actually get around the interior without undue agony. But then, Belgrade isn't famous for spending money on for infrastructure in the provinces (the tax money goes to Belgrade and pretty much stays in Belgrade), so I guess staying with staying with Serbia wouldn't have helped much.

Although it was after dark, we decided to press on to the old capital of Cetinje to spend the night. The old city which only has a population of 15,000 is absolutely adorable and totally worth a visit, despite the arduous drive. We stayed in communist relic, the Grand Hotel, which is made of concrete with a faded red carpet out front and more than 250 rooms with rather nice wood paneling; none of which had hot water that night so we got a 50% discount off the high ~100 Euro price. The staff thoughtfully put a space heater into our room when we went out to dinner so it would warm up faster.
That night we were one of only about five guests at the hotel, but a stack of glitzy brochures at check-in proclaimed the Miss Balkan beauty contest finals were being held there at the end of the month. I hope they had enough space heaters for all the girls because those bikinis looked tiny. The grand prize was carefully worded as "the possibility of a trip to New York" (US visa permitting of course.)

Although Cetinje only has two hotels, there are loads of nice restaurants - far more in fact than in Zadar which has a far larger population and many more tourists. We picked the Restoran Nacionale at random (it was the only one we could find on a cold dark night without a map) and had one of the all-time best meals I've ever had in my entire life - and I've eaten out a lot all over the world. True it was a little disconcerting to see our waiter run out the front door to get the groceries so the chef could cook our meal, and frankly Montenegro's wine isn't as good as Croatian wine. But, the food, oh the food. Total rhapsodies.

The next day we walked around town - it's in a lovely small valley in the mountains. Purple-blue crocuses were just pushing out their tips en mass across the city parklands, and I noticed quite a few nice pieces of sculpture. Buildings are only 1-2 stories high, and built from stone in a vaguely Austro-Hungarian-manner that reminded me of our hometown of Sombor Serbia. I should have taken loads of beautiful pictures, but I just wandered about in a happy daze and forgot to take hardly any at all... such is life. Next we set out for Budva on the coast which is reputedly even cuter than Cetinje (except when it's overrun in the late Summer by far too many holidaymakers). However, although we did see this rather startling sign:
...we couldn't find any pertinent road signs, and thus wound up on the road to Kotor instead. Such are the tiny, empty, winding mountain roads that we had no idea we were going the wrong way until after an hour or so of driving, we turned an abrupt curve and saw the Adriatic and the bay of Kotor below us.
Needless to say, the road down the hill was a steep one-lane affair with switchbacks every few hundred feet. It took ages to get down off the mountain. Most people fly directly to Kotor's airport and avoid the inland altogether. By "people" I mean mainly vacationing Russians who have famously overrun the place in recent years. Shops have signs in Russian in their windows, and despite the freezing cold, we passed several groups of Russian tourists on the streets. (To me it felt a bit like celebrity sighting in LA.)

Kotor has two parts - the harbor:
and the old town, which is behind a tall stone wall between the harbor and the mountainside. The old town looks pretty much like all the old towns in Central and Southern coastal Croatia. The buildings and streets are made of the same whitish, slippery stone, and everything's densely packed into a small area. It was the coldest day possibly in Kotor history, so naturally I stopped for a quick glass of wine at an outdoor cafe (I'm the one waving at the left.)Looming mountains aside, Kotor reminded me a lot of Zadar where my husband's parents were waiting for us at their flat. So, after a quick visit, we got back in the car we'd borrowed from my father-in-law and drove up the thin, windy coastal road toward Croatia....

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Croatian Apartment Windows: The Dearth Thereof

Notably, Croatians on the Dalmatian coast do not seem at all like Mediterranean people. Their skin and features look more Slavic and Central European. Aside from an occasional fish, their diet is definitely Central European. I'm talking potatoes, mutton, cabbage, dried beans ... often boiled to the point of mushyness (and beyond) with lard or vegetable oil and no identifiable spices. And you won't see any delicate greens in salads. It's your choice of cabbage, cucumber or tomatoes and that's it.

The architecture is the same way -- little about it suggests you are living in a land of sunshine and crisp, clean air. Sure, most everyone has a balcony, but that's used for hanging laundry and storing a few extra bags of potatoes from the family farm that didn't fit in your woodbin in the basement downstairs. Balconies are generally not deep enough for tables or sitting out - and I've never personally seen any Croatians (aside from my husband) relaxing on their balcony to enjoy the pleasant weather.

If they own a house, aside from a tiny grape-vine shaded terrace, the rest of the yard is usually 100% dedicated to growing cabbages, potatoes, brussel sprouts, carrots. Maybe you'll see an olive tree too and some rosemary hedges, but no other herbs or flowers and certainly not a lawn.

It's as if coastal Croatians are essentially in denial about their location. If they can't live in central Europe, at least they can eat, live, and garden like they do.

The window situation is the most galling for me. Stingy, stingy, stingy. Nearly invariably the architects allot only one window per room, unless that room is a bathroom, in which case there is no window at all. You don't get any cross-ventilation, and depending on the time of day, a limited amount of sunlight. Plus, the windows themselves are only moderately sized -- no sheets of glass to invite the outside in. No French doors, no sliding glass doors. Lastly, the permanent shades, built onto many windows, slide down from the top and are impossible to lift entirely out of the way. So your view will always be 50% or more obscured.

If you don't have shades, you solve that terrible problem by hanging drapes in front of all your windows, preferably floor to ceiling, and keeping them closed at all times. (My mother in law and I have a little game. I pull the drapes aside for a little air and light and then the second I turn my head or blink she nips across the room and yanks them closed again. It's amazing how quickly a woman who badly needs a hip replacement operation can move when she's motivated.)

So, here you are in nature's playground, and nature is definitely not invited in. The oldest buildings sometimes do have larger windows, but then their ceilings are so high that the rooms are fairly gloomy anyway. A few of the most expensive new buildings - the real upmarket stuff priced at 3000-35000 Euros per square meter - have modern-style larger windows. But, these are rare and only foreigners or local millionaires can afford them. The rest of us who want to live in this wonderfully sunny place to get away from northern winters are doomed to windows that make the worst of the situation.

Luckily, we've discovered a solution. A de-construction company called Dijamant-Rez have these huge saws they can bring to your building to cut holes in your walls for additional windows. You can also use them to change your floorplan or join two small apartments together.

As I've mentioned in the past, Croatian buildings are nearly always made with concrete which is reinforced throughout with mesh screens of thick steel wires. This is normally next to impossible to cut because you need one sort of saw for concrete and an entirely different saw for steel. The Dijamant Rez people have solved the problem with a new kind of saw - there's a demo on their Web site. Unfortunately the saw uses a lot of water (to cool the sparks from cutting steel), but we met the Zadar operator Josip Matic who told us his water vacuum minimizes any damage your floors might sustain.

The cost didn't seem too bad to me - perhaps $500 per day. That's a lot, but compared to the chintzy window situation it's well worth it.

By the way -- oddly the flats in Belgrade are window-laden. Loads and loads of big windows, even in the bathroom. So, if you are in Yugoslavian flats in central Europe, there's plenty of windows, the complete opposite of the south. Dumb but true.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Buying Property in Croatia Part IV: How Big a Flat Do You REALLY Need?

I did the math on the back of an envelope one afternoon as we were driving from Zadar to Zagreb and I was bored to tears (it's a thin, dull highway, few towns or homes, almost no cars, nothing to look at aside from hill, forest, field, hill, forest, field.... honestly you would think this place had never been populated at all.) Based on my rough estimate, the old New England farmhouse I grew up in was about 5,000 square feet. That's large for the US, back then the typical house was barely at 1,000 square feet, even now it's around 2,300. But, you know how it is when you're a kid. Whatever you live in seems normal.

Looking back my main thought is, My God, no wonder my dad freaked out when we turned up the thermostat! That house must have been a bitch to heat.

Then I asked my husband, "How big was your family's flat when you were a boy?" "Just over 500 square feet," he replied. Just one tenth of the childhood home I recall as being not quite big enough for us because two of the four kids had to share a bedroom. Turns out my husband didn't even get a bedroom. He slept in the living room which was so normal, and indeed still is in much of Serbia that real estate ads there to this day count the living room as one of the bedrooms. So an ad for a "two bedroom flat" actually means a one bedroom plus living room.

It also explains why most former Yugoslavs I meet are so tidy. You can't live cheek by jowl, crammed into small flats the way they do unless you pick up after yourself. I walk through a room and a trail of mess explodes behind me.

Anyway, the reason I bring up the size thing is that size requirements are the first thing every realtor will ask you for when you look for a flat in Croatia. Remember, stuff is priced by the square meter, so by asking about size, they are indirectly asking about your budget as well.

Anything called an "Apartment" is a small studio-style place, perhaps 300-350 square feet. These are often rented out as holiday apartments. Anything called a "flat" (Stan), is bigger, with at least one separate bedroom. Two bedrooms range from 500-800 square feet. The majority of flats I saw advertised were 400-650 square feet and included a balcony, small kitchen, small livingroom and one bathroom. Once you got to 700 square feet, another half bath was usually tossed in.

Three or more bedroom flats are rare. In the former Yugoslavia, people were given flats based not on need but on status. A general in the army would have a bigger flat than a mere soldier. Since there are fewer high status people at the top of any pyramid, the government built correspondingly fewer large flats. New construction now is built the same way, loads of 400-700 square foot flats and very few larger ones, for economic reasons. Few buyers can afford anything bigger.

Hence the penthouse apartment in new buildings is always the biggest in the building to reflect its status - often about 1,400 square feet. I find this incredibly annoying because we really like a view but don't want such a "huge" place.

The funny thing is, until a few weeks ago I would have worried that 1,400 square feet might be a bit cramped. Our US house is 1,200 square feet upstairs plus a 700 square foot basement apartment downstairs for the kids. For years I referred to it as a "cute, little house" in conversations, until my husband snorted "It's NOT small!" one too many times.

Now at last I understand why.

After you've been living happily with your Croatian in-laws for a few weeks in their 650 square foot flat, your ideas of what's big and what's small begin to magically adjust. The very first day we started looking for a flat of our own this January, we saw this one place that I totally, utterly fell in love with. But, it didn't meet my husband's key requirement of morning sunlight. So, we kept looking.

After unhappily touring nearly 100 more flats, five weeks later we found ourselves reconsidering the one I fell in love with. "Why don't we go back and take a look at it?" my husband suggested. I was SO excited. I had been a good wife and not insisted on my first choice, and here was my reward!

But, when we walked in something started to feel really wrong. I ran from room to room opening doors, trying to get back that magical "feels like it could be home" feeling I'd had the first time. No luck.

"How big is this place?" I asked my husband. "1,100 square feet." "Well, it's just way too big for us. I'd feel lost and lonely in here unless we had a bunch of guests staying over. We can't buy it."

A few days later I flew back home to the US for a business meeting. Looking out our bedroom window, I was startled to see in the six months I've been away one of the neighborhood families has built a gargantuan addition onto their house, expanding it from 2,000 to 4,500 feet plus finished basement. "Why did they add two more stories?" I asked a friend. "Oh, well their baby just turned a year old so they needed the space," she explained.

I cannot imagine how two adults and a small child will rattle around in that McMansion. I've been overseas too long.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Real Estate in Croatia Part III: Buying & Building Villas

Like many people from a cold climate, I've always dreamed of buying a villa on the Mediterranean someday. Two whole shelves of my home library are groaning under the weight of autobiographies ranging from the classic My Family & Other Animals where a British family moves to a succession of falling-down-but-utterly-delicious villas in Corfu, to Carol Drinkwater's olive farm trilogy where a British actress buys a run-down-but-utterly-delicious villa outside of Cannes France.

The books all shared a theme that foreign real estate may not be easy to find, but if you poke around with the help of a native guide, loads of adorable and just barely affordable old villas are there for the taking. (There's also an alternate story arc of "getting lost and finding nirvana" whereby while in France or Italy you take the wrong turn in a maze of overgrown country lanes and suddenly you find a big abandoned old farmhouse that everyone else has forgotten about. The natives think you're crazy to want to buy it; but when it's renovated, after a series of amusing adventures with local craftsman a la Peter Mayle, all your friends back home are violently jealous.)

Although I should have known better, my subconscious didn't, which led to disappointment. Although Croatia has olive trees, vineyards, and miles of sunny Adriatic coastline, the chances you'll find a beautiful old villa to buy are just about zero. Here's why:

Croatia is shaped like the letter "C" . The top half is all inland and high enough above sea level that it shares weather with Central Europe. This means snowy winters, grey springs, and hot sticky summers. There aren't many country villas or large picturesque farmhouses because most wealth was sent off as taxes to the Austro-Hungarian empire which ruled the area. Currently aside from a handful of larger towns (Zagreb, Ogulin, etc.) central Croatia is hilly, 3/4rds empty, agricultural and forested land and it's frankly a bit depressing because nearly everyone who could has left for someplace else such as Zagreb, Germany, Serbia or the Dalmatian coast.

The bottom half of the "C" is the famous bit you see in travel magazines with rocky coastline, strong sun, lots of islands, and sea views. It starts in the north with Istria and goes all the way down south to Dubrovnik. This is where one would expect to find lots of old villas... but you won't.

Why? History and geography. The coastline is awfully long - hundreds and hundreds of miles. But it's extremely steep, there's not much flat land. The hillside land is very rocky and often windy -- not a great place for agriculture. You can have a few sheep and some olive trees and that's about it. It's also awful for road-building. So historically, almost no one lived on the coast at all except for a handful of larger towns with decent harbors for shipping and just enough farmland to sustain the urban population such as Split, Rejika, Zadar and Dubrovnik.

The rest of this long, winding coastline and hundreds of islands was inhabited by the few poor peasant farmers, fishermen, and sheep herders who could manage to scrape a living. What wealth there was, was mostly drained off and sent to Italy which owned much of the Croatian coastline and harassed the rest. Many beautiful villas in Venice were in part paid for by Croatian taxes and built with wood from Croatian trees.

Lastly, wealthy Central Europeans from inland, who might have wanted to build lovely vacation villas by the Croatian Adriatic, could not because there weren't any decent roads over the mountains to the coastline or along the coastline itself until the 1950s.

When Tito's government invested in these new roads, loads of Croatians immediately flooded down to live or vacation on the coastline. (This is why you'll meet so many Zadar "natives" who have family land inland.) Plus, fed up with generations of isolation and poverty, the coastal natives left their small stone farmhouses and villages for apartments and jobs in larger towns as soon as they could as well. (That's why so many stone ruins are for sale on the islands.) Rapid building in coastal towns started in the mid-1950s and hasn't stopped to this day. For example, Zadar's population went from at most 15,000 in 1960 to 77,000 today and it's expected to hit 100,000 in a few years.

However, until the past decade, all of this new development was organized by a socialist/communist government. This means a tiny handful of concrete villas for top party officials (many of which cannot legally be sold to anyone) in downtown locations, and concrete apartment buildings for everyone else.

That's why any villas for sale on the Croatian coastline today are nearly always new construction, built as an investment (and sometimes for money laundering) to profit from wealthy western vacationers.

As I've mentioned in other posts, the buildings are cheaply made from concrete and concrete blocks using Bosnian labor. They range from fairly shoddy to good quality, depending on the business philosophy of the investors. You have to really inspect them well and ask a lot of construction questions. (We've seen new buildings next to each other where one is fantastic and the other terribly built.) Concrete isn't always a bad thing -- thicker walls regulate temperature extremes nicely.

You'll probably get a swimming pool, a terrace and a balcony or two. But you won't get any land for the types of old extensive gardens or vineyards that typically surround villas elsewhere in the Med. The villas are built more like suburban subdivisions, with as many squeezed into a development as possible to share the infrastructure costs of new electric, water, roads, etc. You also won't get many neighbors who are locals - so you won't have that "getting drunk with your new friend the farmer next door" experience so many expats living in France write about. Holiday villas and apartments tend to be ghettoed in areas with nothing but lots of other holiday villas and apartments.

These are generally near or on the water. However that doesn't mean there's a nice beach. I've never seen what I would consider a real "beach" in Croatia, aside from a few bits with a thin strip of sand. The coastline is abrupt and rocky. So much water comes down from the snowy hills that some coastal waters are unusually cold year-round. If you care about swimming in the ocean then check the local water temperature for yourself before buying.

In summary, if you want the old-fashioned villa of your dreams in Croatia, chances are you'll have to build it yourself. Building is often cheaper than buying, so it can be a great idea. A few tips if you're considering building:

For the past 60 years the government has carefully regulated where villas and apartment blocks could be placed. Much of the coastline is completely off limits - it's the "people's property" held in trust for the pleasure of future generations. So, places you might expect villas are verboten.

Some places, such as Zadar's famed Kolovare neighborhood, allow building villas but regulate how much land you must own per square meter of building so there's plenty of greenspace. This can make building cost prohibitive because you'd have to pay $600,000 for enough land for a small villa. Often natives build on a too-small piece hoping that they can pull strings to get away with it, or that nobody in city hall will force them to tear it down for a few years. Just because someone else has gotten away with breaking regulations does not mean you will. Always ask about zoning before buying anything!

Also, local governments are very careful about building permits. (Note: This is in marked contrast to Montenegro which is becoming increasingly unlovely because if you have enough cash you can build any damn thing you want; and lots of mainly Russians do.) I've met Croatian locals who have waited two years or more for their building plans to be approved by the town hall, even in smaller villages. Again, some will go ahead without permission, but then they may be forced to tear the new building down.

Other parts of the coastline are empty because no one's invested in infrastructure to be able to build houses. If you are a back-to-the-land type who likes the idea of solar panels, wind power and digging your own well, etc., then go for it. (However, buy the solar panels outside of Croatia because they are prohibitively expensive there.) Currently, only Croatian citizens can buy land in Croatia. With a bit of legal finagling, foreigners can buy houses, run-down stone farm buildings, or flats. or they can rent land for 100 years. Don't assume town services including garbage pickup, groceries, cable TV or Internet will get out your way anytime soon. The pace of development outside certain areas is glacial.

If you plan to live on your villa year-round or during the months Dec-March, then be sure to visit the prospective spot for an extended period during winter before building or buying. Although the Croatian coast is remarkably sunny and fairly warm all winter, the wind can be absolutely miserable. Natives have even given the winds names. You won't want to go outside, you won't want to get out of bed! Just because it's warmer and brighter than your home in the north, doesn't mean it's nicer to be outside.

If you want to garden and grow anything besides olives and grapes, you have to either buy a bit of land that's already farmed or assume there's not enough soil for farming so you'll have to do raised beds and truck in soil and compost. Don't assume that because your neighbors have gardens that you'll get good enough soil for gardening. I know of tiny yards in Zadar where every bit of soil was laboriously brought in by hand or created from decades of composting. Also, although you'll see palm trees and other sub-tropical plants, it does get below freezing on the worst winter days, even in Dubrovnik. ( I know, I just froze there two weeks ago personally.)

Lastly, basic building materials are fairly cheap but you won't find artistic or high end tiles, fixtures or furniture for reasonable prices. It's fairly easy to bring in what you want from other parts of Europe and even the US via shipping container to Rijeka, (there's also a regular car ferry between Zadar and Ancona in Italy where there's an Ikea) remember, you will pay customs on everything so stuff will end up being more expensive than you thought.

If you know someone who is an expat Croatian there are currently special low and no customs deals for expats returning home again. So look into that loophole - luckily I have Croatians in the family so I'm all set!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Croatian Real Estate Part II: Working with Realtors

Working with real estate brokers in Croatia is an arduous process -- both for you and the brokers. You will wind up working with several brokers at the same time, maybe even more than that, and everything will take longer than you dreamed. Here's why:

o No buyer's agents.
To my knowledge, there aren't any buyer's agents per se. Nobody can sell you a property, or even show you a property, or will tell you it exists and is available unless they are an official listing agent for that property. This hugely limits the numbers of properties a particular agent can show you. If you want to see a wide selection of properties, you have to work with multiple agents.

It's a massive pain in the ass as a buyer because you have to make ceaseless appointments, meeting agent after agent to see what's on the market in the area where you want to buy. If an agent has overlapping listings with another, as buyer you're legally obligated to buy through the first agent to show you the property -- even if you like and trust a different agent.

o No listing broker security.
In the US, the listing broker has a secure, exclusive contract with the seller. Any broker can represent the property to a buyer, but they must go through the listing broker who then gets part of the commission on the deal. There's no such seller-lister monogamy in Croatian real estate. A single property can and often will be listed with multiple brokers. Whoever winds up selling it, gets ALL the commission.

This means brokers are all each others' cut-throat enemies. Nobody will help anyone else market or sell a property because then they'd be giving up any chance at commission.

o No MLS system.
No matter what any Web site tells you, there's no central, complete, routinely updated, or truly useful database of what's for sale in Croatia or any one region. In fact, brokers zealously guard *against* anyone finding out precisely what listings they have because they don't want other brokers to nip in and steal their listings.

This means when you call about an ad in the paper, no one will tell you what address the property is at, just in case you're a rival broker trying to steal a listing. In fact, they are so paranoid about this (with good reason) that we've had realtors hang up the phone on us when we asked too many questions about a property they were advertising, such as what street it was on.
Naturally, when realtors post property photos on the Internet, they try to never show any revealing details that other brokers could use to figure out what property it is and swipe the listing. That's one reason why many Web site photos suck - you get to see pics of people's furniture but not buildings, room layouts, or views.

o Few specialties
Few brokers we met had any kind of specialty. They didn't seem to represent the particular neighborhood their offices were in (several times I met brokers who were completely unaware flats in their own buildings were for sale.) Again this was very frustrating for me as a buyer because to get a comprehensive idea of what was for sale in one particular neighborhood, I'd have to meet in person with brokers all over the city!

o Little expertise
Some of the brokers we met were good at selling - the kinds of people who could sell anything anywhere. None of the brokers we met were true property experts though. Most had never even personally visited their listings before we visited the listings with them! (Yet another reason why the online listing info is so bad - most brokers rely on the property owner to take the photos and give details, the brokers don't bother to view the property themselves until a buyer wants to see it.)

Often my husband, who grew up in Zadar where we were looking, knew far more about the buildings than the realtors showing us around did. Although he left 15 years ago, he knew which buildings had water leakage (half a dozen new buildings were put directly on top of natural springs which have been inadequately diverted), which buildings had heating problems, and which flats might not have entirely legal papers in order to be sold (some flats formerly owned by Serbs, as well as older "penthouse" flats which originally had been rooftop common-area laundry rooms.)

He also had more common sense about real estate - pointing out where obvious future developments would block sunny views from flats I liked. The realtors were startled by that, it wasn't that they were hiding things, they hadn't even thought of them.

o No private keys
Aside from rare exceptions (mainly empty properties), owners don't give brokers keys. To show a property, the broker must make an appointment with the owner who will then come home and let the broker and client in to see the place. This makes visiting listings an awkward business.

You have to make appointments, wait for owners to show up (if they remember to), and then do a walk through under the owner's eagle eye. Often the owner will include several members of their family - I've toured flats with three generations beadily eyeing my every move. Often the owners (especially those who did the most hideous renovations) will take on an active selling role, so you can't just nip in, see it's not for you, and then slip out. You have to stand there smiling in glazed politeness for a half hour while they offer you a drink and lecture at length on the glory of a particular feature.

o No English
If you are looking in the extreme south, such as around Dubrovnik, and maybe perhaps in the north around Istria then you will find English-speaking brokers. However, English-speaking tourists don't tend to come to central Dalmatia or anywhere inland in Croatia besides perhaps the capitol Zagreb. I know of one broker who speaks fluent English in Zadar. However, since my husband speaks Croatian, she kept lapsing into that instead because it was so much easier. I stood silently not knowing what was going on most of the time.

o They don't work weekends
Oddly new real estate listings come out in the local paper right before the weekend. But that doesn't mean any realtor will actually be there to answer your call. One did answer our call on a Saturday around noon once... she was astonished we were potential clients. "This is my personal cell phone!" she exclaimed in a tone I can only describe as outraged. "If you are serious about buying, then come into my office on Monday when I am working." Then she hung up.

So, now you understand a large part of why the past six weeks (6 weeks!) of looking for a flat was such a drawn-out, intensely frustrating affair. And after all of that hard work, we never did find anything we even wanted to put an offer on. More on why in my next posting.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Buying Property in Croatia: Real Estate Prices

Real estate is fairly new to Croatia. So if you are coming from outside, it is going to drive you NUTS. I just spent six weeks trying -- and failing -- to find a flat to buy in Zadar Croatia near my in-laws' place. If you're one of the thousands of Brits, Germans, Italians or ex-pat Croatians who are considering Croatian Real Estate, I console myself that the past six weeks of torture weren't entirely useless as I can share my lessons with you in this blog.

First, here's some info on pricing:

Today's Croatian real estate pricing is decided by how much the owner thinks they can gouge the market for at some indefinite point in the future. They are usually not selling because they absolutely have to, or with any kind of tight deadline.

So, there's very little pressure to lower prices when the market is flooded, or when something's been on the market for a year (or two), or when nothing is moving at all. Everyone digs in and waits for the long haul. They are quite sure their place will be worth a whopping amount someday; everyone KNOWS the future is bright.

Why not wait? Nobody needs to move, if the family flat gets cramped with too many generations sharing 60 square meters, you can use the neighborhood cafe as an extended living room and/or get a bank loan to buy a car to go parking for your more private moments. (Cars are less for commuting and more for status.)

It's an open secret that many new buildings are built for money laundering purposes. (Croatia is one of the money-laundering capitals of Europe.) That's why you see so many cranes busily erecting new flat buildings like crazy even in markets where when practically no new flats are being sold. Building these can be very cheap -- homes and apartment buildings in the Balkans are made from concrete and concrete blocks, which don't cost much. And you use super-cheap Bosnian labor. In fact there are so many Bosnians on building sites that the Port-o-Potty on site (when on the rare occasion there actually is one) may have "Bosnians Go Home"-type graffiti inside it. After the investor has sold a handful of flats, the building costs are covered, their money is laundered. The rest is gravy, and they can afford to wait for that train to come in.

Many honestly don't care if it takes years to sell the flats, they figure their money is safe there and prices will only go up someday. Having a few flats on the side to sell is like having a long-term retirement investment account.

Flats are priced in Euros by the square meter. So, at first you're doing math like crazy in your head to figure out what a place really costs. After a while you get used to it. 1,500 Euros m2 is a very good price for one Zadar native selling to another Zadar native for an older flat that's a ways out of town. When you get in town, nearer the center, prices can go up to 2,000-2,500 Euros m2. I've seen some for 3,000-3,500 Euros m2 if there's a water view and one for 4,000 Euros m2when they heard I was American.

Zagreb, Dubrovnik, and Split are all more generally expensive than Zadar. Most of Serbia is a heck of a lot cheaper -- I was stunned to learn I could get a good flat in the best neighborhood in Belgrade for less than the best flat in Zadar. For now anyway.

So, to put this into US dollars: a typical 750 square foot, two-bedroom apartment with balcony in a fairly nice downtown neighborhood in Zadar may cost you $210,000-300,000 plus realtor fees and buyer taxes.

The biggest mystery about price is how can natives possibly afford it? The answer is they can't. Although real estate costs about the same as it does in my corner of the US, salaries are nowhere near as high in Croatia, and only 1/3 of the population has a job (the rest are too old, too young, or just unemployed.) However, credit cards are new and health and education are free, so people don't have anything like the type of personal debt Americans stagger under. That means most people can afford a mortgage for just under 100,000 Euros. Which in turn means small, cheaper flats tend to be snapped up quickly. Anything more expensive lingers on the market forever and ever, waiting for a German millionaire or returning expat to buy it.

Historically, before about the mid-1990s, all property was essentially free - you got your flat in town as part of your employment and often inherited land in the country from family. Even your holiday flat by the sea was often built by your employer. So the older flats being sold are usually ones that no one actually paid for. No one's parents had mortgages. That doesn't mean they don't expect top Euro when selling them. After all, this is their big chance at last to make some real money.

Prices are affected by:
- sea-view and number of meters to ocean
- floor (lower is better unless there's an elevator)
- how hard the apartment will be to heat (windier sides and the top floor can be cheaper sometimes)
- 100% wood vs wood laid on concrete floors (the latter is seen as higher quality)
- ceiling-height (very old buildings can have 15+ foot ceilings which are dark, hard to heat, and less valued)
- size extremes (a tiny place is worth far more per square meter than a very big place)
- recent renovation.

Recent renovations are nearly always horrible to the non-Croatian eye -- especially lots of tiling you'd rip out and replace immediately -- and the owner wants to make back 200% -500% of the renovation costs. Also, renovation will only touch the apartment itself, NOT the common areas of the building.

I've been in several ultra-expensive renovated apartments inside buildings that are literally falling apart with concrete falling off the sides of the building, giant cracks, etc. Even the nicer buildings in better local neighborhoods will have lots of unpleasant graffiti on the ground floor, in the stairwells and in the elevators. There's absolutely no sense that inhabitants think of the common areas as being anything they have any duty or relation with. So, somebody's dog peed in the stairwell repeatedly, it's not their problem! It certainly won't affect their apartment price.

Price nearly always does NOT include kitchen. You'll get the space and the plumbing hook-ups, but no fridge, stove, cabinets or even countertops. You'll just get an empty space. People take their kitchens with them when they move. (This is true in Serbia as well.)

You also won't get a washer/dryer. You'll get an empty spot in the bathroom where the washer can be placed, and you'll get a balcony on which you can string laundry. (The few people who don't have balconies, hang their laundry out on lines outside the window.) I saw a dryer in a Croatian store once. I have never seen one inside an apartment and I have seen nearly 100 apartments.

Parking is almost never included in the price either. Even newer buildings have a laughably tiny number of parking spaces. The code must be something like one space per every ten apartments... or maybe there is no code at all. You can buy parking spaces in-town, but they are pricey, as in tens of thousands of Euros. If you are buying in a village outside of a main city, then you'll have no problem parking on the street. If you're buying in a city or large town, parking will be a problem, especially if you have anything bigger than a mini.

When you buy a flat, you'll also be charged a monthly fee for building needs. This often includes heat, but almost never air conditioning. It's fairly low and thus the building committee does not have enough funds built up to pay for anything significant like a new roof or elevator or graffiti removal or anything like that. Some buildings are infamous for owners who do not pay their fees. If the owners got the place as part of their job in the old Yugoslavian days (which is the way the vast majority of people got their places), it's next to impossible to evict them if they don't pay the fees. Old age pensions are dismally low in Croatia, so even if the building fee is only 50-75 Euros a month, it may be out of reach for some owners. In Zadar, and probably other places, this has resulted in skyscraper-style buildings which no longer have any central heat in the winter because not enough tenants pay for it to be switched on. If the building was built without chimneys for individual apartment heating stoves, you'll be cold.

Land pricing ranges from almost nothing - 10-15 Euros a square meter - to insanely high 500 Euros a square meter -- in relatively short distances. If you're in Zadar downtown or on the water in a village with electric and water, you'll have to be a millionaire. If you go just 15 minutes outside of town, land is next to nothing. I expect that's partly because no one really had cars until recently, so no one thought building land was that valuable.

Only Croatians can buy land. Foreigners can only buy flats and buildings - hence the crazy prices for "old stone houses" in vacation spots. Officially you're buying the house and the right to re-build it, not the land it stands on. This may change if/when Croatia enters the EU, so prices will go insane someday.

If something is advertised on the Internet, assume you're seeing the top Euro price and the cost for a native might be cheaper. Croatians assume that if you are surfing the Internet or even working through a realtor you must not be a native... and if you are not a native, you must be a Crazy Rich Foreigner. And ipso facto ready to be ripped off.

Croatians expats who have lived abroad and are now returning home are generally considered to be in the Rich Foreigner category. After all, if you were a native, you'd get land from your family (everyone seems to have a bit of land somewhere they inherited along with 12 cousins on their mother's side.) Or you would buy your apartment directly from a friend or network of acquaintances and not bother with this realtor stuff.

Tomorrow I'll explain about the realtors....