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

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.


Anonymous said...

There is something that living overseas does to your perception.

We're currently buying a new home - townhome - and would not even consider a single family home in North America unless it was a bungalow - the sizes are ludicrous.


Anonymous said...

I don't get it.
You've met a Serb guy and live with him in Serbia, so why then do you want to buy real estate in Croatia?

Also, I thought the Croats didn't much care for Serbs, considering that these rebelled against them and tried to chop off a third of their country. The constant claims among Serbs that the Croats are nazis and fascists seem exaggerated then?

Rosemary Bailey Brown said...

Ah, you must understand that historically that much of what is today Croatia, was never populated solely by people of Croatian stock. Many villages, especially farming areas, were thickly settled by Serbs. My husband's family has lived in what is now Croatia for hundreds of years. When he grew up, it was called Yugoslavia of course. Then, during the civil war when many Croatians wanted to "clean their land of Serbs", he was forced to leave and wound up as a refugee in Serbia. For him then, Serbia was very much a foreign land with different food, accents, and attitudes than he was used to. While he has grown to love Serbia,as well as America where we now live part of the year, at heart he is a Croatian just as much as he is anything else. It's where he grew up, it's where his ancient family lands are, it's where his aging parents still live, and it's full of places and old friends he loves very much. So naturally we will probably someday buy a place to live there, especially for times when it's too cold to live in Serbia without being smothered by damp coal smoke!

James Cocksedge said...

So do you mean to say life is better in Croatia than in Serbis?

Rosemary Bailey Brown said...

In the depths of winter, coastal Croatia is a bit warmer and far, far sunnier than Serbia is. If you crave sun, go to Dalmatia then. Otherwise both countries are different but equal.

Anonymous said...

I geddit. My uncle lives in Delnice and he shared his 2 storey house with his wife, his son and his wife, my uncle's daughter and her husband and their two kids. The kids used to sleep in the living room but overall his house is a palace compared to city living. It makes me appreciate my farmhouse and land in Zdhivo a lot more.

bathmate said...

very good posting. i liked it. :-)