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

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.

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