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

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Great Stan-Hunt Begins: What I've Learned So Far About Belgrade Real Estate

I love, love, love real estate. But, I can't imagine the agony shopping for an apartment (stan) in Belgrade Serbia must be for people who don't share my passion... because even for me it's turning into a headache.

Serbian real estate is a lot like its cousin Croatian real estate (Posts from our failed 2008 attempt to find a condo we liked in Zadar Croatia.) To wit:

- No national or city-wide MLS (centralized listings). You have to surf a dozen sites looking for listings. Maybe 5% of online listings have photos. I suspect some listings never make it online at all, and I know for sure many realtors don't bother to take listings down when a stan is sold.

Most brokers will *only* show you their own listings. Property owners list their properties with multiple brokers to expand the pool of potential buyers. That's why you'll see multiple ads for the same property online, sometimes at different prices!

- No such thing as a universal 'broker's key' to properties, so a broker can't show you as many listings as you'd like whenever you have time available. Instead they must call each property owner and make an individual appointment to see the listing. This slows down property hunting considerably, and it means the owner will be staring at you the whole time you tour their place. Awkward!

- No 'open house' days (in fact, many brokers don't work Sundays) and no brokers-opens. Again this means it's harder to see what's available and your broker often hasn't seen the listings in person either.

- Title search, which is more pro-forma than needed in the US, is CRITICAL in Belgrade where properties are not always "on the books." I've heard expensive "penthouse" condos that have been added to older buildings are the worst for this. Apparently some owners insist upon a non-refundable 10% buyer deposit before you do the title search, which is obviously problematic.

- Prices are low for a capital city ... but high compared to potential rental income and astronomical compared to citizens' incomes. The rates I see quoted on general news sites of 1,200-1,800 Euros per square meter are not realistic compared to listings which tend to go from 1,500-3,000 Euros per square meter. Anything in a "good" location is on the 2,000-3,000+ Euros end of things.

Plus, bad news on the tax front. Serbia's just passed new annual real estate taxes, which start at reasonable levels but rise to US-levels for property worth more than 150,000 Euros. So the savings we anticipated in moving here won't happen, especially because electricity and gasoline (petrol) costs are so much higher.

... and now for the stans themselves:

- "Salon-style" means nose-bleed high ceilings and large rooms except for the kitchen which is tiny (see below.)

- Kitchens are either shoved into a small dark corner or contained in a claustrophobic hallway attached to a 4-6 square meter terrace where you hang laundry. Renovated or "lux" kitchens are still small, but the cupboards are uber-glossy and one side of the kitchen may open up bar-style to the living room.

I personally so loath the "lux" style, which is pretentious and not very practical, that I'm praying we end up buying a non-renovated stan so I can do the redesign myself.

- Bedrooms are small. You could not fit a US king or even queen-sized bed in many of them. Closets are either tiny or non-existent, so you'll have to put a hulking wardrobe in your bedroom.

WARNING: In the Balkans, realtors refer to every single room that's not obviously a kitchen, hall or bathroom as a "sobe" (bedroom). That means they count the living room and dining room (if a separate room) as bedrooms... as indeed these probably are given the cramped conditions for many families. A corner that's good for a tiny home office would be considered a "half bedroom" which is why you see ads with ".5 sobe"s. A one sobe stan means a studio apartment, with no separate bedroom at all.

- Bathrooms are depressing. Why must all bathroom walls be coated with huge, ugly tiles from floor to ceiling? Only stans with bathrooms too small for tubs have showers. Tubs are not equipped with proper shower heads, but only with a hand-held device on a short hose so you must squat down to wash your hair.

- There is no such thing as a laundry closet. The washing machine is shoved - often awkwardly - into the bathroom. The dryer is, as mention above, a clothesline on your balcony or terrace. The good news is, this means nearly every single place has at least a small balcony, which can be unusual in the US.

- Windows are nice and large, but most apartment buildings are designed so you only have windows on one side of each room. Even if it's a corner apartment! Clearly no one in Serbia has ever read the studies showing humans get depressed when they have light from one side only.

- Floors are invariably wood parquet and rather attractive. Walls, even in newly renovated places, tend to be real plaster and often more than a foot thick. No thin dry-wall! However the newly lux places sometimes have horrible plastic interior doors.

- Heating is wonderful and close to free if you buy a stan with "city heat" in Novi Beograd, or you add extra radiators to a Stari Grad stan. (Apparently, Stari Grad city heat pipes are old and pump less warmth.) Everyone has warned me against buying a stan without city heat, because the cost of "independent" heat would be too high. Central air conditioning is non-existent.

- The typical stan seems to be around 40-70 square meters (roughly 400-700 square feet.) Big, expensive stans are 70-90 square meters (700-900 square feet.) Crazy huge stans that only millionaires, diplomats, and old ladies live in are 90-120 square meters (900-1,200 square feet.) So, what many Americans would consider a moderately-sized nice apartment, would be enormous over here.

- 99% of stans do not include a dedicated parking spot, nor is it easy to buy or rent parking separately. You can find on-street public parking in Novi Beograd fairly easily (when the economy improves that will be a thing of the past) but hardly ever in older parts of the city.


mostovljanin said...

Why even bothering searching salons? They're impractical, old, usually don't have lifts in buildings, their fat walls eat up space you could use for something, double windows (2 pairs of them covering one hole) are impractical, not noise resistant, aesthetic final touches were done back in 30s, so they're ugly now... It takes much more energy, money and time to heat up a room where ceiling is up in the air, than when it's on (post ww2) standard 2.6m height.
Skip that, search newer. The newer the better. Newer buildings have underground car parks, central heating, open-with-a-kick proof heavy doors, silent lifts, are quake proof, have all new electric installations, new tiles, hardwood floor, space predicted for all home appliances, etc..
And you can get all that for up to 150000E price. In the downtown.

Anonymous said...

Replace Belgrade with Paris and you get the situation in France. Actually, apartments there are much smaller. I've yet to see people in Europe use dryers as well.

Americans like huge spaces. Most of the world across the oceans doesn't. Same goes for cars, food portions and other goods.


Anonymous said...

This is very interesting. I am going to be apt hunting there in the fall. Can you talk a little bit about the average prices for the places you are looking at? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Quite useful and informative post there Rosemary! We own a stan in Subotica its 87 square meters and has 1.5 bathroom, 2 beedroom, living room, dining room and open kitchen. The cost was 74,000 euros, and is a nova gradnja. Has toplana (central heating from the city) and we pay about 5000 dinar (50 eu) during winter months and about 26 eu during the summer months, yes they charge for heat in the summer to keep the employees employed at the toplana, referred to as akreditacija fee.

We're building a house in palic, florida style home ... so there the points you mentioned won't play any role as it's All American with a laundry room, and ample built in closets everywhere so no need for huge wardrobes.

Holly said...

Oh so true, Rosemary! My POV is only from Zagreb, Croatia as I have visited my husband's family a few times.
I agree with all of your points as being true there too. The bathroom with a full size tub and room for a washing machine, yet no shower curtain and the hand held wand attached to the tub faucet drive me WILD (not in a good way). I have classic length hair (just past the guza ;) bottom) and washing it as you describe is a MISERY. UGH. Otherwise, I basically love it in Croatia and would move there in a heartbeat!