Bound to Bulgaria

Bound to Bulgaria

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For prospective property buyers, the beauty and mystique of an exotic locale may seduce, but beyond the poetry of a landscape, there can be many practical complications for buyers like Rachel Gawith, who put down a deposit on a property in Bansko, Bulgaria and wound up engaged in a legal dispute with the agent who sold her the property. Despite this and other setbacks, Gawith has created a substantial Bulgarian portfolio property and currently advises potential investors in Bulgaria about the same difficulties she confronted.

Like many others who research potential property acquisitions online, Gawith reviewed properties in several different regions of the world, including Slovenia, Austria, and Canada, and Bulgaria, where she discovered the ski resort town of Bansko. Originally settled around the 10th century, Bansko had a newly installed lift system and was surrounded by a scenic and historic village. In August of 2004, Gawith heard from an agent with the London-based Bulgarian Dreams regarding a new property development in Bansko. The agent told Gawith that the property would be located near the main gondola in Bansko and would feature five-star facilities.

After contacting the agent via phone and discussing the property in greater detail, which included requesting floor plans, the agent advised Gawith to expedite her decision regarding a property purchase because there were only a couple of apartments in her price range that remained. This was enough motivation for Gawith to submit a deposit for a two-room apartment. For roughly 1,100 euros per square meter, Gawith fetched 60 square meters of apartment space.

Gawith waited two weeks to receive a contractual agreement from her agent with Bulgarian Dreams, and when the property contract did finally arrive it contained numerous errors, including an omission of a promise made to Gawith by the property developer that one bathroom would be converted into a kitchen and this cost would be absorbed into the already established price of the property. At that point, no management content existed either, according to Gawith.

In October of 2004, Gawith visited her property development in Bansko and encountered a property that was located much further away from the ski lift than initially suggested. The kitchen that was still a bathroom and the anticipated view of the town of Bansko turned out to be a view of the next door block, Gawith says. For the proceeding few months, Gawith says she tried to get answers to questions regarding these discrepancies to no avail. Additionally, Gawith began corresponding with other property owners from the same development and discovered they had the same concerns and unanswered questions as she.

Amidst all the confusion, Gawith and her fellow property owners were informed that they would have to pay to use the spa facilities located in the development even though they were already paying an exorbitant maintenance charge. Gawith says the property was advertised as including five-star facilities, which implied that the spa facilities were included in the cost of the property and this was misleading for prospective buyers. To make matters worse, the developer informed Gawith that in order to include the full purchase price of the property on the notary deed, Gawith would have to submit 20 percent VAT, or Value-Added Tax. Bulgarian Dreams consistently referred Gawith to the developer for any questions or grievances she had, so there was no aid there for Gawith.

At this point in her property-buying experience, Gawith says she realized she had made an awful mistake investing in the Bansko apartment property. After much negotiation, or lack thereof, with the buyer’s agent for Bulgarian Dreams, Gawith was allowed to sell her apartment privately to cover her costs prior to completion. This was easier said than done because of the numerous other new property developments sprouting up in other, new ski resorts and coastal areas, not to mention the high maintenance fees and additional extra charges built into the asking price of Gawith’s apartment property.

To add insult to injury, the developer rescinded its promise to renovate one bathroom into a kitchen area unless Gawith agreed to pay additional costs for the rehab. Of course, Gawith refused to pay these new costs. For recourse, she contacted her agent, who not only did not come to her aid regarding the kitchen renovation, but threatened Gawith with legal action because of her discussion of the purchase price with other property buyers in the same development. Bulgarian Dreams refused to have further contact with Gawith due to her ‘behaviour’, the company claimed. Despite Gawith’s possession of documented evidence that stated the buyer’s agent agreed with the developer that a kitchen would be eventually fitted as part of the original purchase price, the agent refused to defend her rights to the developer.

Gawith described the response of Bulgarian Dreams as ‘pure bullying tactics from a large agency’. Without any help from her agent, Gawith says she negotiated directly with the developer and even visited the developer’s office in Sofia to try and recover her costs. She managed to get two-thirds of her deposit returned, but Bulgarian Dreams refused to refund the additional 6000 euros they charged for a commission. Gawith submitted a letter to Bulgarian Dreams, demanding back her 6000 euros, or she would proceed with a lawsuit against the firm. The agency disregarded Gawith’s letter just as they had ignored all of her other e-mail and letter correspondence, so Gawith made an official complaint to Trading Standards, a consumer protection agency. Trading Standards advised Gawith to send another letter to Bulgarian Dreams, but again her correspondence was disregarded. At that point, Gawith says she resorted to small claims court and submitted a claim against Bulgarian Dreams. The firm contested Gawith’s claim and waited until the last minute to file and additionally refused to pay the required filing fee. Eventually, the firm paid the fee, but requested the case be moved to London because they were a small firm and could not afford to lose a day in the office to travel to Cumbria, where Gawith was from, for a court case. Gawith says this request was submitted despite the fact that Bulgarian Dreams had told Trading Standards that all three directors were out of the country and could not respond to queries. Bulgarian Dreams also told Trading Standards that they had offices in both London and Bulgaria and as for being a small operation, they also communicated to Trading Standards that they advertised extensively in large newspapers and at homebuyer shows. All of this contradicted the firm’s story about not being able to be away from the office for a day. Subsequently, the judge dismissed the firm’s application for relocation of the case and Gawith received a judgment against Bulgarian Dreams for the amount claimed.

Ultimately, Trading Standards decided against prosecution, stating they gave the case much consideration, but that Bulgarian Dreams were spared further legal proceedings because of a loophole in UK Law where they were not caught by either the Property Misdescriptions Act, which does not cover property outside the UK, or the Trade Descriptions Act, which does not cover land and property, according to Gawith. Gawith says this loophole allows for firms like Bulgarian Dreams to continue exploiting property buyers.

After such a disheartening and fruitless experience, it would have been understandable for Gawith to wash her hands of Bulgaria as a resource for acquiring property, but Gawith resiliently chose to remain loyal to this country. This time, however, she focused on Bulgaria’s countryside areas, feeling safer with purchases of older, cheaper properties. Gawith traveled throughout Bulgaria and became better acquainted with the various regions of this Eastern European country. She encountered many other property offers and discovered many disreputable as well as reputable and helpful property agents. From the coast to the central regions of Bulgaria, Gawith journeyed through areas like Sunny Beach along the coast, which Gawith described as a ‘concrete jungle’ heavily spotted with new developments, to Veliko Turnovo, where property prices were rising due to an increased number of British buyers purchasing property there.

In May of 2005, Gawith decided to buy an older home in the Stara Zagora region after meeting an agent who ran his own, modest property firm in the region. The agent was seeking to expand his business to British buyers and Gawith was bored with her desk job as a lawyer in Cumbria, so an opportunity was seized and a property-selling partnership began for Gawith and this agent, who put in her notice at work and began selling properties in Stara Zagora.

As Gawith traveled throughout the region with clients, showing them desirable properties, she also acquired properties for herself. After she had ‘collected’ a total of eight homes, she says she realized she spent less on the first six in this collection of rural properties than she would have on the apartment in Bansko.

One of these property sites was a plot of land in a village close the Balkan mountains in an area world famous for its rose oil production and discovery of Thracian burial tombs. Gawith says there was already a small house situated on the land, but she wanted to build a new, larger home on this lot. In March of 2006, Gawith made contact through a forum aimed at expats in Bulgaria, with Plamen Bonev, office manager for the Varna office of DreamHome.bg, a home developer. By May, Gawith was ready to locate an alternative to an architect and builder in Stara Zagora who Gawith felt wanted to charge too much to design and build her house. Subsequently, she contacted Bonev via email on May 2nd. Bonev recommended that Gawith visit the Varna office for DreamHome to discuss her ideas and view houses built by DreamHome. After a visit to Bulgaria to meet with DreamHome, Gawith submitted her house plans to Bonev and they corresponded over the next two weeks to finalize the plans and with the aid of lawyers, draft a contract for the build. A few months later, Gawith paid the first of her contractual, installment payments to DreamHome.bg. Borislav Tochevski, owner of DreamHome.bg, instructed Gawith to give half of the payment to his mother and the other half to his father. Gawith says she questioned this, but agreed to it after she was told that as Borislav’s parents lived in Stara Zagora, it was easier for the money to be sent to their bank account so they could pay the builders directly on behalf of DreamHome.

By the end of August, the construction contract was signed and the old home that once stood on the lot where the new house would stand had been demolished by DreamHome. In September, Gawith asked for a construction update from Bonev, who reported that the foundation was finished. The following month, Gawith met with the architect and builder at her attorney’s office to review and approve the architectural plans. She also met Mr. and Mrs. Tochevski for the first time. Gawith says she was not aware that Tochevski’s father had been hired as construction manager for her development. Gawith says she questioned the terrace already incorporated into the plans as she had not approved a size or a design at that point. She says she was told that the terrace had already been built, but that it would only cost a little more than the original quote. Later that month, Gawith says she emailed Bonev for a construction update as well as a cost for the terrace. Bonev told Gawith it was not possible to tell her the cost of the terrace, but reported that the foundation was complete and therefore, the second installment payment in Gawith’s contract was due. As she had before, Gawith sent her payment to Tochevski’s parents, and continued to correspond with Bonev regarding construction updates.

In November 2006, Gawith arrived in Stara Zagora, hoping to see her new home finished because she planned to relocate to Bulgaria permanently at that time. Not only was the home not finished, but it was little more than four walls and the roof was incomplete as well. Gawith met with Tochevski in her lawyer’s office to find out why her home was far from finished. Tochevski asked for an additional 15,000 levs to complete the house because it cost more than he had anticipated. He attributed the slow progress to the original builders he had employed. Not only did he replace the builders, but he replaced his father, who had served as the building manager of Gawith’s home construction. Gawith refused to pay the additional fee of 15,000 levs and stated that DreamHome was obligated to finish the house build under the contract. Subsequently, Tochevski ceased all construction activity on the house. Gawith says she contacted her lawyer, who prepared a Notary Appeal. The appeal led to a meeting between Gawith, DreamHome, respective lawyers and building experts. It was successful for Gawith and Tochevski and his construction crew again began working again on Gawith’s home. Unfortunately, in March of 2007, Gawith ended up canceling her contract with DreamHome because of the poor quality of workmanship in her new home. Gawith discovered everything from sockets that were not level to wood floors incorrectly installed so that they prevented the terrace doors from opening.

For well over a year following her termination of the contract with DreamHome, Gawith endured legal battles with DreamHome. In the end, Gawith lost her case against DreamHome and was stuck with a mountain of legal fees. Gawith says she would not recommend entering the Bulgarian court system to anyone because the system rewards those who are connected with the right people, not those who have evidence favoring their defense. Gawith says that not only was she not properly notified regarding her legal fees, but she was forced to pay an additional fee to prevent court bailiffs from taking her belongings when they approached her at her home to collect her legal fees. To make matters worse, Gawith says the attorney representing DreamHome sued Gawith for alleged defamation and slander of his character because of a letter she submitted to the Stara Zagora law council that claimed DreamHome’s attorney used ‘bullying tactics’ toward Gawith. Currently, Gawith is appealing this claim, but if she loses the appeal, she could owe roughly 10,000 euros as part of the civil case brought by DreamHome’s attorney and end up with a criminal record in Bulgaria.

In the spring of 2007, Gawith says she decided to strike out on her own and leave the property agency she worked with. She established her own office in Stara Zagora, and began working with a few different property firms, selling property, overseeing renovations, and arranging property viewing trips primarily in the region.

After selling properties in the Stara Zagora region for around three and a half years, Gawith says she decided to give up her office and transfer her business entirely to the Web due to the generally poor economic climate and slow sales. She says she is now ready for a change of location and is trying to sell her property portfolio and rental business. As an avid skier and snowboarder, her future plans include a potential move to France to be closer to the major ski resorts in Europe.

Gawith currently spends her time giving advice to those who want to invest in Bulgarian property. Her website, http://www.thetravelbug.org/, provides advice for prospective property investors as well as offers a few property listings. After spending nearly half a decade involved in selling and acquiring property in Bulgaria, Gawith has become a niche property advice guru. She says she advises those interested in buying property in Bulgaria to rent for at least six months first before investing in a more permanent property situation.

“While Bulgaria is a lovely country in many ways and has much to offer, I do not know a single person that has moved here or bought here and not faced problems with agencies, builders and general difficulties of living in a different country and culture.”

Gawith’s property portfolio would be an ideal purchase for someone looking to relocate to sunnier climates and run a holiday letting business. It includes a luxury, 3 bedroom house with outside BBQ area and newly landscaped gardens, 3 further renovated properties in the same village, one of which is already furnished and used as a holiday let, a partly renovated villa suitable for longer term lets to those needing a base in Bulgaria while they find their own property, another villa close to the city which is currently let out on a long term agreement (to be honoured by buyer), five unrenovated older houses and 2 plots of land suitable for building on. Gawith is looking for offers of around 450,000 Euros for the whole portfolio, complete with Bulgarian company, required as a non-Bulgarian for owning land.

If you are interested in purchasing Rachel Gawith’s property portfolio, or have questions about this, or other Bulgarian property-related matters, please visit http://www.thetravelbug.org/, or contact Gawith at rachel@thetravelbug.org.