Property: Hot Spot - Brussels: Get on famously in Belgium

If we have difficulty naming famous Belgians, it may be because this nation's geniuses prefer anonymity. Consider, for example, the individual who devised rente viagere. This is a form of property conveyance in which the buyer pays rent monthly, and doesn't acquire title until, wait for it, the vendor dies. Imagine your life insurance policy paying off when someone else kicks the bucket.

Britons who prefer to fork out one large sum for their own property in lieu of regularly funding Brussels hoteliers clearly need to do their homework properly and get thorough professional advice when buying a house or flat in the Belgian - and European - capital.

One current house buyer is Jill Craig, the European policy officer with the Brussels-based European Society of Chartered Surveyors (ESCS). "The procedure here is that after you agree a price, the vendor instructs a notary to draw up papers. Usually the buyer decides the language of the contract, French or Dutch. The contract is a compromis de vente, and it can be subject to a mortgage or other conditions. Completion occurs four months later."

Natives generally buy only one property per lifetime. "Belgians are said to be born with bricks in their stomachs. They tend to rent until they have saved enough to buy or build, and then they usually stay for life. Even if they get a job elsewhere, it is a small country, so they probably don't have to move," says Ms Craig.

Not all property transactions involve the elderly or their estates. This most cosmopolitan of small cities contains a steady stream of foreigners relocating in or out. Ms Craig is British, married to a Dutchman and buying from a Portuguese. "We will live in Etterbeek, the east side of town, where the EC institutions are. It is near a park, we will have a garden, and it is a clean, safe part of town."

Her French colleague, the director of ESCS Sandrine Bardouil, is also buying - more precisely, trying to buy - a house from another category of seller, a divorcing couple. "We are part of a chain reaction. Our vendors are having legal problems because their seller tried to sell without informing the co-owner, and the notary made a mistake. It went to court and, as it is the house we really want, we are waiting for the decision."

Belgians tend not to go in for British-style surveys, and even Ms Bardouil, a chartered surveyor, prefers "to call in a plumber or electrician for advice. I'll use my common sense and go for it. And you can reflect anticipated repairs in the price".

A Belgian lawyer, who wants to be anonymous, urges British buyers to instruct their own notary. "If the buyer and seller each have their own notaries, the fee has to be split, so the notaries generally don't like it." Notaries pressure both sides to use just one, even though this represents a clear conflict of interest. "Many notaries are disappointing professionally. They are not clear if they act for the buyer or seller," he says.

A compromised notary won't botch a sale entirely. "I have never heard of any problems with title, and there is no concern about them handling client money. Fraud is very isolated and covered by insurance anyway," he says. But a shabby notary can hurt you in different ways: "If the central heating looked good but then breaks down, you may have no remedy in the purchase agreement."

The Low-Down

Prices: Michael Kingshott, the author of A Practical Guide to Property Purchase and Arranging Mortgage Finance in Belgium, says that a two- or three-bedroom flat should cost 4m-5m Belgian francs (pounds 65,000- pounds 85,000) and a four-bedroom house should cost at least 11m francs (pounds 185,000). Add tax at 12.5 per cent and legal and other fees, some of which are refundable if the property is sold within two years.

Properties: In Brussels, "flat" and "studio" are synonyms, and an "appartement" is a flat containing one or more bedrooms. A "villa" is a house with garden, a "maison" is a townhouse, and a "maison de maitre" or "herenhuis" is an elegant townhouse. Lower down the food chain is the maison bourgeoise, the maison d'ouvrier, and the fermette, or boederijtje.

Brussels also has a healthy self-build culture.

Leases: The standard residential lease is the 3-6-9 lease, in multiples of three years, but shorter leases are negotiable, and a 1-2-3 lease has been introduced. Very short-term furnished accommodation is available in "flathotels" and "aparthotels."

Transport: "Because Brussels is small, most people live in residential areas just outside the city," says Jill Craig. The tube gets people quickly to and from work or to the Eurostar station. Brussels has good areas with good schools and rough neighbourhoods with schools to match. The area near the Gare du Midi, which serves Eurostar, is rough.

Further reading: Newcomer magazine has chapters on property buying and selling, temporary residences, transportation, law, education, language, pets, shopping and tourism. It runs advertisements for corporate relocations, British and specialist (eg Montessori) schools, removals, storage and serviced flats. The Bullet is an English-language weekly, and Vlan is a French-language weekly.

Contacts: Confederation of Real Estate Agents: (00-32-2) 347 2987 (beware: vendors often list their properties with several agents, and buyers might revisit properties they have already seen); Michael Kingshott: (00-32- 1) 084 42 50.

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