Bulgaria: Is the hotspot hype true?

After buying an old house near the Black Sea, Robert Nurden has tips on how to handle the process
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There were bureaucratic snarl-ups, the sale was delayed, there were disagreements between vendor and agent and misunderstandings between agent and buyer (me), and solicitor and buyer.

Essential personnel in the local authority were away when they were needed, and when the time came for exchange of contracts, a vital document was missing. Eventually the sale went through - two months late.

Nothing new there, then. Except that this was Bulgaria, where I had summoned up the courage to buy a charming, stone, newly renovated two-bedroom bungalow with a quarter acre of land in the picturesque hill-top village of Avren, 20 minutes from Varna and the Black Sea. Its huge flat roof had an ancient bread oven in one corner and commanded pan-oramic views of the Kamchiya valley. Price: £37,000. It was a nerve-racking business, but when isn't it?

I had originally gone to Bulgaria to inspect a new-build apartment block in Sofia, where I had put down a deposit on a two-bedroom flat - price: £35,000. Rather than use it, I was going to rent it out and treat it solely as an investment.

But while I was there, I saw ads for country houses selling for as little as £5,000. I abandoned the apartment idea and concentrated on old houses in the Varna area. On the internet I found agents Living Bulgaria, whose English managing director, Martin Hunt, agreed to show me round some rural properties.

Being near the Black Sea resorts, they were pricier than inland. Mine was the first one I saw. It was in good condition after extensive renovation, and the owner was English.

It was only after we had driven an hour inland that the £5,000 price tag became a reality. There were any number of properties with up to an acre of land on the market for under £15,000. Most were empty and needed considerable work but they were certainly not shells. Every owner, as far as I could see, was desperate to sell.

For the most part the houses belonged to elderly couples, who were waiting to join relatives in the city. They needed the cash: one went down on bended knee hoping I would buy. He owned a smallholding of an acre, and a 200-year-old farmhouse with five bedrooms, balconies, countless outbuildings stuffed with yokes and carts, two cellars, wine press, olive press, and a well. A couple from Colchester were thinking of sinking their life savings into it and setting up a guesthouse.

One note of caution on viewing in Bulgaria: you will have to pay for being shown around, which can be anything up to £30 a day. Agents frequently promise to show, say, seven houses, but that may turn out to be only two. "Oh, the others have just sold," they say - but they already have your money.

This brings us to agents. My Bulgarian solicitor, who claims to be the only lawyer to have qualifications to practise in Britain as well, warned me against buying through Bulgarian agents. "They will want to control everything - the money, the whole legal process, and they probably won't be that honest," he said. "If you can find a reliable English agent that is the better option."

Because I was buying land, I had to set up my own Bulgarian company to legalise the purchase. This has been the hurdle that unsuspecting buyers have fallen at in the past. This cost me £512, which covered solicitor's fees in getting approval for my application from the courts and the public notary. The business will be idle, and company tax in Bulgaria will cost about £100 a year. Having company status will also ease any future sale.

Because I was based in England I followed the normal practice of granting my agents power of attorney. This means that buyers have to have supreme confidence in those to whom they temporarily hand over their affairs: they are far more than estate agents. Mr Hunt was new to the game but he used Bulgarian advisers and had recently teamed up with an already successful - and honest - Bulgarian agent. That dream ticket is what swung it for me. Otherwise I would not have gone ahead.

My costs amounted to five per cent to the agents, and four per cent stamp duty and notary tax based on the taxable value of the house, which was half its purchase value. Surveys are not so thorough as in Britain and most purchasers are satisfied with the notary's search. The full cash amo-unt (just under £40,000) was transferred to the banks of the agent and solicitor from my UK bank account. Council tax is about £18 a year and my agents - through another power of attorney arrangement - will pay the bills on my behalf.

Theft is a problem and I will have to fix up a burglar alarm linked to either the police station or a private firm, and fix shutters and secure locks to the house, before buying furniture.

Yes, the Bulgaria hot spot hype is true, although the seaside and skiing property boom may be fading. Old rural properties, however, are still attractive to outsiders for two main reasons. They offer superb value and, with the country set to join the EU in 2007, values are going to multiply. Add to this the amazingly cheap cost of living, the friendly people, and breath-taking countryside and you have a winner - I hope.

Living Bulgaria: 00359 52 616 384; www.livingbulgaria.co.uk