Croatia: It knocks the spots off city life

Ginetta Vedrickas meets a family who ditched the the grimy city in favour of a freer life in Dalmatia
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The Independent Online

Stressful city-living, working all hours and having a young family is enough to make the hardiest of us dream of a total life change. For most of us it remains just a dream but Charles, 38, and Carol Southgate, 37, have exchanged their frenetic London lives for a more peaceful existence in a small fishing village on the Dalmatian coast.

The Southgates have two small boys, Thomas, aged three and Ben, aged one, and, until March this year, were struggling to juggle family life while working in the City as portfolio managers. Charles explains what prompted their radical move. "I'd been in the City for 15 years. It got to the stage where I realised that, if I didn't change soon, I'd be there for the rest of my life, and I didn't fancy trotting into the City each day aged 60."

The couple's long hours (they frequently worked 12-hour days) were bearable pre-children but afterwards they began increasingly to question their hectic lifestyles, despite being successful and living in a desirable part of London, "We didn't want the children to grow up without knowing us because we're both at work all day, every day," says Carol.

After talking to a Croatian friend at work, Charles hatched an escape plan. "He was so enthusiastic about the country and the potential of its property market that we started to think that there had to be an opportunity out here for us." The Southgates visited and quickly fell in love with the central Dalmatian coastline and decided to move permanently - and have started up their own property agency, A Place in Dalmatia. Initially drawn to the romantic islands which line much of the coastline, practicality soon won out, says Charles. "With small children your priorities change and you have to be within easy reach of things such as hospitals."

The couple sold their "betwixt the commons" Battersea home and rented at first. They have now bought a 200-year-old, large, stone property overlooking the sea at Kastel Novi, one of a string of villages known as "kastela" after the small castles built as country retreats by Trogir nobles. They paid €300,000 (£200,000) and are busy transforming the period building into a five-bedroomed family home complete with pool, large kitchen and office space for their business. "We hope that it will prove to be a great investment and should even be worth 60 per cent more on completion," adds Charles.

The stressful buying process has made them determined to offer a better service. "Information was dreadful and the agent we used didn't seem interested in helping us, which has made us keen to use our experiences to provide something better, such as floor-plans for every property." Most buyers head further south to around Dubrovnik or to Istria in the north, both of which have greater accessibility, but central Dalmatia is growing in popularity. This year British Airways introduced more frequent flights into Split, and now that Croatia has signed the Open Skies agreement in the run-up to EU accession, low-cost airlines will soon be able to operate.

So far, the couple have no regrets, their business is firmly established and their eldest child has settled at nursery school where he is the only British child: "He is picking up Croatian far quicker than us. Both boys love the lifestyle out here where they have more freedom and we have far more of a life-balance."

Other British families are hoping to join them. Stephen and Helen Sullivan, both 34, from Glasgow are looking for a holiday home in the same area. "We've two small children and we love this area. It's just so clean and relaxing when you get there," says Stephen, who holidayed in Croatia as a child. He visited Dubrovnik, and Porec in Istria, but prefers central Dalmatia with its islands, mountains and national parks, "When you drive from Split up to Zadar it's the most spectacular journey, with islands and the sea on one side and the mountains on the other."

The Sullivans have narrowed their search down to the Unesco- protected town of Trogir, about 13 miles west of Split. They are searching hard for a house near the sea, which they can use out of season and let throughout the summer. "We all have Scottish skin so it suits us. We hope it will prove a good investment. Everyone is talking about Croatia, and, when they join the EU, there will be big benefits."

Avatar International sell property throughout Croatia but its director, Amar Sodhi, warns that finding your dream-house can prove difficult. "Croatians don't tend to move frequently like we do in the UK so you'll usually find houses have belonged to the same family for generations, and there will often be one old lady living in a castle all alone." Many of Sodhi's clients are chasing the same types of property: period houses, as Venetian architecture is common along this stretch of coastline, or lighthouses and castles that are becoming ever harder to source. Sodhi advises looking along the lesser known islands and coastline as far north as Zadar, "If you're willing to head further north there's a much greater chance of finding your paradise."

A Place in Dalmatia: www.aplaceindalmatia.com, 00 385 21 246 290. Avatar International: 08707 282 827, www.avatar-international.com

Buying tips

* Choose your area according to your needs; for example, airport access, out-of-season living, rental income.

* Be realistic about your budget. Make sure that you factor in renovation costs, taxes and fees.

* Decide whether you want to make a private purchase or buy through a Croatian firm.

* If you want to buy through a company, get this set up, along with a bank account, as soon as possible, preferably before going property hunting.

* Find a reputable agent that you can trust. Be wary of agencies that are not in possession of all the relevant paperwork and facts.

* Always ask whether the property has "clean title" and full permissions for any work done. This is absolutely essential.

* Don't be surprised if the seller invites you to sit down with them for coffee, home-made wine or liqueurs.

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