PROPERTY / At home in the lap of the gods: Buying a house abroad need not be an expensive nightmare. In Greece, David Lawson discovers, villas and old cottages come at a reasonable price

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The Independent Online
MOST newspaper stories about buying a home in the sun seem to be tales of disaster. But here are two stories with happy endings, which should give encouragement to those of you inspired by summer holidays to make the big move abroad.

Both our tales end in the Greek islands. Peter and Ruth Blase are just completing the building of a retirement home in Crete. Brian and Jacky George have found a holiday retreat among olive groves overlooking the Aegean. As with all house purchases, their courses did not always run smoothly.

For the Georges it all started when they sold the bottom of their West Country garden to a builder, providing the cash for Brian to take time off his boat-fitting business. 'I had always wanted to sail there and find a home,' he says. In the event he did both. His first attempt was scuppered by storms in the Bay of Biscay. The following year, he slipped a disc somewhere south of Majorca and had to fly home for treatment while the boat went on with a professional crew.

Eventually, he drove out, but the struggle was not over. He wanted a traditional home with some local character and history - something that many of the red-roofed, white- painted, multi-layered villas cannot offer.

Buying an old home was difficult, as the Greeks have the good sense to hold on to their property. Only the most ruined places come to the market and they cost as much to renovate as to buy in the first place.

Then Brian's luck turned. Nikos Kafandaris needed a new home for his expanding family. He sketched out the sort of place his ancestors had known for a thousand years - a simple, one-roomed, whitewashed oblong, with high ceilings and narrow, shuttered windows. The place was built and the plans put away. And there they stayed for more than 130 years until they were turned up by his grandson Dimetrios. As a builder, he had had many inquiries from home-hunters like Brian looking for traditional property. This seemed the ideal opportunity to create new 'old' houses from his ancestor's plans, updated with modern kitchens and bathrooms plus a few dividing walls.

So the British wanderer took over a site in some foothills near the fishing village of Kilada, on the Argolis peninsula. Plans have been approved for a clutch of homes based on Nikos's sketches and building will go ahead when Brian and Dimetrios can attract other committed buyers. Prices are likely to range from around pounds 12,000 for a plot to just under pounds 60,000 for a complete two-bedroom home.

The area is popular with boat owners, who make up a large proportion of foreign owners in Greece, because this is an easy stepping-off point for islands such as Aegina, Poros, Hydra and Spetses. It also attracts visitors more interested in mainland centres such as Mycenae and Olympia, as Athens airport is only a two-hour ferry ride away.

But buyers are also being attracted further afield. Until a few years ago, foreigners were banned from buying on outlying islands such as Rhodes, but restrictions on these 'border' zones have been eased in the move towards full membership of the EC.

'A lot of people still do not realise they can buy in such popular holiday areas,' says John Goodwin, an agent specialising in Greek property. Those who do are heading mainly for Crete and Rhodes. 'These are big enough to offer a wide range of property and entertainment. The smaller islands may seem attractive during a holiday but they close down at the end of the season.'

Peter and Ruth Blase took a hard look at Rhodes but decided there were still too many restrictions on buying. Mykonos was too expensive and Zante did not have enough character. So they settled on Crete.

'It is big enough to provide variety and an international airport but also has a long and rich history,' says Peter. He found a 'magical' piece of land near the Venetian town of Chania in the west of the island with a view of the White Mountains.

'Buying was relatively safe because a public notary handles such deals, ensuring the land has a legitimate title and there are no outstanding loans or taxes,' he says. He also checked with an architect and surveyor to ensure the site was suitable for building.

'But I learnt that the Greeks do not like cheques. I ended up creeping through the streets with cash in plastic bags provided by the bank.' They assured him it was safe. ' 'After all, this is an island. Where could any thief go?' I was told.'

Land prices across Greece are rising by a hefty 20 per cent a year, mainly due to rampant inflation rather than consumer pressure. As a result, property prices have increased sevenfold in the last decade - the highest growth rate in Europe. Outsiders will still find prices relatively cheap, however. A plot of land in Crete plus the cost of building a two-bedroom villa would normally reach around pounds 70,000, says John Goodwin. That compares with buying an old stone cottage for around pounds 25,000 and then spending at least as much again on renovation.

Buyers should expect negotiations to be tough. The Greeks are astute dealers and will hold out for hefty prices. Many are quite happy to hold on to their property. In fact, the country has one of the highest rates of home ownership in the world. 'Low interest rates mean there is little point in leaving cash in the bank,' says Brian George.

The Blases are still confident their new home will be steeped in tradition as the authorities insist that everything on the island must be built in Cretan style. Brian needs no planners to dictate correct style, however. 'We have a voice straight from the past advising us,' he says.

USE A LOCAL LAWYER AND REMEMBER TO ALLOW FOR PURCHASE TAX AND LEGAL FEES

John Goodwin, a specialist in Greek property, gives his customers the following general advice about buying a house in Greece.

A 10 per cent deposit is usually required to secure a property. In addition to the agreed price, buyers have to pay a number of fees. First, there is a purchase tax of about 10 per cent for plots of land and about 12 per cent for flats and houses. All transactions are executed before a 'notary public' whose fee is 1.5 per cent and the fee for a lawyer is likely to be between 1 and 1.5 per cent. These percentages are based on an 'assessed value' of the property, which is normally around two-thirds of the sale price.

It is advisable to use a Greek lawyer as they are cheaper, quicker, better acquainted with local laws and regulations, and on the spot.

There are no recurring rates or charges in Greece other than a nominal mains water charge and the cost of waste removal and street cleaning, which is included in the electricity bill.

Greek law authorises the ownership of freehold property by foreigners in most areas of Greece. Restrictions do apply in some frontier zones, although permits for EC buyers are usually granted as a matter of course by a local committee. Arranging to live or work in Greece is a simple procedure. If you decide to emigrate, contact the Greek Consulate in London for the necessary paperwork.

John Goodwin 0703 864660; Brian George 0326 372703.

(Photographs omitted)

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