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October 28, 2005The New York Times

A Second Home in Bulgaria?
By DENNY LEE

IT wasn't because the Hamptons were too flashy or the Catskills too sleepy that Aaron Hicklin ended up in Croatia. Nor was it simply the cachet of owning a vacation home in Europe.

"I didn't want to go somewhere obvious," said Mr. Hicklin, 36, the editor in chief of Black Book magazine, who lives in Brooklyn. So instead of a seaside cottage in the south of France, he and his partner, Ilya Marritz, 28, a radio producer, bought a 19th-century stone house last year on the lavender-scented island of Hvar off Dalmatia.

"It's the new European Riviera," Mr. Hicklin said. "There's even a celebrity element here, though that's not why we went. Croatia is still relatively undeveloped. And it's relatively dirt cheap."

Forget the Tuscan villa, the chateau in Provence and the pied-à-terre in Paris. They're so cliché, not to mention overpriced. Savvy second-home hunters are packing their passports, pouring through foreign classified ads and snapping up homes in far-flung countries from Argentina and Bulgaria to Nicaragua and Turkey.

Even though these places may lack the glamour of Cannes and are sometimes harder to get to than Timbuktu, they are picturesque, not overrun by Americans and, in some cases, even fashionable. Best of all, there are still bargains to be found.

Mr. Hicklin, for example, paid $65,000 for his two-bedroom cottage in Croatia. In Nicaragua, a new beachfront house goes for as little as $170,000. And in downtown Buenos Aires, $85,000 buys a one-bedroom duplex in Recoleta, one of the city's smarter districts. Try finding a broom closet for that price in Miami Beach or, for that matter, the Fourth Arrondissement of Paris.

"There's nothing available at that price," said David Michonski, the chief executive of Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy, a real estate firm in New York, and a specialist in international real estate. "Americans, for the first time in history, are looking abroad for second homes. It's not just Tuscany or England, where the rich have always gone."

The trend is just starting to emerge, as low interest rates and rising property values at home, cheaper air travel and the globalization of the housing market have prompted Americans to canvass the planet for vacation homes beyond the tourist beltway. In addition, baby boomers are better-traveled than their parents and think nothing of sinking money into foreign soil, especially as the domestic market seems to be overheating.

"Real estate has enjoyed a boom for the past five years, and it's spilled over internationally," said Jeff Hornberger, the manager of international business development for the National Association of Realtors in Washington. "Someone who bought a house for $300,000, that's now worth $600,000, may want to downsize and get a second home. But when they see the prices in Florida, they start looking overseas."

That is basically how Marie Munday, 50, a deputy sheriff from Aspen, Colo., ended up as an international snowbird. As her house tripled in value over the last decade, she began condo shopping in Florida, but the prices were still beyond her reach. So she got off the beaten path and landed in Panama.

For $54,000, she and her husband, Chip Munday, 49, a property manager, bought a half acre last month in Altos del María, a new second-home community in the mountains of Panama, about 90 minutes from Panama City. "We hope to do a high-end home with a vanishing-edge pool," Ms. Munday said. "Labor here is pretty cheap. High-end construction is about $65 a foot. In Aspen, the norm is $400."

"The first wave was Costa Rica, Mexico and Thailand, but those countries got expensive; now there's a second wave," said Matthew Atlee, the editor of Escape From America Magazine. The magazine is published online by EscapeArtist.com, a Web site based in Panama about living abroad, which started in 1996 and gets about 8.5 million visits a month. In Central America, the spillover has prompted real estate agents to call Panama, Honduras and Nicaragua, the "next Costa Ricas." In Europe, there is already talk of Croatia's being overpriced, as Bulgaria and Romania are promoted as the undiscovered hot spots. And in Asia, Americans are no longer ghettoized in well-traveled places like Bali and the beach resorts of Thailand but are branching out into Malaysia, the Philippines and the mountainous reaches of Thailand around Chiang Mai.

Even the Middle East is up for grabs. "Dubai is a nice blend of the Middle East and America," said Adil Samad, 24, a graduate student from Buffalo whose family recently bought a $600,000 three-bedroom condominium in the planned Trident Grand Residence, an apartment tower overlooking the Persian Gulf. "We considered Miami, India and California. But Dubai is extremely safe and 30 percent cheaper."

WITH the notable exception of Africa, hot zones like Iraq and Afghanistan and restricted spots like Cuba, few corners of the world seem to be off limits to intrepid home buyers anymore.

"What's a verboten place?" asked Mr. Michonski of Coldwell Banker. "I can't think of one. We're seeing this happening around the world. London plumbers are buying places in Portugal. Europeans are buying in Florida. Greece is on the verge of a huge boom. It's identical to global trade. In fact, they're tied together."

For one thing, real estate listings are no longer a local commodity. Not long ago, a tourist might have stumbled upon a "for sale" flier at a local cafe. Today, all one needs to do is plug a country name and the words "real estate" into a computer search engine to see what's available. That even works for places as hard to travel to as Fiji, which is about a 10-hour flight from Los Angeles.

"I had over 100,000 hits and 200 people e-mail me in the first month," said John Knox, 45, a land surveyor from Costa Mesa, Calif., who listed his Fiji bungalow on EscapeArtist.com in June. Last month, a British couple bought the property, a two-bedroom house on the volcanic island of Taveuni, for $55,000. "Now I'm trying to find a place in Croatia, maybe Montenegro."

The process for buying overseas has also become less risky, as the financial and legal institutions that make it possible for people to own second homes are increasingly transparent, global and linked. That is not to say there are no pitfalls. In many countries, there is little legal protection for home buyers should the deal sour. Mortgages for foreigners are nearly impossible to obtain, and the mechanism for transferring titles can be downright Kafkaesque.

"The nightmare scenario is the guy you meet at the bar who sells you a house, but doesn't actually own it," said Lief Simon, the chief financial officer of International Living, a Web site started by Americans in Ireland about buying property overseas. Mr. Simon also runs seminars that promote overseas real estate to investors.

Some countries restrict foreigners from owning land. Mexico, for example, prohibits Americans from buying property within 31 miles of the coast. Similar restrictions are found in Thailand, Croatia and much of Central America.

But as countries recognize the value of the second-home market, ownership rules are being relaxed. Or at least bent. In Mexico, Americans can now buy beachfront property through what is known as a "fidecomiso," a title-holding trust. In Croatia, homeowners form a local corporation. And in Thailand, where foreigners are barred from owning more than 49 percent of a property, buyers have developed a kind of corporate shell game to give themselves control of their properties.

Maintaining a home overseas is also becoming easier. The peace of mind afforded by title insurance, once a rarity in less-developed regions, is becoming standard. Financing for foreigners is available in a growing number of countries, including Panama, Mexico, New Zealand and, soon, Croatia. And a cottage industry of rental and caretaker agencies has sprouted to meet a budding demand.

SOME countries are going so far as to court American buyers. In Dubai, the local emirates designated broad strips of land as freehold, or private property, in 2002 to lure developers. Malaysia recently started a program that allows foreigners who buy property to apply for renewable five-year visas.

"The borders for second homes are falling," said AJ Janoyan, 35, a lawyer from Emeryville, Calif., who has second homes in Lebanon, Argentina and, as of last year, Armenia. He is now in the market for something in Croatia and Bulgaria. "There are lots of opportunities before these places convert to the euro. I think it's all open season."

Like many foreign homeowners, Mr. Janoyan treats his vacation properties as an investment. He visits only a few times a year. To help pay for the scattered homes, he has a business partner and rents out the properties to vacationers through local agents. "It's all about discovering new places and having a great time while we make money," he said. "The X-factor is no longer the distance, but how reputable the local people are."

Some economists, however, worry that the global buying frenzy is exporting the American real estate boom to other countries. Robert J. Shiller, a professor of economics at Yale, cautions that vacation home destinations tend to be driven by fashion and, therefore, are more vulnerable to bubbles. He calls them "glamour properties."

But Suzanne Halmer is not the least bit concerned. A teacher's assistant in Los Angeles, Ms. Halmer postponed her dreams of a Paris apartment and, instead, paid 22,000 euros (about $27,000) this year for a 400-square-foot studio in Bulgaria. It is part of a new resort called Sunny Beach, near the old town of Nesebur, that looks like a mini-Florida development on the Black Sea.

"Five years from now, it's going to be worth 85,000 euros," said Ms. Halmer, 47, who also owns a ski condo in Park City, Utah. "I'm not crazy about Bulgaria, but I'm crazy about the prices."
 

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