April 11, 2004
Overseas Property: The end of my odyssey
Or the beginning? After all her work, Debbie Taylor’s Cretan house still has a leaky roof and she has learnt important lessons about buying and renovating property in Greece
If you’ve been following my Greek odyssey in the Home section for the past year, I’m here to tell you that it’s over at last. The crumbling four-room farmhouse in Crete we bought last year is finished. Though when you buy an old house on a tight budget there is probably no actual end to the work. And though I know we are going to have a wonderful summer, right now it’s raining. And the roof is leaking. In three places.
Which is why I want to sign off from The Sunday Times by letting you in on some of the things I’ve learnt from my Cretan property venture.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but when we bought our house we were contributing to what estate agents here are calling “the English boom”: an influx of Brits snapping up old houses and building plots in villages all over the largest of the Greek islands. It started about six years ago, apparently, and demand has climbed steadily ever since.
But prices are rising steadily too. Five years ago you could buy a habitable two-bedroom village house for as little as £18,500. These days you’d be lucky to find anything for less than £46,000 — although this is cheap compared with the equivalent in bustling Iraklion, Rethymnon or Chania, where a six-room flat can cost as much as £152,000.
There has been a matching expansion in estate agencies. Two years ago there were only two agents in the pretty little seaside town of Kalives. Today there are 10. Many estate agents also double as property developers, so the person who sells you your house may end up organising the plumbing too.
The number of builders has also mushroomed. This has helped keep a brake on building costs, which have remained steady throughout the boom. A new two-bed, two-bath house with a tiled roof, tiled floors, garden and central heating would cost about £80,000 to build today — pretty much the same as three years ago.
What has increased is the price of land to build it on. A generous 1,000sq m site with a sea view costs about £33,000. Add the two together, plus the costs of fees and planning permissions, and you could have a spanking new house overlooking the sea for less than £140,000.
“There are fewer and fewer old houses for sale, but there are plenty of building plots,” one estate agent told me. “The prices start at about £13,000 for a small plot, but most of the cheap plots are outside the villages, so you end up paying extra for the water and electricity connections. And you need a special forestry permit to build in open country, which can take up to six months.”
It’s usually cheaper to renovate an existing old house, because you don’t have to worry about building permission, road access or mains connections. But it’s no good eyeing up picturesque ruins, then popping into the local kafenion (cafe) to ask if they’re for sale. Even if you’re lucky enough to track down the owner, you’re unlikely to be offered a fair price. This is not because people are trying to cheat you, but because the boom is so recent people often have an inflated idea of what their aunt’s old house is worth. Every estate agent I interviewed had houses on their files they weren’t attempting to sell, because the owners would not agree a realistic asking price.
So what do you do? Having learnt the hard way, here’s my advice:
Find an experienced local estate agent who has been operating for at least five years. They all speak English, and you can be confident the advice you’re getting about permits, fees and taxes is accurate. And they are more likely to have contacts with local architects and builders.
When choosing a builder, ask to see other properties they’ve worked on. Talk to the owners and find out what problems they had. Beware of builders without a track record. The property boom means that lots of inexperienced people are setting up in the business.
Don’t pay big money upfront for building work. Reputable companies will expect a 10% deposit, but subsequent payments will be for work done. There’s talk that some property developers are engaged in a kind of pyramid selling, demanding substantial down payments, which they use to buy land for future houses.
If you’re buying a home for year-round use, expect to spend a bit more. Greek houses can be chilly in the winter and it’s worth installing central heating, insulation — and doors and windows that fit. Some new houses are pretty flimsy and only suitable for fair-weather habitation.
Don’t buy on a main road — especially one through a village. Things may seem quiet in April, but at the height of summer it can take an hour to get through a bottleneck.
If you’re buying a plot of land, think about how your surroundings might be developed. “There are people weeping at Kokkino Horio,” one agent told me, “because they bought a nice secluded house to retire to, then someone built a block of studio apartments for rent right next door. So now they’re kept awake all summer by drunken louts shouting on the balconies.”
Beware of buying on a new-build estate. You may be shown a drawing of a cosy two-house plot, but these are often jigsaw pieces in a much larger development. The resale value of estate houses is very low and many are worth less now than when they were built.
If you’re going for a renovation, don’t try to cut corners on the basics. Make sure the roof and walls are solid and that the plumbing and electricity are sound. You can tile the floors and sort out the patio later.
Make sure you have shade. This is as important as running water in summer. If you don’t have a tree or vine pergola, fit an awning.
Put in the time. Don’t try to sew up a deal in a rush at the end of a two-week holiday. Come back two or three times if necessary.
In short, don’t do what I did. Don’t buy on impulse. Don’t buy without making sure you’ve got enough money to pay for it. Don’t try to manage things long-distance by e-mail. Don’t try to cut corners. If only I’d known then what I know now . . .
Last week it rained in Crete. And rained. And rained. In February there was the worst snowstorm in living memory. It was all too much for the roof of our Cretan farmhouse to bear. Three of the four rooms now have puddles on the floor. “It’s because of the cold,” said the builder, tugging phlegmatically on his moustache. “The roof freezes, then it melts, then it freezes again. So now there are cracks.” But what about all the layers of insulation and waterproof membranes we paid for? Massive shrug. “We tried to repair it for you, but really, you needed a new roof.”
If I’d been made of sterner stuff I would have raved and ranted and demanded my money back. Call me soft, but I simply caved in and told him to build a new roof. A proper pitched roof, with terracotta tiles. We’d find the money from somewhere. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the past year, it’s that you get what you pay for. At £30,000, we paid too little for the renovation and we’re paying the cost.
But it seems like a small price to pay when I’m sitting on the terrace gazing out over the valley. The house is almost habitable, after all, and Vasilios, my local estate agent, says it’s probably worth £73,000 — about 25% more than we’ve spent on it.
I’ve bought a new mattress, painted the old iron bedstead cherry red, and moved it into a corner well away from the leak. At night, huddled in my damp sleeping bag, I can hear the owls I dreamed of. And tree frogs. And singing from the taverna on the outskirts of the village. In time the roof will be sorted. The ravaged fruit trees will regenerate. I’ve decided to set my next novel in Crete and I’ve already written the first chapters. The adventure’s just beginning.
A three-bedroom villa with a swimming pool is set in the mountains, near Georgioupolis and 50 minutes from Chania, is for sale for £286,000.
Crete Connections, 07763 384 285, www.crete-connections.com
A partially-finished property on the southeastern coast has two apartments — with 43,000sq ft for £210,220 or 10,750sq ft for £161,000.
Crete Home, 003 028 4302 4215, www.cretehome.com
A small but well-renovated house in Hamezi has a living area with open-plan kitchen. Steps lead to a bedroom, a shower room and a balcony.
Furniture included for £49,500 with www.crete-property.com
A two-bedroom village house three miles from Sitia is set in 2,000sq ft of gardens and the agent says it needs “only minor work”.
It is £36,125 with Crete Home, 003 028 4302 4215, www.cretehome.com