by Catherine Barber*

Getting independent legal advice is essential to avoid disappointment

I’m reading “The English Neighbour” at the moment, a book about an Englishman who moves to a quiet Bulgarian village. Many people had recommended it to me.

It’s very amusing, and I’m learning slang words that I would never come across in my formal lessons. It's well worth reading, or watching when it comes out on Bulgarian National Television in September.

My heart fell, however, when the Englishman in question got into a property dispute. Sadly this is an all too familiar occurrence. I receive at least one letter on property issues every week, and sometimes several.

It’s obvious why British people buy property here. The climate is lovely, nature beautiful, people friendly, it’s close enough to the UK to get back and forth easily, Bulgaria is in the EU which should make the bureaucracy easier, and property is comparatively cheap. Thousands of British people buy property here and have a great time. Inevitably though, the people who write to the embassy are the ones who’ve run into difficulty.

What are the typical problems? “Double selling”, when a purchaser pays for a property and then discovers that it has been sold a second time. Developers or management companies going bankrupt (for real or for convenience) and the purchasers finding themselves at the end of a long line of creditors. A development being half-built before it turns out that the right planning documents don’t exist, or that there is a dispute between the developer and the municipality.

These cases often end up in court and take a long time to resolve. In addition I receive an increasing number of letters recently about utility disputes, in which British property owners feel their management company is seriously overcharging them for electricity or other bills.

So what can the embassy do? Well, we’re not lawyers. We can’t provide legal advice – and we have no investigative powers so can’t say that our citizens are in the right where it comes to property disputes. At the same time we are obviously concerned when there are problems that repeatedly affect British investors. We provide advice about what to do before buying property here, and direct people towards English speaking lawyers. We tell people about the Bulgaria Property Action Group. And we raise the issues with the Bulgarian government at a general (not case-by-case) level.

Recently we’ve seen some results. The Ministry of Regional Development has set up a working group to get different agencies together to address the problems. My colleagues and I went to meet Deputy Minister Zaharieva, and Deputy Minister of Justice Petrova to explain the typical issues facing our citizens. We found the ministers very responsive to our concerns. They offered to create a special website dedicated to helping foreigners with property problems. We discussed this and agreed that what would really help was an interactive service through which people could submit queries about property disputes, and get a response, or be directed to the appropriate authority. The government is also considering some legislative reforms that may help.

These steps won’t resolve everyone’s problems, and the effects won’t be immediate. I will continue to receive letters from Britons in distress, none of whom I can help as effectively as they or I would like. But at least there is recognition from the government that there is a problem, and a desire to help. At the end of the day these issues affect Bulgarians and foreigners alike; and it’s about Bulgaria’s reputation as a place to live and invest. We’ll keep working with the government to try to improve the experiences of investors here.

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*Catherine Barber is the British chargé d'affaires in Sofia


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