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Culture Shock: Wanna buy a house? Caveat emptor

The most widely recognised symbol of business chicanery in North America is the used car salesman. With his brillcream, coffee breath and sweat-stained check jacket, this simple peddler was raised to the status of an epic swindler largely by American novelists. From John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath to John Updike's Rabbit novels, the American consumer has been stripped of his naiveté. These days, you have to be pretty stupid to be taken in by a used car salesman.


Buying real estate from private vendors in Slovakia is a chancy business, as all manner of rogues and sly types are laying snares for the unwary.
illustration: Igor Lyskov

The most widely recognised symbol of business chicanery in North America is the used car salesman. With his brillcream, coffee breath and sweat-stained check jacket, this simple peddler was raised to the status of an epic swindler largely by American novelists. From John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath to John Updike's Rabbit novels, the American consumer has been stripped of his naiveté. These days, you have to be pretty stupid to be taken in by a used car salesman.

In Slovakia, the equivalent of the used car salesman may be found in the real estate market, which is teeming with characters who would be instantly recognisable to a Steinbeck or an Updike. We're not talking about established real estate agents, but about the twitchy characters who lurk on the fringes of the trade - those who put terse ads for real estate in local tabloids and want to know how big a deposit you can put on the property tomorrow.

Unfortunately, Slovak writers have not exposed these swindlers in the way they deserve, leaving even the most jaded of home buyers vulnerable to their low cunning. So my wife and I, having spent five exhausting months trying to buy a house in this country, decided to follow in the footsteps of American literature and attempt a brief catalogue of the wiles of this new breed - the Slovak Wheeler-Dealer.


1. Audacity

Ten years after communism ended, no one still has any idea how much real estate is really worth. As a home buyer, you will thus meet with many vendors who have fatuously over-valued the worth of their property.

Armed with a small loan, my wife and I began looking in April for a modest house near Bratislava that would allow us to commute by bus to work in the city. An ad in the local paper Avizo listing a "newly reconstructed family house" in the nearby village of Stupava for 1.3 million Slovak crowns ($30,000) caught our attention.

'The house' turned out to be a rough flat in a crumbling three-storey building. A ten-by-three metre patch on one wall of the building had been freshly painted to indicate the extent of the dwelling for sale. An large Romany family was waiting for us in the doorway as we walked slowly down the mud driveway.

"Is this the house for sale?" I asked. "Yep," answered a large woman, dragging heartily on a cigarette. Behind her, children writhed on the concrete floor of the flat. "Hmm," my wife rejoined, "and where is the yard you mentioned in the ad?" "Over there, where I do the laundry," said the woman.

She pointed at a patch of oily gravel where a well-fed dog was busily engaged with a child's diaper.

On the way back to Bratislava, we decided not to make an offer on the house - it wouldn't have been fair to the dog.


2. Forgery

Home buyers can also expect to meet with real estate 'agents' who are little more than crooks. Always check with the business register to make sure the firm you are dealing with really exists, and contact the National Association of Real Estate Agencies (NARKS) to find out what reputation the company commands.

We answered a promising ad for a little house in Svätý Jur, about 12 kilometers to the north of Bratislava. This time, a real estate agent was on hand to give the tour - a moustachioed smoothie in a dirty shirt who gave us a hand-printed business card identifying himself as "V. Vojtech - agent" for the "Avis Group."

We liked V. Vojtech's property, an aging, water-damaged two-room dwelling with "possibilities" selling for 1.2 million crowns, and eventually made an offer of one million. V. Vojtech beat us up another 50,000 crowns, and then told us to be present at Café Max in Bratislava's Old Town one week hence to meet the owner and sign a contract.

To our disappointment, no one showed up at the Café Max rendezvous.The owner later called us and told us why - V. Vojtech had forged his real estate credentials, he said, and in fact had no license to be an intermediary in the sale. The reason we had been prevented from meeting each other before was that V. Vojtech had been trying to pull a fast one, telling the owner we had offered only 900,000, while maintaining to us that the price was over a million - leaving V. Vojtech to pocket the remaining 150,000 crowns.

Belatedly, we checked the business register and found that the Avis Group did not exist.


3. Fibbery

Never, never believe what anyone tells you about real estate in Slovakia. Always check with the local municipal office, and get the advice of a good property lawyer.

We returned to Stupava in July, this time to look at a "garden with bungalow - a do-it-youself gem!" The garden was absolutely beautiful - set above the Borinský Kras valley and surrounded by conifer trees. The owner was a retired policeman, whom we met as he was watering his flowers in the morning sunshine.

"Yes sir," he said, turning off the hose and straightening slowly, "it's a beautiful place alright. Me and the missus are getting too old to come out here, but for young folk like yourselves, this would be an ideal set-up."

The owner went on to tell us how we could build a second storey on the house, a tiny two-room bungalow with no gas, electricity or water connection. My wife asked him how quickly he thought the utilities could be hooked up - "next two,three months, ma'am" - and whether the property was zoned as a residential site. "Of course - just look around you, everyone's building."

Of course, when we visited the local municipality office, we discovered that no plans were in store to hook up utilities to the area, and that the house was not zoned as a residential property, nor was it likely to be. Were anyone to begin building a second storey on that miserable hutch, they would either be fined heavily by the town or be forced to tear down what they had started. "Look, when the town is trying to make money selling residential lots itself, why would it re-zone private lands that are competing for real estate buyers?" a town official reasoned.

The owner and his wife invited us over for wine and sandwiches to discuss a purchase contract, but it was not a happy interview, especially since "Me and the Missus" had taken us for easy marks who could be hustled into a stupid move. "That official you talked to is a liar," the owner thundered. "Give me his name and number, and I'll sort him out."

I wonder if he ever called.


4. Incompetence

The most common problem you may meet with in buying real estate privately is simple incompetence - many vendors have no idea of what the law says, and only a dim grasp of the legal status of what they're selling. So, to save yourself time, make sure you see the ownership papers (list vlastníctva) on any property you're thinking of buying before you do anything else.

The closest we came to clinching a deal was in the beautiful village of Borinka, about 20 kilometers from Bratislava in the Small Carpathians. A trolley-bus driver was selling a 50 year-old house for 980,000 crowns, a very fair price given the location and the size of the dwelling.

Around this time, my wife gave birth, and my father, mother, aunt and uncle came to Slovakia to see the baby. They, too, got caught up in the Borinka project, and one day ventured out there to give the house the once-over (my uncle is an architect). Unfortunately, they were heard speaking English by one of the neighbours, a boozy Bacchus who makes glass figurines for a living. Nothing would do but they must join the fat glass maker for a few shots of home-made wheat liquor and admire a collection of his works - mostly oversized phalluses with a few large-breasted female torsoes for variety. The man's hospitality was so warm that my father had to be helped onto the bus, and my uncle refused to leave Borinka at all.

From the beginning, though, the whole Borinka deal had a bad feel, and it wasn't just a question of burdensome hospitality. The true locations of the houses and properties in the village were slightly different than had been drawn on the official village registry map, and some buildings did not officially exist at all - such was the case of our intended purchase. Apparently, people had been setting property boundaries pretty freely for over a century, meaning that no one really knew what land belonged to which owner.

Closing our eyes to these dangers, we sat down with a lawyer and the owner of the house to write up a contract. It was then that we discovered that the man did not actually own the land on which his house was built - the 'list vlastníctva,' or property deed on the lot, was registered jointly in the names of three other people.

The owner urged us to buy the house anyway, saying that we could doubtless come to an understanding with the rightful owners of the lot, but we were too discouraged to continue. Amazingly, the owner claimed never to have known he didn't own the land, and accused us of duplicity in backing out after we discovered the facts.


5. Other forms of wildlife

One Sunday morning, a month after the bitter Borinka business, we summoned our last reserves of courage to go looking for a house. A "fully-insulated cottage" near Borinka this time, for just over a million crowns.

We borrowed a car and drove out in the autumn sunshine, feeling that our luck might finally have changed. Our directions led us on to a charmingly narrow road through the forest, past meadows and lakes and over wooden bridges whose timbers leaped in their frames... until we reached a sign saying "Road Out." Beyond, the road wasn't just 'out' - it was gone entirely, having been carried away with large chunks of woodland during flash flooding in 1998.

We drove home deep in thought. My wife called the owner of the cottage and asked if it in fact lay beyond the 'road out' sign - if it was, in fact, inaccessible. "Yes," was the surly answer. So why, my wife asked, had the owner not simply told us that and saved us the trip? Surely common courtesy dictated such a move?

"You - you should teach me about courtesy, you CAMEL!" was the reply.

Ah, well. It looks as if there's a little work to do before Slovakia joins the EU.

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