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British invasion brings boom for Bulgaria

Date: 27.02.2007

Grainger Laffan

In the medieval city of Veliko Turnovo, perched on three hills above the Yantra river in central Bulgaria, there used to be only two estate agents.

In the last two years, however, at least 80 new ones have opened their doors to a wave of British buyers looking for a slice of the Bulgarian housing market.

Malcolm Yaxley, 55, gave up his construction job in the UK and moved to Veliko Turnovo last year. "The number of new people doubled last year, and it will double again next year," he said.

The city used to be best-known for being the home of Trifon Ivanov, the bearded football defender who helped Bulgaria reach the World Cup semi-final in 1994.

Now there are so many Britons in the city that is becoming known as one of the places at the forefront of the British invasion. And it is an invasion - there are 30,000 British home owners nationally, according to figures released this week by the Bulgarian government.

Mr Yaxley recently decided to set up a social club for expats. He said most of his members were over 50 years old and had moved to Bulgaria to make their pensions stretch further.

But he said there were also plenty of Britons looking to make a quick profit in Bulgaria's thriving property market, which has grown by 30 per cent in the last four years. Prices are predicted to rise another 10 per cent this year now that the country has joined the European Union.

According to the latest statistics from the Bulgarian interior ministry, many of the British property owners live in the country for at least some of the year. By contrast, the Office for National Statistics believes 80,000 Bulgarians will seek work in the UK this year. The influx of Britons has brought startling prosperity to Veliko Turnovo. Mr Yaxley said the streets were full of new shops and businesses. "People are even turning old garages into small offices," he said.

The influx of money into the former communist state is evident elsewhere. At Bansko, the country's leading ski resort, tourists can check into the Hotel Kempinski where there is Wi-Fi in the rooms, a cigar lounge, a vitamin bar and a spa. Down the street, Savills is selling penthouse apartments for ?320,000 each.

In Hotnitza, a town near Veliko Turnovo, the progress is slower. However, the mayor is delighted with his new citizens. "When the Brits arrive, services improve, the infrastructure gets better and jobs are created," said Atanas Ivanov.

As a gesture of friendship, he now delivers his major public speeches in both Bulgarian and English. Hotnitza has 400 inhabitants, but as 47 local homes have been snapped up by British buyers, the locals could soon find themselves a minority.

Other small towns are making similar efforts to please their new arrivals. Rujitza, a hamlet near the shores of the Black Sea, has even set aside land for a golf course.

A few years ago, the locals believed that the village would soon die as younger inhabitants moved to cities. Now, one third of the population is British, and they are building their own church.

Carol Woodley and Steve Lewis bought a holiday home in Rujitza two years ago.

They later made the move permanent. While the paperwork involved in renewing residency visas initially proved tiresome, they said they had few regrets.

"It's stress-free and friendly and after an initial settling-in period there is hardly anything you miss," said Miss Woodley.

"Thanks to the British, it is like we live in a new village," said the mayor, Krassimir Kostov. "The first thing they do when they arrive is to renovate their homes, then they start work on the paths, then the roads."

The low price of Bulgarian property is a major draw for most buyers. Graham Devers, a 62-year-old brickyard manager who arrived from Manchester about a year ago with his wife, Marie, paid 11,000 pounds for a house in Rujitza. He said: "The people here are the most friendly and generous that I have met."

Mr Devers said he would have to pay 150,000 pounds for a similar property in the UK.

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