BULGARIA ECONOMY

DOOMSDAY SAYERS, ATONE!

Weird eclecticism and vulgar pizzazz are traits of Sofia's architecture – thanks to a legacy of multiculturalism, political transition and poor planning. Nor is it the tidiest city in Europe. Fluttering blue-and-gold EU flags do little to sway the dingy impression made on first-time visitors. What newcomers fail to spot, however, is that Sofia is probably the most promising property market – not only in Bulgaria but in southeast Europe as a whole.

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GROWING PAINS

Over the last century Bulgaria's capital has expanded from what is now known as the "broader centre" into territories that Sofianites used to think of as "the outback". Wild expansion has swallowed up nearly all available building space for residential, office and especially logistics properties.

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END OF THE GOLD RUSH?

Real estate high-rollers take note: Bulgaria's era of wildly speculative deals is officially over. The country now has a new image: a stable economy and a much more predictable real estate market. The country's investment profile has changed, too. Before, foreign investors came to buy cheap properties, waited until their prices doubled - usually within a year - and sold them. Now they make long-term investments and prefer high-quality properties that can be let for a better price, rather than low-budget buys with poor potential for rental income.

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HOPING FOR A HOLE IN ONE

The world's most popular game is not football, as widely presumed, but golf. Although Bulgaria is definitely a football country, ongoing developments predict that golf courses will soon outnumber football pitches. In 2000, the opening of the first golf course in Ihtiman sounded like a joke. Nobody understood why a country where most people had trouble paying their electricity bills could possibly utilise one. Now, it's estimated that by 2020, there will be forty sites.

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THE INFLUX OF URBAN LUX

Recently, a penthouse apartment was bought for a reported £115 million, breaking the world record for the most expensive home ever sold. The apartment, at St James's Square, London, has not been built yet, and the development was only given planning permission by Westminster city council this March. The development will consist of a penthouse and five other apartments, each occupying an entire floor of the building. The cost of the apartment beats the previous record of £100 million, set recently by another unbuilt penthouse at a development in London.

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BATTLING THE CONSTRUCTION GODZILLA

For Bulgaria's Black Sea coast, 1 January 2008 was more than just the start of a new year; it was the beginning of a new era - at least on paper. On that date, the long-awaited Black Sea Coast Act came into effect. The controversial piece of legislation was intended to set out “public policy related to development and construction” in the Bulgarian Black Sea region. Its main goals are to secure the integrated development and preservation of the coast, to guarantee free public access to beaches and to assure the protection of the natural landscape.

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MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE SEA

Wanna-be matadors take note: the Times has announced that Bulgaria and other poor EU countries will never become “the new Spain”. The reason? According to the British newspaper, “the club of the rich countries” is not ready to invest the same amount of money as it did in Spain. In the real estate sector, however, Bulgaria has already been emulating, if not replicating, the Spanish developmental pattern. Whether this is good or bad is a burning question for everyone who has invested in Bulgarian properties or intends to do so.

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BOOMING SALES

Why did the Bulgarian property market attract so many Britons? There are lots of theories but no definite answer. Some experts say British estate agents simply identified a need for a cheap and attractive destination, and Bulgaria seemed to be the ideal place. Pessimists suspect that the whole Bulgarian property craze was just a brilliant PR campaign. Most locals believe it was the country's accession to NATO and the EU that ignited the foreign interest, but it actually began in 2002, long before there was any certainty that Bulgaria would join these organisations.

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THE MALLIFICATION OF BULGARIA

Before the 21st Century, all Bulgarian cities had one thing in common: most offices, entertainment spots and shopping areas were located in their centres. Their outskirts resembled sleepy, concrete jungles with poor or nonexistent infrastructure. Those who lived “uptown” had to go “downtown” to find a good nightclub or buy a pair of shoes. Reputable companies rented offices in the city centres as a sign of true prosperity and reliability.

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CHECKMATE!

Starting out as a gym teacher in Dublin, Rob Maher honed the art of coaching people to win in sports and in real life. Later as a mechanical engineer, he learned to make ideas into reality.

Curious about the world, Rob Maher ventured to Bulgaria, which at the time was still considered somewhat enigmatic. He was enchanted by Sofia, a damsel-in-distress who needed a knight in shining armour to slay the dragon of inexperience, corruption and confusion that had held her captive for half a century, so she could live happily-ever-after in a modern European investment climate.

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CASHFLOW ROUNDABOUT

Three years ago, when I moved to Bulgaria, I was lulled into a false sense of comfort by the number of international banks here. If nothing else in the country worked, at least simple monetary transactions would be possible. How wrong I was!

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BALKAN TREAT

A Greek, a Montenegrin and a Bulgarian real estate agent walk into a bar… It sounds like the beginning of yet another Balkan joke, but the scenario isn't very farfetched. The global credit crunch has affected the real estate sector all over the world and has forced many investors to explore less familiar markets. Recently, property companies have begun promoting Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria as countries with holiday home markets unscathed by the world property crisis.

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THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING TO STAY

According to Internet jokesters, the Russians have invaded every corner of the world three times in human history: during the two World Wars and at the present time – purchasing real estate on every continent. After they bought up large chunks of London and the best properties in various European resorts, ads like this started appearing alongside the wisecracks: “Ideal opportunity on one of the only Greek islands welcoming Russian investments. A stone luxury villa complex in picturesque hills with a panoramic view of Zakynthos.

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WELCOME TO THE BULGARIAN ALPS?

"Bulgaria: Austria of the Balkans." This sounds like an alluring idea – especially if you're thinking in terms of infrastructure, standard of living and architecture. However, the people pushing this slogan are investors with a different agenda – they mean Bulgaria to match Austria by length of ski runs. Even Bulgaria's most famous resorts, including Borovets in the Rila, Bansko in the Pirin and Pamporovo in the Rhodope,don't come even close to such a comparison. So despite the financial crisis, several projects to build new ski resorts are in advanced stages of development.

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SPOTLIGHT ON SMALLER CITIES AND BUSINESS PROPERTIES IN 2008

“Will theBulgarian property bubble burst?" was the question of 2007. Experts had predicted a fall and investors were concerned. Other commentators argued that Bulgaria's entry into the EU would give a new push to property prices, although they would not rise as fast as during the last three years. The optimists were proved right and prices continued to rise by 30-35 percent in 2007. But the 2007 question still remains. What will happen to the bubble, and is there a bubble at all?

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TAXING TIMES

Two separate World Bank reports recently gave the Bulgarian government and business community ample food for thought. While one praised the country for a year of reforms that have had a positive effect on the domestic business environment, the other sounded strong warnings about the possible long-term consequences of the country's slow rate of productivity growth.

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THE GASMAN COMES

State-owned Bulgarian gas transmission and supply company Bulgargaz Holding is looking to become a major regional player through a stock offering and partnerships with major European energy firms.

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ANCHORS AWEIGH

Bulgaria's sea and river ports are enjoying a renaissance as trans-European transport networks continue to develop and investment and traffic increase. Water transport, which had been superseded in most sectors by cheaper air freight and improved roads, has reasserted itself and is being integrated with other forms of transport.

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BULGARIA BATTLES BACK

Too many recent articles on the Bulgarian real estate market have focused on over-development and lack of infrastructure, even to the point of trying to dissuade investors from buying here. But such tales have to be put into perspective.

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