Lying, cheating, swindling. These are all words that spring to mind when describing estate agents. In the UK they are renown for their high-pressure sales, ruthless behavior, pinstripe suits and BMW’s. Its exactly the same in the Ukraine, with the exception that the pin stripe suit has been replaced by jeans and a leather jacket and the BMW is replaced by … err, well nothing. Of the several agents we have met here in the last few weeks, the most striking feature has been the lack of wheels. Not a Lada between them, nary a Trabant in sight.
Fortunately, the money grabbing ruthlessness is still much in evidence. One of the agents we were using continuously allowed Tania to pay his bus fare when travelling between properties. When we put in an offer on a flat, it turned out his fee would be in the region of $2000. And for that, we would be sorting out most of the documents on our own. To put that in perspective, $2000 will get you a very good Lada with low profile tires and an almost matching spoiler.
The Ukrainian property market is not unlike the Klondike gold rush. An unregulated and tangled madness, with everyone digging for gold but quite often getting stung when the mine collapses.
Let me explain a little. In Soviet times, life was pretty simple. You lived in a flat. The flat was owned by the state. You paid a little rent. Easy. When communism collapsed, in many cases ownership of the property went to the occupants, either for free, or for a stupidly small fee. Overnight a country of tenants became a country of owners. This was all very nice until some owners starting getting knocks at the door from complete strangers clutching fistfuls of documents. These documents, it turned out were the ownership papers from before 1917. They had been handed down generation-to-generation and now the pre-bolshevist ancestors were laying claim on their properties from beyond the grave. Except in many cases they weren’t. Sensing some easy money, some enterprising people set about forging papers and trying to evict people from their own homes on the basis of a 1917 document printed on an Epsom inkjet and aged with weak tea. It was a mess.
Adding further to this mess is the tax regime. If you sell a house within 3 years of buying, the seller has to pay 5% tax, the buyer 2%. Now, the wonderful estate agents, explain to the sellers that although the house will sell for say $40000, we will declare its value at only $10000. Wonderful, thinks the seller, I will save a huge tax bill. Whilst this is all very nice for the seller, the buyer moves in to his $40000 flat, and finds his insurance company will only insure it for $10000 and six months down the line, there is a knock at the door from the tax man trying to work our why your lovely home has devalued $30000 in the last 18 months and presenting you with the previous owners tax bill.
The estate agents know all of these problems but being silver tongued wankers, they manage to explain away all these problems with all the easy charm of a conman cheating his own grandmother. The problem is, most people fall for it and as such, the mess just gets bigger and bigger. We however are boxing clever. We are using a solicitor to advice us on these situations, and they are good solicitors. They must be, they drive BMW’s