Want to buy my house?

Had a strange phone call Monday afternoon, a few weeks ago. “Hello, I’m your neighbour in Kovaci. Would you like to buy my house?” As I said, strange. My caller was Dejan from Raiffeissen Bank Austria and he was calling about the red-brick monstrosity, next door. It had recently been repossessed and Dejan wanted to sell it to me.

Luckily, I already knew what this was all about: I’d had a phone call from an estate agent friend (not Azra) a few weeks earlier, to let me know the property was on the market and to see if I was interested. I was – it would be wonderful to buy it, just to knock down the extension that overlooked our new property. It would increase privacy, make our place look more attractive and give it a lovely sea view. Only one problem: we didn’t have the money! Adding the barn into the restoration project had stretched our finances almost to the limit.

I explained this to Dejan and hung up. But his call sparked my interest. As he’d told me upstairs was unlocked, I decided to have a look when I was next in Kovaci – just to satisfy my curiosity and see if it looked as bad inside as it did from outside.


An ugly duckling?

House exterior with awful, red-brick extension in Kovaci, Istria‘It really is one of the ugliest little houses I’ve ever seen in Istria,’ I thought, walking up to it the following morning. ‘There must be an old stone cottage somewhere underneath, but it’s been ruined by this unfinished, badly-built, red-brick extension.’

‘Maybe it’s better inside,’ I mused, climbing the stairs. It wasn’t: inside was equally depressing. Full of old mattresses and junk, it had obviously been used as a doss house. I didn’t dare touch anything and tried not to breathe.

However, while it looked horrendous now, a quick look round told me it could be marvellous! It just took a bit of imagination. As I’d expected, behind the awful extension was a tiny, 2-storey, stone cottage. Properly renovated, it would make a wonderful little holiday home. While there was no land behind, when the extension was gone there would be plenty of space in front for parking and an outdoor terrace. It was also in a wonderful location: ten minutes drive from the sea, in a highly desirable, quiet village with restaurants and shops close by. It even had a lovely sea view – what more could anyone want?

Extension on little house in Kovaci, IstriaI was really taken with this poor little ugly duckling. I yearned to undo all the indignities that had been heaped upon it and make it shine like the little gem I was sure it could be. It was just too bad we couldn’t afford it.

Driving home I mused on what I’d do, if only… It clearly wasn’t a house for us: it was far too small to consider doing up for rental. Instead, it would be perfect for someone looking for a weekend place, a pad near the sea: probably someone living not too far away, maybe in Zagreb, Italy or Austria.

The closer I got to home, the firmer the idea became. Why not renovate it to sell? It was a fantastic opportunity, but there were a long string of ‘if’s: if we could find the money, if we could buy it for a reasonable price, if it didn’t cost too much to restore, if it would turn a profit and most importantly, if I could persuade P this was worth doing.


What to do with it?

P was intrigued and keen to see the place. So, next morning we went back and I didn’t need to explain anything. He could see it immediately. “It’s worth buying, even if only to knock down the extension,” he said. “Not only will our place look so much better with it gone, it’ll also increase privacy and open up a lovely sea view.” (Exactly what I’d been thinking). His only concern, like mine, was where to find the money?

View from steps into our place in Kovaci, IstriaAs he saw it, we had two options: buy the house, knock down the extension and then resell it as a fixer-upper opportunity in a couple of years; or do the renovation and sell it as a finished property. Dying to get my hands on the place, I favoured the second option. P was more cautious, “Let’s work the figures and see which makes the most financial sense,” he said.

So while P went off to his spreadsheets – and on a money hunt, trawling old piggy banks and digging down the backs of sofas – I went to talk to Azra for some estate agent advice and to set up a meeting at the house.


Take Care!

A small warning about abandoned buildings: ‘Take Care’! A few days later, while waiting for Azra to arrive, I decided to have another nose around and nearly fell down a hidden stairwell!

Lots of rubbish inside little house in Kovaci, IstriaTrying to look through a gap in the ceiling at the roof, I stepped onto a pile of old carpeting. The old wood floor had been replaced with a concrete one, so I was deceived by how firm it felt under foot and didn’t test it before I stepped forward. I assumed there was floor underneath the carpet – there wasn’t. It was a hole where the stairs used to be (hence the gap above) and my foot just went down and down!

Luckily I still had one foot on the edge, so only one of my legs disappeared into the abyss. But it was a scary moment, levering myself back up. I was a little shocked and very cross with myself: I ought to have known better. I know old properties are potential death-traps and shouldn’t have relaxed my guard – be warned.


Great potential

Like P and I, Azra also thought the house had great potential. The Istrian property market’s beginning to move again so she was sure, if we demolished the extension and sold it again in a few years, we would cover our costs. “But why not renovate it?” she asked. “It’s such a tiny place, you won’t make a fortune, but it should turn a profit and you can control what happens next-door to your property.”

Sea view from front of house in Kovaci, IstriaJuggling figures in my head, I could see she was right. Based on our experience next door, I had a rough idea of the renovation costs. Adding in what I expected we’d need to pay for the place and what Azra thought we could sell it for, I could see we should make a profit – a small one, but enough to warrant the effort.

But what would be the best thing to do with the house? Obviously we were going to knock down the extension – that was the main reason we were buying the house (it was also illegally and badly built, and would cost a fortune to legalise). But it was easy to see why it had been built: the house behind it really was tiny, only 40 m², 4 m x 5 m on two floors.

Tucked between two taller buildings, the obvious move would be to add another floor, lifting the roof to the same level as the houses either side. Not only would this create an even roof-line in the terrace, it would also increase the floor space to 60 m², spread across three floors. My challenge I decided, waving good-bye to Azra, was how to make best use of this small space.


Next step

While things were looking good, I was getting ahead of myself – as per usual! My renovation costs were pure guesstimates. Before we could go any further I needed to firm them up, and for that Miro needed to take a proper look around the whole place. So while Azra went off to check the papers for the place (an essential step in Croatia), I went to call Dejan at the Bank for the key – and to find out how much they really wanted for this ugly duckling. 

Unfortunately the Bank didn’t have the key – yet. “I’ll give you a call when I’ve got it,” said Dejan, “But I expect it’ll be at least a couple of weeks.”

And the price? “Make me an offer,” he said, when I asked. Amused with him playing games (and knowing the asking price I’d been quoted), I made a ridiculously low offer and was stunned when he didn’t just laugh at me. “I’ll ask my boss,” he said. Maybe, I thought, if we emptied every piggy-bank and dug all the lost loose change from the back of the sofa, we might be able to afford this house – if we ever get to see properly inside it.


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