Off The Beaten Via

Retirement-minded Americans are finding bargains in less traveled corners of Europe

After several vacations in Italy over the years, Randall Briggs of Baltimore was determined to spend his retirement living la dolce vita. Initially, the 41-year-old entrepreneur had his heart set on the Italian Riviera, but sky-high property prices put him off. While researching locales on the Internet, he came across myvillainsardinia.com, which found him a property and walked him through the buying process. "It seemed like we could get everything we liked about Italy -- the culture, the scenery, and great weather -- at a fraction of the price," says Briggs. A few months later he and his wife became the owners of a $500,000, three-bedroom seafront villa in Torre delle Stelle on the southeastern tip of the island.

Forget well-trod destinations such as Tuscany, the south of France, or Spain's Costa del Sol. While bargains are scarce elsewhere as well, pockets of opportunity still exist in popular Western European countries. More adventurous retirees as well as those looking ahead to retirement are even starting to head east to Slovenia and Croatia. Thanks to the boom in low-cost flights within Europe, these pieces of the former Yugoslavia are now more accessible to outsiders.

Looking for sparkling coastlines or rugged mountains, modern villas or old-world cottages, at price levels that recall Provence and Tuscany back in the 1980s? You'll find them in these offbeat areas -- but for Americans, there are some inconveniences. Direct flights from the U.S. aren't always possible, for instance, and English may not be widely spoken. "You need to consider the practicalities of everyday life," says Naomi Greatbanks, who heads the international network at the London office of the British real estate company Savills.

WHERE TO GET HELP

The buying process involves a fair amount of red tape, especially in Eastern European markets that have only recently opened to foreigners. In places such as Croatia and Turkey, mortgages aren't available, so you'll need to bring cash.

No matter where you buy, it's best to get professional help. The National Association of Realtors (realtor.org) will refer you to a certified international property specialist who has expertise in the country you choose. A local lawyer is also key, and so is title insurance. These policies, sold by major U.S. insurers, offer added protection should anyone later try to lay claim to the property, says Angela C. Eliopoulos, founder of Global Owner Property Consultants in Burke, Va.

For most Americans contemplating a European retirement, France and Italy remain the most popular destinations. The region known as the Midi-Pyrénées, between Bordeaux and Toulouse in southwestern France, is still relatively undiscovered by tourists. Yet it offers medieval villages, rolling green countryside, and excellent cuisine. Better yet, home "prices are roughly half of what you would expect to pay on the coast," says Greatbanks. "You're away from the crowds but still close to good transportation and services."

House prices and types vary widely. You can find renovation projects such as a 200-year-old stone barn set on 2.5 acres in Tarn-et-Garonne for less than $100,000. Fully modernized properties start at $250,000, while $1.3 million can buy a restored 16th century chateau set amid the vineyards of Lot-et-Garonne.

If Italian is more your language and style, consider Puglia, Italy's boot heel. Known as Apulia in English, it's famous for its wine, olive oil, and traditional conical-shaped stone houses called trulli. Do-it-yourselfers can buy a totally unrenovated trullo for as little as $65,000. It is also possible to get a new three-bedroom villa with sea views and a pool for under $300,000.

DIRECT TO ZAGREB

Croatia's version of Tuscany, Istria, is another place that offers an Italian flavor. It's less than an hour's drive from Trieste's airport in neighboring Italy or three hours from Zagreb, to which you can fly direct from the U.S. It has beautiful rocky beaches and plenty of history and culture. Three-bedroom villas average about $310,000, and newly built apartments go for as little as $50,000.

To purchase property in Croatia, you must get permission from the government, a process that can take six months to a year. Many foreigners who don't want to wait get around this hurdle by setting up a Croatian company, essentially a shell that holds the property, for about $1,000. Another potential pitfall is gaining clear title. Because Istria has passed through Italian and then Yugoslavian hands, restitution claims are always possible. The best way to avoid them is to enlist the services of an English-speaking local attorney. The U.S. Embassy in Zagreb can supply referrals.

Just north of Istria lies Slovenia, a country roughly the size of Massachusetts. It's an outdoor lover's paradise: The Julian Alps in the north offer stunning scenery and top-notch skiing for a fraction of the cost of resorts in France or Switzerland. Access from the U.S. is via the charming medieval capital of Ljubljana. The main stumbling block for Americans is the tongue-twisting Slovenian language, with all its j's and double l's. Many younger people speak some English, especially in the capital and resort areas. Your best bet is to use an English-speaking property finder such as slovenianproperties.com.

Briton Jeremy Lee, a fiftysomething wine consultant, didn't let the language barrier get in the way of finding his dream retirement home. Originally he planned to buy in the south of France, but one trip to Slovenia changed his mind. He spent $44,000 for a farm in Lemerje, in the northeast, and plans to invest an additional $40,000 or so to turn it into a luxury home with apartments to rent to tourists. "In Britain I couldn't even buy a garage for that money," he says.

For something more exotic, take a look at Turkey. A law enacted this year that gives foreigners the right to purchase property is expected to trigger a boom in prime coastal properties. Bargains abound even in highly sought-after areas such as the Turquoise Coast, where the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas meet. The Saint-Tropez of Turkey is Golcek, a resort on the Gulf of Fethiye. It has four marinas and easy access to Dalaman Airport, which offers direct flights to the Continent. Golcek benefits from tightly controlled development. Luxury villas at the newly built Golcek Hills estate start at just under $400,000. Anything comparable in the U.S. would cost at least twice the price.

By Kerry Capell

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