EU candidate countries: An emerging market real estate play?

Written by Andrew Henderson

Dateline: Tbilisi, Georgia

When I was in Europe a couple of years ago, I remember hearing the statistics about properties and the impressive appreciation of real estate when countries joined the EU. In Italy, some properties appreciated by 80% and as high 100% in the course of about three years.

After that, it became a trend that when countries joined the EU, real estate went up. This appreciation usually played out over the course of three years and showed the greatest results after five.

I started tracking the trend when I was in the Baltics back in 2014. I was in Estonia and property prices had gone up roughly 57% in the three years since they had joined the Eurozone and gotten rid of the Kroon.

Latvia had just joined the Eurozone on January 1st of that year and they were doing okay. Latvia has its own challenges, but its real estate market was starting to show some hints and to take off.

At the same time, the various political bodies had just approved Lithuania to join the Eurozone. They planned to begin their membership on January 1, 2015, and everyone was wondering what was going to happen there.

Just a few years down the road, though the countries are different, the questions remain the same. What’s going to happen to this 15-year-old trend when the newest countries join? Will the trend continue? And who is next in line, anyway?

Countries already in the EU that could join the Eurozone

While many people focus on the countries that have yet to join the EU, many forget that the greatest appreciation occurs when countries that are already in the EU join the Eurozone. So, of the current EU members, which countries could possibly adopt the euro?

At the moment, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Sweden, and the United Kingdom are all part of the EU but do not use the euro. Though the UK is technically still part of the EU, after Brexit there is no question about whether they will ever adopt the euro.

I also doubt that a country like Sweden would ever adopt the Euro; I wouldn’t invest there anyway. I also don’t recommend Denmark. It’s not a particularly nice place and there’s no potential for property appreciation there.

Another country I wouldn’t invest in is Croatia. The country is very unfavorable to invest in and has even kicked investors out in the past. Even if you could go there, it’s extremely difficult to get anything done. My recommendation? Mark Croatia off your list for now.

Then there’s the Czech Republic, which is a cheap place to live, but I personally don’t care for the investment culture in Prague. It’s too “in the middle” to be good for the average Nomad. I like Romania, but it’s not my #1 investment destination, either. Romania is better for businesses that need qualified staff. (In fact, if I hired another assistant, I’d shoot for a Romanian since I would want someone with EU access.)

Bulgaria’s property market seems oversaturated, but I’m going there later this year and will do more due diligence. So, while I’m not super optimistic, I don’t have enough information to comment just yet. I’ll be sure to give you an update when I do.

However, if you look at a country like Poland or Hungary you can begin to see the potential for property appreciation. Property in Poland was downright cheap a few years ago and, at present, they’re at more reasonable levels. Even so, property values in Poland have the potential to be even higher if they were to adopt the euro. I tend to think that they won’t get rid of the zloty, though, as they’ve become very nationalistic.

The other high potential country is in Hungary. Budapest is the cheapest capital city in the European Union for real estate. It’s a great place to live, it’s really coming on to the radar and I think it will do really well, but they are ultra-nationalistic. The Hungarian government is pretty crazy, but I still think that they would do better if they got rid of the forint.

So, though these two countries could benefit from adopting the euro, they probably won’t.

EU candidate countries

Next, we turn to the countries that are looking to ascend to the EU. Countries like Iceland and Norway are nice places, but there’s really no potential for property appreciation. Turkey definitely has the potential, but it has been trying to get into the EU for over a decade and — despite its recent pressures on the EU for visa-free travel — they’ve pretty much given up on joining. And I say good for them because they’ve finally realized that the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU.

However, that means that in terms of real estate investment Turkey isn’t worth it right now. As much as I’ve been a fan of Turkish real estate in the past, I’m kind of cooling off on it because I think things are getting kind of out of whack. There’s too much nonsense and not enough price decrease.

So that leaves the Balkan countries of Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia.

The conventional wisdom is that the countries that are nearest to the EU will be the next ones to join. Of the former Yugoslav countries, Croatia and Slovenia are already in. Serbia and Montenegro are probably going to be the next countries to join (if any more do), and Macedonia has a very free market and might join as well. Albania, however, is probably too far away and has issues with Kosovo, so I can’t see it joining any time soon.

In a nutshell, Montenegro and Macedonia are two very free-market countries, and then you’ve got Serbia which is kind of there.

However, the process that is being rumored is that these countries (particularly Serbia and Montenegro) are dragging things out just to get the benefits of being an ascension country. Some say that they may never join. I personally hope that they don’t. If they do join, I tend to think that you will see a bump, even if it is long term.

The country-by-country breakdown

Either way, rather than focusing completely on the EU/euro appreciation potential, I recommend you examine the ascension market based on the economies that are growing. So let’s look at each country in a little more detail based on their merits and potential.

Serbia

As the biggest country in the western Balkans, Serbia would seemingly have a lot to offer. And I do like Serbia for lifestyle reasons. It is a fantastic place to go and live; the people are nice and the cost of living is relatively low.

However, I don’t see the benefit in the property market. Belgrade is too expensive in comparison with the general cost of living in Serbia. So I just don’t see the upside. Plus, outside of Belgrade, there’s not a lot going on in Serbia.

While I would consider buying a property in Belgrade for lifestyle purposes, I don’t see amazing appreciation. If they do join the EU, the fact that it’s a nice city could create a similar bump to what’s happened in other countries. However, though 2020 is Serbia’s accession target, it’s difficult to know exactly when or if they’ll be joining.

Montenegro

Montenegro presents an interesting case for the Eurozone ascension theory. Throughout much of its history, Montenegro has used foreign currencies. From the end of WWII to 1999 they used the dinar, after which they used a dual currency system with the dinar and Deutsche Mark. When the Mark was replaced by the euro, Montenegro adopted the euro as well.

Consequently, if Montenegro were to join the EU, you’d probably see a lesser bump in the property market simply because the euro is already in circulation there. Still, I see Montenegro as a great place to invest because it’s such an open and inviting country. They even invited me on Montenegrin TV recently.

Montenegro is very appealing to investors and that is what will drive property. With a pro-business government and low tax rates, you’ll see more investment in the country in the coming years.

I am seeing more projects, particularly on the beach, but also in the more northern part of the country where things are very cheap. Montenegro has beautiful beaches and more and more people want to buy and live along their coastal real estate. (I’m buying a place on the coast there too.)

So Montenegro’s real estate market is doing well and the future looks bright. If they join the EU and prices appreciate, that will just be the icing on the cake.

An extra bonus for investors in Montenegro is that they have a relatively easy residency program. The have also teased various citizenship programs. However, when I say easy I mean easy to qualify — the actual work can be a bit of a challenge.

Montenegro EU candidate countries real estate

I recently bought real estate along Montenegro’s coast.

Macedonia

Macedonia has also teased a citizenship program and offers a second residency where — again — it’s relatively easy to get approved, but a bit harder to do all the work. Macedonia is also very open to investors and pro-free market, but I don’t see them as well-positioned as Montenegro.

For one, Macedonia does not have beaches, so it’s just never been as appealing. For instance, you can buy beach property in Montenegro for the same price as the capital of Macedonia. Another downside is that they had a real estate crash a couple years ago. So, while I think that Macedonia is doing a lot of the right things, I don’t see as much benefit in their real estate market.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Macedonia. I’ve even ranked it as the best place to plant business flags in Eastern Europe. They’re doing so many great things and I’m looking at investments in both Montenegro and Macedonia. Still, each country needs to stand out on its own.

Albania

I hate to say it, but Albania seems to be the laggard in this group. I was just talking to a friend the other day who asked me if I had looked at the Albanian coastal areas. Though I have looked, I don’t think the construction quality is as good. It’s kind of like the Bulgaria of the other coast.

I also feel that the country is the least comfortable or familiar place for Americans and westerners. Even so, they are very friendly to Americans — who they allow to actually go and work there without a work permit.

So I’m not saying it’s bad in any way; I’m just saying I don’t see the upside. I see a lot of cheap development and beaches that aren’t as good. I also don’t see what’s happening in Tirana. The bottom line is that they’re not doing as much as the other countries. I’d look elsewhere before going to Albania.

Georgia

Having spent much of my time in Georgia as of late, I have heard some talk of the possibility of Georgia joining the EU. I certainly hope they don’t.

At this point, Georgia is not an official candidate country, but it does have Association Agreements with the EU; the European Parliament recognized the country’s “European perspective”; and Georgia has strengthened ties with the US, EU and NATO in recent years in an effort to lessen the strength of the Russian sphere of influence.

Still, at this point, it’s likely that a crisis-ridden EU will be too distracted for some time to start any type of accession negotiations. After all, adding Georgia to the EU before a country like Serbia or Montenegro would be like adding a major league baseball franchise in Oaxaca, Mexico. Why wouldn’t you go to Mexico City first?

Of course, Georgia is very friendly to the EU, but I don’t really see the Georgia logic. Sure, I guess they’d want to join the EU if they could, but I think Georgia is doing enough good things on its own that I don’t want them to ruin it.

Quite frankly, I’m very bullish on real estate in Georgia in the long term. You might see a bit of a dip after the elections but — even without the EU — Georgian real estate is a great investment. Georgia would probably see the biggest impact and appreciation if they joined the EU because property is so amazingly cheap, but I just don’t see why they would.

Make investment decisions based on merits

The EU experiment has its positives and negatives, as most things do. While I’m not a fan of the politics, it is fun to see trends like this and take advantage of the opportunities. It’s hard to tell how long the property appreciation trend will last though.

My dad used to complain all the time about how major league baseball was going to add two more teams. “We don’t need more baseball teams,” he’d say. “If you add more teams you dilute things.” I feel the same way about the EU. When you add more countries, things get diluted. You can’t have 45 countries in the EU.

So, even though I’ve enjoyed watching the real estate appreciation trend play out over the past few years, I’m not counting on it to continue. At least not as my only predictor of a good investment.

Thirty or forty years ago the offshore world used to be all about Singapore. They were the low tax, favorable jurisdiction. Now, however, a lot of countries have low taxes and pro-business policies to the point that there’s much more competition now. The newest EU candidate countries are coming into this new, more competitive age, so I don’t know if you’re going to see the same huge bumps in their real estate markets.

At the end of the day, I would be investing in countries on their merits and investor friendliness over any other factor. It’s always fun to have theories, but I’d rather go where I know I’ll be treated best.

Andrew Henderson
Last updated: Dec 26, 2019 at 10:11PM

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