Aussies buy up bargains abroad

The idea of soaking up the sun on a Greek island every year always seems incredibly appealing when you're shivering through an Australian winter.

The idea of soaking up the sun on a Greek island every year always seems incredibly appealing when you're shivering through an Australian winter.

Pair that with the eurozone's tumbling property prices and the dream starts to seem possible. Perhaps you've already scanned some websites to get a feel for what you could buy in Greece, Italy, France or Spain. And now you're picturing a wardrobe filled with days-of-the-week bikinis ready for a lifestyle of perpetual summer.

Jim Vrondas, chief currency and payments strategist, Asia Pacific, OzForex, says in the past 12 months people have done far more than fantasise about picking a cheap property overseas. While Brits tend to favour Spain and Portugal, Australians have seized the chance to pick up bargains in the US, France and Italy.

"Those property markets have been hit quite heavily in recent years and if you add to that the surge in the Aussie dollar - the combination of those two factors and the fact that property prices here are getting so expensive - that has driven some of that demand," Vrondas says.

Australian home values posted their strongest quarterly gain since 2010, in the three months to August, rising 4 per cent, according to the latest RP Data-Rismark report. While the US registered its highest rate of annual growth in house prices since 2006 in the first quarter of 2013, some European markets are still struggling.

In June, the Knight Frank Global House Price Index showed that out of 55 global property markets Greece recorded the largest annual fall in mainstream prices for the third consecutive quarter, declining by 11.8 per cent. As the table shows Spain, Portugal, Italy and France also saw falls.

Lisa and Sam Chiodo have done more than dream about buying European property. The Australian couple and their two children moved to northern Italy in March after they snapped up a "liveable" three-bedroom house for €8000 ($11,500). Lisa says they found their mountain home on an Italian website while they were still in Australia, by tapping "cheapest house in Piedmont" into a search engine. Although the Chiodos are old hands at the renovation game - this is their 12th project and their second in Italy - they found buying in Italy isn't straightforward.

"In Italy the majority of houses are sold privately and often with only a sign saying: "Vendesi" to let you know the property is for sale," Lisa says. "Often it is through word of mouth and most locals know which houses are for sale." As she shares on her blog, Renovating Italy, it helps to have a local who can negotiate for you.

Perhaps, though, your European heritage dictates that you're drawn to the opportunities in beleaguered Greece instead of A Year in Provence- or Under the Tuscan Sun-style fantasy.

John Tripidakis is an Australian-registered foreign lawyer with offices in Sydney, Melbourne and Athens. Recently he did the conveyancing on a three-bedroom luxurious apartment in a prestigious part of Athens. It sold for €430,000, about half what the vendor paid for it four years ago. But his sense is foreign buyers could be waiting for further price falls. Plus the fall in the Australian dollar against the euro could be impacting. For those interested in the island dream, Corfu or Crete offer the best chances of bagging a bargain. But you'll need to bring your money with you as Greek banks are reluctant to lend on property.

OzForex offers services to people wanting to transfer a lump sum or make regular payments on a loan to buy an overseas property. "One way we assist people is giving them a better rate than they would get, for example, at the bank. They can save 4 or 5 per cent in the initial purchase of the property and if they do sell it down the track another 4 or 5 per cent when they bring the money back," Vrondas says. It can also help property buyers manage the risk of the exchange rate moving against them before settlement. Apart from currency risks, Tripidakis warns that buying in Greece involves negotiating a tax and legal system that is "radically different" to Australia's. Cultural differences can also crop up. "For example, [in Australia] if someone is asking $100,000 for a unit it's politically incorrect to offer him $40,000. In Greece it's not. It's totally acceptable," Tripidakis says.

And that's not the end of the differences. "Conveyancing in Australia is simple, fast and cheap. In Greece it's exactly the opposite - lots and lots of documentation is required."

Apart from various taxation clearances, a building structure requires certification from a civil engineer. If there are building violations, a property cannot be conveyed.

Even when you've purchased, there can be pitfalls. Looking after a holiday home can be challenging enough when it's a couple of hours away, let alone a long-haul flight away. Hospitals and rubbish collection have been hit by the Greek economic crisis, with reports suggesting foreigners can pay a fortune for medical treatment in the current environment.

When you weigh it up, it may just seem easier to invest in a return flight to Greece each year.

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