Today I’ve been working on a book proposal for a group of essays that I’ve written about visiting Greece, about being a part-time expat there, and about owning an apartment in Greece. I”m getting ready to submit to some agents at a conference, and so that’s what I’ve been working on this week rather than the blog itself.
All of this has made me remember about that wild ride of purchasing a property in another country. It may look smooth on House Hunters International, but believe me, it isn’t. Of course, I don’t have the resources (or the money) that most of those people have, either. I’m just a middle-class academic who retired making about $70,000 a year — not shabby, true, but not the kind of six-digit-or-more income that most of those buyers have.
Frankly, I never could have afforded this place, even at its low price, without an inheritance that I took part of for the purchase. My brother Phil left me some money, and because I felt relatively safe for retirement with a state retirement pension and a separate 403b, and planned on taking part in Deferred Retirement Optional Program that would allow me to accumulate 3 years of retirement pay in a separate account while I was still teaching (but not accruing any more service time), I took part of that money and splurged.
I’d searched online from my office in Kaufman Hall. And from home. At first, my browsing was fantasy, something I knew was just wild imagination. I found one place listed in Pangrati, a neighborhood that I was familiar with. The apartment, from what I could tell from photographs, looked okay. The details seemed clear. The price was actually something that seemed realistic for me — it was listed at not quite 15 million drachmes. The drachma traded at about 360 or so to a dollar, so that initial price was somewhere near $.41,700.
For some reason that place just called to me. But I knew that it was all dreaming. Or at least I did until Dad announced that he wanted to make a trip to Germany when that fall term was over. My late brother’s fiancé had moved there for a job, and when I mentioned what he wanted to do, she welcomed us. I made the plans — but told him that rather than return for Christmas, we’d spend Christmas weekend in Athens. It was, I figured, the only way I’d get him there.
By that time, I’d actually made an appointment with the realtor to see the apartment.
After nearly two weeks in Germany, Dad and I spent a long weekend at a hotel near Syntagma Square. I got him up the Acropolis; I ate with him at Platanos Taverna in Plaka, and he liked the food. We had coffee with my friends Jane and Nick, and Nick’s mother. And we had a wild car ride from the hotel to the apartment. I spoke a little Greek; the realtor representatives spoke almost no English. Yet we all survived. Dad just looked bemused at everything.
The apartment as I saw it was much less appealing than it had been in photos. It was dirty. The tiles in the kitchen were clearly 1970s — daisies, yellow and green; the kitchen cabinets were painted a puke green. The bathroom tiles were even worse — they were brown and pink, and tiles went from floor to ceiling. Even the bathtub surround was tiled. The apartmentt was nearly empty, with only a table, four chairs, and one lamp — there were no overhead lights. The box that should have had neatly labeled switches had one left, and lots of naked wires. My retired electrician father just looked at it, and looked at me. Despite the depressing reality, I still liked the apartment. From that one short visit, I began to negotiate after I returned.
First I had one friend look at it. She wasn’t too thrilled. Other friends, from the Athens Centre, looked at it and were more encouraging. The plumbing worked. Clearly it needed wiring work, and painting. And lots of cleaning. And I’d need furniture. But it was functional and sound, even if it needed some work. Also, they reassured me, they could use it sometimes. I could have short-term lets.
Once I knew that the apartment was sound enough, I opened e-mail negotiations. Finally we agreed on a price lower than that. I agreed on 14,500,000 drachmes — about $40,000 altogether, including transfer costs, taxes, etc.
Then there was a flurry of activity. First, I had to get an attorney who could handle this for me — who could practice in Greece as well as the U.S. Once more, the internet was my resource, and I found one on the East Coast. Through emails and letters, we exchanged necessary information. Soon, I received a document in English giving him power of attorney to serve for me in the property matter. I also signed the document in Greek. Then his associate in Athens, who also could practice in the U.S., opened a bank account for me in Athens. Then after yet more paperwork I transferred a lot of money to that account, enough for the purchase and to buy the basics for an empty apartment as well as have work done.
By May I was in Greece, with a group of students on a short study-abroad program. When we arrived, I was still waiting to hear specifics about closing. As I went around sites with students, I kept wondering when I’d hear anything. I kept my rented mobile phone with me at all times, and finally I got the call. That we were on the Acropolis when it happened seemed perfect. The sun was shining. I was about to part with thousands of dollars. Life was good.
When the closing day rolled around, I met my attorney at her office. Only that morning, she informed me, the German owner of the apartment had decided that he wanted to be paid in cash, not with a bank draft. She opened the small case that held all of the money. She put it out, and somewhere in my print photos I have a picture of all that money sitting on her desk. Then she put it back in the case and we walked around the corner to the notary’s office.
In Greece, such property transactions occur at a notary’s. Apparently, notaries are also attorneys. I was there with my attorney. The seller was there with his attorney. The realtor was also there. And the notary. It turned out that as far as Greece was concerned, I wasn’t really there — at least not officially — since my passport had been stamped in Paris. I couldn’t sign my own papers. My attorney had to. That meant I got to sit there and simply observe, enjoy, and try not to laugh.
First, the notary read the entire legal document, in Greek. At points she nodded to me. My attorney would answer for me, then tell me what was going on. The seller’s attorney would sometimes interject something. Even the realtor got into the act, apparently trying to negotiate a better cut for herself. Lots of discussions, lots of cigarette smoke, and lots of coffee.
I walked out with my key, without the money, and with a document. The apartment was mine. But the seller was going to spend the night in the apartment to save on a hotel bill. I just shrugged. Getting the lock changed was almost the first thing I arranged.
From that point on, it was a matter of work. First I spent a few hours at the apartment with a cleaning lady. I ordered a bed and a sleeper sofa, a small countertop oven/stovetop, a small refrigerator, and a portable washing machine that hooked to the bathtub. The apartment was clean. By the time the students left, I’d also managed to get new wiring put in, and the plumber had checked all the pipes. Everything was working. The bed and kitchen appliances and washing machine had been delivered, and I moved into the apartment.
For three weeks more, I worked. I selected paint and managed to get it delivered. I painted the entire apartment by myself. I stamped a design in the living around the top of the walls. I painted a mural in my bedroom. I cleaned cabinets and threw out trash. I bought plates and pots and pans, kitchen utensils and storage bins for food. I had sheets and towels that I’d brought from the U.S. — cheaper and better quality than I could afford in Greece. Plus that saved time.
By the time I left, I was sore, tired, and happy. I’d managed to buy an apartment, to furnish it, and use the little bit of Greek language that I’d acquired.
That was 2001. Twelve years later, I’ve managed to survive the shift to the Euro and renovations. One summer I met with an architect and arranged for work to be done after I left, with friends overseeing the work, taking photos. All of that 1970s tile disappeared. Lovely clean white tile replaced it. White fixtures replaced the brown tub, toilet, and sink. The bidet disappeared, its plumbing being reconfigured for a real washing machine. The wall cabinet was replaced. And there was actual, real, and bright light in the bathroom for a change. Of course, I paid in cash, so that I paid less and the architect didn’t have to claim as much. The exchange rate kept changing, so that the cost escalated more than I liked.
A couple of years later I used the same architect to remove the kitchen tiles. In their place, I simply had the walls plastered and painted white. Now the kitchen is all white — even the puke-green cabinets, which I’d quickly painted that first summer. When my niece visited, she and I put up a small glass tile backsplash for a bit of color — in shades of blue, of course. I’m thinking that next summer I might paint the kitchen cabinets a light blue.
Last year, I had the built-in closet torn out; it was partly particle-board and made for very awkward furniture arrangement. I now have two standing armoires instead, one that locks and one that doesn’t. I can finally arrange the bed so that I look out the doors onto the balcony — if I roll up the outer blinds and pull the curtains back, or open the French doors onto the balcony.
I’ve made curtains. I’ve put throws on the sofa and chair. I’ve bought very nice rugs. I’ve added a desk armoire for the printer and other work-related materials. There’s a bookcase. And this summer I added a few more small shelving units. Of course, they’re not yet put up permanently, but that can wait until next year.
Whether in drachmes or Euros or dollars, bills must be paid. Repairs will be needed. I pay property taxes there; I have property insurance there.
Maintenance issues happen even when I’m not there. Even when no one is in the apartment, as I found out recently.
At least the leaky pipes from the apartment above mine didn’t do too much damage a couple of weeks ago. A few things in the storage area above the bathroom had to be thrown out — nothing important. And the ceiling had to dry out and be repainted.
There’s always something if you’re a homeowner. No matter what country that home is in. Even if you’re not there.
I’m sure that by the time I head over there next time, I’ll have my usual suitcase full of apartment items.
I just need to start that list soon.