30 August 2008

I'm Back!

I've just returned from my summer holiday - home to England, where else? Fed up with the heat, the invasion of Italians, and encouraged by the fact that high season in Corfu is generally low season in our line of business, I took a fortnight off to "go home".

This is the first time I have been back to England in the summer for more than five years, generally choosing to go in the autumn or the spring, but the opportunity came up and I thought '''Why not?" I had been told by everyone that this wasn't the best summer on record in the UK, but I still naively turned up without a winter coat and boots. I was FROZEN!!

Feeling like an OAP because I am scared to cross the road and get confused about the coins in my purse, I had a lovely break, spending time in the West Country (my roots) and having a lovely break in East Sussex, the (present) home of loved-one. We did all my favourite things - shopping, shopping, eating, shopping, with lovely interludes of green leafy trees and luscious lawns.

Despite all this luxury and indulgence, I was so glad to come back to my real home, Corfu. That wonderful smell at the airport, and the drive home hearing cars hooting to each other to say hello, it hasn't taken me long to settle back in to my usual life.

It is a bit hot here though, isn't it?

25 August 2008

How Easy Is It To Find Beach Property In Corfu?

Well normally we would say it is very difficult - beachfront properties tend to be rare and at a premium price, so imagine my surprise on Saturday morning when I found two properties with beach access.

OK, it was a bit 'from the sublime to the ridiculous' with one a tiny ruin in an olive grove and the other a lovely pair of villas just above a stunning sandy beach where I used to walk the dog in the winter about 15 years ago. (I had totally forgotten its existence!)

I had a contact several days before who told me about his houses on the beach and I decided to go and see them on Saturday morning. In the meantime one of my 'ladies who know everyone' told me she had arranged to go and see a little old house which was also near the beach. (Often these turn out to be near the beach if you are a long distance walker, but in this case she was absoluterly correct.)

We drove to the area of Skala, on the little road that winds around the mountain behind Ag. Mattheos, and we suddenly stopped in an olive grove. (Pointer, bring a can of spray paint to identify which particular olive grove!) Tucked away, hidden by trees, was a tiny cottage, which the owner proudly told me had housed five generations of his family. (If you look at it on the website you will see that it is all of about 32 square metres in size, so it was obviously a snug fit.)

We walked through the trees and the path led down through a jungle (to be cleared when the property is sold) and down to the beach. The land doesn't actually reach the beach, but at that price who really cares. Less than 100 metres from the beach, your own olive grove, and a private footpath down to your morning swim.

After that we moved on to the two villas - one complete, one nearly there. Gated and walled for privacy, and with steps leading from the side of the villa onto a track leading onto the beach. Wonderful houses, terraces and garden looking out towards the sunset, who could ask for more?

Now it has started me thinking, we always think it is hard to find property within easy walking distance of the beach (which for me was one of the reasons to come to live in Corfu) and yet we actually have quite a few. But that's a topic for another day!

22 August 2008

Lunch From The Garden

Well, okay, not all from our garden, but one of the best things about Corfu in summer is the abundance of fresh, tasty produce straight from the land.

In my salad the tomatoes and cucumber came from the vegetable box delivered by Fergal and Calliope, Corfu's organic gardeners. The "Andrakla" (Purslane in English) that grows wild and self-seeds in most of my plant-pots and the basil came from our own garden, as did the olives that I added later on.

19 August 2008

Handmade Furniture

This beautiful handmade table is made from olive wood and walnut. The marquetry is composed of red palissandre, dark blue palissandre, lemon, walnut, ash and acajou. All the carvings and laquer work have been done by its creator Aristides Varthis. The table unscrews into 13 seperate pieces. The planning and construction took 11 months and the whole project consists of approximately 1,700 separate pieces of wood.

Aristides Varthis was born in Corfu Town in 1934 and started making furniture in 1948, at the age of 14. He has created a large range of furniture over the years for both living rooms and bedrooms; from dining tables and chairs to sideboards and cupboards, writing desks and davenports. All his furniture is made entirely by hand, from the moment the tree is cut to completion. Laquer is also always applied by hand.

Aristides' first shop opened in Mandouki in 1959 and since then he has furnished the houses of some of the most famous and important families in the island, such the Maniatopoulos, Ziniatis, Rizous, and Nathanials. Although he has been oficially retired for many years now, his love and passion for his craft have not yet let him stop working.

Is The 'Credit Crunch' Affecting The Corfu Property Market?

Well, yes of course it is, no one is immune from worldwide trends. Having said that, Corfu is lucky in a number of ways…

1. There are not thousands of properties for sale. We have a truly mixed market from €15,000 to €10,000,000. Therefore we are not dependent on any one particular market.

2. Our buyers are not just looking for a quick turnover on their property - the majority have fallen in love with the island and have made a considered decision to buy their property here. It is not an impluse buy following a special presentation of a 'bargain deal not to be missed with 'guaranteed' rental income' in a block of apartments in Bulgaria.

3. None of our buyers expect 'the bargain of the century'. They tend to have researched the market, know the island well, know their own financial limitations, and are aware of what the future expenses of their property are likely to be. Prices here are not comparable to large developments in Bulgaria or Turkey for example, but they do compare favourably with popular areas in Italy or France. And the market has been steady for some years, no massive increases and no massive drops, just steady growth, so a savvy buyer knows that their investment will gain in value even if it is not going to make them a fortune overnight.

4. Buyers are not used to having flights on tap all year. They know that so far summer is easy, especially with the advent of Easyjet and the increasing flexibility of charter airlines to deal in one way flights. But they know that during the winter they will have to be a little creative – Easyjet + Olympic, or Venice and a nice boat trip, or something similar. Hence the situation is not as in some central European locations, where the property market is estimated to suffer a possible decline of up to 35% in areas where budget airlines are cutting back on flights to marginal destinations, especially in the winter. Winter flights to Corfu would be a bonus, but for most of our buyers they are not an essential.

5. Corfu is not dependent on any one nationality. UK buyers were probably in the greatest numbers, with Germans, Dutch, French and Belgian following behind. Now the market is opening up from Russia, not just the super rich but also the normal Russian or Ukranian family looking for a home in the sun, which represents a safe place to invest their money. And it is a safe place to invest your money - an EU country with a flourishing but not overblown property market, where the costs of maintaining your property are relatively low - electricity (with your TV licence and a small community charge included), water, and that's about it. No nasty council or property taxes (not yet anyway).

6. Corfu is accessible. For many property owners it involves just a few hours drive and then a comfortable boat trip and a maximum of an hour's drive to your home in Corfu.

7. And, of course, it is a SAFE place to invest your money. The crime rate is incredibly low. It’s still safe to wander the streets at any time of the day or night so far (this is not taking into account manic drivers on poorly lit roads I hasten to add!) and locking the door is the extent of anyone's security (if they remember, that is).

8. Finance is still readily available. Northern Europeans are inclined to have a higher salary level than local Greeks. Therefore the banks look on them favourably when considering a loan aplication, providing the paperwork for the property is in order, the valuation in line and the applicant can provide two years of tax paperwork as a proof of income. A variety of loans are on offer, enabling buyers to pick one which best suits their purposes. We have contacts with many banks, so are able to point our clients in the right direction when it comes to finance.

9. The letting market is buoyant, particularly at the middle and higher level of the market. Rental returns on mid and high end villas are considerable - again please do not think they are going to make your fortune, but they can, if marketed correctly, pay for upkeep, pay the owners own holidays, and put something in the kitty for future improvements. This is one of the main areas where we at Corfuhomefinders and Corfu Premier Property find that we can assist our clients - we have many years extensive knowledge of the letting market in Corfu and can advise buyers on area, type of property and projected rental income.

Overall, we are finding this year that we probably do have a slightly lower number of viewings - but the ones that we seem to have lost are those would-be buyers who come on holiday and whilst here develop unrealistic ideas concerning property prices, renovation costs etc. Our clients now are those who have their feet firmly on the ground, who have based their property quest on the basis of knowing exactly they will do in terms of financing their property in Corfu - whether it be €100,000 οr €1,000,000. The'credit crunch' might be making people think a little more carefully before they take the plunge but it doesn't seem to be putting them off following their dream to have a home in Corfu.

16 August 2008

How to Prepare Your House For Sale - Or Not!

The concept of creating a welcoming atmosphere for prospective house buyers does not seem to have arrived in Corfu. Forget "coffee on the hob and bread in the oven" - here we are more than likely to have to plough our way through heaps of discarded clothes, unwanted books and papers and brush away the spider's webs as we go. And that is when you actually manage to get inside a house.

Greeks are notorious for overflowing into their outside space, so that when a house is spotlessly tidy, the balcony or garden will often be a junk shop of items that don't fit inside but can't possibly be thrown away. Just look at an average block of town flats. Most balconies will hold an assortment of brushes, mops, boxes, and mounds of unidentifiable possessions wrapped in plastic sheeting. In a village setting it can be even worse.

Sarah and I had a classic "non-welcome" last week. Arriving at the house clutching a selection of door keys, we were confronted by a heavily padlocked gate, and of course, no key! Intrepid as ever, though slightly regretting the fact that we were both in summer dresses rather than trousers or shorts, we clambered up on to the stone wall, climbed over the railings on the top and leapt over into the garden. I'm now regretting that I didn't take a photo of Sarah in mid-climb! (But she's probably not).

And now for the other end of the scale - same day, different house and very different reception. Admittedly this visit was to a top-of-the-range villa next to the sea, but even so we were wildly impressed by the efforts of the son of the family to tidy his room before our arrival. Look out for the inclusion of Villa Oceanus on both our websites - Corfuhomefinders and Corfu Premier Property. (Photo by kind permission of Will Barratt.)

A Slightly Surreal Hot August Day

Set off this morning to show a village house that hasn't attracted much attention up to now. Our French clients had been very specific about which properties they wanted to see and this was the first on the list. We had arranged to meet in the square and although we always wonder how we will recognize people we have never met before, somehow we thought that French people would be easy to spot. Little did we know that they had brought all their friends! Remember that scene from an old French film where a tiny car disgorges hordes of people, tables, chairs, cushions and picnic baskets etc. in a seemingly endless stream? Well, this wasn't far short of the crowd that we met and led down the narrow alleyways to the little stone house.

As we all of us squeezed through the narrow gateway and into the even narrower doorway, we were met by the sight of someone fast asleep in a bed just inside the door! Beating a fast retreat and shushing the noisy children of the group, I made a quick phone call to the Albanian tenant to check that we had the right time and day. "I'm coming," she said - "won't be long."

She probably wasn't that long, but when you are trying to converse in a language last spoken in school, a short time seems an eternity! We spent the time looking at the garden, which is in fact very much part of the living space. There is a small brick shed which houses the loo. Hanging from the outside wall is a plastic shelf containing toothbrushes and paste. mirror is propped against the wire fence to the next door yard and a hose pipe does double duty as shower and for watering plants. A stainless steel kitchen sink balances against the same wire fence, with pots and pans stacked on a brick shelf by its side.

Finally we were given the go-ahead to enter the house. And we did - all of us, one after the other, past the sleeping person, through to the next room, climbing over piles of clothing and discarded objects, moving chairs in order to fit up the extremely rickety stairs to the upper level, and then back down again, squeezing past the tail-enders going up as we came down.

Out into the garden again, where, in a mixture of French, Greek and English we managed to explain that the family who live in the house send all their money to their son in England who is completing a Masters degree in Aeronautical Engineering and simply cannot afford to live anywhere better.

Sarah and I left rather chastened that we sometimes complain of being short of money - this house is falling down around the ears of the family who live there - we are rich as Croesus by comparison.

The verdict of the French? Beaucoup de travail - too much work - poli douleia!

15 August 2008

15th August 2008

August 15 is the day that Orthodox Greeks celebrate the Dormition (falling asleep) and Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The Feast of the Assumption celebrates both Mary's natural death, and her assumption bodily into heaven.

It is the major holiday of the summer and every church in Corfu with a connection to the Virgin Mary (Panayia) will have some form of litany either on the eve of 15th August or on the actual day.

It also marks the cusp of summer. Holidays are drawing to a close, many Greeks who have been visiting Corfu from mainland Greece will be returning home within the next few days, and daylight hours are lessening at the rate of a few minutes every day. For those of us who live here, however, there are still at least two months of proper summer ahead and the prospect of the amazing spectacle of the August full moon on Saturday 16th.

It is well worth making an effort to be somewhere where you can watch the moon rising on this day. The old Greek rhyme that tells of the August moon turning night into day reminds me of our own nursery rhyme "Girls and boys come out to play, the moon is shining as bright as day".

The absolutely best place to watch the moon rise is over the sea, but there isn't anywhere in Corfu from where that is possible, due to the mountains of Epirus and Albania to the east. Next best place is high in the mountains anywhere on the east coast. Or better still, a central mountainous area where you can watch the sun set in the west and then about face and wait for the moon!

14 August 2008

Just Another Day Of Land - And More Land

Sarah thinks it is the silly season and I must say I agree. I had my day well planned; firstly collect a civil engineer to value a property in Perama for a mortgage. We had already made two attempts at this and failed because we could not get through the garden gate due to a broken lock. The owner kept on saying it was open, but it wasn't. On my way in I stopped to check that the gate was indeed open as arranged - and it wasn't. I stopped, just about to have a total breakdown, and the lady next door emerged to say that “People keep leaving the gate open,” and of course she closes it! I persuaded her to leave it open for half an hour, collected the civil engineer, went back, did the valuation, dropped him off back in Town and returned to Perama to meet a contact who was going to show me two pieces of land in Gastouri.

We actually began in Perama - a nice piece, probably good sea views but overgrown, with an old house in there somewhere. The next piece was up the hill towards Achilleon. Again probably a very nice piece, and large - 5,700 sq.m. on the side of the mountain. I am told there are some flat terraces for building and no doubt there are stunning views but again it was a total jungle (and there was a large Rottweiler barking furiously by the only entrance, so we gave it a miss). I will take their word for it.

On into Gastouri. On the edge of the village, 2,000 sq.m. on the road, and we just scrambled up to the top to see the view of the village. On to another one of 3,000 sq.m. with views down to Corfu Town - again, scramble to the top to see the view. Finally (remember we came out to see two piecesof land!) on a road I had never seen before in my life, a piece of 8,000 sq.m. with 80 olive trees and no visible signs of an electricity pole - still for only 80,000 euros with nice views, can't be bad.

Duty done, photos taken, I was on my way home shattered when Lorraine, our office lady, called to say she had a call from a local restaurant owner to say he had 'my' Italians who wanted to see me. I wasn't expecting any Italians and called to tell him but he insisted they were mine so I detoured to the Boukari Beach restaurant (best squid on the planet). And of course, they were 'my Italians'. I had been in a sort of email correspondence for several weeks regarding the Boukari Bay 'skeletons' (see photo).

They didn't tell me they were coming, but we went up to have a look. I speak no Italian and they spoke no English. On the way he kept shaking his head. We looked at them and he still shook his head. On the way back down he pointed at another skeleton and pointed at his printout of my skeletons. He thought this was the one he should have been looking at. Only problem is, this was 20,000,000 sq.m. of land, three skeletons and a price tag of 2,000,000 euros! Total confusion, so we went back to the restaurant where one of the owners interpreted and explained the misunderstanding. The end result, after explaining that there is no way to find a livable house, ON the sea in Boukari for 100,000 euros, is that he wants to buy one of the skeletons. I think.

Now I have to get him, the paperwork and an Italian speaker all together to make sure we are not speaking at cross-purposes. A nice, quiet, unstressful day - again.

13 August 2008

You Also Know It's Summer When...

It's so hot my lipstick melted in my handbag.

There's nowhere to park anywhere near the beach.

All the petrol stations have gaggles of motorbikes waiting to fill up.

It seems you see a motorbike accident every day.

I stop trying to blow-dry my hair as it's like living in a hairdryer anyway!

My dog doesn't want to go for a walk, just lay in the hole she's dug in the garden.

Marks and Spencers start to get their new winter collection in stock!

11 August 2008

You Know That It's Summer When...

There are trays of tomatoes drying in the sun and ready in the jar after just three sunny days!

It takes an extra half an hour to drive from Ipsos to Kassiopi because of the traffic on the roads.

The countryside is baked yellow like Tuscany.

The washing dries on the line almost as soon as you have hung it out.

The cicadas are so loud that they sound like an electricity sub-station.

Hardly a day goes by (sadly) without news of a forest fire somewhere in Greece.

Just when you really want to sit outside to eat breakfast lunch and dinner, you can't because there are too many wasps!

The day divides itself neatly into two parts - separated by an essential siesta in the midday heat.

No-one (except you) seems to be working proper hours and you can't get anything done, especially in any local government offices.

8 August 2008

Silly Season

I think it really was one of those days that we should have just gone to the beach with everyone else.

Susan and I had plans for a relatively quiet morning in the town office, answering emails, making a few phone calls, maybe having a quick look around the sales (only joking!) This was all changed late last evening when Susan recieved a phone call from an old acquaintance in the travel industry with Russian clients wanting to see some of our top-end villas. It had to be this morning, he was only going to be here today, so despite the fact that all the properties were occupied and he would only be able to view from the outside, we quickly rearranged our plans and meeting place and set off for Kassiopi.

At this time of year it takes about twenty minutes to drive along Ipsos beach, it's often quicker to go all the way round the back through Agios Markos and Ano Korakiana, but we forgot that and drove through the hoardes of tourists on motorbikes. A group of people were having some kind of foam party in the sea.

On up the coast past the Agni turn towards Kendroma we spotted and laughed at these men hard at work on the new development of Horizon Villas. Lots of the passing traffic was hooting and waving at them, they looked so funny and cheerful.

Eventually arriving (just in time) in Kassiopi harbour, we collapsed into a bar for a drink and called our friend to tell him where we were. "I'll be there in ten minutes," he told us. Time ticked on, and an hour and a half later he arrrived with his Russian clients. We all marched up the driveway to the first villa, none of us knowing who was actually leading or showing what to whom, and within two minutes we were heading back again as the Russian had realised that he couldn't get inside the villas as there were guests in residence, and anyway he didn't want, or need, to see any more.

There must be a moral to this tale, I only hope that Diana and Helga had a better morning than we did.

7 August 2008

Whose Stupid Idea Was This?

If I'd known before about the weekend Diana had just gone through, I would never have suggested it.

We were asked to view some land at Glyfada and duly set off in Susan's car to meet Diana and for the owner to show us the land with a view to selling it. All very excited, because it sounded fantastic, we arrived at the rendevous near Glyfada and Diana joined the three of us in Susan's Panda. We headed off towards Glyfada beach and a couple of bends before the beach the owner pointed out a dirt track leading off into the olive trees. "It's just up there," she told us, "about four hundred metres." The track was a bit overgrown but would have been passable in Susan's wonderful Panda if it hadn't been for a big ditch in the road which hadn't been filled in and was in the way.

So we approached the land from the other side, along a very long and narrow track and eventually arrived at a nice quiet plot, explored as far as we could and took a few photos.
At this point I made the mistake of suggesting that Diana (in trainers) and myself (in pumps) should walk back down the track and be met at the bottom by Susan and the owner. It seemed an excellent idea, so that we could honestly tell our clients how close the land is to the main road and how easy it is to get to.

You would imagine that four hundred metres down a hill would take about ten minutes - wrong! Half an hour later we arrived shakily at the bottom, with legs trembling and gasping for breath. The track got steeper and steeper as we descended, and we had to kind of traverse from side to side to avoid slipping on the gravelly surface. I think we needed hiking boots and sticks today, rather than lightweight trainers and summer shoes.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

5 August 2008

The New Corfuhomefinders Website

A few months ago we decided that it was time for a change on the Corfuhomefinders website. We had just completed the Corfu Premier Property site (designed by Truetype Web Solutions) to showcase some of the 'top end' properties and, having had the Homefinders site going for over a year we thought we would do a 'revamp'!

We actually thought it would take just a few days! We pondered for a bit about a new theme - something to get away from the usual pretty scenic photos, but something which would still portray the atmosphere of Corfu. We thought then of using pictures by Frankie Cranfield who is an artist, well known for her works of houses and scenes of Corfu - and with whom we also have personal contacts going back many years (she painted one of her first commercial originals for me, for my birthday, many years ago!)

Having begun with that basic thought, we then realised we would have to change our colours slightly to go with the shades in the paintings, then of course the paintings are a different shape to our original header photograph so the layout had to change.

In fact, in the end, pretty much everything had to change. I think we nearly drove Infonetweb, our web designer, to distraction, particularly as we obviously look at things from totally different points of view. We want it to look great, work fast and provide all the information our clients want - website designers are full of all sorts of technical reasons why 'you can't do it this way' or 'it wont look right'. So in the end we came to a compromise - we got mainly the result we wanted and he grudgingly admitted that it is 'not bad and better than the old one' so I suppose we can't say fairer than that!

4 August 2008

Dogs v Builders - Part Two

It became clear to us during the course of the week that dogs, builders and living in the house whilst work is proceeding above our heads, is not the ideal combination - especially whilst trying to work under summer peak season pressures.

Finally I broke down - a full day from 6.30am (yes I know, we are lucky the builders actually arrive at that time) until 7pm, with Scruff either tied up or closed inside where he spent the entire day barking or trying to open the doors or both, was just too much. So I called my local dog hotel and off he went for a few days holiday of his own. Blissfully happy, with an exuberant friend, he didn't even look back as he left.

Building work proceeded. Roof structure, waterproofing, insulation and finally the tiles began to go on. In the meantime all the debris is around the garden(?), most of the fence has been knocked down and the surrounding area is full of empty bottles, tins, you name it, its there!

Then they cut the phone line, so no phone and no internet! The noise from 6.30 each day was so overwhelming that by Wednesday we had decided enough was enough and decamped to our house at Halikounas, which luckily for our peace of mind (but not our finances) was empty for a few days. Of course it took all day Wednesday to pack up everything which we absolutely had to have to move - phone chargers, camera chargers, laptop bits, files, building plans, files of paperwork, apart from clothing and food.

We got in the Jeep, collected Scruff and took him for first visit to house with pool, jacuzzi and sea - and he is not a fan of water. However, the garden is closed, so apart from blocking the space under the gate to prevent escape, he was secure, and once a bed had been established in an armchair he was fine. Whilst we were away the phone line was reconnected at home. Useful since the mobile connection is 'iffy' to say the least.

Thursday and Friday could be said to have gone well. Peace and quiet, returning from work to a swim in the pool and getting up in the morning to sit and watch the sea. We decided we could definitely get used to this. We also got a chance to see the sunsets that all our clients describe in the villa’s guest book.

Saturday morning - pandemonium outside, vans, workmen. The phone company had arrived to change the phone cabling in the entire Halikouna area! Back to closing the dog inside, securing the garden, locking the gate - I definitely began to think we are jinxed. I also couldn't get any connection with mobil Vodafone wonder gadget! Son arrived to say the builders had cut the phone line again at home, so I couldn't even go there to work!

Whilst the phone company guys were working, I enquired about the possibility of wireless broadband at Halikouna since many villa clients do ask if it is available. Great mirth all round. Final conclusion, 'I doubt it but you can always ask!'

The rest of Saturday very peaceful. Sunday likewise, except Sunday is being spent clearing up the villa for clients arriving on Monday and for our move back to the building site. The phone line is still cut. The garden still full of debris. The roof is virtually finished but the extension is still only walls and a new roof.

Scruff is going back to the kennels for a few days whilst we work out a way to close off a piece of garden for him, since it seems the builders will be living with us for some time to come. If we go totally mad I suppose we will have to move to our small house in St. Georges, which is actually a show house – it looks very pretty but is somewhat under-equipped so probably just as bad as staying with the builders!

Apart from that, I did manage to do some work and saw a lovely house near Issos Beach, showed some land, looked at more land, went with Sarah to show a villa with stunning views up in Vigla, and looked at a potentially great half-finished house near Skidi beach. So life does go on, you just have to ignore the builders - or make them part of the family!