Romania draws foreign buyers looking for historic mansions and modern villas in resort areas
Count Dracula, the central character of Irish author Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel, eagerly left for England in search of new blood, in a story that popularized the Romanian region of Transylvania. Today, house hunters are invited to make the reverse journey now that Romania is a member of the European Union and that restrictions were lifted this year on purchases of local real estate by the bloc’s nationals.
Britain’s Prince Charles, for one, unwinds every year in Zalanpatak. The mud road leading to the remote village stretches for miles, with the clanging of cow bells accompanying tourists making the trek.
Elsewhere in the world, the heir to the British throne occupies great castles and sprawling mansions. In rural Romania, he resides in a small old cottage. His involvement, since 2006, in the restoration of a few local farmhouses has given the hamlet global popularity and added a sense of excitement about Transylvania living.
Transylvania, with a population of more than seven million in the central part of Romania, has a number of high-end homes on the market. And, yes, one is a castle. Bran Castle in Brasov county is marketed as the home of Count Dracula. In reality it was a residence of Romanian Queen Marie in the early 20th century. In 2007, the home was available for $78 million. The sellers are no longer listing a price, said Mark A. Meyer, of Herzfeld and Rubin, the New York attorneys representing the queen’s descendants, but will entertain offers.
Foreign buyers had been focused on Bucharest, where there was speculative buying of apartments after the country joined the EU in 2007. But Transylvania has been luring house hunters away from the capital city.
Transylvania means “the land beyond the forest” and the region is famous for its scenic mountain routes. Brasov, an elegant mountain resort and the closest Transylvanian city to the capital, has many big villas built in the 19th century by wealthy merchants. A 10-room townhouse from that period in the historic city center is listed for $2.7 million. For $500,000, a 2,200-square-foot apartment offers rooftop views of the city and the surrounding mountains.
A seven-bedroom mansion in the nearby village of Halchiu, close to popular skiing resorts, is on the market for $2.4 million. The modern villa features two huge living rooms, a swimming pool, a tennis court and spectacular views of the Carpathian Mountains.
The village, founded by Saxons in the 12th century, has rows of historic houses across the street. Four such buildings were demolished to make way for the mansion, completed in 2010.
“Rather than invest a million or more to buy an existing house, the wealthy prefer to build on their own because construction materials and work is cheaper,” said Raluca Plavita, senior consultant at real-estate firm DTZ Echinox in Bucharest.
Non-EU nationals can’t purchase land outright—although they may use locally registered companies to circumvent the restriction—but they can buy buildings freely, said Razvan Popa, real-estate partner at law firm Kinstellar. High-end properties are out of reach for many Romanians, who make an average of $500 in monthly take-home pay.
The country saw a rapid inflation of real-estate prices before 2008, on prospects of Romania’s entry to the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as well as aggressive lending by banks. Values then fell by half during the global financial crisis.
The economy is stronger now, with the International Monetary Fund estimating 2.4% growth this year. But the country is still among Europe’s poorest. Its isolation during the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu gave it a bad image.
“Interest in Romania isn’t comparable with Prague or Budapest where some may be looking to buy a small apartment with a view of Charles Bridge or the Danube,” said Mr. Popa, the real-estate lawyer.
The international publicity around Prince Charles’s properties offers a counterbalance to some of the negative press Romania has received in Western Europe, which is worried about well-educated Romanians moving to other countries to provide inexpensive labor.
The Zalanpatak property is looked after by Tibor Kalnoky, a descendant of a Hungarian aristocratic family. The 47-year-old studied in Germany to be a veterinarian and, after reclaiming family assets in Romania, has managed the prince’s property and has hosted him during his visits.
These occasional visits are enough to attract scores of tourists throughout the year to the formerly obscure village in a Transylvanian valley. The fact that few street signs lead there, that the property offers no Internet or TV and that cellphone signals are absent for miles, seems only to add to the mystery of the place.