I knew it, I just knew it. I had had the same conversation countless times before. I was just waiting to jump in to his speech, stop him, and tell him I knew where he was going. We were sitting in the sunshine of a warm summer’s afternoon in Cavtat. An idyllic scene, the sea whispering its song, the crickets forming the percussion, it felt like all was right with the world. And then the conversation started. “We bought this property and few years ago and we have had one or two problems,” said the Englishman sitting opposite me. I gave a wry smile.
I would have been more surprised if he had said, “we bought this property a few years ago and have had absolutely no problems.” I wanted to stop him in midflight, but he was keen to expand on his misfortune. “It turns out that the estate agent misled me when he quite firmly claimed that there was only one owner of the property,” his face became sterner. Oh what a surprise, I thought to myself, trying to look as if this was new to me. “And now we are having problems convincing all the owners to sign off the property to us,” he looked in despair. It turned out, as if often the case, that this particular case had been going on for years and years. He continued to explain the nightmare of being screwed by every person he had come across, it was a miserable journey. This was a familiar story for me. I had already guessed that the property was probably owned by 16 people, 4 of which now lived in Canada, another 4 had died and the remaining 4 didn’t speak to each other. Trying to match all the pieces of the puzzle, well it would be easier to refloat the Titanic. Lawyers make a good living from this; you could argue that lawyers always win at some point.
A local once told me that you’ll meet your extended families in Dubrovnik three times in your lifetime, once at your birth, once at your wedding and the last time in court. Of course this last time in court means to fight over real estate that has been handed down through generations. And then the circle of life starts all over again. “I really don’t know what to do, it seems so unfair,” he continued swigging his coffee, “and I paid in cash.” Ah, another mistake. If you owe the bank 100 Euros, that's your problem. If you owe the bank 300,000 Euros, that's the bank's problem.
Sometimes in this area of Europe diplomacy isn’t the answer. There is a time to talk and there is a time to bare your teeth and growl like a wolf. It is just the law of the land. If you don’t stand up, puff out your chest and slam your fist on the table you will be treated as a doormat, with everyone wiping their dirty feet on you. These were roughly the words I explained to him but in a kinder way. “You need to realise where you are and that sometimes actions speak louder than words,” was roughly what I said. This was not a world that he was used to, alien in every way. Everything looks picture perfect when you are here on holiday. And many people get sucked into the Mediterranean lifestyle, it is a sunshine drug, and it is extremely addictive. But entering the murky world of real estate here can chew you up and spit you out.
To be fair things have got better, let’s be honest they couldn’t get any worse. When Dubrovnik was a boom destination for foreign buyers, before the whole world collapsed financially, most “so called” estate agents, had a car and a mobile phone...that was it. Those darker days are gone but the scars, as I could see from the man in front of me, are still evident.
“What would be your advice now,” he said desperately. It was too late for him to run away as fast as he could, so the only answer was to stand and fight. “You will probably need to take another large loan from the bank,” I answered. “What for,” he said with a look of puzzlement. “To pay your lawyer, or maybe I should say lawyers,” was the answer he didn’t want to hear. “What a mess, if I had only known I wouldn’t have started,” was his conclusion.
Buying property in Dubrovnik has a similarity with getting married. If you marry someone you do not know well, or decide to marry someone without first carefully considering what you are doing, you will probably regret it for a long time. Or as the English say, “marry in haste, repent at leisure.” My coffee partner will now have the rest of his life to repent.