ONE of the earliest Risk Watch articles when the column started in 2004 concerned the worrying state of the Cyprus property market. To be sure, the market was very buoyant but there were already clouds on the horizon.
As the years progressed, Risk Watch felt compelled to raise stronger and stronger warnings about a range of serious issues that were having a damaging impact on the market and the country’s reputation: withheld title deeds, fraud, physical assaults on buyers, government bureaucracy etc.
Regrettably, very little has been done by the government and the industry over that period to rectify the bad state of affairs. Many, if not most, of the predictions made in Risk Watch regarding the likely consequences of failing to correct things have also, sadly, come true.
Regular readers may be surprised, therefore, that on this occasion I have a good story to report. At long last, after 8 years, my wife and I have paid the transfer tax and are finally getting our fully clean title deeds to our home. Taking a cue from the popular British tabloid newspapers, my personal headline expressing our good fortune has just got to be ‘Gotcha, gotchiani!’
Let me give some credit where it is due. Ours has not been a tale of dodgy developers ensnaring us in double selling fraud or hidden mortgages or delivery of sub-standard building work. We had no such problems. It is much more a tale of a relatively modest scale local developer (A&K Developers of Oroklini near Larnaca) and, over the years, the perseverance of its principal Mr Kyriakos Kyriakou to get the deeds issued. We were also blessed with sterling support and professionalism throughout from our lawyer Eleni Papacharalambous of Papacharalambous & Angelides LLC in Nicosia.
In our case, there were no real technical issues or no-conformities to deal with. The last 8 years have really been Mr Kyriakou slogging on relentlessly through the archaic government bureaucracy that is the Title Deeds issuance system in Cyprus.
The government’s inability and unwillingness to disentangle title deeds issuance from planning regulations and the multiple, repetitive inspections, authorisations, certifications and ‘dead time’ in their respective offices is a major factor in there still remaining some 130,000 dwellings without their deeds. Most if not all other developed countries issue title deeds on full payment for the property as per contract.
Less good news
Following years of pressure from buyer groups, MEPs, international media, TV ‘holiday homes from hell’ programmes and Internet campaigns, in 2011 the Cyprus government finally introduced a series of laws which they claimed would solve the Title Deeds Problem once and for all. The Interior Minister at that time, Mr Sylikiotis, even boasted that the problem had now been solved and that soon the huge backlog of non-issued title deeds would be cleared.
Eighteen months later, what is the picture? While there has been a discernible increase in deeds issuance in recent months, at the current pace it will probably take at least 5 years and maybe longer to clear the 130,000 backlog. Thus, a 7-15 year wait for one’s title deeds still appears to be the prevailing situation.
Moreover, whereas the new laws introduced some welcome protection for buyers against hidden developer mortgages, much of the protection is not retrospective. Thus, the bulk of the victims who are among the 130,000 backlog are still exposed to the depredations that occurred before the new laws came into effect.
But fear not! Buyers have the ‘opportunity’ to pay off the developer’s mortgage debt and his tax liabilities as their only means to obtain their title deeds! Why are banks punishing innocent buyers who were not party to the mortgage, instead of pursuing the developer personally and his guarantors? Why does the Inland Revenue, in effect, make innocent buyers liable for a developer’s own tax liabilities? Such official delinquency will certainly deter new buyers.
Since 2009, there have been a number of significant developer collapses, including A&G Froiber, SNK Venus/SNK Exclusive and Liasides. Banks have not been shy in seeking to liquidate and pursue buyers (who have already paid in full).
In the Froiber case, for example, it was reported that buyers received threatening letters from the banks, which stated that they would not receive their title deeds until and unless they contributed a ‘symbolic amount’ of €8,000 per property towards the outstanding debt of the liquidated developer. A larger sum was also demanded to help pay off his tax liabilities.
It was also reported that in December 2011, Alpha Bank sought permission from the Land Registry to auction eight plots of land it had repossessed from the bankrupt developer Yiannis Liasides. The land included some 70 homes (over 100 residents) which had been bought and paid for from Liasides before he went bust. When he ceased trading in 2007, some 250 people across 14 sites had bought properties from him but had not received their title deeds.
Alleged victims of the Liasides/Alpha Bank debacle are among a number of property cases of alleged contravention by Cyprus of the EU Unfair Commercial Practices Directive now lodged with the European Court of Human Rights.
Any corrective action afoot?
No new impetus from the new Interior Minister is evident to radically speed up the bureaucracy on title deeds issuance and thereby also speed up the collection of much needed taxes, so that is disappointing. Moreover, the developers are not helping themselves by revealing that their priority proposals for market recovery do not include anything much on the title deeds problem.
At the recent AGM (23 April) of the Cyprus Land and Building Developers Association (CLBDA), the focus was mainly on a tax amnesty for repatriated capital and tax incentives favouring developers so that they would be encouraged to start new construction, moderate their property prices and stimulate buyers.
As the respected property analyst Pavlos Loizou has noted on Cyprus Property News, unfortunately the CBLDA view of the market’s problems and the urgent priority requirements excludes the title deeds problem. This is one ‘elephant in the room’ but it also has a close relative which is also being ignored: developer mortgage debt.
Sooner or later, the banks, who have been a tad reckless in their lending policy to developers, will have to take action. Non-Performing Loans can no longer be hidden by sleight-of-hand re-designation of the account, which in itself is fraud as it misleads shareholders as to the true extent of the bank’s debt exposure. I am aware of one case of a small developer who was allowed to rack up nearly €40m in bank loans and mortgages, which remain non-discharged and with every prospect of them becoming NPLs or even non-recoverable. If this case is indicative of bank behaviour across the country, even if on average a developer has borrowed only €5m-€10m, it provides a crude estimate of the total developer debt at somewhere between €10bn and €20bn.
A recent New York Times article on the Cyprus economy put the Cyprus banks’ outstanding debts and liabilities at €152bn or some 8 times GDP. If, as many predict, Cyprus applies for a bailout from the EU, what will they uncover in the accounts of the banks and the government?
The economic difficulties facing Cyprus, and those of countries whose citizens have traditionally bought residential property here, are to some extent overlaying and masking the pre-existing problem of withheld title deeds, property fraud etc.
Looking to the future, when this current economic crisis period has passed, hopefully new property buyers will enter the market, but this is most unlikely if the old problems have not been fully cleared up, including all those previous victims not covered retrospectively by the 2011 laws. Most potential buyers do Internet searches now and the Internet has an awfully long memory.
In years to come, searches on Cyprus property will still be awash with the horror stories and investigation reports from recent years. It is therefore imperative that the industry uses this current doldrums period to clean up its act and start afresh.
About the author
For over 30 years, Dr Alan Waring has been an international risk management consultant with extensive experience in Europe, Asia and the Middle East with industrial, commercial and governmental clients. His next book Corporate Risk & Governance ISBN 978-1-4094-4836-5 will be published by Gower later in 2012. Contact [email protected]
©2012 Alan Waring
First published in the Financial Mirror