EVERYONE knows there is a massive problem in Cyprus with unscrupulous property developers exploiting loopholes in the islands archaic laws to make huge profits for themselves.
Exacerbated by intolerable bureaucratic delays in central and local government departments, the “Title Deeds-cum-fraud mess,” as one commentator recently referred to the problem, affects tens of thousands of Cypriot and non-Cypriot property buyers. Land Registry figures announced in Parliament less than two months ago revealed its true extent:
Over the past three and a half years, 4,440 properties have been transferred to non-Cypriots, while the transfer of a further 29,949 properties are still in the pipeline. You don’t need a degree in mathematics to work out that it’s going to take the Land Registry nearly 24 years to transfer those remaining 29,949 properties if their past performance is anything to go by!
And when you consider that non-Cypriots only make up around a third of those buying property in Cyprus you begin to appreciate the scale of the problem!
Some property developers tell buyers that it may take 2, 5 or even 10 years to get their Title Deeds. This is being somewhat ‘economical with the truth’. True, they may get their Title Deeds in 2, 5 or 10 years, but on the other hand they may have to wait 12, 15, 24 years or even longer!
Over the years successive Interior Ministers have made vacuous announcements that the Title Deed problem would be tackled, yet nothing’s been done. In 2005, for example, the announcement that property buyers would be armed “with an arsenal of weapons against unscrupulous property developers” turned out to be nothing more than an empty promise.
I had hoped that the current incumbent, Neoclis Sylikiotis, would have taken a more pragmatic approach to resolving the problem than his predecessors. But he seems to believe that a ‘quick-fix solution’ is all that’s needed to resolve the “Title Deeds-cum-fraud mess”.
According to local media reports Mr Sylikiotis’ solution is that “buyers will pay for their property directly to the bank and separate Title Deeds will be issued for each property in a block or group of houses, irrespective of any town planning or bank problems faced by the developer. In this way buyers will get separate Title Deeds for their property whether or not a Certificate of Final Approval has been issued for a whole block or for a project.”
The Minister has also announced plans for a Town Planning amnesty. This, he hopes, will enable those who cannot get their Title Deeds due to planning violations to obtain the all important Certificate of Final Approval (a necessary precursor to issuing Title Deeds).
Fantastic news – or is it?
The new law will (hopefully) result in Title Deeds being issued much quicker. Good start Mr Sylikiotis, keep up the good work!
But how do the new laws help the thousands of people in the “Title Deeds-cum-fraud mess”? The Town Planning amnesty may help a few, but if the results of previous amnesties are anything to go by, it’s unlikely to have a significant impact.
You may recall the case of former President of the Republic, Glafkos Clerides. Five years ago he bought a home in Menou that was built ten years earlier and which is suffering from ‘planning irregularities’. Two years ago, Mr Clerides applied under the amnesty hoping to overcome the planning issues that were delaying the issue of Title Deeds; he has yet to receive a reply. Both Mr Clerides and his daughter Katy, a DISY deputy, are lawyers. Neither has been able to resolve the problem.
And of course planning amnesties do not stop illegal building; they have the opposite effect. They merely encourage unscrupulous property developers to continue breaking the law – safe in the knowledge that no action will be taken against them.
There may be health and safety implications associated with buildings that have been constructed illegally. Is the Government going to compensate those who are injured as a result of living in a property with ‘planning problems’?
Does Mr Sylikiotis’ intend to take action against unscrupulous developers who extort money fraudulently from buyers claiming it is to pay ‘immovable property tax’? The simple answer is no. An official from the Interior Ministry recently stated: “This is not a matter where the state can intervene“. Doesn’t the state’s refusal to take action against these fraudsters make it an accomplice in their crimes?
Do the new laws mean that the Cyprus Government will guarantee those who have been sold mortgaged property will not lose their homes if the bank forecloses on the developers’ loans? There has been no mention of the Government making any form of guarantee. But as the credit crunch bites deeper you can be certain that those who have been duped into buying mortgaged property face an ever increasing risk of losing their homes.
Has the Government any intention of enforcing article 10 of the Streets and Buildings Regulations Law, Cap. 96, that makes it illegal for anyone to occupy a building unless it has been issued with a Certificate of Approval? Apparently not. The reason, or so I’ve been told, is that there is no penalty for breaking this law.
You cannot polish horse manure
Mr Sylikiotis needs to appreciate that he cannot polish horse manure. His attempts to clear up the Cyprus “Title Deeds-cum-fraud mess” by fiddling around with the island’s archaic laws (many of which are totally ignored by unscrupulous property developers) will have little effect.
To resolve the problems once and for all:
- He needs to undertake a root and branch reform of whole system and the legal framework in which it operates – and then provide the authorities with the necessary powers to implement those reforms and to ensure their proper enforcement.
- Those who have bought property must be fully protected against losing their homes through the actions of unscrupulous developers.
- Finally, those guilty of extorting money from property buyers under false pretences must be brought to justice and those who have been defrauded must be compensated for their loss.
I sincerely hope that Mr Sylikiotis has the intestinal fortitude, moral courage and commitment to resolve the problems. Whether he’ll be remembered as a hero or just another hot-air blowing politician remains to be seen.