Making the move to Istanbul

ISTANBUL, Turkey — From the window of Stein-Gunnar Sommerset’s soon-to-be living room you can see the Bosporus sparkling in the distance ... and the cranes.

With more than 400,000 people arriving each year to work or study, Istanbul is exploding. Set to be Europe's biggest city, it's fast becoming a real estate haven for expats and those looking for second homes.

PricewaterhouseCoopers' "Emerging Trends in Real Estate Europe Report 2010" ranks Istanbul No. 1 for city development prospects in Europe. And per square meter, Istanbul is still priced far below major European cities like Berlin, Paris, Barcelona and Rome.

Data on foreign ownership of property in Turkey is scarce, but figures from Turkish Statistical Institute indicate that in 2008, 73,000 foreign nationals were calling Turkey home.

So, should you buy in Istanbul?

For Sommerset, the owner of two historic buildings in the city — a 100-year-old wooden house on Istanbul’s famed Princes’ Islands and a historic building in ancient Suleymaniye that he is renovating — the answer, and the process, was easy.

“For me it was such a pity to see these houses from the 19th century just crumbling down,” explained Sommerset, a Norwegian former teacher, who describes himself as an “extended tourist.”

“I thought to myself, ‘Let’s see what can happen with one man’s effort’ … and that’s how this whole adventure began.”

From a dated brick in the property’s foundation, Sommerset believes that the house was built in 1906. As for who lived there, hard facts are scarce but there is a treasure trove of stories to fill in the gaps.

“They say that the previous settlers in the house were Albanian ice cream cone makers,” laughs Sommerset.

The building was originally built in the private gardens of Istanbul’s Sheikh ul-Islam, the highest of the Ottoman ulamas, or arbiters of Shariah law. Judging by the home’s modest size yet grand exterior, it’s likely that it was the residence of an ulama working under the powerful Sheikh.

But investing in a piece of history is as much about present day hassles as fantasies of the past.

“I’ve become convinced that anyone can be a plumber in Istanbul, anyone can be a broker,” says Sommerset. “There are so many things that can go wrong, it makes me afraid.”

Still, they come: foreigners eager to own a piece of an ancient city with a similarly ancient allure.

“Between the geography, the views, the history, Istanbul is such a unique place to own property,” says Ansel Mullins, a private investor, glancing around at the weathered stonewalls surrounding the cafe in which our interview takes place.

For those wishing to avoid the real estate sequel to "Midnight Express," Mullins dishes out advice for buying in a city where official information on the subject is as hard to come by as an honest taxi driver.

“I got the real estate bug, seeing so many interesting places along the way,” says Mullins. “But it can be tricky if you don’t know the rules of the game.”

According to Mullins, there are five hoops to jump through before being handed the keys to your new home.

One, find the property. This can be accomplished via CraigsList Istanbul, which maintains a fairly active market. Long walks through the city are even better, bringing you in closer contact with the properties and helping build your strength for the next four hoops.

Two, check the property’s title. Be warned: this involves a trip to the Title and Deeds Office, a musty, florescent-lit room filled floor to ceiling with dusty books lined with hand-written deeds dating back to before the founding of the Turkish state, and city workers who look like they have been there as long.

Three, agree on a price. Your real estate agent, who typically charges 3 percent of the sale, will help you. If all goes well, hoop three ends with the signing of a deposit agreement.

Four, make your request as a foreigner to buy property in Turkey. The paperwork goes through the military to ensure that you are placed far, far away from anywhere the Turkish army might frequent, and that your plans as a Turkish resident are benevolent. Don’t sweat this part too much, it’s almost unheard of to be rejected.

Five, return to the Title and Deeds Office (I know, I know …) and transfer the title. Deals are often done in cash (read: giant bags of newly minted lira), but a block check is a good deal safer. Register your property with the municipality, et viola! Howdy, neighbors.

So is it worth the hassle? The risk? The nights of sleep lost to nightmares about runaway estate agents and building codes?

For those brave enough to take on an antiquated bureaucratic system, there are few doubts ... or regrets.

“I’m getting more and more idealistic towards this work, although I suppose that’s just my character,” says a smiling Sommerset. “I really think that in the next 10 years this city is going to move forward in leaps in terms of development and renovation, caring for both the future and the past.”