Renting or buying real estate in a market that is almost entirely unregulated has its fair share of pitfalls. On one hand, to walk into a deal with expectations based anywhere around western standards would be to fundamentally misunderstand the context of the Georgian market. On the other hand, if you are looking for incredible bang for your buck, then Tbilisi real estate has enormous growth potential and is currently priced astoundingly low compared to most European capitals.
The lack of regulation, along with a developing market overall, makes Georgia an exciting investment opportunity, provided you can navigate the market and get a deal that actually is as good as it seems.
In this article we assess the common issues with buying real estate in Georgia- from the outright scams, to the quirky conventions that seem like scams but aren’t really, and the tricks that unregulated agents play to push you into a sale.
Essentially, this is an overview of how to avoid getting scammed, but also how to avoid losing a good deal that simply seems too good to be true, but is actually a sound investment.
This guide is focused on buying real estate, but some of these items very much affect the rental market too.
The Status Quo In Georgian Real Estate
A handshake and a glass of wine. It’s the foundation of many deals in Georgia, from becoming a regular customer at your local independent grocery store, to buying a multi-million GEL piece of real estate. You look the seller in the eye, they give you an honest(ish) picture of what they are selling, you say yes or no, then shake hands and drink. The deal is done. No real estate inspection, just the word of the seller and your own visual inspection.
This way of doing things may have existed for centuries here, but it’s clear that such dealings are liable to at least three major problems:
- Competency. Though the seller may actually be honest and trustworthy, are they competent? (Competent enough to know that the poor workmanship done by their cousin is going to lead to a huge problem with damp 6 months from now, for example.)
- Trust. We no longer live “in a village”, where the tightly-woven social fabric necessitates honesty. Though some sellers are truly honest, many realize that when selling in the city, there will be almost no social stigma attached to them if they exaggerate the quality of what they are selling, or even if they flat out lie or hide problems.
- Agents. More and more deals are done with agents who, aside from the very limited 1% of trustworthy ones, will literally say anything to make the sale – and there are almost no repercussions for lying, especially in verbal discussions. Combine this issue with the fact that the only thing you need to become an estate agent in Georgia is a business card, and you see why there are so many problems with the market in Georgia.
So, do I just find one of the few good real estate agents and then I’ll be ok?
Simply put, no. Even if you are lucky enough to encounter a “unicorn”, a genuinely competent and trustworthy agent, you’ll instantly encounter another problem that will stop your investment in its tracks:
Tiny Portfolio. In most Western markets, agents have access to a huge shared portfolio of properties. But in Georgia, commission sharing is very rare, and when it does happen it is often through coercion or sneaky tricks rather than an honest, open and shared system. So, once you find a good agent, and you have scanned through the overly diverse 15 or so properties that have access to sell (i.e., they will represent whatever they can get, rather than choosing a specific style and being an expert in it), if you don’t want to buy one of those, then you need to find a new agent, and you are back at the start with the same typical agent problems.
Because of these issues with the market, it works best if you find the property you want (by hard work and luck), and then put up with the agent who represents it. You get what you get when it comes to agents.
The list below is compiled from lengthy experience dealing with Georgian agents and sellers, and for our buy-side team it makes up part of our everyday process of protecting our clients from making poor investments, as well as saving them a lot of personal time as we handle almost everything for them.
Common Real Estate Scams
Not every scam is exactly a scam… Understanding and being able to spot the nuances of how things work in Georgia is really the foundation of making good decisions. It’s certainly true that people have just followed their spidey-sense and managed to land themselves a good deal. It’s equally true, however, that people buying on trust alone have come to regret it months or years later.
In no specific order, these are the most common scams you’ll encounter:
Fake Listings – Bait & Switch
When you first start your initial research you may begin by looking at real estate listings sites like myhome.ge or ss.ge. Not a bad starting point, so long as your expectations are grounded in market reality, which for buyers who may not even have stepped foot in Georgia yet, likely won’t be the case.
The biggest abuse of listings websites is the bait and switch. Agents post photos of amazing properties, at surprisingly low prices, and when you contact them you find out the property is already sold – but “luckily” they have some other great options. They then proceed to flood your WhatsApp with 200 photos of properties that are less good, for more money, and with very little in common with the place you were initially interested in. This gets super annoying by the time you have contacted 4 or 5 agents (actually, it’s annoying the first time too).
Putting skepticism to one side, you might think they are just trying to be helpful. Then you realize that the time stamp on the apartment you contacted them about shows it was posted about 30 minutes before you contacted the agent. Turns out, it did not sell within 30 minutes, but that agents post desirable properties simply as a lead magnet to get your phone number.
One other consideration here is that, as there is no practice of agent exclusivity in Georgia, sometimes there are multiple agents listing the same property. When one sells a property, the others don’t know and continue to post it – which comes back to the matter of competency – as agents are not keeping track of their listings, even weeks after they have sold.
This practice is very common in the rental market (we estimate about 50% of listings were never actually available at the time they were posted) but it also happens often in the investment market too.
Aside from agents setting up as experts while having no training, experience, or credentials (legally, they don’t need them of course), there is another type of “fake agent” scam out there. This is where an agent pretends to represent a property which they actually don’t.
Agents scour listing sites for properties they think they can sell, especially ones that have been listed by owners directly. They then copy the photos and information into their own new listing. When you call them about the listing, you become their lead, and then they go to the seller directly to negotiate that they found them a buyer, even though that seller may have had no interest in working with that agent, much less even know who they are.
In itself, this may seem like it only negatively affects other agents, rather than you or the seller – as the deal still happens. Where it can become very problematic though, is when the scammy agent listed the property at a higher price than other agents, and you end up paying $5k USD more for the sale because you didn’t know.
They are so brazen about this practice that you will even often see watermarked photos from one website, listed on another website. It’s often an immediate warning sign of a dishonest, scammy agent that they did not have access to the original photos.
Fake Real Estate
Once you filter through the fake listings and find somewhere you like that may actually exist, the reality may be quite different from what you were expecting. There are a couple of common issues:
Agents lie about the condition of the property.
This could be anything from a small lie, such as “there is definitely an oven” to a huge lie, such as “there is a large balcony with a great view” and you turn up to a tiny French balcony with a view of another apartment block.
As many agents do not post a sufficient amount of photos, you can often be tricked into turning up for no reason based on their insistence. Whether it is purely lies, or largely incompetence, is not always clear. The takeaway though, is that agents will say anything to get you to see a place. If they don’t verify it with photos and facts, just assume that it may not be accurate.
The listing size of the property is incorrect.
Two main considerations here:
- The official registered size differs from the listing size. This is sometimes because the apartment size has changed since it was last checked by the authorities. But it’s important to understand that valuations have to be based on the official registered size. So if they say it’s 100m2, and it’s actually 90m2 on the paperwork, you just lost 10% of your per meter priced valuation compared to the advertised listing.
- Outside areas are included in the interior size. It’s very common to simply add the terrace/balcony meterage to the total size of the property, rather than differentiating. You may think you are getting a 130m apartment, but actually it’s a 115m+15m apartment.
If you are particularly diligent in your search, you will sometimes discover multiple listings of the same property at different prices.
The reasons this normally happens:
- Fake Agents (see above) listing a property they are not actually representing at a lower price than the actual agent in order to get the leads and then make the sale by taking buyers to the seller. Or, of course, they may list at a higher price to convince the seller to go with them rather than the real agent – because the seller will make more.
- The actual agent placed multiple listings, with a different lead photo, to flood the listings site, often at all different price points to figure out what they could get away with charging and to make you click on the same apartment 10 times because the price and photo are different.
- Commission cuts to undercut other agents. 3% is a typical agent commission, though occasionally agents will take less in order to have the lowest list price and be the agent that actually makes the sale.
- Seller bullying. Agents put a lower price than the seller wants in the hope that, if the seller is in a hurry to sell, the agent can make a faster sale. Effectively the agent negotiates against their own client with the angle of “I have a buyer, but they want to pay this lower amount, please sell to them”. The seller may not even be aware the agent listed a lower price.
Build Quality & Standards
This is not a scam but is absolutely a major consideration when choosing to purchase in Georgia, in general.
Overall construction standards are simply not as comprehensively regulated as they are in the EU or USA, for example. Can construction companies cut corners without facing penalties from the authorities? In some ways, very much so. Responsibility for assessing standards therefore often falls on the buyer.
Apartment blocks collapsing is not normally the concern, as that’s incredibly rare. What we are discussing here is certain expectations you may have assumed would be met (like correctly installed fire doors in public areas) that you’d think would just be “done”, may not be.
Because the baseline minimum standard is a lot lower than in the EU or USA, you have to reset your expectations from the start. Your options are normally:
- Consider a higher end developer (i.e., a much more expensive price per meter than the average).
- Buy only in a place where the building construction is completely finished, so you can get a property inspection to check that everything is at an acceptable standard.
- Accept that if you want the best prices, there will always be some compromise, and 10/10 is never realistic.
Our best advice on this topic is to always get a property inspection, so that you have an objective report that can help you decide if the property is still viable for the asking price. In some cases, you can use the report to negotiate a discount, though many sellers would rather wait for some sucker to overpay, than to discount the price. Either way, information is power, and a few hundred dollars for a report which either confirms or condemns the sale, is money well spent.
Non-Disclosure of Defects, Liens & Debts
So you found a place you love, the seller seems super nice and keen to sell, and you are ready for that celebratory glass of wine and a handshake. What they don’t want you to know is that problems with the property will become your liability the second you sign the purchase agreement, unless the agreement specifically details that the liability will fall on the seller.
Example 1: The seller still has 50k USD to pay on the mortgage. Though the debt does not transfer to you, the mortgage remains on the property. So if the seller has not paid the mortgage in full, then the bank could potentially repossess your property if the seller defaults on mortgage payments after you become the owner. The safest way to avoid this is to agree with the seller that you will pay the mortgage out of the total sale amount, before transferring the remaining balance to the seller.
Example 2: The seller does not actually legally own the property. It turns out that a 3rd party does, and that the 3rd party has no interest in selling, or will even cause problems with the sale.
Example 3: Turns out the real estate you are trying to buy does not actually exist (legally), and that it’s essentially been built illegally. It’s actually more common than you’d expect for people to build something, like an extension or an extra floor on top of an apartment building, without ever having the proper planning permission to do so.
Buying Real Estate in Cash (Especially USD or EUR) & Exchange Rates
When our clients find out the seller wants payment in full, in USD, in cash, they often panic a little. You are going to find this request occurs with quite a lot of real estate deals, and negotiating around it is often not possible. So, why does it happen? Is it safe? And what can you do if it is the only option?
Why does it happen? NEW VERSION
USD/EUR is not legal for most domestic transactions in Georgia
Given that Georgian ATMs let you withdraw USD, you’d be forgiven for thinking that USD was legal tender in Georgia. In most cases, it is not.
But the volatility of the local currency (GEL) means that many sellers want to accept large payments in USD, to avoid any issues with getting paid and then having the GEL they received significantly drop in value before they can spend it. Yes, that pile of USD is probably going to end up under a mattress somewhere.
The exception for real estate purchases
The relevant exception here is that a real estate purchase is allowable in a currency other than GEL provided the buyer is a non-resident of Georgia.
However, the National Bank is a little vague on what this means exactly. Do they mean tax residents? Those with a legal residency permit? Or those who typically reside in Georgia? Or even those purchasing with the intent to reside in Georgia? And how is this status checked by the bank?
We are currently discussing this topic with the National Bank of Georgia to further clarify. What we already clarified is that anyone they determine as a non-resident can make the purchase in USD. Whether something simply being allowable makes it legal, is a matter for a much more in depth legal discussion that we won’t get into here. There are certainly some other laws that may be violated if you were deemed to be a resident of Georgia, even if the bank doesn’t seem to agree you are a resident.
For now, our advice is if you absolutely clearly reside elsewhere, and have no tax or legal residency ties to Georgia, then you are unlikely to have a problem. For anyone else, there may be risk, even if your banker tells you everything is fine.
In most cases, taxes are owed by the seller when their property is sold. If the deal is done under the table as a cash transaction, they may be hoping to avoid tax, and hence offer a better price. So, as the buyer, tax on the sale is not your concern.
Is it safe?
Could you get scammed?
If you don’t follow the correct procedure, then yes, anyone could get scammed. That’s obviously why hiring a good lawyer (your lawyer, not the seller’s!) to oversee the purchase is always recommended. Assuming you have an expert to keep everything in order, then no, the cash purchase situation is not in itself going to be an easy way to scam the buyer.
If you sign the correct paperwork at the correct time, the sale is legally binding, and it will be highly unlikely you could end up in a situation where the seller can run off with your money but not sign over the title of the property to you – unless you hired a bad lawyer, DIY’d the process and made mistakes, or hired someone to help who was in on the scam with the seller in the first place.
Is carrying huge wads of cash safe?
Though the crime rate in Georgia is very low, and pickpocketing and bag snatching are actually quite rare, it is still a developing country and it’s far from ideal or recommended to carry large amounts around in cash.
What Can/Should You Do If You Go With A Cash Purchase?
Negotiate to Pay Using a Legal Method
If you are a resident of Georgia, we recommend negotiating a way to make the deal work with a bank transfer or cash in GEL, not USD. It may involve paying a little more, but keeping things legal is worth it. In some cases, it is simply impossible to convince the seller to accept GEL.
Act of Acceptance
An act of acceptance is a legal document you will sign that shows the movement of funds between two parties. This will serve as proof that payment was made for the intention of purchasing the real estate. If the seller does not then also proceed to sign the purchase agreement (which you would do at the same meeting in the presence of a mediator/notary and your lawyer, so there are plenty of witnesses) then the seller would legally be due to return the money.
Make sure you agree in advance which exchange rate authority will be referred to in order to determine the exact exchange rate at the time of purchase. If you turn up and the seller is trying to use the rate on Google or from TBC bank, rather than the rate of the National Bank of Georgia, for instance, you may end up paying more than expected.
Increasing The Price
This could be connected to the fake pricing scam, the buying in cash scam, or a completely unrelated situation.
With fake pricing, you’ll normally find out that the listed price is not possible as soon as you actually try to move forward with the purchase. For buying in cash, the price may increase if you insist on buying with a bank transfer and/or not in USD.
So when else may the price randomly increase? Pretty much any time. And we experience this issue a lot. Here is a random list of just a few excuses sellers have provided for upping the price after the deal was already agreed upon:
- You said/asked something I found insulting (more on this below) and I will no longer sell to you for the original price as I have been wronged.
- I needed to sell by Tuesday and as you wanted time to think about it, the price has now gone up.
- You are a foreigner and can afford to pay more.
- I’ve realized the property is worth more than I thought.
- My uncle died last week and now I need more money than expected this year, so I have to charge more (seriously, this has happened- read the “no market awareness” section below).
This one is not a scam as such, but it can certainly tank a deal or cause the seller to increase the price. Georgian real estate negotiation, especially with more difficult sellers, involves a rather intricate familiarity with the unwritten laws of Georgian customs.
It is very easy, if you ask something the seller thinks is unreasonable, for them simply to say they don’t like you and won’t sell to you, no matter the price. The logic that is applied to negotiation will initially make no sense to anyone from Western countries. This is one very good reason to have a good Georgian lawyer negotiate on your behalf, as they are familiar with the rules and can pick up the nuances, as well as advise you if the requests you are making are going to be taken badly.
We could write a book on this process and its idiosyncrasies, but suffice to say, in this short passage, sellers could take requests you believe to be totally reasonable, and see them as an insult – leading to an increase in price or the end of the deal altogether.
Official Property Valuations
This is certainly not a scam. In fact, unlike becoming a real estate agent, valuators actually have to be accredited. The reason it made this list is because the valuation report is normally never based on a full property inspection. Market value is assessed based on sales statistics, location, size, and other general metrics.
Essentially, two apartments of the same size in the same building, on the same floor, and in the same state of completion (i.e., black frame, white frame, green frame, etc.) might be valued the same, even though one had expert contractors perform the interior works & wiring, while the other had cowboys vomit plaster over the walls. (The latter, of course, meaning you’ll need to pay thousands to get the breakers in, and then pay again to redo everything from scratch, costing even more!)
While the valuation process is often an important metric (and for residency applications via investment, it’s legally required) you should not make your purchase decision based solely on average market value.
A property inspection, while it may not sway the seller to reduce the price, will at least alert you to whether the contract work has been completed to an acceptable standard, so you don’t have nasty surprises down the track.
No Market Awareness
Market economics are lost on many sellers in Georgia. The typical decision on asking price is based on two possible factors – valuation report (see above) or “how much do I need to sell for”. The first is logical, but you’ll find a lot of sellers simply not willing to negotiate under any circumstances – even given clear defects with their property, as discussed above.
The second is a level of belligerence that sometimes sees properties on the market for years. In some cases, they may even continue to burn money on interest/loans, rather than making the logical choice of dropping the price a bit and paying off the loans, for a net saving.
If the market is slow, they want the same price. If the currency dropped, they want the same price. The list goes on…
In these instances, standard negotiation is rarely effective. It’s time to pay up (if it’s worth it) or just walk away.
Deal or No Deal? In a heartbeat.
You may be familiar with the idea in Western countries that once you put in an offer, and it is accepted, then the deal is almost certain to go forward, and you just move through all the steps like property inspection and legal proceedings.
There is no guarantee of this here. The deal can disintegrate in seconds if someone else makes an offer, even if your offer was already accepted, and even if your offer was a little higher (because maybe the other buyer had a glass of wine with the seller and they had a rapport).
This means a need for speed in going from offer to completion is important. But don’t let that force you into rushing a deal that could be a horrible investment. The balance should be struck between proper due diligence and speed.
It is certainly not always easy, and sometimes another buyer, who just takes the seller’s word for it that the place is in perfect condition, may snipe the deal from right under your nose. We are in a “how long is a piece of string” discussion when it comes to this topic, but what is important is you act quickly and take all the correct steps, to get the deal done while also protecting yourself.
It should be noted that property inspections and legal due diligence do often uncover issues. Given that real estate agents will lose their commissions once you know the property has problems, you should be very wary of any agent who tells you an inspection is not necessary, and also cautious if they recommend a lawyer. Find your own.
As expats, the Georgian real estate market can be daunting. Even after gaining some experience, the level of illogical (at least, non-western) behavior and nuance can still be overwhelming enough to cause a lot of concern and leave you unsure if you are making good decisions.
Though the final decision on what to buy always has to come down to you, our buy-side agents exist to give you the right context, support, and objective advice to be informed enough to feel confident at every stage of the process. Combined with comprehensive service from our real estate lawyers, we are here to make the process as safe and painless as possible. We get paid by you no matter which property you end up buying, so we are focused on representing your interests, not the seller’s.
Our service is aimed at two types of clients:
- Those who simply don’t want to have to deal with the above problems themselves and would like having an expert on hand who is on their payroll, not that of the seller, to advise throughout the process and catch all those nuances it would be easy to miss.
- Those who won’t actually be in Georgia themselves and need a reliable team to represent their interests.