How to buy a house in Estonia in three days and six lessons

Clarisse Bordonneau, a 36-year-old Frenchwoman, recently bought a house in Estonia and was profoundly surprised how quick and straightforward the process was – especially compared with France.

In France, buying a house is a marathon. In Estonia, it is quite the opposite – a sprint. Searching for a house, picking it out and signing the purchase documents are all feasible within 72 hours. On one condition: you let an Estonian educate you as if you were a child.

My name is Clarisse. I’m 36 years old, French and I recently moved in to my new house in the Estonian county of Põlvamaa. One question often comes up in a conversation: why did you buy a house in Estonia? And I answer it the same way: the question is not “why”, but “how”? Indeed, how do you become a landowner in a country where you don’t know the language, the administrative rules and… almost anything? Here’s the answer: thanks to minimal administrative procedures and an Estonian friend from the countryside who gave everything to gain a neighbour.

Day One: find a house

The first great advantage of Estonia: it’s a small country. Everything here is small: the population, the distances, the prices and so on. It also works in regards to finding a house: there is one website that everyone uses instead of a billion options with an ocean of ads to sink into, as is the case in France. The second great advantage: most of the online information is translated to English. This means being able to use it at a very basic level, like a kid learning to swim. It took me a few minutes to choose the houses I liked, which was, in fact, the most I could do on my own.

This is how it went.

My Estonian friend, Maimu: “Check kv.ee.”

Me: “Oh, thank you very much! Do you have more links, or maybe another website?”

Maimu (five seconds later): “So, did you find your home?”

Me: “Umm, yes? No? Maybe? Why?”

Maimu: “Give me the phone numbers, I’ll make some calls for you.”

The first lesson I learned from Estonians: say more with less words (and never answer a useless question). Five phone calls and much more buts later, I had an organised schedule with several visits. Maimu, aware that I had no idea about the differences between the counties and parishes, had organised a tour, and was already heating up the car.

Day Two: choose a house

Visiting a property sounds like a good plan, but you still need to find it. It seems Estonians have an innate sense of car racing and orientation: to drive on dirt roads and to find the right turn each time (without any indication) – tight turns, without a single incident; what a super power I wish to acquire one day. Maimu and I had an appointment with the landowner by the turn-off to a dirt road, and we found it without a problem.

The Estonian landowner: “The house is next to this road.”

Me: “Hello, how are you? Which road?”

The landowner was already far away, slaloming in the mud thanks to the huge tires on his huge vehicle. Thirteen minutes of chasing him through the woods, we basically had to follow a rocket without ever succeeding to see it or catch up with it. Did the guy make a turn? Is he waiting for us in the thicket?

The second lesson I learned: never think in terms of kilometres, rather think in terms of time.

Me: “Awesome! It’s in the middle of nowhere!”

The landowner: “Indeed. It’s actually the name of the village.”

Me: “Oh yeah? Which village? I didn´t see a village. We could have a drink after visiting the house.”

The landowner: “We are in the village already.”

The third lesson: two houses make a village, which doesn’t always include a café.

An old Estonian wooden house nestled in the woods, in the middle of a property of “only” four acres, including a private forest, a pond, a sauna, many deer and a wolfpack. In France, this kind of package can be bought exclusively with the biggest of fortunes (which I don’t have). In Estonia, I had resources to live in the wild for real. Two words were dancing and drinking champagne in my mind: dream house, dream house, dream house!

Suddenly, I realised something. Maimu was in charge so the salesperson spoke to her and not to me at all. She asked my questions, then hers, then translated everything alternating languages ​​with a staggering dexterity: Estonian-French-English and perhaps some Russian. Basically, she knew my aspirations, assuming brilliantly her role as the Estonian polyglot secret agent.

After we got back from the tour, we had this conversation.

The Estonian realtor: “So, what’s your plan?”

Me: “It’s beautiful, cute, light, the size is amazing. But I need to think about it more.”

The realtor: “Well. If you like it, say it now. Another house viewing is already booked by a Finn.”

The fourth lesson: you don’t sleep on it. I wouldn´t say the Estonians are rushed, but rather that they have an effective business sense. Instead of chit-chatting for hours around a bottle of wine, Maimu showed me the best digital toy ever: the website of the Estonian Land Board. One click reveals all the data of a property: the plot limits, archive photos, the soil composition and so on. An amazing amount of information that in France I would have had to look for, spend many nights drowning myself in a thousand websites and for sure at least three bottles of wine.
 In Estonia, the next morning I shook hands with the salesman who took care of the next steps: the appointment at the notary office, a French-Estonian translator, the delivery of the pre-sales contract. Everything was in the bag.

Day Three: buy the house

The fifth lesson, and the best to learn as a hopeless French penpusher-ecologist: in Estonia, administrative procedures are comprehensible and paper free. And most simplified in comparison with France (1. filling out a ton of papers; 2. getting many permissions; 3. understanding more interdictions; 4. signing; 5. possibly retracting; 6. eventually being ejected from the transaction).

The appointment at the notary is probably the best part of my story, painting a solid picture of the differences between the French and the Estonian cultures. Seven characters, whose roles were not so definable, sitting around one table and on the couch, trying to understand each other: the notary (reading the act of the sale out loud and being very serious); two owners (talking on the phone and being busy); Maimu (sitting on the couch and being quite comfortable); the translator (translating everything to French, discovering common friends with Maimu, inviting me for dinner, being very efficient and friendly); the Frenchwoman (trying to understand something, annoying the owners with questions and unbelievable requests and feeling a little lost).

Me: “My bank asked me for some paperwork. I need a proof about the transferred money from the notary and from the owners.”

One of the owners (hurried to sign): “Why?”

Maimu (still comfortable on the couch, coaching everybody, a little blazed): “You know, French rules…”

The other one of the owners (still on the phone): “Should I ask the baker for a proof when I buy a baguette?”

The notary: “This kind of document does not exist in Estonia.”

The translator (still efficient and friendly): “Can you explain to me what exactly you need?”

Me (sweating): “The transaction can not happen if I don’t get this paper. I need something to prove that the transfer is done.”

The owners (in chorus) : “What more do you need to prove, we are here all together!”

The sixth and last lesson I learned: there is always a way to run into a situation in Estonia.

Finally, we succeeded in laying a document of evidence together, also hesitating on the French ID number to be added to the document, not knowing which one to choose between the numbers on the passport, the ID-card, the driving licence, the social insurance number or whatever…

Technically, it took me three days to change my life, which for me as a French person is incredibly fast. Is it a matter of getting lucky, as by chance I might have stumbled upon the most efficient people in Estonia? Or is it a 100% Estonian cultural phenomenon? All my interlocutors were also effective, unloading the weight of the paper… But this will be taught in the next lesson I guess, and I have time to learn it on my own.

I

Cover: Clarisse’s farmhouse in Kõnnu village, Põlva County. Please consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

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About the author: Clarisse Bordonneau

Clarisse Bordonneau is originally from France and now lives in southern Estonia, in the middle of nowhere. She is also an author, journalist and a publisher, writing about travelling and human cultures.

  • SmedleyUnderfoot

    HA! I had the same experience buying a car in Tartu. We wandered around amid a thousand cars in an ex-Soviet airfield looking for the six or so with automatic transmissions (my wife doesn’t drive a stick), and got ribbed for choosing one with a 2.3 liter (Americans and their big engines! I didn’t have the heart to tell him my family had a 7.5 liter Suburban when I was growing up…). The whole operation was on consignment, so I arranged to meet the owner a few days later and go to the motor vehicle registration. With the help of an Estonian who I had never met before but who knew the process, I was able to get the title transferred, inspection, buy insurance (In the registration bureau! And cheep!) get the car inspected and registered and drive away, all in about 3 hours. Unbelievable.

    • E-stonian

      You dont need to go to a parking lot to find something anymore. There is one site auto24.ee that has ALL the listings.
      Also you dont need to go to ARK (motor vehicle regisration office) anymore to get the ownership changed. You do it online.
      And you also dont need to go to buy insurance somewhere. You can compare prices and purchase it online.
      Where used to be a car sales lot in Tartu, now has a museum. You should visit it! 🙂

  • Jaan

    did you know that it took 15 sec to find out where your new home is? one of the sides of Estonian E-ness… sometimes I think it’s awkward. anybody can find out what real estate I own.

    • Paula Salme Sandrak

      In Sweden, you type the person’s name in Google and his/her exact address and satellite image of their home is instantly visible. That’s giving me creeps. They have the most amazing stats of their people – social, economic, health care… But you can also stalk anyone you want.

    • Martha

      Unless you’re a Trump with something to hide, why should you care?

  • Jim

    Be careful about mistaking speed and simplicity for sophistication. The problem in Estonia is the real estate is underdeveloped and this results in less protection for the buyer.

    First, anyone can be a real estate agent. Just print “kinnisvaramaakler” on your business card, and now you are selling real estate! There is no official licensing or testing required. Yes, some agents are “atesteeritud” but it’s rare, and not required.

    Why is this an issue? Because if there was a license requirement, that means agents have to follow a set of ethics rules or risk losing their license. For example, they would need to disclose if they are showing you a property where they have an interest (maybe a family member owns it), and they are required to act in your (not their) best interest.

    Second, there are no fair housing laws in Estonia. This means a seller or landlord can decide who to sell/rent to based on any criteria they like, like your race or religion. In most countries, the law is that you can make your decision solely based on financial merits, like salary and ability to pay.

    Third, there is no standard property listing requirement or disclosure. For example, let’s say the buyer lists a house and they know that the new Via Baltica railway is due to be built 50 meters away. They are not required to disclose that, even though this will affect the home’s value and desirability (in a negative way) when it happens. Next, because there is no standard listing, they aren’t required to list all the amenities of the property and the condition they are in. They are not required to list if the home has cancer-causing asbestos insultation, etc.

    Fourth, on the buyer side, there is no standard offer requirement. There’s no standard for how to handle an earnest money deposit; escrow requirements; how to handle contingencies like financing and inspection contingencies. No deadline to close on the deal.

    Fifth, the notaries are not there to handle the settlement. For example, let’s say you’re half-way into the month when you buy. The seller should be responsible for the first 2 weeks of the electric bill that month, then you are responsible for the rest. Or let’s say the property you’re buying has a a mortgage on it from the seller. The notary should (but rarely does) arrange all the payments to all parties involved. A good case was stated in your own article — your bank needed proof of payment. Why didn’t the notary contact them before the transaction, find out their requirements, and prepare all documents for the day you came in to sign?

    Now, you could say all this regulation is the problem in the first place, but these are there to protect people from what is likely the most important purchase in their life, and their main method of building wealth. This isn’t like buying a new pair of shoes.

    What can go wrong? One example was a new apartment building in Tallinn where the builder did not pay the door company for the doors they installed. Buyers bought their apartments, then one day the door company came and removed all the doors due to non-payment from the builder!

    How could this have been resolved? The door company should have placed liens on the property, and the notary should have checked for such liens and “cleared” them (taken money from the builder to pay them off) at the time of the sale. But .. there is no formal lien system in place and the notaries don’t check this.

    Or another case — a buyer buys a house near Viimsi that was being rented out to a tenant. They show up the day after the sale and the tenant refuses to leave. The buyer is unable to take possession of the house they purchased for months.

    How could this have been resolved? The standard offer disclosure would either state there is a tenant and how long the lease needs to be honored for, or there would be a law where tenant has first right of refusal to buy a property when it’s offered for sale,and if not, they agree to move out upon sale (often with compensation).

    Yes, it’s impressive you can buy a house in 3 days, but I bet you did not have a home inspection done from a licensed inspector; the seller did not disclose any issues they know with the property; and you already can see your notary messed up by not collaborating with your bank on the transaction requirements before you showed up to sign.

  • Poc Poculat

    In Malta: found a flat in last July, signed a pre-contract in August and got the keys in March.

  • Matthieu M.

    Hey Clarisse! Congratulation for your new home 🙂
    What about ‘housing tax’ or other taxes compared to France?

    • Andrus

      In Estonia there is no ‘housing tax’ but the land is taxed. In countryside the land tax is nealy nothing. For example I have also small house in south Estonia for vacation purposes with 45000m2 land and the tax is only 9EUR per year. In suburb of Tartu, where I live, I have 1500m2 and tax is 30EUR per year. In Pärnu I am also co owner of small house 300 meters from main beach and there I pay 0,66EUR per m2 a year.

    • Sven Kunsing

      https://www.emta.ee/eng/private-client/land-vehicle-forest-gambling/land-tax

      I would say the annual amount on simple residential property in the middle of nowhere will be negligible. I’d say far less than 100 EUR.

  • Martha

    Tere tulemast Eestimaa. Loved your post and as a long-time resident on Saaremaa, I can attest to the veracity of it.
    I guess / hope that another lesson you’re contemplating is learning our language. The Min.of Ed has had created a free e-learning package, https://www.keeleklikk.ee/et/welcome It’s brilliantly done and great fun. If you’re ever headed to Kuressaare, give me a shout. I’m MESaare on Twitter

  • I loved your article, thanks for the helpful entertaining read 🙂 I’m currently looking for some vacation/investment property in Estonia and I am from the U.S. I love Tallinn and the people there, I’ve visited Tallinn twice in the past 3 years and moved there for 3 months last year with my girlfriend. I am a realtor in California and would love any helpful referrals or recommendations on what to research and who to talk to in order to make this happen. The more info the better. I’m also thinking of buying with partners so does Estonia have a Tenancy in Common form of ownership as in undivided ownership’s which can be varying percentages? Or can you purchase property under an LLC?