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.

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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.