The Greek property mess

As Greece tries to pull back from the economic abyss, a serious problem rears its head: no one is really sure who owns what.

Not long ago Leonidas Hamodrakas, a lawyer in Athens, decided to pay closer attention to his family’s land holdings — some fields, a scattering of buildings and a massive stone tower — in Mani, a rural region in southern Greece.

But property ownership in Greece is often less than clear cut. So Mr. Hamodrakas put a padlock on his gate and waited to see what would happen. Soon enough, he heard from neighbors. Three of them claimed that they, too, had title to parts of the property.

In this age of satellite imagery, digital records and the instantaneous exchange of information, most of Greece’s land transaction records are still handwritten in ledgers, logged in by last names. No lot numbers. No clarity on boundaries or zoning. No obvious way to tell whether two people, or 10, have registered ownership of the same property.

As Greece tries to claw its way out of an economic crisis of historic proportions, one that has left 60 percent of young people without jobs, many experts cite the lack of a proper land registry as one of the biggest impediments to progress. It scares off foreign investors; makes it hard for the state to privatize its assets, as it has promised to do in exchange for bailout money; and makes it virtually impossible to collect property taxes.

[…]

Land disputes are less acute in urban centers, where sidewalks, streets and building walls help clarify boundaries. But in the countryside, deeds reflect another era. Boundaries can be the “three olive trees near the well” or the spot “where you can hear a donkey on the path.”

“You had guys who had never been to school — who had 100 sheep — and they would throw a rock a certain distance and say: O.K., that’s mine,” said Mr. Hamodrakas, who in addition to his own problems has handled many landownership cases for clients. “The documents might say ‘from the tree to the stream.’ It is very hard to know what they are talking about.”

His own dispute, he said, arises from the language related to a sale that took place long ago. “The papers say that my great-grandfather bought ‘the threshing floor and the land around it.’ ” But did that mean 50 feet around the threshing floor or 5,000?

In general, experts say, Greeks are remarkably at ease with a level of irregularity when it comes to real estate. Stelios Patsoumas, an architect in Athens, says that most houses there run afoul of regulations. The building laws are so tangled, contradictory and outdated that it is virtually impossible to build without violating one regulation or another. Recently, for instance, he said he was asked to build a summer camp for children. The law demanded that the toilet facilities be 50 yards away from the sleeping quarters, a relic from the days of outhouses.

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