9 Tips On Renovating An Old House in Rural Bulgaria

If you’re looking to buy a house in rural Bulgaria & wondering if you can renovate an old but rural house, these 9 tips on renovating in Bulgaria should help you decide if you can. We give you loads of handy tips on how to cope with renovating an old house.

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Our house, taken the day we looked around it.

1. Can I Afford To Renovate A House In Rural Bulgaria?

Houses here are pretty cheap, especially rural, old ones, but renovating them is a different matter. If you want quality you’ll definitely need to pay for it. In my opinion, if you pay cheap here, you pay thrice; once for it, the second to repair it and the third to replace it…Cheap won’t last long and it doesn’t look that great after a few years either.

Although you can pick up houses for just a few thousand lev, you’ll need another £20,000 to renovate a house in rural Bulgaria to modern standards. In some instances, it just isn’t worth it and you might as well just buy land. There is a reason why these old houses have been left to ruin and that’s because most of the time, Bulgarians can buy apartments in the city for the same money as it’d cost to renovate.

You should take into consideration that many of the staircases on these old houses are external and to bring them inside the house you must either enclose them or build an internal staircase.  Our floors are a mix of stone, mud, wood and concrete and vary in depth between 60cm to a metre. It is impossible to predict what we’ll hit and due to this, we can’t have an internal staircase. You might not think that having an internal staircase is an issue but once winter hits and you need to go outside and walk through the snow at 3 am to pee, it really does matter. You also constantly traipse dirt into the house because you walk between external floors.

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Downstairs had a double layer of rotting wood cladding, which we removed very quickly

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Removing the wooden cladding from downstairs rooms

2. Live Off-Site During The Renovations

We have lived onsite, off & on, for 15 months and it can be emotionally very draining to live surrounded by the constant dirt and chaos. The worst period for us was during the first electrical rewire as we had no electricity and thus hot water.  I went to bed with bits of dirt and plaster in my hair, my hands were rough and dirty and every time I touched my duvet it was covered in dust.

We then needed a second re-wire (because the first was not good enough!), we have pulled up all of the upstairs floors to replace them and then we had downstairs plastered. Living through the dirt and cold has been a huge, emotional challenge.

Even if you have a (static) caravan or a bell tent in the garden, it will provide a mental escape from the tortures of renovating a house in rural Bulgaria; somewhere else to be warm and clean and free of despair! Sometimes waking up amongst the dirt and realising how much we still have left to do has been a barrier to us achieving more.

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Our kids cleaning the windows in the living room which we turned into a bedroom

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Having a bath in a bucket during the summer months


3. Shop Around For Materials

There are a huge amount of builders merchants & shops around; the problem is many are very small and don’t have signs outside their shops. For this reason, you might need to go looking for shops. We like to support our local, small DIY shop for all the little things like screws, nails, heat guns, metal cutters etc but for the big things we definitely shop around.

If you want quality items you’ll need to look further afield and maybe even consider importing items. We did this for our bath but our radiators we got from Romstal in Sofia.

Patience is a virtue that I don’t possess. Many shops we’ve been to don’t contain the actual stock advertised (this includes Ikea!) so you have to order it and wait for delivery. There is little customer service here so if your order is late (which it will definitely be) you’ll need to do the contacting and chase them for another date. We’ve discovered that many places don’t respond to an email so you’ll need to find a Bulgarian speaker to ring for you.

If you can, I’d recommend bringing British materials and tools with you, especially paint. Radar is the eastern European cheap producer of tools but they’re terrible quality and break very easily.  When something breaks and it’s in warranty, you’re required to take the product back to the shop you bought it in and send it off for analysis. Within a month it’s returned to the shop either fixed or replaced. Obviously this means that for an entire month you’ll be without that tool which can be very time-consuming.

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Our old kitchen & petchka which we ripped out

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From an old, mouldy kitchen to a new bathroom

4. Expect Surprises Galore

Expect to be surprised and just roll with it. Our internal downstairs walls are over a metre thick and made with stones, mud, horsehair, sticks and oak beams whilst the upstairs walls crumble as soon as touched.

You’ll need to be prepared for nothing being simple; even a small task like putting up a curtain pole can be taxing and unnecessarily complicated. If you’re prepared for it, you can take anything on but you must be philosophical about it.

There are nightmare stories online out there but there are also happy stories and there are many immigrants living here who’ve renovated. There are quite a few Facebook groups about living and renovating in Bulgaria but like everything, the quality of advice you get ranges significantly.

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Inside our downstairs bathroom after I knocked out a wall

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Turned a bathroom into a small dining room. The walls are freshly plastered.

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Same room with a coat of mist paint

5. Do Lots Of Research & Ignore Popular Opinion

If I’d have a Lev for the number of times I’ve been told something isn’t possible or I should just accept what the locals do, I’d be rolling in Levs. The most common was around our heating system and the locals (and local immigrants) telling me I should just have a petchka. I didn’t want a petchka; they’re not cost-efficient; they’re not environmentally friendly and our house wouldn’t allow the space for one and plus I detest the smoke they billow out every time you open them.. Even pellet systems are not that good but everybody told me to get a petchka because that’s what everybody does and it’s been that way for hundreds of years. Yawn! It’s of little wonder progress is slow here.

Eventually, we’ve opted for a very modern system; an air to water system. Most people have never heard of it and therefore dismiss it out of hand. However, we did meet a Bulgarian in our local area who had one. He’d bought it in Sofia after growing frustrated with local tradesmen telling him it would never work and was a silly idea. Not only does it work, it’s more efficient than wood and cheaper to run.

You’ll need to become a master of research and not just page one of Google. I recommend collating all of your ideas on Pinterest and persevering with your own ideas and needs.  There are lots of options out there, you just need to look for them and have the conviction to implement them.

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The old living room when we moved in

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A week after we moved in using the living room as a bedroom

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Transformed the living room into our bedroom

6. Should I Employ Tradesmen?

Should you employ only English tradesmen? How can you trust if they’re qualified?

This is something we’re still learning but we suggest that you ask for certificates and qualifications, do background checks on the business and the people who run it, search for reviews, ask for references, ask for photos and ask for recommendations but be aware that not everybody understands quality tradesman.

Bulgarian tradesmen are used to using archaic practices and making amends. We have newly fitted windows and doors (installed by the previous owners) but few are straight, they haven’t been installed correctly, expanding foam is everywhere and there’s only plaster for the metre around the windows supporting them. They just don’t know or care about best practices and do exactly what suits them.

Even if you give some Bulgarian tradesmen orders, they’ll ignore them, tell you your ideas would never work and do their own thing anyway. We had part of our guttering replaced and despite drawings from us they still did exactly what they wanted. This has meant we have leaks in various sections and the water just drips (cascades) right next to the house. We will have to re do it ourselves next year and hope we can rent a cherry picker or a buy a ladder long enough.

We considered hiring Bulgarian tradesmen to fit our bathroom but after they told us a macerator (electric pump) would never work and that we would need to sit the toilet on a plinth to elevate it, we decided to do it ourselves. I’m glad we did because our macerator works just fine and our toilet is not elevated like a throne!

You can usually employ local men to do the menial jobs but don’t expect them to necessarily do it well or tidy up. Fly-tipping is very common and they may well just take the rubbish and drop it at the end of the road. It took us over a year to find a skip company because all of the local people told us there wasn’t one. Actually there was and we found it through our local municipality town office.

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The skip we rented

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7. Have Confidence In Your Own Abilities

DIY is not hard but most people get spooked in their lack of self-confidence. I wish we had been more confident because we would have done a better done than some of the tradesmen we hired. An example of this is plumbing; we were terrified of cocking it up but after we discovered a leak we had no option but to fix it.

We’ve since re-done a considerable amount of plumbing ourselves and it’s easy peasy. What we don’t know we read blogs about and watch YouTube videos on. We watch as many as we can until we confident and then we try it out.

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What will be our living room

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The kids taking down the tiles in our new living room

8. Don’t Renovate Through The Winter

We would recommend starting the renovation in April-May and finishing in November if you can. These are the months that are warmest here and once those November temperatures start hitting zero, it is just so cold and draughty that you do not want to be living on-site in a half-demolished house.  Of course, the weather depends on where you live but you would not want to be without a roof, windows or heating when the temperature suddenly plummets – which it does round about the third week of November.

Believe me, DIY in the freezing cold is excruciatingly painful on the finger joints and the toes! The sunny months are gorgeous here, really hot in places and they don’t have rain for months.

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Summer in Bulgaria

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End of November in Bulgaria

9. You’ll Need A Good Translator

You’re not going to be able to learn Bulgarian in time for renovating so make sure you find an honest and reliable translator who can help you out. It’s a consideration to find a younger translator who is more aware of modern techniques and can use the internet to help you.


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