To keep or sell property in Greece: a personal dilemma for some Canadians

MONTREAL – The economic crisis sideswiping Greece has had a particularly personal impact on some people here, as members of the Greek diaspora fret about what to do with property in their homeland.

One Montrealer explained this week that he had already sold four pieces of land, laden with olive trees, back in his native province of Messinia.

“Nobody wants land in Greece,” said John Tomaras, an 80-year-old who immigrated decades ago.

“We have a weak, stone house that won’t be around for much longer and the amount of tax we pay on it makes it very expensive to keep.”

A deeply unpopular property tax created by the Ministry of Finance in 2011, one of many austerity measures adopted by the debt-stricken country, is expected to cost the average household between $1,300 and $2,000 a year and applies to virtually everyone owning property in Greece.

The tax, which factors in the size, age and location of the property, will affect more than 5.1 million properties in Greece — including the more than 70,000 owned by foreigners.

Some land owners would rather part with everything in an attempt to salvage whatever they can, even if it means losing a pied-a-terre in a picturesque mountain village near Kalamata, the Mediterranean coastal city surrounded by lush olive fields.

“I have a house, land, farms and I want to get rid of it all,” said John Babalis, another Greek Montrealer originally from Kalamata. “No one is looking after it when we aren’t there and we’re worried about the government, so none of it is worth keeping.”

There are other concerns, aside from property taxes and the stability of the euro.

Take squatters, for instance.

A Greek law stipulates that unattended properties can eventually be claimed by trespassers if enough time has passed. In many cases, the trespasser might be a relative or friend who claims the property as his own.

“If you leave your property unattended for 21 years you run a very high risk of losing it to someone who could claim it,” said James Kromida, a chartered accountant in Montreal who also has offices in Greece. “If you inherit property and you haven’t submitted the right deeds, you can lose what’s rightfully yours.”

The decision to give up land, of course, goes beyond money. To people with ties to their ancestral homeland, it carries an emotional cost that can’t be calculated in dollars and cents.

Athena Tacet’s family bought land on the island of Paros 26 years ago. It took them more than 10 years to build a house there. Corruption made it hard for them to accomplish simple tasks, such as getting electricity and water. “My family needed to pay bribes to get things done,” she said.

But the family is reluctant to give up the home because of the importance the land represents.

According to an old Greek saying, the definition of happiness is seeing your daughter get married and owning a house in Greece.

Land is passed down from generation to generation and, if it is sold, it usually goes to a relative in the hope of preserving the family’s ownership.

“It’s generally very hard for Greeks to give up their land because they believe it’s their most valuable asset,” Tacet said.

Greeks with businesses there are also affected by the crisis.

Panagiotis Tsiriotakis, founder of Acropolis Organics in Toronto, imports and produces organic olive oil from Crete. Problems there have considerably slowed down his shipments across the Atlantic and, as a result, he has to stock more olives than usual.

“I used to bring a container to Canada in 17 days — and now it takes me around 50,” said Tsiriotakis.

The increased instability and uncertainty means that he is constantly worried about his shipments.

“I don’t know what’s going on anymore. Will the ports be closed? Will the truck drivers be on strike?” he said.

“A lot of the weaker companies are going to close — but they can’t afford it, because you need to pay taxes to close your business.”