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Istria's Housekeeper
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The Property Rental Market in Istria, Croatia Has Grown
Markedly, Now often Referred to as the New Tuscany
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by Barry Napier

German, French and other savvy Europeans discovered Istria as a new property investment area a while ago. The British are latecomers to this gem of a country, so investment opportunities are now more competitive.

Because of this, few low-price bargains are left, but prices are still good. Even homes only part-built have seen a huge rise in return. But, when Croatia joins the E.U. in 2008, prices will rocket.  So, opportunities are still there for careful buyers. To avoid the pitfalls, finding a property manager with local knowledge is essential for serious investors.  Also, under Croatian law, foreign buyers can’t rent out themselves, but must go through government-registered Croatian agents.

I have found just three management companies in Istria, the most developed region in Croatia. Two of them are brand new. Research indicates that the very first property management company set up in the country, Istria Property Management, owned by an English woman, remains top of the league. 

At just 44 Caroline Hopkins is a busy wife and mum, yet she keeps house for the whole of Istria, as a leading property manager. Tracing her background, we can see how Caroline’s life moved along a path destined to make her the dynamic businesswoman she is today… and why she is so good at her job. 

Elements of Success

Young Caroline lived in Yorkshire: Sheffield, Ilkley and Beverley. Finishing school, she went on to read European History and Italian Language at the University of East Anglia. In time, both subjects would help her to become successful in one of Europe's fastest growing property markets. 

Caroline’s first job was as assistant to an international advertising photographer based in London. At first she did the usual 'assisting' with small tasks, but soon became involved in photographic advertising assignments around the world – Australia, Japan and all of Europe.

But a change was in the air for this footloose young woman. Her mastery of the Italian language just wasn't enough: she decided to live in Italy to become a 'real' Italian. 'Mama Mia' isn't the same unless you're sitting outside an Italian cafe, sipping a genuine espresso, watching the beautiful people stroll by! 

This was satisfying for a while, and gave Caroline a sense of ease when dealing with foreign nationals. Then, wanting something more, this neo-Italian took on freelance production work with a variety of TV companies, mainly working on daytime TV and documentaries. 
Her output included a big-budget series for the International Broadcasting Network: 'Lost Palaces of the World', and a six-part series on an American business guru, for the BBC. 

Often, working in creative fields requiring close scrutiny of aim and content will help anyone who wishes to provide a services-based business to the public, when facts, figures, flare and direction all meld together as one.

Whilst working at the BBC Caroline's future was mapped out. Her contacts led to a new job with the United Nations' Television Unit based in Zagreb, Croatia.  With a team of 25 people, making human-interest documentary programmes, Caroline's job as Production Manager took her all over Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. Hardly a safe role, she did her work during former Yugoslavia’s war years, and was broadcast across Europe as well as locally. 

The neo-Italian become Miss Croatia for one fortunate young man. Zeljko Bobanovic, a TV unit editor’ He married the girl from Yorkshire after they met in Zagreb. After the Dayton Peace Agreement was forged, the job finished, so the couple moved to London. Zeljko continued his film work and Caroline became Property Manager at Three Mills Film Studios in East London. 

This was a big job, taking in 18 film stages, 30 production offices, 4 rehearsal rooms plus additional office space. Without a doubt it was another step in the process of building an impressive portfolio of experience that would lead to her present role. 

Her work today is complex and multi-faceted, but she seems to cope with remarkable ease and confidence, thanks to her earlier experience and her personal character, which is quite laid-back. This is essential when she is dealing with clients who are anxious about their properties. I observed her take everything in her stride, which didn’t falter.

Naturally, children became a part of the couple's plans, and they went back to TV production. The company they worked for contracted to make childrens' educational programmes for the BBC and Channel 4.

The Vital Move

In 2003, life took another turn. They moved back to Croatia for a year's sabbatical. The idea was to look around the property market to buy a holiday house. This would conveniently allow the children to learn Croatian, as well as get to know Zeljko's family. After nine months, they realised just how happy they were in this beautiful country. So they stayed. 

Caroline believes many British people buy property in Croatia for the very same reason: happiness, and a sublime way of life, where 'hectic' and 'stressed' are almost unknown words. Caroline unwittingly epitomised this sense of well-being linked with taking it easy (called ‘polako’ in Croatian), when I found her strolling through the pretty harbour town of Porec (the ‘c’ is pronounced like the ‘s’ in ‘measure’). In between fielding business ‘phone calls, she enjoyed an ice-cream with her mother and children! Next moment would be off again at fast pace…but for now it was ‘polako’ time! 

Happiness is fine so long as it is backed with finance; the family needed a means of support. Thinking of her background, proven organisation skills, and experience with budgetary control, Caroline decided on her own Property Management business in a country where none existed previously. 

She says, “There was a real need for someone living in Croatia, speaking Croatian, to act on behalf of British buyers. Being British I understand the British way of thinking.”  The growth of her venture proves the point. It was simply a natural birth! 

 Initially starting out at a leisurely pace, Caroline efficiently mixes hard-nosed business success with family relaxation. “Croatia is great for both,” she says with a confident smile. She offers a huge variety of deals to British buyers, who express gratitude for her local knowledge and business sense. And all praise her for being ready to take that extra mile. One of her main activities is to make frequent site visits to make sure properties are in good order, and rental management. 

Caroline is not interested in mere quick-fixes, though urgent tasks do not seem to phase her. Her concern is to offer a top quality service for owners who are mainly living elsewhere most of the time. They can relax, knowing everything is being taken care of properly.  “The team will solve any problem,” she says, “We set out to maintain villas and apartments to the highest of standards. After all, this is what is expected in today's highly competitive rental market.”

Caroline is very aware of the current market: “It is now very hard to find very cheap property, say E30,000. The most basic apartments available now cost about E60,000. A villa in Porec will set you back about E1 million and a two-bed stone villa in the country about E200,000…if plastered, cost is between E150,000 and E170,000.” She adds: “There is a severe restriction on coastal properties. Sadly, some TV programmes in the UK are selling a dream, not reality!”

More Bow Strings

Looking after properties quickly led to other spheres of activity. Two more strings were added to Carolin's bow: furnishing and landscaping; both of which buyers are unable to oversee themselves. “Working with clients and their ideas, I draw up designs and recommendations to suit the style of the house and budgetary requirements,” says Caroline. “A well-landscaped garden can add 20% to the value of a property, so we work with a professional team of landscapers to create easy-maintenance gardens. When buyers get the opportunity to stay for a break in their own properties, they can sit back without having to weed or manage!”

To put a figure to that idea…a decent landscaping job will hand you a cool £40,000 profit if your property is of average price! That will more than pay for Caroline’s modest fee. 

Caroline's company is the only one in Istria concentrating solely on management and getting houses completed for the holiday rental market.  Other agencies may include the more lucrative real estate selling or rentals, but Caroline prefers to stick to her specialism, believing it gives a superior service.  By “helping buyers to realise the potential of their investment, from furnishing the property, to advising on the best marketing opportunities, to organising the cleaning, laundry and general running of the property.”  Having started her business in 2003, Caroline can justly be proud of what she has achieved in such a short space of time.

As if her fullest attention is not enough, Caroline also helps clients by dealing with builders and developers. Siobhan O’Reilly, who lives with her husband in Dubai, bought Villa Erin in Istria, in 2005. There is no doubt in her mind about Caroline’s worth. “…a major concern for us was property management, particularly as Istria is a fairly new market for English speakers. Thankfully, we met Caroline Hopkins, and to be honest, we couldn’t have done it without her. We live in the Middle East and cannot visit Istria regularly, so we relied on Caroline to get the property up and running and ready for rental. It’s so nice to be able to deal with someone we can trust.” 

Siobhan waxed lyrical about the part played by Caroline’s company: “Caroline took care of absolutely everything – purchasing furniture and kitchen, organising the garden, swimming pool maintenance, changeover cleaning, writing the Welcome Pack, and all those little things that really make a difference. She has gone the extra mile for us on many occasions, coordinating with the builder when there were delays, and answering the millions of questions we constantly have and, generally, taking the hassle away from us. She really is our ‘person on the ground’!”  For those who need it, centralised rental bookings can be arranged for clients, too, plus pick-up at the airport and car hire. Really, the breadth of Caroline’s business is amazing.

I talked with another client, Dr James Waddell from Wales, UK, during his meeting with Caroline at his property near the beautiful medieval village of Vizinada. The farmhouse was knocked down to make way for his new build, the luxurious Vila Olivia (with one ‘l’, the Croatian way), overlooking vineyards and with a view of Venice over the Adriatic. Though he has made fairly frequent visits to the site, like so many others, he has come to appreciate Caroline’s round-the-clock advice and help. 

James, himself no stranger to business, said, “Caroline has given a first-class, responsive and professional service, from our first mobile ‘phone call.” He went on to detail the staggering variety of tasks Caroline performed, such as “providing a complete interior furnishing solution; guiding choices on hard and soft furnishings, and even suggesting alternatives when she thought our own choice was too expensive or poor.” In addition, “She placed orders for us, and took them into the property after checking them. Caroline pays attention to detail and offers suggestions on solutions to problems. She sourced products for us and communicates with me regularly.”

Her services will not end when the villa is finished in a short while. James says “We will use Caroline’s property management solution, which includes meeting and greeting rental guests.” He believes Caroline is a major strength whose services have played a vital role.

Relaxed Dynamism 

During two very relaxed interviews, Caroline’s attitude was professional and reassuring, as she enthused over adding even more services to her portfolio. In effect, whatever her clients need, she will do. The aim is to provide the most comprehensive service in Istria. Watching her talking with clients and taking calls, she seems to be available at any time, any day, even when she is supposedly off duty. That kind of dynamic dedication can only spell success for any business.

There might be a suspicion that my view of Caroline is biased, but I was thumbing idly through a visitor’s book in one villa, and found an entry by a rental client. He wrote “I would also like to thank Caroline, who put up with our countless queries. Without her help we could not have enjoyed our holiday.” It seems they called on her many times, even though her task was simply to give them their keys on arrival! And wherever I went in Istria her name cropped up, always favourably. 

In touch with the newly rising breed of real estate agents (a previously unheard-of industry), she has inside knowledge of available properties near the coast, and of renovation projects inland.  The Ministry of Tourism has put restrictions on property purchase, and so Istrian property is becoming more scarce, so early contact is advisable.

Mrs Doubtfire this lady certainly is not; but Caroline is definitely Istria's Housekeeper. She is a casually-dressed, attractive woman, with a twinkle in her eyes, exuding relaxation. But this is deceptive… I have the strongest suspicion you would have to run pretty fast to keep up with her!

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Contact:

Barry Napier 
barry.napier@ntlworld.com

Caroline Hopkins’ website is 
www.istriapropertymanagement.com
Contact: info@istriapropertymanagement.com
Mail: Dracevac 13, 52440 Porec, Istria, Croatia. 
Tel: +385 (0) 52 463 147
Mobile: +385 (0) 98 957 5345

For villa rental & references:
Siobhan O’Reilly: www.villaerin.com
Dr James Waddell: james@waddellj.freeserve.co.uk

Also See: Rustic Cuisine of Istria, Croatia; Family Owned Restaurant Hotel Provides Immense Pleasure / May 2006
Jack Nicklaus Begins Work on a Signature Golf Course in Istria, Croatia / May 2006

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