How you can profit from fly-to-let property

Investors in UK buy-to-let property these days are unlikely to do well out of the purchase - no matter what the letting agents may try to say. But there are up-and-coming areas in Europe that might be worth investing in, says MoneyWeek editor Merryn Somerset Webb - and the good news is, you can get someone else to do all the hard work.

Wouldn't it be nice if you could find an investment that would return you a regular 22% a year? And, given how much everyone likes investing in houses, wouldn't it be even nicer if that investment was a property in the UK?

Of course it would. So when a press release arrived in my office from the Association of Residential Landlords (Arla) telling us that this is the current annual return on buy-to-lets in the UK, my colleagues and I were thrilled. Until, that is, we looked at the numbers and realised that it was all utter nonsense.

At first glance Arla's numbers look pretty sensible. They assume that each UK landlord is buying a property for £285,315 with a 25% deposit to earn a gross annual yield of 4.99%. So far, so good. But after allowing for mortgage repayments, voids, and repairs that means that in cashflow terms the landlord is actually making a loss of £212 a year. So where does the 22% come from?

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This is where things become a lot less sensible. Arla assumes that, every year for the next five years, property prices in the UK will rise by 8.8% (the average rise from 1984 to 2003), meaning that at the end of the period the value of the investor's deposit will have doubled - giving him a 22% return a year.

The problem with all these sums is that prices clearly aren't going to rise by 8.8% a year for the next five years. Instead, according to Arla's own members, the average value of rented flats 'throughout the country' has fallen 9% in the past three months alone.

Still, on the plus side, most investors aren't falling for this drivel. They know that buy-to-let is a losing proposition, so for the past two years they've been looking elsewhere.

According to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 254,000 Britons now own homes abroad and 73,000 of those are let out. This isn't necessarily a bad idea - property yields in many parts of the world are still much higher than at home - but I do wonder if people who are buying in more out of the way places are really taking account of the risks.

I can't understand why anyone would want to own a house in Montenegro, for example. It may be hyped as the next big thing and parts of its coastline may be beautiful but, that aside, it isn't a very nice place to be.

I visited a few years ago, intending to stay for a few days. But after trouble at the border, a huge everything-in-your-wallet fine (from some very heavily armed policemen) for speeding when we were practically stationary, various run-ins with aggressive youths and one of the most disgusting lunches I've ever had, we called it a day and drove back to Croatia.

It may be true that you can buy a beachfront villa in Montenegro for the cost of a garage in Clapham, south London, but personally, given the choice, I'd rather holiday in Clapham.

What my unpleasant day trip to Montenegro should remind us is that in eastern Europe the rules still aren't the same as they are in the West. The level of legal protection available to the consumer is nothing like it is at home; corruption is common; wars have confused ownership issues, so buyers often find themselves caught up in endless battles over title; building standards can be poor and differing tax and inheritance laws can make things very confusing. Finally, it is worth noting that buying a property abroad comes with all the same difficulties it does at home - voids, repairs and the like - only in a foreign language.

Still, that doesn't mean you shouldn't think about investing in eastern Europe: much of the region is taking off as a holiday destination and there is money to be made. It's just that you probably shouldn't think about doing it alone as a buy-to-let investor. There are a variety of funds that you can buy into, to give yourself an element of diversification and allow you to hand over the work to someone more experienced in the region, and hence less likely to get ripped off than you are.

Two that have caught my eye recently are the Black Sea Property Fund (stock exchange code BKSA), which invests in Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Fund (OTM), investing in Turkey. Both are AIM-listed investment firms run by Jersey-based Development Capital Management.

They aim to make their money by providing early-stage capital to new developments in exchange for a large share of the profits when units in the developments are sold. They aren't risk-free, but if their business model works they should both do very well indeed, whether prices on the Bulgarian and Turkish coasts keep rising or not.

Development Capital Management is thinking about launching similar funds focusing on many other areas but there's one country the managers tell me just doesn't have the legal or banking infrastructure to make it a viable place to do business. Yes, it's Montenegro.

First published in The Sunday Times (05/03/2006)

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.