Natalija Makovikova moved to the Czech Republic several years ago after being forced to leave her home country, Belarus, for political reasons. She settled in Prague and in 2007 launched a successful business project, a real estate agency selling castles. The VIP Castles company currently offers around 3000 castles and other historical buildings around the country for sale.
“I was born in the Soviet Union and for us castles are something very exotic and romantic. Fifteen years ago, when I visited the Czech Republic, a friend told me that it was possible to buy a castle here.
“I was really surprised, but unfortunately I didn’t have any money to buy a castle myself. So I decided to establish a new project and seven years ago I established a real estate agency selling castles, called VIP Castles.
How did you actually get to the Czech Republic?
“I studied and lived in Belarus, but I participated in a demonstration against Lukashenko and I was arrested and expelled from the university. The Czech Education Ministry gave me a scholarship so I got a chance to study Czech language here in the Czech Republic and after that I decided to stay here.”
Since establishing your company you have become something of an expert on Czech castles. How many of them actually are there in the Czech Republic?
“The Czech Republic is like a kingdom of castles. There are more than 2,000 castles and only very few of them, some 130, belong to the state. The rest belongs to municipalities or private owners, and many of them are in a very poor state, which is the legacy of the forty years of Communism. So most of them actually don’t look like luxury residencies.”
So people who are interested in buying a castle have to count with spending time and money on their reconstruction?
“I was born in the Soviet Union and for us castles are something very exotic and romantic.”
“Many people say that the castle owners are crazy, but I really like these people. It is actually possible to buy a castle in the Czech Republic for 40,000 pounds, but you have to spend many millions of euros in their reconstruction. It is very expensive and it takes a very long time.”
So what would you say is the average price of a castle before reconstruction that you offer?
“The average price is something about one million euros. It always depends on the size and on the location. Of course that if you want to buy a castle near Prague, you need to pay a lot, even if the castle is in a bad state.
“The average size of Czech castles is very big, from 3,000 square metres, so that’s why it costs that much. But if you want to buy a castle somewhere around Pilsen, for example, it will not cost so much. You can buy a very cheap castle in that location.”
Talking about the size of the building, how do you actually define a castle. What’s the difference between a castle and say, a mansion?
“It depends on its size but also on its history. The castle should have aground area exceeding 1,000 square metres and its history should be at least 150 years long.
“There is no catalogue of castles and manor houses in the Czech Republic, but Russian and English speaking people usually understand the difference between a castle, an estate and a manor house.”
“They were mostly Russian speakers, because my native language is Russian, that’s why it is easier for me to communicate with Russian speaking people. I understand their jokes and I know how to represent the castles to them.
“But last year we started to work with Czechs, and we also have many customers from Slovakia and of course from the English speaking markets. We don’t have any clients from the US or Australia, but we have many clients from the Scandinavian countries, for instance from Finland.
“I think it’s because they don’t have any castles and so they see the Czech castles as something romantic, just like me.”
What draws these people to buying a property in the Czech Republic? Do they see it as an investment or do some of them really want to live there?
“It is a very interesting question, because I would say that even they don’t understand why they are buying it, at least in the beginning. I think that in the beginning there is just a wish to own a castle, this romantic dream from childhood.
“Only afterwards, when they see the castle, they are trying to find a reason why they need it. Of course they prefer to invest, to buy a building, reconstruct it and sell it again. But many of my clients want to keep the castles and turn them for instance into hotels or clinics. One of my clients want to open a whisky club in the Czech Republic in a castle and another one is going to open an international school in a castle. So they have lots of unusual ideas.”
“There are more than 2,000 castles in the Czech Republic and only very few of them, some 130, belong to the state.”
And in legal terms is it easy to acquire this kind of property in the Czech Republic and even live there, if you are a foreigner without e permanent residence tin the country?
“It is very easy to buy, but it is not so easy to stay here unless you are a resident of a Schengen country. So people from the US, Canada, Ukraine or Russia need a visa. This is obviously a big problem for my clients, because owing a castle doesn’t entitle you to a visa.”
When you are selling a castle, what is the most important thing in persuading the client and what are the biggest obstacles?
“One of the biggest obstacles are women. It is usually a man who wants to buy a castle and invest a huge amount of money but wives don’t want it. They are afraid of losing money, of living in a village and spending everything in the castle.
“So for me it is very important to find a common language with the wife not with the husband, because he is ready to buy. Of course I am joking but usually it is a decision of the whole family to buy a castle.”
“But of course for me it is very important to explain to my customers that castle is not just a building, but a huge responsibility, and not everybody is ready to take that responsibility. It is not just about your property, it is about history, culture, art, as well as the village and the world around you.“
How many castles have you actually sold to this date?
“Several dozen. I usually sell two or three historical buildings a month. But it is not only castles, sometimes it is a brewery or a palace or a smaller building, but it is always a historical building.”
So you are not focusing solely on castles. You are also selling other types of buildings...
“I sell big historical buildings that look like castles. It is very important for me to have the history behind the buildings. But this year we have launched a new interesting project. We have decided to establish a developer company as well.
“It means we are going to buy a castle before reconstruction to make an interesting business project here, to promote it and after that to sell it. I think that in this situation it will be more interesting for foreign investors, who don’t understand anything in the reconstruction process for example.”
Has you business been affected by the crisis in Ukraine?
“You know, crisis abroad is actually very god for us. It means that people try to give their money away and looking for more possibilities for investments and thinking about what they could do abroad.
“It is not nice that they have a war and it is not nice what is going on in Ukraine and I understand them that they don’t have possibilities to invest in their countries.
“In Russia there is a difficult situation too, but they have another reason: they are worried about their business and that’s why they are trying to move it to Europe and I think the Czech Republic is a very good place for it.”
And finally, what’s the thing that you actually like the most about your job?
“There are three things. The first one is when I see a castle before reconstruction. I don’t see its poor state, but I see the future, which is very nice. Perhaps my fantasy is too rich, but it is a very beautiful moment to see not what is now, but what actually will be.
“The second moment is when I walk into a museum to find information about the castle. Usually the recent owner doesn’t know anything about it, so I need to read old letters and old books to understand what happened there. It is very nice to imagine what happened there two or three centuries ago.
“And the third moment, my favourite, is when I see a new owner and I realize he is very good and so I can only look forward to waiting for a better the future. So this is the happiest moment for me.”