Saturday, December 25, 2010

Buying Up Morocco: The Grab for Morocco's Traditional Houses

Here are two articles, one from the Wall Street Journal, and the other from the New York Times. The first discusses the phenomena of Westerners buying traditional homes in the old city of Fes (Fez), the other is actually a kind of "how to" to those interested in purchasing a house in al-Maghreb. There is good reason to pay attention to this trend, which is steadily pricing Moroccans out of their own culture and remaking it into the Oriental idea of vacationing Westerners.
* DECEMBER 24, 2010

Finding Your Own Place in Fes

"On holiday?" asked the young man, toweling down after a steam in the neighborhood hamam. "You should come and live here in Morocco, it's the best place to be, peaceful and the sun always shines."

I hesitated to agree, but then I'd just been prodded, pummeled and scrubbed by a one-eyed, monolingual masseur with an impish grin and long bushy beard who soon made me regret that I hadn't learned the Arabic word for "gently." By the time my tormentor had brought a second glass of sweet mint tea and the therapeutic effects of his robust rub down began to engender a warm, fuzzy glow, my outlook mellowed.

As I strolled back through the feast for the senses that is the Fes medina, watching the fading sun bathe countless minarets in golden light, it was easy to see why a growing number of westerners are setting up home in Morocco's spiritual and cultural capital.

"I was looking for somewhere culturally very different and this place just seemed extraordinary. Fes has this kind of essence about it, it grabs you and holds you," says Mike Richardson, a former London maître d' who moved to Fes four years ago. Mr. Richardson now runs the Café Clock, which has developed as a social hub for the expat community and hip young Fassi, as the city's inhabitants are known. It serves up exhibitions of Arab calligraphy, live Gnawa music and cross-cultural cuisine including the notorious camel burger.
[Fez1] Fes Medina

Menzeh room with zellige tiles and hand-carved plaster, colored with original pigments.

Dating back to the 8th century, the old city of Fes is the Arab world's largest intact medina and is believed to be the biggest car-free urban area on the planet. Clustered around the great Al-Qarawinyn mosque, this tangle of tiny alleys, dark tunnels and exuberant souks was long viewed by Europeans as a remote and exotic destination. Ryanair's opening of direct, low-cost flights a few years ago to over a dozen cities on the other side of the Mediterranean has made Fes accessible. With an abundance of affordable traditional courtyard-houses, Fes suddenly found favor with westerners seeking a place in the sun.

"There was a gold rush," says David Amster, the American director of the Arabic Language Institute in Fes. "It got way out of control. Some people bought houses after only being in the city for three hours," adds Mr. Amster, who has lived in the medina since 1996. "It was like meeting somebody in a discotheque; you talk for a while and then wake up married, a mistake. Fes doesn't suit everybody … if you're interested in partying or fun in the sun, Fes is not the place."

Instead, Fes is a time capsule. Despite the countless satellite dishes clinging to the flat rooftops and the souks selling cell phones, Paul Bowles's description of 1950s Fes as "a medieval city functioning in the 20th century," still holds resonance. Lose yourself in the maze of medina lanes and you pass traders and artisans working in tiny storefronts: carpenters knocking together gaudy bridal thrones around the Nejjarine square; metal workers hammering at copper plates in the Seffarine; dazzling displays of olives, spices and citrus alongside baskets of live snails and the occasional camel's head in the R'cif food market.

Before Morocco won its independence in 1956, Fes was a divided city. Arabs mostly lived in the old medina, Fes el Bali, and its 13th-century offshoot Fes Jdid, which also enclosed the Jewish quarter or mellah. Europeans inhabited the broad avenues of the Ville Nouvelle, built outside the city walls after France took control of the country in 1912. As the French departed, rich and middle-class Moroccans abandoned the medina to move into their spacious apartments and plush colonial villas.

Many of the dars and riads—elegant traditional homes built around patios, fountains and gardens—were divided up among poor families. They could enjoy carved cedar-wood ceilings and walls adorned with intricate mosaics of zellige tiles even though they were squeezed into single, sometimes squalid, rooms. Many such families now aspire to sell their homes to outsiders.

"They dream of selling this place so they can move into modern apartments in the new suburbs," explains Hafid El Amrani, whose restoration company is working on an early 19th-century dar currently inhabited by seven families. "Ideally, they'll find somebody who will buy the whole place for €220,000, perhaps to turn it into a guest house."

The work is being financed by a government fund that is helping poor local families restore historic homes in the medina. Mr. Amster says over 500 of the 9,000 courtyard houses (they are called a riad when the central patio includes a garden, a dar if not) have been restored and taken over by outsiders—either foreigners or Moroccans from outside the medina—to be used as vacation homes, boutique hotels or full-time residences.

Mr. Amster's own website offers advice on how to buy and restore a house, from the bureaucratic requirements for bringing funds into Morocco to tips on negotiating a good price with local craftsmen (

"When I first came to Fes, there were no other foreigners living in the medina," says Mr. Amster, who has since restored three traditional homes. "I came here to teach, but it was very difficult to find a place to rent in the medina, so I bought a massriya (an independent apartment within a traditional house). It needed some work and lots of patience, but you could see from the beginning that it was stunning."

The upsurge of interest in traditional homes has been a boon for the carpenters, painters, tile makers and other craftsmen of the medina whose skills were in danger of dying out. Although the recession has taken some of the fizz out of the Fes real estate market, locals complain that prices are still up to three times what they were before boom. Bargain hunters can still pick up a small dar ripe for renovation for less than €30,000 or a riad with guest-house potential for €150,000.

Many adopted Fassi look with concern at Marrakech, claiming that the much greater influx of foreign residents and tourists there has changed the nature of the southern city.

"Fes is not a pleasure ground like Marrakech, which is getting hen parties and stag parties. I just don't think Fes is ever going to have that sort of thing going on," says Mr. Richardson, the café owner. "The people coming here are looking for a more intellectual pursuit; they want it to be authentic. Anyway, the medina is big enough to swallow us all."

International Real Estate
House Hunting in ... Morocco

Published: December 1, 2010


In Tangier, a Traditional Riad

$772,000 (6.5 MILLION DIRHAMS)

This traditional Moroccan home with interior courtyard, called a riad, is in the medina, or old city. It has three stories and 400 square meters of space (about 4,300 square feet, at 10.76 square feet to the square meter).

The house is entered through a wooden door that dates to the 1890s. A renovation took place about five years ago; the walls and floors are new, as well as the mechanical and electrical systems, though antique details like decorative tiles, and wooden doorjambs and frames, are original.

The ground floor has a small foyer with an adjacent storage room; a kitchen, with no cabinetry and a few appliances; and a bedroom and bath.

The second story has a wraparound interior balcony that overlooks the courtyard. There are two bedrooms on this level, as well as the living room and an office.

The third floor has two more bedrooms, one with an en-suite bath. This floor has access to the two-story roof terrace. The lower level of the terrace is open to the elements; the upper level is covered and has views of the medina.

The property also has 160 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor, currently being used as a souvenir shop. Boutiques and cafes are within walking distance; the airport is about 30 minutes away by taxi.


The financial crisis has had a relatively minor effect on Tangier’s market; the lower end has in fact remained robust, said Robert Shaw, marketing director of Elite Moroccan Properties, based in England. He attributed this to Morocco’s growing middle class and the government’s efforts to improve infrastructure within the city.

As for luxury homes, he said, prices have fallen 10 to 20 percent.

In addition, there are fewer foreign buyers today than a few years ago, said Reinald Beck, the listing agent for the property featured here and director of the New Real Estate agency in Tangier. Over all, housing prices vary widely according to location and condition, Mr. Beck said. Within the medina, the site of this house, prices range from $60 to $70 a square foot, for homes in need of renovation, to $95 to $112 a square foot for restored homes. This house has an asking price of around $167 a square foot, above average because of its central location. But price negotiation is a common practice here, Mr. Beck said.

In newer parts of town, apartments designed for Westerners cost anywhere from $109 to $218 a square foot. Newly built luxury apartments and villas — a small portion of the market — sell for $185 to $205 a square foot, down from $240 a square foot before the financial downturn.


Traditionally, the majority of foreign buyers in Tangier are from France and Spain, Mr. Beck said; there are also buyers from Asia, Britain, Europe and America.

Foreign buyers in Tangier tend to be “more adventurous” than those who seek properties in Marrakesh, which has more development, Mr. Shaw said. “A buyer has to see beyond the city as it is at the moment,” he said. “It’s actively being transformed from a poorer, less visually stimulating city into a city that will be a serious reference point on the entrance to the Mediterranean in 10 years’ time.”


There are no restrictions on foreign buyers of residential properties in Morocco, said Loic Raboteau, the joint head of the French and North Africa Law Department at the International Property Law Center in Britain. But foreigners are prohibited from buying agricultural land.

Purchase-side costs are 7 to 8 percent. This includes notary fees, which run 0.5 to 1 percent; a 1 percent land registry tax; a 3 percent stamp duty; and a 0.5 percent transfer tax. Real estate agent fees are 6 percent and are typically split between buyer and seller, though this fee is often negotiated, Mr. Beck said.

The use of a lawyer is recommended; fees are approximately 1 percent of the purchase price, Mr. Raboteau said.

Most buyers pay in cash, Mr. Beck said, though financing of up to 50 percent is available to foreigners. Interest rates are about 5.2 percent.

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