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Croatian millennials can't afford to buy homes. The solution — build on top of their parents' place.

Joshua Zitser   

Croatian millennials can't afford to buy homes. The solution — build on top of their parents' place.
  • Many Croatian millennials are being priced out of cities like Dubrovnik.
  • House prices and limited space have inspired a very practical solution. BI went to investigate.

Bogdan Dascalescu, 37, stands on the balcony of his home, surveying the view of Mokošica — a suburb of Dubrovnik situated just across a major bridge.

Though more affordable than the city's picturesque Old Town, property prices here are still beyond the reach of most locals his age.

On this drizzly day in mid-April, he gestured toward a few seemingly unfinished buildings with flat, concrete roofs. Some had metal rods protruding from their edges, while others featured piles of scattered bricks.

Dascalescu explained that these usually signify expansion plans, both of the families and of the buildings themselves.

While some Gen-X and boomers bought land in Mokošica before Croatia's War of Independence in the 1990s, or shortly afterward, when property prices were relatively low, millennials have been largely priced out.

And given Mokošica's hilly and rocky terrain, expanding properties horizontally is challenging. The landscape means there's a scarcity of affordable land to buy and build on.

Devoted parents unwilling to leave their children in the lurch have devised a practical solution: building additional floors on top of their existing homes for their kids and grandkids to live in.

When Dascalescu, originally from Romania, moved to Mokošica in 2017 with his Croatian wife, Diana, buying a home in Dubrovnik wasn't financially viable.

Instead, they moved into Marlais' parents' home, which had already been expanded to house other family members.

Originally a two-bedroom, two-story home, Marlais' father built two more stories soon after his eldest son got engaged. Now, Dascalescu and Marlais live on their own floor, beneath her brother and his children, who live beneath their parents.

Homes like this in Croatia often feature lockable doors for each level, with internal or external staircases connecting the individual spaces inside.

The popularity of this set-up comes down to price, according to a Croatian real-estate expert.

"Adding an additional floor to a house is currently the most affordable option for young families," Filip Brkan, a member of the Real Estate Business Association of the Croatian Chamber of Economy, told BI.

He noted that in Croatia, where the average construction cost is about $140 per square foot, adding 1,000 square feet this way can cost about $150,000 — considerably cheaper than buying a new home.

Brkan said what's happening in Mokošica is happening in suburbs across Croatia, reflecting an ongoing housing crisis in which "young people practically have nowhere to live."

Eurostat, the EU statistical office, notes that house prices in Croatia have climbed steadily over the past decade, and last year experienced the highest annual increase among the 27 member states.

Perhaps as a result, many Croatian millennials are stuck living at home well into their mid-30s — the highest average age in Europe.

"In Dubrovnik, not only are property purchase prices extremely high, but also rental prices," Brkan said. "Young people have no real alternative."

Extra floors aren't always for kids

Dubrovnik's Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has stringent conservation rules that mean you "can't build sideways, you can't build up to make the fourth floor," says Ivan Vukovic, a 43-year-old tour guide and lifelong Dubrovnik resident.

But in Mokošica, more relaxed planning regulations mean that the solution of adding floors remains a popular one.

But there are still limitations to expanding family homes in the suburbs, Nenad Lipovac, a professor of physical planning at the University of Zagreb, told BI.

Homeowners must adhere to local ordinances, obtain building permits, and often have to factor in height restrictions, he said.

Lipovac also noted that flat roofs, iron bars, and scattered bricks don't always signal plans to house additional family members; they could stem from financial constraints or pauses in construction, which are common in summer months.

Given the lucrative potential of short-term rentals, Croatian homeowners might also be building rooftop apartments for tourists, to generate extra income, he added.

However, even if the intention behind leaving roofs flat is to expand properties to allow younger family members to live there, Lipovac said there's no guarantee millennials will want this, or that the additional floors will ever be built.

In fact, flat roofs can become a permanent feature, he said, with houses remaining "unfinished forever."

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