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The European housing crisis warping millennial life: The average Croatian lives with parents until 33

Joshua Zitser   

The European housing crisis warping millennial life: The average Croatian lives with parents until 33
  • The average Croatian leaves their parents' home at 33 years old — the highest age in the EU.
  • It's expensive for young people to buy or rent in Croatia. BI visited Dubrovnik to investigate.

Lukša Malohodžić is 27 and runs a successful business — life ought to be going his way. But he still lives with his mom and dad.

He runs boat tours for wealthy tourists showing off the stunning Adriatic coast — keenly aware that he can't afford life there.

Like vast numbers of Croatian millennials, he's yet to fly the nest, and doesn't see it happening soon.

Seated at a café in Dubrovnik's Old Town in mid-April, he reflected on the situation.

"There comes a point where it starts to weigh on you," he said. "You begin to think, 'I really ought to change this,' but what can you do?"

According to Eurostat, the EU statistical office, the average Croatian leaves their parents' home at over 33 years of age, its highest figure.

For men, it's even higher — at just under 35.

In the US, almost everyone has moved out by then. US census figures say only 16% of Americans aged 25-34 live with parents.

BI visited Croatia in April, the start of Dubrovnik's tourism season, to hear firsthand how it's affecting millennials there.

They spoke of feeling stuck and infantilized: a woman of 35 whose relatives keep reading her mail, a grown man whose grandma kept track of his dating.

Based on the data, Malohodžić can expect to live under his parents' roof for another seven years, but it could be even longer.

"It's hard to buy anything or even rent," Malohodžić said. "It's just crazy."

Eurostat notes that house prices in Croatia have consistently climbed over the past decade. Last year, Croatia had the highest annual increase in the house price index among all EU member states.

Malohodžić says a "big majority" of his friends are in the same situation as he is, with only a fortunate few having inherited properties.

Property prices in Dubrovnik, a picturesque UNESCO World Heritage Site, are especially high.

According to news outlet Total Croatia, the average purchase price for an apartment or house in the city is slightly above 3,600 euros per square meter, equivalent to roughly $335 a square foot.

The US figure is roughly $230 a square foot, with much bigger salaries to buy it.

The average salary in the US is more than triple Croatia's, $59,000 or so to $18,500 in Croatia.

"You can't make the kind of money here that you need to buy properties," says Ivan Vukovic, a tour guide who has lived in Dubrovnik since he was born in 1981.

Vukovic has lived through Dubrovnik's various transformations over the years — from the bustling crowds during the Yugoslav tourism boom of the mid-1980s, to the devastation of the War of Independence and the subsequent return of cruise ships in the postwar era.

Today, he finds himself part of another tourism boom — fueled by tourists eager to see the city that served as King's Landing in HBO's "Game of Thrones."

While tourism brings economic opportunities for Vukovic and many others, he says it has also worsened the already dysfunctional housing market.

The surge in foreigners wanting a slice of Dubrovnik has driven up the demand for vacation homes, he said, and local entrepreneurs are increasingly flipping properties into Airbnbs to make money.

AirDNA, a short-term rental data analytics company, told BI that Dubrovnik, which has a population of about 41,000, has more than 5,500 properties listed on Airbnb or the Expedia-owned Vrbo during the summer months.

"Both foreigners and wealthy locals mainly use these properties as investments because the return is very good," Filip Brkan, a member of the Real Estate Business Association of the Croatian Chamber of Economy, told BI.

For renters, this can make finding a place for the whole year nearly impossible. The money that can be made from short-term rentals also drives up the price of buying vacant properties.

"What needs to be done in Croatia is to increase the housing supply," said Brkan.

But in parts of Dubrovnik, Vukovic explained, that's not feasible.

"We cannot expand," the tour guide said. "It's a small city protected by UNESCO, and the price has skyrocketed because somebody always wants to buy real estate in Dubrovnik."

For Josip Crncevic, 34, prices feel far out of reach.

"I always like to tell my guests on the tour that, right now, it will probably take two lifetimes to buy something within the walls," he said.

Even in Dubrovnik's suburbs, Crncevic said homeownership is unattainable for him.

For now, he lives in a multi-generation, three-story family house about seven miles outside the city.

His uncle's family lives on the top floor and his grandmother below, in a setup Crncevic describes as three distinct apartments, each with a private entrance and lock.

While it's not the situation he dreamt he'd been in at 34, he said there are some positives.

Crncevic enjoys helping his grandmother with daily tasks, though the proximity has posed challenges in the past, especially when it comes to dating.

"My grandmother is the best CCTV in the area," he said.

Establishing boundaries

Privacy is a recurring issue for many millennials living in similar conditions in Croatia.

Marija, a 35-year-old who asked to be referred to only by her first name in order to speak candidly about living with her in-laws, said the decision was born of necessity.

Marija and her husband moved into his parents' home in 2019 because they couldn't find affordable rent, and buying was not an option.

Although it seemed like a sound financial move, Marija said she now views it as a big mistake.

"We would like to have some kind of privacy, and not to be interrogated on a daily basis," she said.

The biggest problem is establishing boundaries "like not reading our mail and not entering the home without knocking," she added.

Sanja Cikato, a 47-year-old who lives with her husband and two teenage children above her mother, said setting those boundaries took patience and perseverance.

"It wasn't perfect in the beginning, but later, with time, we simply learned how to live together in this house," she said.

Cikato said achieving this required open and honest conversations, but that her mother still occasionally eavesdrops on the couple's quarrels.

Despite the difficulties, she said the benefits, such as help with childcare, outweigh the drawbacks.

When her children, now 12 and 14, were younger, her mother was a live-in babysitter, enabling Cikato to work longer hours during the tourist season.

Diana Marlais, another working parent, echoed this, telling BI that multi-generational living is a life-saver for working parents.

Cikato also said the setup creates a special bond between her mom and her kids, and that she wants to replicate it when her own children are adults.

"You have to understand that was something really normal before," she said.

But Malohodžić, who represents the younger cohort of Croatian millennials, sees it as being "purely economic" rather than a tradition worth upholding.

He said he wouldn't choose to live this way if finances weren't such a factor.

He wouldn't choose to be in his late 20s and to still "sometimes feel like a teenager."

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