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Buying property in Ethiopia: scams and pitfalls

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Everything you need to know is included in our Ethiopia Property Pack

Ethiopia's emerging market opportunities and cultural richness are attracting more foreign buyers to its real estate market.

Navigating the local property market can be a bit of a puzzle though, especially for non-residents. There are several hurdles and surprises that you should be ready for.

Both our property-buying clientele and our local partners have raised several common concerns with us. We've listed them all in our Ethiopia Property Pack.

We’re going to take a closer look at a few of these in this article.

Is it safe or risky to invest in real estate in Ethiopia?

The safety of buying property in Ethiopia is not guaranteed, particularly for foreigners, primarily because of Ethiopia’s unique framework of land ownership.

Unlike many countries, all land in Ethiopia is owned by the state and citizens only have leasehold rights. Therefore, as a foreigner, you are entering into a lease agreement with the government, not a freehold ownership as you would in many Western countries.

This system inherently includes the risk of government intervention or changes in policy that could affect your lease terms.

Scams and fraudulent schemes can indeed be a risk in Ethiopia's real estate market.

Specific to Ethiopia are instances where the same plot of land is sold to multiple buyers by scammers who forge documents and take advantage of less digitally traced land registry systems. In 2017, for instance, there was a crackdown in Addis Ababa on individuals who were selling government land illegally, highlighting the risk of such scams.

Foreigners are often seen as lucrative targets for scammers because of the perception that they have more money and less understanding of local regulations.

Additionally, the complexity of the Ethiopian legal system and its nuances can be daunting. A significant pitfall for foreigners is the lack of clear, accessible information and the language barrier, as most legal documents are in Amharic.

In terms of mistakes, one that is costly—and quite specific to Ethiopia—is not thoroughly understanding the implications of the leasehold system. The lease terms can vary widely, with some as short as 40 years and others extending to 99 years. The difference in lease terms can profoundly affect the property's value and the return on investment.

Regarding the protection of laws and regulations, Ethiopia's legal framework does offer mechanisms for dispute resolution and protection of lease rights, but the enforcement is often inconsistent.

For example, there have been instances where investors have had their leases summarily revoked or renegotiated under less favourable terms when the land became desirable for government projects.

The transparency of the property buying process in Ethiopia is markedly less than in Western countries. For example, the land lease auction process, theoretically transparent, has been criticized for favoritism and lack of accessibility to information, which puts foreign investors at a disadvantage.

Resolving property disputes in Ethiopia can be a slow and uncertain process.

The judicial system is still developing in terms of handling complex property cases, and there is a perceived lack of efficiency and fairness. One might encounter delays and unpredictability when engaging in legal disputes over property, a factor that needs to be considered in any risk assessment.

Due diligence for foreign buyers must be thorough and involve local experts. It's crucial to involve a reputable local attorney and to conduct a site visit. Confirming the authenticity of the land lease, the seller’s right to lease the property, and ensuring that there are no outstanding disputes or claims on the property are vital steps.

The Ethiopian government does have initiatives to support the real estate market, such as large-scale affordable housing projects and infrastructure improvements, which can increase the value of nearby properties.

However, government interventions can be double-edged swords, as they might lead to policy changes that impact property and land lease laws.

Challenges reported by foreigners often involve navigating the Ethiopian banking system, which is heavily regulated and can make transferring funds for property transactions cumbersome.

Moreover, understanding the full scope of taxes and fees associated with property transactions can be daunting due to the complex nature of Ethiopia's tax system.

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Watch out for mistakes when buying property in Ethiopia

"Idir" system and its complexities

A highly specific and often overlooked pitfall in buying residential property in Ethiopia, especially relevant to foreigners, relates to the "Idir" system.

Idir is a traditional community-based association in Ethiopia, primarily formed for mutual aid and support, particularly in times of bereavement. However, its role often extends into various community matters, including property affairs.

When purchasing property in Ethiopia, especially in residential areas, you should be aware of the influence and informal authority that Idir committees hold in communities.

These committees can have a significant say in community matters, and their approval or disapproval can impact various aspects of living in a particular area, including property transactions.

One specific issue that can arise is related to renovations or modifications to the property. In some cases, even if you have all the legal permissions from municipal authorities, the local Idir committee might oppose certain types of renovations due to cultural, aesthetic, or community reasons.

Their opposition, although not legally binding, can create tensions and may lead to community-level disputes or challenges. Furthermore, in certain neighbourhoods, the Idir can be instrumental in resolving disputes or issues related to property boundaries, usage, or even access rights.

Ignoring their role or not seeking their informal 'approval' for property-related decisions can lead to misunderstandings or conflicts with neighbours and other community members.

The concept of the "Kebele" system

When buying residential property in Ethiopia, a unique and often overlooked pitfall relates to the "Kebele" system.

The Kebele is the smallest administrative unit in Ethiopia, similar to a neighbourhood or ward. In the context of property transactions, Kebele offices hold significant importance as they manage local records and issue necessary documents.

As a foreigner, you might not be aware that property transactions often require verification or documentation from the local Kebele office. This process can be intricate and differs from the more centralized property record systems you might be accustomed to.

The frequency of issues arising from the Kebele system is notable, especially for those unfamiliar with local administrative practices.

You should ensure that all property-related documents, such as proof of ownership or transfer deeds, are verified by the respective Kebele office. This step is crucial because, in some cases, properties might have unresolved local disputes or unregistered claims that are not evident in national records.

Failing to check with the Kebele can lead to legal complications or disputes after purchase.

The Kebele system operates in Amharic, Ethiopia's official language. If you're not fluent in Amharic, you are advised to engage a local expert or a translator to navigate this process efficiently.

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The "Gibir" system

A more specific and less commonly known pitfall for buying residential property in Ethiopia, especially for a foreigner, involves the "Gibir" system.

Gibir is a local term used in Ethiopia for certain types of taxes, and in the context of property, it refers to a form of property tax.

When purchasing property in Ethiopia, you must be aware that the stated value of the property in the sale documents might not reflect its actual market value. This discrepancy often occurs because sellers declare a lower value to reduce the Gibir (property tax) liability. While this practice might seem advantageous initially, it can lead to complications for you as a buyer.

Firstly, declaring a lower property value can affect your future property tax liabilities.

The Ethiopian tax authorities might reassess the property value later, leading to a significant increase in your annual Gibir. This reassessment can come as an unexpected financial burden if you are not prepared for it.

Secondly, if you decide to sell the property in the future, the undervalued property price in your purchase documents can create challenges in declaring a higher selling price, which might be closer to the market value.

This situation can lead to potential tax issues or reduce the perceived profit margins from the sale.

You should also be aware that the process of paying Gibir can be complex, involving multiple local government offices.

The frequency of Gibir payments and the rates can vary depending on the location and type of property.

"Makelakeya" system and its risks

Another unique and less-known challenge in buying residential property in Ethiopia, particularly relevant to foreigners, involves understanding the nuances of the "Makelakeya" system.

Makelakeya is a term used in Ethiopia to refer to informal or customary land rights. This system is especially prevalent in rural areas and in the outskirts of cities, where formal land titling and registration may not be fully established.

In the context of property purchase, you should be cautious about properties sold under the Makelakeya system. These properties may not have formal land titles or might be registered under customary land rights recognized by the local community but not necessarily by official government records.

This situation can lead to several complications.

It’s worth noting that in Ethiopia, when you're buying property within the Makelakeya system, you may encounter several challenges. The absence of formal land titles can lead to uncertainties about ownership and the legality of the property transfer, as there's a risk the seller might not have the legal right to sell.

Moreover, the Ethiopian government may, in the future, decide to undertake land regularization, which could affect properties bought under this system by revealing previously unknown legal issues.

Properties within the Makelakeya system may also not have guaranteed access to basic utilities and municipal services, making it difficult to secure electricity, water, and waste management.

Additionally, due to the informal nature of these properties, obtaining financing for purchase or resale can be problematic, as banks and financial institutions typically require formal land titles for these transactions.

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The concept of "Wereda"

In the context of purchasing residential property in Ethiopia, it is important to be aware of the "Wereda" or district level variations in property-related regulations.

The Wereda is an administrative division in Ethiopia, and property laws and enforcement can vary significantly from one Wereda to another. This can be particularly challenging for foreigners who might expect uniformity in property regulations.

For instance, a property in one Wereda might have certain building codes or restrictions that are not applicable in another.

This means that even if you are familiar with the regulations in one district, you cannot assume the same rules apply elsewhere. These local regulations could govern anything from the height of buildings to the types of businesses that can operate in a residential area.

Moreover, local authorities within a Wereda may have their own procedures for registering property transfers, paying local taxes, or connecting to utilities, which might not be immediately apparent to someone unfamiliar with the local system.

Such variations can result in delays and additional costs if not anticipated.

The risks related to the "Tabiya" system

When buying residential property in Ethiopia, you should also be mindful of the "Tabiya" system, which can be particularly intricate.

A Tabiya is a sub-district level administrative unit, often responsible for managing local land records and addressing minor disputes. The system is unique and may operate with a level of autonomy that varies from place to place.

Due to the decentralized nature of the Tabiya, the process for obtaining clearances and paperwork for property transactions can be quite different from what you might be used to.

For instance, a Tabiya may require certain community approvals or certifications that aren't mandated at higher administrative levels. These local requirements may not be clearly documented or may rely on customary practices that aren't immediately evident to outsiders.

In some cases, the Tabiya officials might also play a role in mediating disputes over land boundaries or ownership claims.

If such issues are not resolved locally, they can potentially escalate and affect your property rights or your ability to develop the property.

You should engage with local Tabiya officials early in the property-buying process to understand any specific requirements or customary practices that need to be followed.

It would be wise to involve a local facilitator or legal advisor who speaks the language and understands the local customs to help navigate this process.

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The concept of "Chika" land

A specific and less obvious pitfall you might encounter when buying residential property in Ethiopia is related to the concept of "Chika" land.

Chika land refers to parcels of land that are informally allocated by local authorities to individuals or groups, often without proper documentation or formal title deeds. This practice is not widespread but can occur in both urban and rural areas, particularly where formal land administration is weak.

The challenge with Chika land is that while it may be recognized and accepted within a local community, it lacks official recognition by municipal or federal land registries. This means that the property might not be formally registered, and the boundaries may not be officially documented.

As a result, you may find it difficult to establish clear and uncontested ownership, which can lead to legal disputes over the land.

Additionally, since Chika land is not officially recognized, you might face challenges in accessing public services and utilities, as the government typically does not provide infrastructure support to unrecognized settlements.

Furthermore, securing a mortgage or any form of financing for such property is nearly impossible, as banks and financial institutions require clear title deeds as collateral.

Risks of the "Keficho" land

Another nuanced pitfall in the Ethiopian property market that you might not be aware of is the issue related to "Keficho" land.

Keficho refers to a system where land is held communally by ethnic groups or clans, particularly in the southern regions of Ethiopia. These lands are managed collectively by the community and are subject to customary laws, which may not always align with formal statutory laws.

When purchasing property on land that falls under Keficho, you may find that while the seller has the right to use the land, they may not have the right to sell it without the consent of the wider community. Transactions in such cases can be complex, requiring the approval of local elders or community leaders.

The communal nature of Keficho land means that individual property rights are often entangled with the rights of the community, leading to potential disputes or claims after the purchase.

It’s also important to consider that the legal framework at the federal or regional level may not fully acknowledge the customary rights under Keficho, leading to a disconnect between what is practiced locally and what is recognized legally.

This could affect your ability to obtain formal documentation for your property or to enforce your property rights in the event of a dispute.

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"Zemen Mesafint" or historical period land claims

In Ethiopia, a specific and often unexpected issue you might encounter is related to "Zemen Mesafint" or historical period land claims.

This refers to land ownership claims based on tenure or occupancy from the era of the princes, before the centralization of power under Emperor Menelik II in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Properties with Zemen Mesafint claims can present unique challenges.

For instance, descendants of the original occupants from that era might surface, asserting ancient ownership rights that conflict with current titles. These claims can be legally complex and difficult to adjudicate because they involve sifting through historical documents and understanding traditional land tenure practices that may not be codified in modern law.

Due diligence for properties with potential Zemen Mesafint claims involves not only standard title searches but also a deep dive into the historical records, which may require specialized knowledge of Ethiopian history and legal anthropology.

In some cases, these historical claims are recognized and respected by local communities, even if they have not been formally adjudicated by modern courts.

You must take extra care to ensure that the property you are interested in is free of such claims.

This may involve consulting with local historians, engaging with community elders, and hiring legal experts who specialize in Ethiopian land law and its historical contexts.

The issue of "Mirab" or water rights

Yet another nuanced challenge in buying residential property in Ethiopia is the issue of "Mirab" or water rights.

In many regions of Ethiopia, access to water is a critical issue and the rights to water sources are often separate from land ownership. The term "Mirab" refers to traditional water rights that are deeply rooted in local customs and can significantly affect the value and utility of property.

Properties that come with Mirab rights can be highly desirable, as they ensure access to water for household use and, in some cases, irrigation.

However, the complexity arises when these water rights are not formally documented or are in dispute. In areas where water is scarce, disputes over Mirab rights can be intense and can lead to significant conflicts.

When considering the purchase of a property, you should inquire not only about the land but also about any water rights associated with it. This includes understanding who has the right to draw water, the quantity they are allowed, and during which times.

Additionally, it's important to investigate whether there are any ongoing disputes or claims over these water rights.

Due diligence is key and should include discussions with local community leaders, neighbors, and, where possible, a review of any historical agreements or practices concerning water rights.

You may also want to engage with a legal advisor who has specific expertise in Ethiopian water law and customary rights to ensure that your property purchase will not be adversely affected by unresolved Mirab issues.

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