My name is Emmett Reeb and I am an American living and working in Brest. I am often asked about what brought me to Belarus in the first place. I will spare you my life story and begin with the most recent events that have led me to a guesthouse in the heart of Belovezhskaya Pushcha.
In May of 2017, after two years of living in China, I and my wife Olga, who is from Belarus, were on a plane to Brest to make it happen.
We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we had no idea how truly difficult the process would be. We ran into several issues, but every issue, regardless of its severity, has a resolution.
We didn’t know much about Belarusian real estate in 2017, but we knew the three most important things about real estate in general: location, location, LOCATION!
We needed to find a property that would attract guests and allow them to do different fun activities. We first created a list of the most significant attractions in Belarus and narrowed it to the Brest region.
The most popular attractions here are the Brest Fortress and Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park. We then narrowed our search even further, including only the 20-30km area around the Pushcha, which is still actually a HUGE area.
We next tried looking for properties for sale at local government offices, but this tactic didn’t serve us well because not every citizen registers their property for sale at those locations.
So, we then spent a lot of time on kufar.by searching for properties that people had listed themselves. This was more fruitful, there were many good places but we still couldn’t find the one.
In the end, we mapped out the area where we wanted to have our guesthouse and physically travelled to these villages to spoke with neighbors who might have heard about someone selling the property.
Well, that is EXACTLY what happened. After seeing well over 50 properties and driving thousands of kilometers, we finally found the perfect spot for us in the small village of Pashuki.
The house is about seven kilometers away from the national park’s main entrance and only 500 meters away from official bike paths. The Lesnaya River, perfect for fishing, swimming and kayaking, is also only 500 meters away.
The property is next door to a beautiful, 150-year-old Orthodox church that very rarely holds services because the community is so small. The church is so well-kept and has so much history, that we thought foreigners would really appreciate such an authentic piece of Belarus so close to home.
Moreover, lilac bushes, which form a beautiful, purple and green, natural fence, surround the property line. It was, and still is, perfect!
Okay, we found the property. However, it wasn’t going to be ours so quickly, there are some of the steps we had to follow to register our guesthouse:
Step #1: Purchase the property. Please note that foreigners can own houses, but cannot own property in Belarus. Because of this fact, my wife and I decided to put everything in her name.
Step #2: Register yourself as living at that property with Communal Services.
Step #3: Visit the Town Administration’s Sports and Tourism Department to complete an application to register your property as a guesthouse.
Step #4: Visit the Regional Tax Office with all of the documents you have collected from the previous steps and receive your tax number.
Step #5: Use the tax number to pay a yearly tax at the local bank.
Done! Easy peasy lemon squeezy! And yet, stay prepared, it was about two straight months of paperwork and waiting in lines for paperwork.
I think one of the most frustrating parts of the experience was that these various bureaucratic agencies really don’t communicate with each other very well.
Moreover, sometimes they only have part of your answer and then you need to track down the other part yourself without a clue where to begin.
The property we purchased had been lived on for about 75 years before we bought it. Furthermore, it had probably only been cleaned two or three times in all this time.
Luckily our neighbors came to the rescue. We only have a few neighbors in Pashuki, but, so far, they have proven themselves to be worth their weight in gold.
They worked with us to clear the land of garbage, one neighbor with a tractor took the garbage to the dump, another volunteered to take all of the old wood to use for his wood-burning stove.
The process was time-consuming, but we were able to clean the yard of debris and dispose of everything properly at a relatively low expense to us. So, the property was ours and it was clean.
As a result, there was space for people to work; my wife and I wanted to begin renovating the house and making it livable with some modern comforts. Unfortunately, none of our neighbors are professional craftsmen.
More on the topic:
Pashuki is over an hour away from Brest, where the craftsmen are. Travel time, apparently, is a major concern for electricians, plumbers, roofers, and the like. My wife and I found it quite difficult to convince people to come to us to work.
Most craftsmen openly refused to take the work because it was too far for them. Even after we had offered to pay more than the regular rate, they refused to travel such a distance.
Eventually, we did find qualified people willing to come to Pashuki to work on the projects that we had and, in general, we are quite happy with the work everyone has done.
However, my wife and I recommend being on site while renovations are happening because communicating with your work crew about what you specifically want is very important.
Our most invaluable work crew has been our family, actually. Olga’s family has provided several long days of work at Holiday Home Olenia to make it what it is today.
They have believed in our dream from the very beginning and have worked with us quite closely these last two years. This was truly a family project that has brought the family closer together.
Turning a profit
My wife and I are quickly learning what homeownership and small business management entail. There are many long, hard hours and there is ALWAYS something to do to keep the house and property clean, safe and fun.
With a project like this, we could work forever on it and never be completely finished. We are still working to make more adjustments and additions, but, in April of 2019, the family agreed that the house and property were ready for what is called a “soft opening”.
We saw our first guests in May 2019 and, needless to say, it was VERY exciting! We had guests from Russian, Belarus, Italy and England. The feedback we received from them was great, so my wife and I have decided to officially open this month.