Real Estate Nightmare

Interview with Elena Tolstaya by John Harrison

I somehow though that the days of bullying and discrimination when buying a flat in Moscow had gone. This conversation with Elena Tolstaya, a professional realtor reminded me that the purchase and rental of real estate – and this is true all over the world – demands that you keep your wits about you and never let emotions of any kind play a decisive factor (John Harrison).

How did your recent real estate ‘experience’ start?

Let me give you a little background information. I worked for Penny Lane (a well-known and large real Moscow-based estate agency) for ten years. I worked as a broker and rented apartments to foreigners working for major companies such as Nestle and Samsung. Then I started to work for myself to give me more time to be with my daughter. I think I won’t be exaggerating to say I was good at my job. I bought my own apartment, but I like to live in different places in Moscow, and rented it out, giving me the freedom to move around within different places in Moscow. I have lived right opposite the Kremlin, on Frunzenskaya Naberezhnaya, Kutuzovsky Prospect, in a lot of fantastic places, and enjoyed them thoroughly. My last move was to a great flat near Fili Park, in Bagrationovsky. I really liked the apartment when I moved, so I renovated the place, something I have done in all the apartments I have lived in, both inside the flat and in the hall and entrance, at no cost to the owner. The rent was high, but I loved it, and stayed for 5 years.

I had a very good relationship with the owner, he became my friend. He was living in Vilnius at the time. Then, one day he told me – “listen, I want to sell the apartment.” I wanted to buy it, but at the time I didn’t have enough money in cash. Apart from a flat, I did also have a house and land 10 kilometres outside Moscow, but it wasn’t finished, and I couldn’t afford to complete all the building work. So, I reckoned that I could sell that, and that would have given me enough cash to buy his flat, and that’s what I told him. “Let’s make a deal,” I said to him. He said, “OK”, but first of all we need to terminate our contract because I am signing the flat over to my sister, who’s Russian, otherwise, as a foreigner, I will have to pay 30% tax.”

I said: “I need a new contract with you then, because I am still paying you every month, like Euro 1000. I am staying in your apartment, I have everything there – my furniture, my belongings, everything. Without a contract you can come to the flat one day and say: “who are you? I am no one here.” He said: “no, we are good friends, don’t worry.”  I did send his sister a contract, signed it, and asked her to sign it, and send it back to me. I told her that if she finds someone to buy it, she should please give me one month’s notice,  and we will cancel the contract. But she never answered me, never. I then started to call him, but he never had time to talk to me, and at the same time he was advertising the flat and people started to turn up to look at the apartment. They were coming round, every day, and looking around.

Then I sold my house land, and I said listen, “I have some money, it’s not enough to buy the flat outright, but it’s a large amount of money sum, so if you wish, I will pay you this now as a deposit, and we will renew the contract. He said no, “I don’t want this”. I said: “OK, I will take some credit from the bank so I can. Buy the flat, but I need time. He said: “OK, let’s try to do that”. In the meantime, he continued to show the flat to other people. Every day, and at that time I had no contract.

But you still had the first contract?

Yes, but that wasn’t valid anymore because he signed the flat over to his sister. So, there I was. Still living there, sending him money each month. I had some money in my bank, but it wasn’t enough to buy. I started to sell my apartment, and it took me a few months, and then he said to me that I have found somebody who wants to buy the apartment for 18 million roubles. I said, listen: “my apartment is for sale now, and it will be sold soon probably”. I lowered the price specially, and in one week I had a buyer, he put the money in the bank and the deal was done. So I called the owner and said that now I have money, he said no. “I have already promised some people that they can have the flat”. I said, listen, I am living in your flat and have been living in it for 5 years, and paying you money, all my stuff is here, and you know that I wanted to buy it for the same price as you are selling it to other people. Now I have a chance, why don’t you want to sell it to me?”

“No, because I promised it to them”. Then he changed his mind:  OK, let’s do it in three days.”

“No no, I can’t do this in three days, because I just signed the papers for the sale of my flat yesterday, and the money is in the bank, but the agreement has to be registered, and that takes a week. I need another 5 days. And then I will have the money and I can give it to you.”

“No, I will not wait 5 days, give it to me now”.

“No, I can’t right now. I have the money in the bank, but I can’t access it until the deal is registered. Let’s sign the contract now, and ‘complete’ in 5 days. I can give you a deposit now, because I have that.”

“No, I don’t want the deposit, I want the whole sum now.”

“I am sorry, but I can’t do it that quickly.”

“Then you should move out tomorrow.”

“I cannot move out tomorrow because I have a daughter who is at school, and all my stuff is in the flat. I have a 90 square metre apartment full of my stuff!”

“It’s your problem, I promise these people.”

The next day I came home and found that there was no electricity, it was cut off. We stayed with my son for the night in his flat, and I came back went the next morning. The door was smashed in, and there were 5 or 6 people sitting in my place and there was a policeman in there. They all asked me: “Who are you?” I said: “what do you mean?, I live here.” The guy, the owner said, “I don’t know her”. I said:  “What do you mean, I pay you every month though the bank. I can prove it in the court”.

“Can you prove it now?” He said.

Another man, he looked like a lawyer said: “Maybe you pay him money for something else?” I said: “Euro 1000 a month? It’s rather expensive!”

I said to the policeman: “I had a contract with him, and everyone in the apartment building knows me, because I did a lot of things, they all know me. Go and ask them, they all know me!”

The policeman said: “I will record down what is going on here, and if the try to kill you, call me.  I will come and help you but now, I don’t know, maybe you are lying. I am seeing you for the first time, I cannot help you.”

“But if they kill me, how can I call you? I don’t have any electricity, I can’t charge my phone, it is almost dead, because I cannot charge it, how can I call you?”

“I don’t know, I cannot help you.”

The law in Russia, everywhere, is on the side of people who are renting apartments. Not the people who own them. I also have a child who is 8 years old, who is going to school, and the law has to protect me. But to start that, I would have to go to a court to start proceedings.

They said: “Now, we have a large vehicle downstairs, now we will empty our flat of our things.”

‘Our’ things he said!

“Because it will be sold tomorrow. And you don’t have an agreement to allow you to stay here.” I looked at the owner, and asked him:

“Listen what happened to you? Why are you doing these things to me? What did I do?”

“No, I told you already that I wanted to sell it to other people, but you don’t want to move.”

“Yes, I don’t want to move. I did express my intention to buy your apartment at your price. I don’t want to move because my daughter is still at school, I don’t want to disturb her, and the law is on my side.”

“Fine, go to the court and in the meantime, we will empty the flat of our clothes and furniture. How can you prove that these things are yours? Where is it written that these things belong to Elena Tolstaya? Do you have a contract?”

“No I had a contract but it expired last year in November when you signed the flat over to your sister.”

I had a little bit of battery power left in my phone so I called to my lawyer, and I asked him to please come and help me because I didn’t know what to do. The lawyer said: “OK, don’t move anywhere, don’t do anything, just sit there, they can move your things but they cannot move you from the apartment. Just stay there.” It took him two hours to get there from Tushino or wherever he was. I was sitting there, and the people started to collect my things. I was sitting there, trying to make some jokes. The irony was that I always very clearly told my clients that they should never live in any apartment without a contract. Never do that, I told them that all the time. But it was me, me who was caught out. I said to everybody, including the owner: “I don’t believe it, I was such good friends with the owner.”

If you rent an apartment here for 5 years, do you have any legal advantage here, as in like a preferred buyer status or something like that?

I thought that I would have, but it turns out that I was wrong. I renovated his apartment, all the neighbours knew me, but in reality, in that situation, I had no rights because I didn’t have a contract. If the contract expires, they can do these things to you. They can break the door down, whatever, and the police come, and the police will only protect your life, not anything else.

What happened after your lawyer arrived?

They were hostile towards him and asked him who he was. The lawyer said to them: “OK. Try to move her things, and then you will see what happens. You will be taken to court and you will never sell the apartment.” This made them think and then the owner said: “OK, she can have the flat but she needs to pay me the whole amount now.”

My lawyer said that was impossible, and eventually they said that they would accept a 2 million rouble deposit payment. I had 50 minutes to hand the money over. I did have 2 million roubles in the bank, because of the sale if my house. Time was passing while all this was going on. We had been sitting in that flat from 11am. I had to go and pick up my daughter from school, I was late and she was trying to call me, but my phone was already dead. So I picked her up, then the money and somehow made it back to the apartment within 50 minutes. I signed a piece of paper saying that I had to settle the balance within 5 days otherwise I would lose the 2 million. They eventually left at 9pm.

I actually do not know why the owner behaved in the way he did. I suspect that there was something personal in it because he wanted to have me as his girlfriend but I told him that I had a boyfriend. Financially, my offer matched the offer he had from the other people so there was no real reason for him to act in this way.

It sounds like 1930s America in the middle of a bandit-run quarter of New York.

Yes, and as it happens the next day I received notification from the bank that the money had come through from the sale of my flat and the registration went through quickly. I could now pay the rest of the money. I made a temporary door out of cardboard. For some reason, the owner then said that he didn’t want the balance immediately and wanted to wait 5 days. I was quite insecure living in a flat with no door during that time. On the 5th day we went to the bank, signed the papers and now they were all so nice, and the flat became mine. I asked the owner: “Now are you happy? You get the same thing, but what price did you pay? Why did I have to have all these people coming to my pace, you spent a lot of energy, so did I, Why?” He didn’t reply.