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Buying property in Bahrain: scams and pitfalls

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Bahrain's stability and business-friendly environment continue to draw foreign investors to its real estate market.

For those who aren't familiar with the area, getting into the property market there can be quite a challenge. You may encounter unexpected issues and pitfalls, so it's essential to stay vigilant.

Our community of customers, along with our local experts, has reported numerous issues. We've listed them all in our Bahrain Property Pack.

This article provides a brief overview of potential pitfalls that may arise during the property buying process in this country.

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

Bahrain is generally considered a safe destination for property investment, but it's not entirely immune to risks.

While scams exist in every real estate market, Bahrain has seen its share of fraudulent schemes that specifically target foreign investors.

For instance, there have been cases where fake property agents pose as legitimate sellers, enticing unsuspecting buyers with attractive deals on non-existent properties. These scammers often vanish with the deposit money, leaving buyers in a precarious situation.

This underscores the importance of thorough due diligence and verification of the credentials of any parties involved in property transactions.

One significant challenge in Bahrain's property market is the issue of land reclamation. The country has embarked on ambitious land reclamation projects to expand its territory, particularly in areas like Amwaj Islands and Dilmunia Island.

While these projects offer waterfront properties with the promise of luxurious living, they also come with potential risks. Disputes over property boundaries and land ownership can arise due to the shifting nature of reclaimed land.

A specific example is the controversy surrounding the ownership of certain beachfront properties, where disputes over property boundaries have led to legal battles that can take years to resolve.

Transparency in the property buying process in Bahrain, while improving, still lags behind Western standards. Valuation discrepancies can occur, with sellers sometimes inflating property prices.

Buyers should be cautious and engage independent valuers to ensure they are not overpaying for a property.

Moreover, the transparency of property developers in Bahrain can vary widely. There have been instances where developers failed to deliver promised amenities or infrastructure on time, causing frustration and inconvenience to buyers who had invested in these projects.

Property disputes, although generally resolved through Bahrain's efficient legal system, can be a protracted affair. For example, disagreements over property boundaries or construction quality can lead to lengthy court battles. While the legal system is generally fair, the time and resources required to navigate these disputes can be burdensome.

Foreign buyers should conduct rigorous due diligence before purchasing property in Bahrain. This includes scrutinizing the property's history, verifying ownership and title deeds, and understanding local laws and regulations.

An illustrative case involves a foreign investor who failed to conduct proper due diligence and later discovered that the property they had purchased was subject to zoning restrictions that prevented them from using it for their intended purpose.

The Bahraini government actively regulates the real estate market, which can impact foreign buyers. For instance, changes in property taxes or eligibility criteria for foreign investors may affect the financial feasibility of an investment.

A notable example is the introduction of a minimum purchase price requirement for foreign buyers, which aimed to prevent speculative investments but had an impact on the affordability of certain properties.

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Potential real estate buying mistakes in Bahrain

The concept of "Bahrainisation"

One common mistake that you might not be aware of, particularly as a foreigner buying residential property in Bahrain, relates to the "Bahrainisation" quotas in certain areas.

Bahrainisation is a policy aimed at increasing the employment of Bahraini nationals in the private sector.

This policy can extend to property ownership in certain areas, meaning that there could be limits or specific requirements for foreign ownership in neighborhoods or developments that are trying to maintain or increase local Bahraini residence.

In this context, you should be particularly cautious when considering properties in areas that might be subject to Bahrainisation policies. This could affect your ability to purchase or later resell the property. It's not a universally applied rule and can vary greatly depending on the location and the development project.

The frequency of this issue can depend heavily on the specific area in Bahrain you are looking at. Some areas are more actively promoting Bahrainisation than others. It's crucial that you inquire about this with local real estate agents or legal advisors familiar with Bahrain's property laws and policies.

They can provide specific advice based on the area you are interested in.

The risks related to "Waqf" properties

Another unique aspect you should be aware of when buying residential property in Bahrain as a foreigner is the concept of "Waqf" properties.

Waqf is an Islamic endowment of property, where the property is held in trust and used for religious or charitable purposes.

In Bahrain, some properties, especially in older areas or near historical sites, may be designated as Waqf.

When dealing with Waqf properties, you should understand that these properties are not owned in the traditional sense. Instead, they are managed by a Waqf trustee. Buying a property that is unknowingly part of a Waqf can lead to complex legal issues. You may face restrictions on renovations, transfers, or even face legal challenges regarding your ownership.

This issue is not frequent but can be significant if encountered. It's more likely to arise in historical or culturally significant areas of Bahrain. To avoid this pitfall, you should conduct thorough due diligence.

Ensure you work with a reputable local lawyer or property consultant who can verify the status of the property.

They should conduct a detailed title search to confirm that the property is not a Waqf property or, if it is, fully inform you of the implications of purchasing such a property.

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The awareness of the "No Objection Certificate" (NOC) risk

A specific issue you should be aware of as a foreigner buying residential property in Bahrain is the requirement for a "No Objection Certificate" (NOC) from the Ministry of Housing in certain cases.

This is particularly relevant if you are considering purchasing government-subsidized housing, which is often offered to Bahraini citizens at lower prices to promote affordable home ownership.

As a foreigner, purchasing such properties can be complex. The government may place restrictions on the sale of these subsidized homes to non-Bahrainis. If you inadvertently enter into a purchase agreement for a government-subsidized property, you will need an NOC from the Ministry of Housing, which can be difficult to obtain.

This situation is more likely if you're exploring properties in areas with a higher concentration of government housing.

The frequency of this issue depends on the type of properties you are looking at.

It is advisable to work with a knowledgeable real estate agent or legal advisor who can guide you in identifying which properties are government-subsidized and the implications of attempting to purchase them.

Before proceeding with any purchase, you should ensure that the property is not subject to these restrictions, or if it is, that you can obtain the necessary NOC.

The "Freehold Areas" risk

Another unique aspect that you, as a foreigner, should be mindful of when purchasing residential property in Bahrain is the potential complexity surrounding "Freehold Areas" designated for foreign ownership.

In Bahrain, foreign property ownership is typically restricted to certain designated areas known as Freehold Areas.

These areas are usually high-end developments and include locations like Amwaj Islands, Bahrain Bay, and Juffair.

While buying in these Freehold Areas may seem straightforward, the mistake often lies in not fully understanding the local nuances and regulations governing these areas. Each Freehold Area can have its own set of rules and regulations regarding property ownership, building codes, and community standards.

These rules can be significantly different from those in non-freehold areas and can change over time.

For example, you might find that some Freehold Areas have restrictions on the type of modifications you can make to a property, or they might have specific requirements for maintenance and upkeep that are not immediately apparent.

There may also be differences in utility access, facility use, or community fees.

This issue is particularly relevant in the context of Bahrain's evolving real estate landscape.

As these Freehold Areas are developed and marketed primarily to foreign investors, they are subject to frequent changes in terms of development plans and regulatory frameworks.

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The impact of the "Family Law" risk

A less commonly known but important aspect for you to consider as a foreign buyer of residential property in Bahrain is the impact of the "Family Law" on property rights, especially in mixed marriages (where one spouse is Bahraini and the other is not).

Bahrain's family laws can be quite complex and are governed by Islamic Sharia law, which may have implications on property ownership and inheritance.

In the context of property purchase, if you are married to a Bahraini citizen, the way property rights are distributed and inherited can be significantly influenced by these family laws. For example, in the event of a divorce or the death of a spouse, the ownership of the property might not be straightforward, especially if there are children involved.

The Bahraini courts typically handle these matters, and their decisions are deeply rooted in local religious and cultural practices.

This issue isn't frequently discussed but can have profound implications on property ownership.

It's especially pertinent if you are in a mixed marriage and considering buying property in Bahrain. The legal framework governing these situations is quite specific to Bahrain and can be different from Western legal systems.

"GOSI" concept

Another unique and often overlooked aspect when buying residential property in Bahrain as a foreigner is understanding the implications of the "GOSI" (General Organization for Social Insurance) contributions on property transactions.

In Bahrain, GOSI plays a crucial role in the social insurance system, and it can have implications for property owners, especially those who are employers or business owners.

If you own a business in Bahrain or are considered an employer, you are required to make GOSI contributions not only for your employees but potentially also on your own behalf. This aspect becomes particularly relevant if you are purchasing property that includes a component of commercial use, or if you plan to rent out part of your residential property.

The oversight often lies in not factoring in these GOSI contributions into the overall cost of owning and maintaining the property.

Failure to comply with GOSI regulations can lead to fines and legal complications, which can indirectly affect your property ownership rights or the profitability of your investment.

Engaging with a local legal advisor or a consultant who has expertise in Bahraini labor and insurance laws can be highly beneficial.

They can provide guidance on how to manage your GOSI obligations effectively while owning property in Bahrain, ensuring that you avoid any unexpected legal or financial burdens.

The "Manama Municipality Regulations" concept

A specific and nuanced issue you should be aware of as a foreigner buying residential property in Bahrain is the potential impact of local "Manama Municipality Regulations."

Manama, being the capital and a major city in Bahrain, has its own set of municipal regulations that can significantly affect property ownership, particularly in terms of zoning, construction, and renovation.

In Manama, and indeed in other municipalities in Bahrain, there are specific zoning laws and regulations that govern what can be built where, how properties can be used, and what alterations can be made.

For example, certain areas may be designated exclusively for residential use, while others might allow for mixed-use developments. There might also be restrictions on the height of buildings, the style of architecture, or even the color schemes of exteriors in certain historical or culturally significant areas.

As a foreign investor, the mistake often lies in not fully investigating these local regulations before purchasing a property.

You might find yourself in a situation where you are unable to make desired renovations or changes to the property because they conflict with local zoning laws or municipality regulations.

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The "Eskan" loan program

A unique and often overlooked consideration for foreigners buying residential property in Bahrain is the potential impact of the "Eskan" loan program.

The Eskan program is a government initiative aimed at providing affordable housing loans to Bahraini citizens. While this program is primarily designed to benefit Bahraini nationals, it can indirectly affect the real estate market in ways that foreign buyers may not initially anticipate.

One key aspect to be aware of is that properties in certain areas might be predominantly owned by beneficiaries of the Eskan program.

In these areas, there may be restrictions or limitations on selling these properties to non-Bahraini nationals. Furthermore, the presence of many Eskan properties in a particular area could influence the real estate market dynamics, such as pricing and the rate of property value appreciation.

As a foreign buyer, the mistake can be in not recognizing how the Eskan program influences the local real estate market.

This is particularly relevant if you are considering investment properties or are interested in areas where affordable housing initiatives are prominent.

The issue is not widespread but can be significant in specific localities. To navigate this, you should research the areas where Eskan properties are prevalent and understand how this might affect your investment.

It's advisable to consult with a local real estate expert who can provide insights into the impact of the Eskan program on property prices and market trends in different areas of Bahrain.

"Shura Council" risk potential

An important and unique factor that you, as a foreigner, should consider when buying residential property in Bahrain is the influence of "Shura Council" decisions on real estate laws and regulations.

The Shura Council is part of Bahrain's legislative body and plays a significant role in shaping laws, including those related to real estate and property ownership.

One potential pitfall is not staying informed about recent or upcoming decisions made by the Shura Council that could impact property laws. These decisions can include changes in foreign ownership rights, modifications in property taxes, amendments in rental laws, or updates in zoning regulations.

For example, a new regulation passed by the Shura Council might impose additional requirements or restrictions on foreign property owners, or it could change the dynamics of the rental market, affecting your property investment's profitability.

These legislative changes are not always widely publicized outside of Bahrain and might be overlooked by foreign investors who are not actively following local legislative developments.

The frequency of such changes is not predictable, as they depend on various economic and political factors.

To avoid this, you should either regularly consult with a local legal expert in Bahraini real estate law or keep yourself updated on the decisions of the Shura Council.

This could involve monitoring local news sources or engaging with professional advisory services that can provide insights into how legislative changes might affect your property investment.

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The implications of the "RERA" regulations

Another unique consideration for you as a foreigner buying residential property in Bahrain is understanding the implications of the "RERA" (Real Estate Regulatory Authority) regulations.

RERA Bahrain was established to regulate the real estate sector, protect the rights of property buyers and sellers, and ensure ethical practices in the industry.

A common pitfall for foreign buyers is not being fully aware of or understanding RERA's regulations and how they apply to property transactions. These regulations can include specific requirements for property developers, mandatory disclosures for property sales, standards for real estate agents, and procedures for handling property-related disputes.

For example, RERA mandates that all real estate developers must be registered and that their projects must be approved by RERA before sales can commence.

As a buyer, purchasing a property in a development that is not RERA-compliant can lead to significant legal and financial risks.

Similarly, RERA regulations stipulate that real estate agents must be licensed, and they set out specific rules for the handling of client funds and property transactions.

The issue of compliance with RERA regulations is particularly relevant in the context of new developments and off-plan property purchases. To mitigate risks, you should ensure that any property you are considering is part of a RERA-approved development and that your real estate agent is RERA-licensed.

Additionally, familiarize yourself with RERA's complaint and dispute resolution mechanisms, which can provide a level of protection in case of any issues with your property transaction.