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Buying property in Cambodia: scams and pitfalls

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

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

Buying property there can be complicated though, especially if you're not a local resident.

Our community of property purchasers, in conjunction with our nearby experts, has identified a multitude of problems. We've listed them all in our Cambodia 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 Cambodia?

Scams are a persistent concern in Cambodia's real estate market.

One common scam involves fraudulent land titles or forged documents, leading unsuspecting buyers to invest in properties that they don't legally own.

In some cases, corrupt officials have been known to collude with criminals to facilitate these scams. Foreign investors must exercise caution and thoroughly vet the legitimacy of sellers and properties. Engaging reputable real estate agents and legal experts can help mitigate these risks.

Land ownership disputes remain a significant pitfall in Cambodia.

The country's history, scarred by the Khmer Rouge era and land grabs, has left a legacy of complex land tenure issues.

A notable example is the long-standing dispute in the Borei Keila area of Phnom Penh, where residents have been fighting for adequate compensation after being forcibly relocated to make way for a development project. These disputes can drag on for years, resulting in substantial financial losses and legal headaches for investors who find themselves entangled in such situations.

Foreign buyers face distinct challenges due to Cambodia's restrictions on land ownership. While the law allows foreigners to own condominiums and certain strata-title properties, outright ownership of land remains prohibited.

As a result, many foreigners resort to convoluted ownership structures, such as long-term leases or nominee arrangements. These arrangements can be legally risky and may not provide the same level of protection as outright ownership.

In terms of property dispute resolution, while Cambodia's legal system is improving, it may not always provide timely and fair resolutions. Delays in the court system can lead to protracted legal battles.

Alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, such as arbitration, can be a more efficient way to resolve property-related conflicts.

However, the accessibility and effectiveness of such mechanisms can vary.

Transparency in the property buying process is a mixed bag. While there has been progress in making transactions more transparent, issues like unclear land titles and hidden encumbrances persist.

For example, a lack of standardized land records and the prevalence of informal land transactions can make it challenging to ascertain a property's true ownership and history.

Buyers should exercise caution and conduct thorough due diligence to avoid falling victim to such complexities.

Government regulations play a pivotal role in Cambodia's real estate market.

The government has made efforts to streamline administrative procedures, but regulations can change, potentially affecting property investments.

For instance, in 2020, Cambodia introduced new regulations requiring foreigners to make a significant deposit to rent land for residential purposes, making it less attractive for foreign investors seeking long-term property leases.

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Watch out for mistakes when buying property in Cambodia

The concept of "Soft Title" system

When buying residential property in Cambodia, a common pitfall you should be aware of, especially as a foreigner, relates to the "Soft Title" system.

Unlike the "Hard Title" (known as 'LMAP' title), which is recognized and registered at the national level, Soft Titles are registered only at the local Sangkat (commune) level. This means that while a Soft Title can be easier and faster to obtain, it offers less legal security.

In the context of property transactions, you might encounter properties with only a Soft Title being offered at seemingly attractive prices. However, this is where you need to exercise caution. The pitfall is that Soft Titles are less secure in terms of ownership proof and are more susceptible to disputes and fraud.

This is particularly risky for you as a foreigner, as you may not be as familiar with local practices and legal nuances.

It's essential for you to understand that while a Soft Title might appear legitimate and is commonly used among locals, it does not provide the same level of protection as a Hard Title.

The frequency of issues arising from Soft Title transactions can be significant, especially in areas where land value is high and disputes are more common.

To mitigate this risk, you should always aim for properties with a Hard Title.

If you are considering a property with a Soft Title, it is advisable to conduct thorough due diligence. This includes seeking legal advice from a lawyer experienced in Cambodian property law and possibly converting the Soft Title to a Hard Title before proceeding with the purchase.

The risks related to "Kramas"

A less commonly known but significant pitfall for foreigners buying residential property in Cambodia is overlooking the cultural and historical significance of certain lands, which may lead to potential conflicts or legal challenges.

In Cambodia, there are lands known as "Kramas" (a term referring to traditional scarves but used here metaphorically), which hold special cultural, historical, or spiritual significance for local communities.

These areas might not be formally recognized or marked on official maps, but they are deeply valued by local people.

When you consider buying property, especially in more rural or less developed areas, you might inadvertently purchase land that is a Krama. The issue here is twofold. First, such lands may have restrictions on development or usage that are not immediately apparent or formally documented.

Second, developing or altering these lands can lead to conflicts with local communities, which can be both distressing and challenging to resolve.

The frequency of such issues is not as high as other legal or regulatory pitfalls, but the impact can be significant, especially in terms of community relations and your reputation as a foreign property owner.

To avoid this, it is crucial that you engage deeply with the local community and conduct thorough due diligence before purchasing land.

This includes consulting with local leaders, neighbors, and possibly historians or anthropologists who understand the area's cultural landscape.

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"Informal settlements" or "floating villages"

A unique and often overlooked pitfall when buying residential property in Cambodia, especially for a foreigner like you, is the challenge posed by "informal settlements" or "floating villages."

These are communities that have been established without formal legal recognition, often in less developed areas or sometimes even on water bodies like lakes or rivers. The properties in these settlements might be offered at tempting prices, but they come with significant risks and complexities.

The key issue here is the lack of clear legal ownership.

Even if a seller provides some form of documentation, it might not be recognized by the government. This means that as a foreigner, you could invest in a property that you can't legally own or might face eviction if the government decides to reclaim the land for development or conservation purposes.

This is particularly pertinent in areas near significant water bodies, like the Tonle Sap Lake, or in rapidly developing cities where urban planning is ongoing.

The frequency of issues with informal settlements can be high, especially as urbanization in Cambodia continues and the government seeks to regulate or develop these areas.

This is a context-specific challenge that you might not encounter in more developed countries with stricter zoning and property laws.

The awareness of the "ancestral land" risk

An often-overlooked pitfall in buying residential property in Cambodia, particularly relevant for a foreigner like yourself, involves the complexities surrounding "ancestral land."

In Cambodia, many properties, especially those in rural or semi-rural areas, have been passed down through generations within families. These properties are often not formally documented in the way western property systems function. Instead, they are held and transferred based on traditional customs and familial agreements.

The main issue for you as a foreign buyer is the risk of purchasing property that may have multiple, undocumented claimants.

Even if you deal with one family member who appears to be the rightful owner, there could be other family members who also have claims to the property.

These claims might not be formally recorded, but they are recognized within the community and can lead to legal disputes after you have made the purchase.

The frequency of such issues is significant in rural areas where formal property registration is less common.

In these situations, the lack of clear, legally documented ownership can lead to complicated disputes, which can be particularly challenging for a foreigner to navigate given the cultural and linguistic differences.

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The issue of "Preah Vihear temple"

A specific and often overlooked pitfall for foreigners buying residential property in Cambodia involves the issue of "Preah Vihear Temple" border disputes.

The Preah Vihear Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the northern part of Cambodia near the border with Thailand, has been the subject of long-standing territorial disputes between Cambodia and Thailand.

This dispute has led to occasional tensions and skirmishes in the surrounding areas.

For you as a foreigner looking to buy property, the pitfall lies in purchasing land near this border area, particularly in the provinces of Preah Vihear and Oddar Meanchey.

While these areas might offer appealing property deals, they come with the risk of being affected by any future escalations in the border dispute.

The frequency of issues related to this specific pitfall is relatively low compared to others, but the impact can be significant. It can lead to challenges in accessing the property, potential safety risks, and difficulties in reselling the property due to perceived or actual instability.

To navigate this pitfall, it's crucial for you to be aware of the exact location of any property you are considering in Cambodia.

Ensure that it is not in close proximity to the Thai-Cambodian border near the Preah Vihear Temple.

The concept of "Chamkar" land

Another specific and lesser-known pitfall for foreigners buying residential property in Cambodia is the issue surrounding the "Chamkar" land.

In Cambodian context, "Chamkar" refers to agricultural land, often used for farming or plantation purposes. While these lands can be appealing due to their lower prices and potential for development, they come with unique legal and cultural complexities.

The key issue for you as a foreign buyer is the potential misclassification or misunderstanding of Chamkar land. In some cases, these lands are sold for residential development without the necessary legal conversion from agricultural to residential use.

This misclassification can lead to legal issues, including fines or demolition orders from local authorities if the land is developed in violation of its designated use.

Additionally, Chamkar lands often have strong ties to local communities and their agricultural practices.

Purchasing such land without understanding these dynamics can lead to conflicts with local farmers or residents who may have traditional or informal rights to use the land.

This issue is more prevalent in rural and semi-urban areas where agricultural practices are common.

The frequency of problems arising from Chamkar land transactions can be significant, especially in regions undergoing rapid development or urbanization.

To avoid this pitfall, it’s important for you to verify the zoning status and land use classification of any property you are considering. Consulting with a local lawyer or real estate expert familiar with Cambodian land laws is crucial.

They can assist in ensuring that the land is appropriately classified for your intended use.

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The risks surrounding "Lakeside Property"

A unique and often unexpected pitfall for foreigners buying residential property in Cambodia is the issue surrounding "Lakeside Property" purchases, particularly around the Tonle Sap Lake and the Boeung Kak area in Phnom Penh.

While these areas offer picturesque views and are attractive for residential development, they come with specific risks and legal complexities.

The primary concern for you as a foreign buyer is the fluctuating water levels and the government's land reclamation projects.

In the case of the Tonle Sap Lake, Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake, the water levels can vary significantly between the dry and wet seasons, affecting properties nearby. For Boeung Kak, a large-scale development project involving the filling in of the lake led to the displacement of many residents and disputes over land rights.

These areas have a history of land rights conflicts and environmental challenges. As a foreigner, purchasing property in these zones could involve risks like potential eviction, legal disputes over land ownership, and environmental issues.

Additionally, the uncertainty of these areas might impact the future value and accessibility of the property.

The frequency of these issues is notable, particularly in the wake of Cambodia's rapid urban development and the government's initiatives to manage and develop waterfront areas.

To navigate this pitfall, it's crucial for you to conduct thorough due diligence before purchasing lakeside property in Cambodia.

This includes understanding the history of land use in the area, any ongoing or planned government projects, and the legal status of the land.

The "Sangkat" issue

A specific and potentially overlooked pitfall for foreigners like yourself buying residential property in Cambodia is the issue related to "Sangkat" (commune) level administrative changes.

In Cambodia, administrative boundaries and jurisdictions at the local level can sometimes change, impacting properties in those areas.

For you as a foreign buyer, the challenge lies in purchasing property in an area where the Sangkat boundaries might be redefined or where jurisdictional changes occur. Such changes can affect property taxes, land value, and even the legal status of your property.

For instance, a property that was once under a certain Sangkat's jurisdiction offering certain benefits or exemptions might suddenly fall under a different Sangkat with different regulations.

These issues are more prevalent in areas undergoing rapid development or urban expansion.

As cities like Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, or Sihanoukville grow, their outskirts are often subject to administrative reorganization.

The frequency of such changes isn't extremely high, but when they do occur, they can have significant implications for property owners.

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"Pagoda Land" or "Wat Land"

A particularly unique and often overlooked pitfall for foreigners buying residential property in Cambodia is the issue related to "Pagoda Land" or "Wat Land."

In Cambodia, many pagodas (Buddhist temples) and their surrounding areas are situated on land that is informally held or managed by the religious community, known as Wat Land. These lands, often located in both urban and rural areas, can be mistakenly listed for sale or lease.

As a foreign buyer, the challenge is in inadvertently purchasing or investing in property on or near Wat Land.

While such properties might appear legitimate and be offered at attractive prices, they often come with complex legal and ethical issues. The land around pagodas is usually not eligible for private ownership and is meant for religious or community use.

Any transaction involving Wat Land can be legally void, and there's a risk of disputes with the local community and religious authorities.

This issue is more common in areas where land ownership records are unclear or where there is a historical presence of pagodas.

The frequency of such complications isn't widespread, but they can be significant due to the sensitive nature of religious and community lands.

To avoid this pitfall, you should conduct thorough due diligence before any property purchase. This includes researching the history of the land and its surroundings, consulting with local land registry offices, and engaging with the local community to understand any religious or communal significance of the area.

It's also advisable to work with a local lawyer or real estate agent who is knowledgeable about the unique aspects of Cambodian land ownership, particularly regarding Wat Land.

The concept of "Land Concessions"

Another specific and less commonly known pitfall for foreigners buying residential property in Cambodia involves the issue of "Land Concessions."

In Cambodia, the governm­ent sometimes grants economic land concessions (ELCs) to companies for large-scale agricultural or industrial projects. These concessions can cover vast areas and are often granted in rural or semi-rural regions.

For you as a foreign buyer, the challenge lies in potentially purchasing land that falls within an area granted for an ELC.

Properties in these concession areas can be problematic because the land rights might be disputed or unclear. Even if a piece of land within a concession area is offered for sale and appears to have proper documentation, the overarching concession rights can override your claim to the property.

This can lead to legal disputes, possible eviction, or loss of your investment.

These issues are more common in provinces where there is significant agricultural or industrial activity and where the government is actively encouraging development through concessions.

The frequency of such issues can vary, but the impact can be significant due to the large scale of some concessions and the legal complexities involved.

To avoid this pitfall, it's important for you to conduct extensive research into the history and status of the land you're interested in. This should include checking whether the land falls within an ELC area. Consulting with a knowledgeable local lawyer or real estate expert is crucial.

They can help you navigate the complexities of land concessions in Cambodia and ensure that the property you're interested in is free from such encumbrances.

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