How Croatia handles communal spaces, right of way, and border disputes

houses near the coast
Croatian properties on the island of Pag

PUBLISHED: 28.8.2023.

You fall in love with a Croatian property, the ownership records in the Land Registry entries are clean, and so you buy it. And then the problems begin…

The unused communal ground in front of your house means you cannot build a balcony above it. Your neighbor claims a right of way over your property. You want to get your borders measured and updated in the Cadastral Office and discover they are not what you thought you bought.

Sound familiar? In an ideal world, your property was thoroughly checked for border problems before you bought it. But that did not happen. So what now?

Can you buy the communal space (property)? How do you deal with right-of-way claims, and how do you get your borders registered so there are no future disputes?

You can solve these problems, but you will need the help of a good lawyer and a land surveyor.

In this post, we cover:

The facts are these…

Communal space, right of way, and border disputes in Croatia

What should have happened with Croatian property?

Croatian Land Registry maps date back to socialism and are often inaccurate. Border problems such as right-of-way claims won’t show up in the records. It is therefore best to buy a property that already has borders updated, agreed on by the neighbors, and officially registered in the Cadastral Office.

[Read: How to find property ownership records in Croatia]

Ideally, you have also been informed of the implications of communal property that crosses or borders your land.

If not, your lawyer should send a land surveyor to measure the property and get the neighbors to sign that there are no disputes. This is essential because there is always the possibility that some border is disputed or real estate is smaller than in the land registry, or there is no access to a public road, meaning you cannot build. Only then can you be sure your property is clean.

Croatian bureaucratic real estate hurdles you may face

A lawyer is always needed to explain local law to a foreigner. But in Croatia, because of the changing laws, the bureaucratic hurdles (especially if you don’t speak Croatian), and intercultural problems, legal help is essential. Here’s why.

#1 Changing laws

The property laws in Croatia are changing as it modernizes –  it’s not like Roman Law, which stays the same. If you are a foreigner in Croatia, you need a lawyer to tell you what the laws are.

The second problem is that Croatia still has remnants from the socialist legal system. Yugoslavia had a completely different legal system to the one Croatia has now. In some cases, the two systems exist side by side.

This affects communal space. In socialism, a lot of property was made available for everyone to use. To privatize these properties, ownership first has to be established, and that is difficult.

A property could be owned by the state, a local municipality, a city, or be communal. The state may own the land but gave responsibility it to the local municipality. A private individual may have been given permission to build and use communal land. Sometimes it is not familiar who owns or has rights over a communal property.

Foreigners trying to work this out themselves would first need to master Croatian bureaucracy.

[Read: How to get a building permit (građevinska dozvola) in Croatia]

#2 Croatian bureaucracy

Solving right-of-way or border disputes, or trying to buy communal space is tricky, and time-consuming and foreigners will need insider knowledge, excellent connections, and fluent Croatian.

Even simple cases where the law is clear are tricky. You will get nowhere if you do not know which ministries need to give you approval, which person in that ministry is your local contact (or even, what their visiting hours are), what papers you need, or how to chase up a bureaucrat.

[Read: All the Croatian government ministries and what they do]

Recently, for a simple form, I was advised to visit a bureaucrat every week. “Sit on him!” locals told me. After following good advice on how to communicate the Croatian way (“Oh, I see you are so busy; You must be so stressed!”), the need to bring a present (such as rakija), which is not a bribe but part of the Croatian gifting culture, he found my file, and, instead of that form taking two years to get, I had it within another month. But how would you know this, without insider knowledge of how Croatians tick?

#3 Your Croatian neighbors

Without intercultural knowledge, you may well offend your neighbors. One night, our neighbor wept because foreigners were putting hedges around their houses, not respecting old ways and ruining our village. For him, the changes meant a loss of centuries of tradition. So, remember, you are a foreigner, treat local customs with respect. If not, your neighbors could stand in the way of your property plans.

[Read: How to understand the Croatian culture: Part 2 including emotional connection with properties]

Get to know the local customs, learn about taboos that can lead to lifelong feuds, and talk to your neighbors about the old ways so you can be sensitive to traditional land use issues. Only then will you too be given respect — and tolerance for your property plans.

#4 Getting expert help

You must know what needs to be done. Otherwise, you may waste money on someone who strings you along knowing you do not know the steps needed, and doing the bare minimum.

Our first land surveyor put down red markers to define our borders but did not get the neighbors to sign an agreement on the borders or make any effort to register the new borders in the Cadastral Office. We could not understand why we had spent over 1.000 euros for a bunch of red markings, which over time faded, and had no impact on our registered border status. Naïve? No, just ill-informed.

So don’t settle for the first lawyer or land surveyor. And don’t be shy to get a second opinion if necessary.

Tip: Best is a lawyer with a proven record working with expats who works with a trusted network of experts such as land surveyors. If you want to get professional help from a vetted lawyer from our network, fill out this form.

How to solve your problems with a Croatian property

Updating borders

You need to know exactly where your borders are before you deal with right-of-way claims, communal property issues, or any other border problems. So, the first step is getting the land properly measured, agreed on by neighbors, and officially registered.

The ancient map of your property in the Cadastral Office is most likely different from reality. For example, ours says we own 170 square meters. However, 30 years ago, the neighbors built two roads over the property. Thanks to a recent law, all illegal roads now belong to the state, including half a meter on each side. So, in fact, our parcel is now significantly smaller.

All neighbors who border your parcels of land must sign their agreement of the updated borders. If they dispute your borders, you will have to go to court to prove they are yours. 

Here are a few tips:

  • Defining your borders can be tricky, so it is wise to find out where the borders are from trusted neighbors and others in your community.
  • In rural areas, dry-stone walls may mark the old boundaries. If these have been removed, it is difficult to establish exact boundaries, even for locals. Avoid moving these walls until your borders have been updated!
  • Sometimes boundaries were shifted with the agreement of the whole village, for example to make way for a road, but this change was never made official.
  • As others in your community update their borders, you may find the Cadastral map of your borders also change. Watch this closely.
  • It is essential to have a land surveyor you trust to measure accurately. The legal expert we spoke to told us of a case where a surveyor we out by 2–3 meters on each side of a client’s property. That translated into 50.000 euro of lost land!
  • If your surveyor does not do the job as you understand it, or you have any other doubts about what he suggests or does, get a second or even third opinion.

Buying communal space

Can you buy a communal property?

Yes, and you can get it joined to your parcel of land. You can also buy the parts of communal roads or pathways that cross or border your parcel of land.

[Read: How third-country citizens can buy residential real estate in Croatia]

When can’t you buy communal property?

Buying may not be possible if there are regional waterworks or electricity crossing it, or building or other official uses planned for it, or the ownership is unclear.

You also cannot buy any part of a road or path that everyone uses.

Can’t I just use it without buying it?

Locals may use communal spaces privately, but when a foreigner does, they can meet with heavy resistance. Usually, because the locals over the years developed an understanding between themselves about who can use what. So they will not report each other. A foreigner who takes over a communal path or road without the approval of the community may well be reported.

Before you start: update your borders

To know if and how you can change your parcel to include communal land, you need to know where your borders are. Then the authorities will know which borders you are talking about. See our section above on updating your borders.

Next: Your local municipality

Take your property details to the local municipality (Cadastral map and Cadastral number). They will help find out who the land belongs to, whether you can buy it, whether it is an easy case the municipality can handle, or whether you need a lawyer and land surveyor to solve it.

Working out ownership

You will have to buy the land from its owner. But finding out ownership is tricky.

It could be the state, a local municipality, a city, communal, or be owned by the state but under the local municipality. It could also have different kinds of status. For example, a private individual may have been given the right to build on or use it (without owning it). Sometimes, even the owner is unknown.

If the state owns the plot, getting info on its status takes much longer because of all the ministries that must clear the bid to buy and because you cannot deal as personally with authorities as with your local ones.

Next step: a land surveyor  

Most likely, you are buying a small section of a much larger plot of communal land. So, you need a land surveyor to propose new boundaries for the piece you want to buy. Again, neighbors must sign that none of the relevant borders on this proposal are disputed. (Note: You do not need your neighbors’ permission to buy communal property.)

Your bid to buy will need to be cleared by various departments, such as water, electricity, agriculture, roads, to make sure it is not currently being used by the state or will be in the future.

Getting clearance to re-parcel the land

Your surveyor submits the parcel proposal to the Upravni odjel za prostorno uređenje, graditeljstvo i zaštitu okoliša (Administrative Department for Physical Planning, Construction and Environmental Protection).

If they clear it, you will receive a Rješenje o utvrđivanju građevne čestice (Decision on the determination of building plot), giving you permission to create a new Cadastral parcel incorporating the communal land.

This document is made public, and if after 15 days there are no objections to it, it gets stamped by the authorities.

Registering the new borders

The surveyor now does a Geodetic project to create the new parcel as proposed in the Building Office decision. This will be given a new Cadastral number, and then you put in an application to buy this new parcel and join it to your existing property.

You will need the surveyor again after you have bought the property. He then joins the new parcel to your existing parcel to create one parcel.

Buying the property 

You need a lawyer to do this.  Their first step is to send an official evaluator to determine the value of the property. The sale of the land is made public, and if it is an unimportant piece of land, you will be the only buyer.

Right of way claims

A legal expert told us of a client who bought land and applied for building permission. A neighbor put in an objection, saying he had a right of way through it. What he did not know was that if you can prove in court that you have used this land in good faith over the last 10 or 20 years, then you have a right of way, even if it is not in the Land Registry.

[Read: How to correct or change property records with the land registry in Croatia (pojedinačni ispravni postupak)]

Even though that piece of disputed land was only 30 square meters, the owner cannot build on the property, and faces a court case that could go on for 5 – 7 years. And there is no guarantee of success because you would have to prove that the neighbor has not used it for the last 20 years. The expert says he has many cases such as these, with foreigners wanting a quicker solution. But there are no quicker solutions than going to court.

The law does allow owners to challenge this right if there is no real need for it. But it is hard to win such cases. As long as the neighbor claims they use it, even if irregularly, you have a court case. All of these troubles can be prevented if a lawyer and surveyor check all boundaries and measure the plot before the client buys it.

Get an introduction to a vetted Croatian property lawyer

Need help investigating, purchasing or selling a property? Or maybe you are have Croatian ancestors and want to know if you’ve inherited property? We can help with next steps. Expat in Croatia has carefully vetted a network of property lawyers who can help you find a property in Croatia with confidence.

They can:

  • Answer all of your property questions
  • Find property records
  • Clean property titles
  • Search for properties associated with your family
  • Help you purchase a property and represent you during the process
  • Ensure you are not taken advantage of by property sellers or real estate agencies
  • Prepare and review contracts
  • Help you sell a property
  • Engage local contractors and interior designers

To get help from a vetted lawyer, please share your needs with us using the below form. Based on those needs, we’ll match you with the right person best suited to help.

View our other real estate articles

Savin Vaić, a property lawyer from Rijeka
Sanja Filčić, an attorney from Mošćenička Draga

Please note: Information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. Croatian laws and bureaucratic rules often change, and each personal case is individual, so different rules may apply. For legal advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant.

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