Many people have never heard of Fez, Morocco’s fourth largest city after Casablanca, Rabat, and Marrakesh. The medieval town attracts discerning travelers who come looking for a cultural experience found nowhere else. Most tourists revel in what they find and leave with memories of a lifetime. Some continue to be drawn to it, returning over and over, hopelessly charmed by this provocative city. Others simply stay.
“We fell in love with Fez. Walking through the narrow streets of the medina, where there are no cars but instead donkeys and foot traffic, we felt as though we had been plunged back to the fourteenth century,” said Suzanna Clarke, whose book A House in Fez: Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco details her experience of buying and restoring a 300-year-old home in the ancient medina.
About Fez, Morocco
Fez is located in the northern part of the country. According to 2004 census, Fez’s population is about a million. The city is divided in three distinct parts. Fez el Bali is the oldest section that was founded in 789. Fez Jdid is newer and is where Morocco’s, once thriving, Jewish quarter is located. Ville Nouvelle was added at the beginning of the 19th century, during the French colonial days, and is now a bustling, modern commercial center. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is home to Al-Karaouine University, which was founded in 859 and holds the title of the oldest higher institution in the world according to the Guinness World Book of Records.
The population of Fez el Bali, the largest and the oldest of the three Fez sections, hovers at around 300,000 and about 30,000 of those are artisans, according to Clarke. “Everywhere people are making things in tiny workshops—from leather and ironwork to embroidery and ceramics,” she said. There are no cars. People use their own two feet or donkeys for transportation. “The city [of Fez] is designed on Islamic principles of social harmony, and each section of the city has its own school, hammam (bath-house), mosque, fountain and bakery.”
Fez’s 11th century sewer and water system still works and works well, according to Suzanna. The installation of electricity and Internet has left behind unsightly wires snaking over the city’s old walls but has brought much needed modern conveniences. Even so, they fail from time to time, as people cut and take the cables for the valuable copper inside.
Real Estate in Fez, Morocco
Over the past few years interest in Fez from international investors has increased, according to The Telegraph (U.K.). People who are tired of the high prices in Marrakesh are paying closer attention to the old Moroccan capital. There are many dilapidated palaces, dars (houses built around courtyards) and riads (houses with gardens) available for sale. Many will require extensive restoration to bring them back to their old glories.
“We decided to buy a riad in Fez to immerse ourselves in the culture in a much deeper way than is possible on a holiday and we felt we could make a contribution by preserving a historic house that might otherwise become derelict,” said Suzanna Clarke.
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Buying and restoring an old property in Fez may sound romantic, but it is not for the faint-hearted. It should not be taken on as short term project, it is not something that can be done from afar, and it requires an unyielding commitment and a sense of humor to retain ones sanity. After all, everyone knows old houses come with problems and it only makes sense that when a home is centuries old, numerous issues have to be resolved during renovation.
“Our house was more than 300 years old, and had last been restored in the late nineteenth century. There were some serious structural problems, such as crumbling walls and rotting beams—many of which we only uncovered after taking the plaster off,” said Clarke. Collapsing homes are a big problem in the city because many houses never get the attention they need to remain standing.
Restoration can mean different things to different people. Some owners are not satisfied until they return every aspect of their Fez home back to its original state. Others can be callous, disregarding the historical nature of their new abode; however, because of Fez’s World Heritage Status, there are limits to how much liberty owners can take in their renovations. “In restoring a house, I believe there needs to be respect for the historical aspects, balanced by the way it needs to function in order for people to continue to live in it. You can’t live in a museum, but neither should you impose your own fantasy on the nature of the house,” said Suzanna. She and her husband decided to put in a modern kitchen and bathroom but in a style that fit the original fashion of their home.
For Suzanna and her husband, restoration meant a lot of research into construction techniques used in the area during Fez’s heyday. “We were also very aware of using techniques that were associated with the local region, rather than elsewhere in Morocco,” she said. “[We] sought out craftsmen and women who had the necessary level of skill to restore damaged walls, woodwork, plaster and tile work.”
Putting together a team of people who understand the restoration needs and know what they are doing can be a major challenge. Sometimes, one must be willing to let things happen in their own time. “Our major problem in this department was with a recalcitrant plumber, who was constantly telling us he couldn’t show up to work as one of his relatives had died. By the end of the process, we estimated he had lost about six or seven family members. Really, he was a most unfortunate fellow,” said Clarke.
Making friends with locals whenever possible is also important, and not just becuse they might be your neighbors. Their influence and knowledge can be crucial in emergencies.
“We had to bring all our materials in by donkey or porter, and we occasionally ran into problems such as one day the donkey team was ‘kidnapped’ by an over-zealous local official, who said we needed to pay a fine. It was the equivalent of having your car towed. Fortunately our building merchant was well connected and managed to get the caid, or mayor, to order him to release them,” said Clarke.
Getting used to winning some and losing some against the complicated bureaucracy in Fez can cut down the level of frustration international owners face. For Suzanna and her husband it meant going without an electric oven and a washing machine because they were unable to install an electric supply. “To do so would have required us paying a huge amount of money to become authorized as a business, which we weren’t,” she explained. The officials couldn’t be convinced that Clarke wasn’t running a business given her desire for these appliances.
Buying real estate in Fez, Morocco
The Fez real estate market has been much slower than last year, according to Jonathan Green of Fez Restoration, a company that provides purchasing assistance, restoration help and property management services in the old medina. However, prices have remained stable instead of declining like they did in other parts of the world, according to Frederic Sola, owner of Fez Real Estate, a company specializing in Fez properties.
Buyers can expect to spend about $40,000 on unrestored small houses and upwards of $100,000 for nice three to four bedroom homes. Bigger properties that can be used for businesses such as guest houses can go for upwards of $200,000. “[For] restored [property] expect to pay 250 percent of an unrestored [property],” said Green. Most homes fall between $700 to $1000 per a square meter depending location and the current state of the property, according to Fez Real Estate.
There are no restrictions on foreigners buying real estate. “In fact, foreign investment is encouraged. However, it is important to follow the rules about bringing your money into Morocco and registering the purchase with the local authorities, or you may have problems getting your money out again,” said Clarke, who also blogs about her experiences at The View from Fez.
It may surprise buyers that most homes in Fez-el-Bali are not sold with a title. Apparently officials in the ancient medina still use an old system that has assigned scrolls to each property. On the scroll are the names of all past owners.
“The name of the new owners is recorded by an adoul, or scribe. Our scroll is about two meters long and contains hundreds of names,” said Clarke. “Houses are often sold when the previous generation dies, and the proceeds are to be split between several off-springs. This can be a long and frustrating process, unless everyone is in agreement,” she said. She would know. The deal for the first house Suzanna and her husband wanted to buy fell apart because they couldn’t locate all 12 siblings to sign documents.
“We are optimistic about the future of the real estate [market] in Fez; the city is becoming a destination for internal and external tourism, lots of governmental plans are being made to enhance tourist activities and to smooth the way for the foreign investments,” said Sola who also owns Riad Laaroussa, a guest house located in the old medina. Fez may not be as popular as Marrakesh but it sure seems to have caught the attention of international buyers. Whether or not there will be a market for restored homes in this ancient medina remains to be seen.