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Irish Real Estate: This Could Be the Time

BOSTON ( MainStreet) -- Ireland's housing bust makes America's real estate downturn look like a St. Patrick's Day parade -- potentially creating great buying opportunities for Americans willing to test the country's real estate sector.

"For the brave and romantic who plan to live their Irish dream, there are pockets of the market where it might be worth buying," says Donal Buckley, deputy properties editor at the Dublin-based Irish Independent newspaper. "Uncertainty about the euro currency, the economy and taxation make it difficult to advise investors."

The Russians are already rushing in, and real estate firm Savills Ireland says it's 'an excellent time to buy Irish property.'

The Emerald Isle's real estate prices have certainly tumbled since Ireland's hyperinflated property market peaked around 2006.

Official government statistics show housing prices have fallen around 47% since then. But market watchers say big "trophy homes" built during the boom -- basically the Irish version of America's McMansions -- have lost as much as 80% of their value.

Whether prices will fall even more is the big question.

Buckley thinks prices are "close to bottom in some pockets of the market, especially family houses in sought-after suburban areas of the major cities such as Dublin and Cork.

"However, apartments and vacation homes need to be approached with care -- especially in areas affected by emigration, layoffs and crime -- and in provincial towns," he says.

But Joan Henry of Irish real estate firm Savills Ireland is more optimistic, saying it's "an excellent time to buy Irish property. All categories of housing have dropped in price by at least 55%."

Russian buyers are making some well-publicized moves into the market, while Ronan McMahon of property-investment site PathFinder International says many U.S. nationals are checking out Ireland as well.

"Americans generally like Ireland's old historic homes," says McMahon, who lives in Ireland himself. "Quite a few American celebrities discreetly have homes here. Now that prices are falling, more Americans -- mostly with Irish ancestry -- are looking."

He adds that people with at least one Irish grandparent can qualify for Irish citizenship, which conveys access to free health care and other social benefits.

The Irish government is also trying to entice foreign buyers by offering a seven-year window to invest tax free in Ireland's real estate. Anyone who buys Irish property between now and Dec. 31, 2013, can sell their holdings within seven years and skip the usual 30% capital gains tax.

Ireland also has no property tax right now, although the cash-strapped government plans to soon inaugurate one. Additionally, homebuyers have to pay 1% of a property's purchase price as a "stamp duty," while foreign and domestic landlords typically owe Irish income taxes on any profits.