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) -- 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.

On the upside, foreign investors who think the luck of Irish is on their side have lots of available properties to choose from.

At Henry's company, current listings range from a three-bedroom Dublin house available for 310,000 euros ($407,000) to a 40-acre Tipperary estate priced at 650,000 euros ($859,000).

McMahon says would-be buyers should also consider bidding at so-called "fire-sale auctions," where large blocks of distressed Irish properties go under the gavel at steep discounts.

The expert, whose Web site scours the globe for real-estate investing opportunities, doesn't think Irish home prices have hit bottom. But he still believes investors should at least check Irish real estate out.

"Cost of living is high here and the weather can be dreary," McMahon admits. "But for the first time in over a decade, Ireland is on the agenda for our


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