BLAME MIKHAIL Gorbachev if house prices in Spain are too high for your liking. Helen Parker was an estate agent in Mallorca for several years shortly after the Berlin Wall came down. "When East and West Germany merged, some worried, wealthy Germans bought property in Spain, which they viewed as a safe haven. The result was rapid inflation."

In Ms Parker's experience, the stereotype of British expats in Spain - golfers and retirees - needs updating to include middle-aged businessmen successful enough to retire early. Another group is even younger: "Mallorca has a massive community of foreigners who work as professional crews on the private yachts of the super-rich, and they buy properties in rural Mallorca and Barcelona."

Ms Parker advises would-be buyers to "make sure your agent is reputable, shop around for a good lawyer or gestor [a legal adviser, pronounced "hestor"] and get advice from expat Britons. "Make sure you get the vendor's receipts, because the current owner of the property is responsible for unpaid taxes and bills."

Recently a British couple lost their holiday home because the official register had not been amended to reflect the new ownership. Their vendor was still recorded as the owner. He owed huge sums, and the court sold the house for a pittance of its true value without informing the owners; the house has a new owner who can't be budged. Case closed.

Before you sign the escritura on the dotted line, make sure you know your notario from your abogado and familiarise yourself with the idiosyncrasies of Spanish law.

Any professional who stops you falling into the notorious todos los gastos trap will repay his fee. British buyers are often advised to underdeclare the purchase price on the title deed, but "this practice is illegal, and people who lie in this way incur larger capital gains-tax liabilities later".

In the pounds 40,000 to pounds 80,000 range, Graham Baigent of World of Property recommends "northern Costa Blanca around Moraira or inland, but you might need closer to pounds 80,000 for a reasonably small villa. Further south, Torrevieja offers excellent value."

World of Property contains many advertisements for developers, agents and advisers for all of Spain, and the first copy of the magazine is free.

In Mallorca, the third phase of the 136-unit Ses Oliveres is under way on the Bendinat Estate near Palma. Prices start at pounds 185,000 for apartments and pounds 280,000 for townhouses. Knight Frank has homes on Marbella, Mallorca and Ibiza ranging from pounds 880,000 top pounds 7m. Hampton's International has affiliates in Spain and handles villas with prices starting at pounds 85,000 and rising to pounds 1m. Pricey Spanish properties are also represented by Sotheby's International Property.

Hamptons International 0171-493 8787; Knight Frank 0171-629 8171; Ses Oliveres (00-34-971) 676024; Sotheby's International 0171-293 6443; `World of Property' 01323 726040

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