More than 4,000 UK citizens will seek a dream retirement home in Spain this year.
EVERY YEAR thousands of sun-starved Brits pack their golf clubs and a few tea chests and head for retirement on the Costa del Sol. Since the Sixties it has been a popular holiday destination, but now it is also home to some 80,000 sun-loving expats.

Most of the 4,000 expected new settlers this year will be British. It is easy to see why. Apart from the climate, the strong pound means that property prices for British buyers have fallen considerably.

Five years ago, David and Elizabeth Gilbert started to plan their early retirement by buying a 10th-floor apartment overlooking the marina resort of Benalmadena, just 15 minutes drive from Malaga airport. They chose Spain for the weather and easy access to their family back in England.

"We wanted a relatively lower cost of living without losing any of the quality when we retired," says Elizabeth. They got to know the area and made some good English and Spanish friends, however, it slowly became apparent that a two-bedroom apartment would not be big enough for a permanent home. "We have seven children between us and a growing number of grandchildren and we wanted to have enough room to accommodate each family comfortably when they came to visit."

The Gilberts downsized from a five-bedroom house to a two-bedroom flat in England to make the capital available to purchase a bigger property in Spain. "It also gave us a low-maintenance base for frequents visits back to the UK," adds David.

Last year, with their retirement date looming, they viewed a selection of large villas but were deterred by the cost and time involved in maintaining a private pool and sizeable garden. "The villas were also quite isolated and we felt it was important to integrate with the Spanish people as well as the expats."

They made a point of looking for a property set within the largely Spanish community of Arroyo de la Miel, a short drive from their original apartment. They fell in love with a new development of 40 villas clustered around a central park complete with a tennis court, swimming-pool and lake for the exclusive use of residents. A reasonable service charge pays for its maintenance. But with Spanish builders' reputation as unpredictable as the English weather, were they not taking a risk as they reserved their building plot?

"The development was being built by the largest building company in the Costa del Sol, so we were confident of the guarantees for the building workmanship," says Elizabeth. It was also reassuring that two of the company's directors were having villas built there, too.

The Gilberts moved in last October and they are delighted with the results, although the final completion has taken longer than they anticipated. They guess that, like Britain, 90 per cent of a new house is completed on time and to the specification but the other 10 per cent seems to take for ever.

"We've become more accommodating," says Elizabeth. "We've realised manana doesn't necessarily mean tomorrow." The Gilberts have also been careful about "extras" as they provide the builder with an opportunity to make more profit. They ensured that everything was priced separately and agreed before the work started. "We regularly communicated and confirmed work as it was progressing. Personal site visits were essential."

Payments were staged, the final 50 per cent paid when the deeds were signed and keys handed over. "The exchange rate gains over the period meant we paid the equivalent of pounds 120,000 for the villa, pounds 30,000 less than the original price," says David.

David and Elizabeth have relied heavily on their bilingual Spanish solicitor, recommended through a friend when they bought their apartment. "He's advised us all the way," says David, "not only in a legal capacity. He's ironed out a few interpretation problems. But we were lucky that the developer had an employee who spoke good English."

Unlike English law, debt can attach to a property so unpaid mortgages, local taxes and community charges are inherited by the buyer. Planning permission for new properties must be obtained by the developer from the Spanish authorities.

Bill Blevins is the co-author of the Blackstone Franks Guide to Living in Spain. He advises purchasers: "Use the services of a reputable Spanish lawyer to complete any property transactions. Never sign anything unless you have obtained legal advice." The guide also details Spain's inheritance laws, taxes, pensions and wills, important considerations for both the expats and their families back home. To reduce inheritance tax, most people leave their surviving partner a "usufruct" in the family house - a life interest - rather than half the property, and ownership then passes to their children.

While the Gilberts have risen to the challenge of supervising the purchase and building of their villa, a more reassuring proposition for some may be the agency for overseas property recently launched by Thomas Cook.

One hundred of its travel shops now feature a "travel lounge" where potential purchasers can view details of new properties abroad built by well-known British developers such as Banner Homes, Mowlem and Prowting. Financial, legal and mortgage advice will be available as well as overseas building and contents insurance, although buyers will be free to shop around for all these services.

Andrew Chapman, general manager for Thomas Cook Resort Properties, says: "The service will alleviate any uncertainty and concerns purchasers may have." Prices start from pounds 49,000 for a studio apartment in Spain. Subsidised weekend "fly-buys" can be arranged to take potential purchasers to view properties.

In another venture, Taylor Woodrow is developing a site close to Marbella, overlooking a golf course designed by Seve Ballesteros. Around 100 high- specification detached villas, apartments and townhouses are being built. Villas start from pounds 290,000, two-bedroom apartments from pounds 80,000. Select villa plots start from pounds 55,000, where buyers can commission their own architect or choose Taylor Woodrow to design and build a property to their own plans. English-speaking Spanish lawyers are also employed by the developer to handle property sales.

As the Gilberts settle in to their marble surroundings do they have any regrets? "None," they chorus. "We obviously miss our family a great deal, but we're always e-mailing each other." Some old habits die hard. Sunday mornings in the Gilbert household are still for browsing through the weekend papers - only now it's on the Internet.

`Blackstone Franks Guide to Living in Spain', pounds 6.99, 0171-336 1000; Thomas Cook Resort Properties 0870 2425525; Taylor Woodrow 0181-575 4198.