Under a scorching sun the dreams start of a little place in the Mediterranean. But trying to make that a reality can be a sobering experience for legal novices, says Mary Wilson
EDWARD AND JENNIFER BEVIS have learnt the hard way about paying for a property in a foreign country - before it is built. After nine years of trials and tribulations, the couple have ended up losing pounds 25,000 and their dream holiday home.

"We wanted to buy a retirement home in the Mediterranean and in 1989 attended several exhibitions and shows to see what was available," says Jennifer. "A salesman from Tavernstar, an agent in Surrey, approached us with properties in Turkey, and, as they were much cheaper than France or Spain, we agreed to go on a four-day inspection trip and we found ourselves in Bodrum within the week."

They saw a wide range of properties at different stages of completion and eventually fell in love with the magnificent view from a hillside overlooking Bodrum. If they wanted to buy this one, they would have to do so "off-plan", based on architects' drawings and before it was built. "The plans seemed to have been carefully drawn up by the developers, whose company was registered in Istanbul," she says.

The villa, which was still a hole in the ground, was going to cost them pounds 32,934 with an initial deposit of pounds 1,000. "We were quite careful," says Edward. "We found a Turkish solicitor in England to look over the contract and we thought we were well covered in Turkey. But we eventually discovered we were badly misinformed. We were told the developer owned the land and the reason for the property costing a bit more than usual was because of its position, which we could understand."

They gave their power of attorney to Pozcu & Collard, the Turkish agents for Tavernstar. Having paid their deposit, a sales contract was drawn up, at which time the first instalment of pounds 12,174 was paid. But, when they visited Bodrum, in spring 1990, the foundations had hardly been laid.

They were told that the building would be finished on time and, in January 1991, paid a second instalment of pounds 9,890. In April, they were told the villa was being plastered, but in August 1991 it transpired that the development company did not have the money to continue the project and two landowners - whom they previously knew nothing about - had placed a lien on the properties going up on the site to protect their interests.

The landowner was unable to be located and, at the end of the year, he died after a car accident. The inheritance laws proved to be insurmountable, Pozcu & Collard closed their Bodrum offices and, after trying many avenues to retrieve their money, the Bevises gave up.

"Although we were advised to sue Pozcu & Collard, we were reluctant to become involved in costly litigation," says Edward.

There are several lessons to be learnt from this sad story. "You should never sign a contract with anyone who is not the vendor and, when handing over money, you should make sure that it is given to a notary or someone who has a client account so the money cannot be touched," says Steve Emmett, of Brian A French agents and a former chairman of Fopdac (the Federation of Overseas Property Developers and Consultants).

Fopdac has no agents registered with it in Turkey. "We took a look at Turkey some years ago and decided not to get involved. Claims to freehold title were not sustainable, and I was amazed to see people offering freehold title," says Mr Emmett - a situation the Bevises were obviously not aware of.

Title of land and property should always be carefully checked. In Italy, where Brian A French sells property, all title is registered, so anyone can check the owner of land and property and whether there is a mortgage on it. Not making the correct checks could mean finding out that you have mortgage repayments to make of which you knew absolutely nothing about.

Title is similarly registered in Spain and Portugal, and there is consumer legislation that protects a purchaser from a developer going bankrupt. "The developer gets a bank guarantee or insurance, so, if the worst happens, any monies which have been paid over will be recompensed," says Michael Cornish, of Cornish & Co, a solicitor specialising in property purchases in Spain and Portugal. You might have to pay an insurance premium, but it is well worth doing.

"You should, of course, always see a solicitor who specialises in the area you are buying in. A reputable solicitor will make all the title checks before you hand over any money," says Mr Cornish. All reputable estate agents in Spain and Portugal are licensed, and Fopdac can also provide a list of its members.

"The difficulty is that people get very excited about buying property when on holiday and are easily parted with their money," Mr Cornish says. "The saying goes: 'When the sun comes out, the brains go in.' And, no matter how many times you tell them, people still come to us when it is too late. They are offered an option agreement, that they are expected to sign on the spot, which forms an agreement. There is little we can do about it, except carry out all the searches and hope that nothing untoward shows up."

Edward and Jennifer Bevis have certainly learnt their lesson: "We will never, ever again buy a property off-plan. We would only consider something if it was completed and ready to move into."

Brian A French: 0171-284 0114. Fopdac: 0181-941 5588. Cornish & Co: 0181-478 3300.