A decade ago, the number of UK agents specialising in foreign property was estimated to be more than 2,000. A few years - and a market collapse - later, that figure was down to a handful. Now the number is rising again, with sellers able to command good prices. Steve Emmett offers buyers tips on finding the right agent and the right property.

Quiet as the dawn, a new era has crept upon us. Acclimatised to hard times, developers and agents have been caught with their trousers firmly fastened around their ankles. There is now a realisation that, by and large, the glut of properties has gone; good property in sought-after locations is beginning to fetch a premium. Property which had been on the market since the early Nineties has now started to change hands. And what is more, while price inflation is not what it was 10 years ago, prices are again on the move.

To borrow an over-used phrase, the world is getting smaller. Thirty years ago the British prime minister holidayed in the Scilly Isles; today it is the palm-fringed beaches of the Indian Ocean. For the masses, Benidorm and Fuengirola have replaced Brighton and Bognor, a kind of gentrification or, perhaps more accurately, a maturing of tastes across the board.

The result is a rich and diverse market-place, a far cry from the early years of chartered planeloads of would-be buyers beig shipped out to Malaga and Mahon every Saturday. In short, if you want to acquire a home abroad, be it for holidays, retirement or investment, there is a world to choose from.

Before commencing your search it is worthwhile making a few notes to guide you.

What is the purpose of the acquisition? If it is for a weekend retreat you are likely to reach a different conclusion than if you want something for six months a year. Similarly, if you are a winter-sports fanatic you can save yourself the inspection trips to Florida. Those may be over-simplificafions but the principle applies generally.

Do you speak the language of your chosen country? If not, is it necessary to learn it and, perhaps more important, can you learn it? If you are on a tight budget, what is the cost of owning and running a property? What is the cost of travel? If you are retiring, how does it affect your pension'? Healthcare? The list is almost endless.

Most national and international newspapers and magazines carry advertisements from agencies and developers with property to sell in the most popular countries and resorts. Take care. As with any trade, there are good and bad operators. Make sure that you are dealing with someone who has experience and a track record. Ask to speak with past clients. Ideally, stick to agencies belonging to a recognised professional or trade body - and check that organisaton out too. Time spent now in choosing the right agent will save you time, trouble and probably money in the long.

The Federation of Overseas Property, Developers, Agents and Consultants (Fopdac) is the UK's leading trade organisation for those dealing with the sale and servicing of property outside the UK. Fopdac membership has recently increased and the range of countries offered by member firms is considerable. A list of members, as well as legal notes, are available on request. The National Association of Estate Agents, known more for UK domestic property, has an international section which continues to develop year on year. Again, details of members dealing in overseas property can be obtained from their offices.

FIABCI (The Intemational Real Estate Federation) is represented throughout the world by accredited professional bodies. In the UK it is the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics). It is fair to say that Fopdac and NAEA members are mostly involved with residential property while FIABCI has a commercial leaning.

Whatever your choice - studio flat or villa, cottage or castle; sun and sea or mountains and lakes - the early part of 1998 has to be a good time to buy, especially if you have funds in sterling. All forecasts are for a strengthening of European currencies as interest rate differentials narrow between the UK and its EU counterparts.

It is important to be cautious in such a venture; after all, a home abroad is more than likely to be your single biggest investment after your home in the UK. Keeping things in perspective allows plenty of room for realising that the vast majority of people are happy with their purchases and get many years of enjoyment from them. Wherever your search takes you, have fun.

Fopdac 0181 941 5588; NAEA 01926 496800; FIABCI, 0171 222 7000

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