Fancy a cottage abroad with vines winding around the door?
Flicking through the pages of World of Property, it's easy to get carried away. I was practically writing the cheque for the four-bed finca, within half an hour's drive of the Spanish coast. The price? A mere pounds 19,750 - the cost of a lock-up garage in London.

Buying a property in central Brittany was a compromise for Jill and Anton, who still yearn for their back-packing days. Now they are living in London with two small children, travelling has been put on the back burner. But two years ago they bought a Thirties farmhouse and barn. They paid pounds 28,000, when the franc was at its strongest; today it would have cost only pounds 21,000.

"It was owned by a French family who'd long since left for Paris," says Anton, who has made 16 trips across the Channel to carry out the renovations. He has employed local tradesmen to do some of the work, but he's tackled most jobs himself with the help of friends willing to spend the odd weekend in France. The main house had just two big rooms on each floor, with a staircase to the attic.

The interior has been replastered, and partitioned on the first floor to make three bedrooms and a bathroom.

"I took out some builders from the local pub in my home town in Lancashire to repoint the two buildings. The French workers wanted pounds 10,000 for the job. My lads did it for pounds 4,500, but it took them 17 days."

When the renovations, costing around pounds 20,000, are finished later this year, Jill and Anton will at last be able to stay in the house instead of on a site nearby.

It's not the sort of village where you meet English people, even in the local bars, and the vegetables in the supermarket two miles away still have mud on them. "It's idyllic," says Anton. "Nothing to do except go to the sandy beaches. Once we've spent some time here though, I'll be yearning to go to Florida or Spain for a change."

If you want to buy a property abroad it's essential to take expert and independent legal advice, preferably on recommendation. Jill and Anton bought their farmhouse through a French property agency advertising in the magazine Living France. They paid a commission of pounds 1,400 to the agency's English link man who covered all the legal aspects of the sale. This included dealing with contracts, visiting solicitors and even taking them to see the local mayor to sign on for water and property taxes. They agree that it was money well spent. Anton still calls on him for advice.

Nino Amodio is the Italian connection for many Brits wishing to find "hidden" Italy. Despite the popularity of Tuscany, it's still possible to pick up a reasonably priced property in the Lucca region in the north. Mr Amodio's properties start at pounds 34,000 for a renovated one-up, one-down stone cottage with stable set amid meadows and cherry trees. With an outside WC, the cottage is hardly luxurious.

But think of the "charming" trattoria (well known for boar gatherings) a 100-metre sprint from the front door. Or, for pounds 53,000, you can enjoy the views from a detached stone house with two bedrooms, large kitchen and separate barn (ripe for conversion), overlooking a large medieval fortress, floodlit at night.

Such is demand for property that Abbey National and Woolwich have set up branches in Italy providing bigger and quicker loans compared to the Italian lenders.

Mr Amodio's clients are usually professional people with cash, looking for their own piece of Italy. He takes clients through all the legal processes as well as recommending local "artisans" to carry out renovation work. Agents in Italy get commission from both vendor and purchaser. "You won't find For Sale signs dotted about," Mr Amodio says. "I spend countless weeks finding property, speaking to the locals in bars. You have to be Italian to do it, or the price is doubled."

Gill and Ralph Brown's Spanish home is in a small village 45 miles south of Alicante, surrounded by banana palms, mandarin and fig trees. Renovation work on the main house has taken 18 months and is almost complete. Contrary to popular belief, the Spanish builders they've employed have been "absolutely fabulous".

Gill has masterminded the project and, with the help of an architect friend, drew up plans to renovate the property to make a three-bedroom house and one-bedroom apartment in the attached barn.

They found the property through Alfredo, highly recommended by a Spanish friend. A retired builder friend checked over the building, then Alfredo sought the title deeds and made the appropriate legal arrangements. "He did so much running around for us, and charged very little," says Ralph.

With so much information available, there's no excuse for falling foul of international property laws. You're far more likely to have problems with friends and relatives as they queue up for their cheap holidays in the sun.

World of Property 0181-542 9088; 'Buying a Home Abroad' (Survival Books, pounds 9.95) 01937 843523; Nino Amodio 01908 265008; Federation of Overseas Property Developers, Agents & Consultants 0181-941 4499.

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