The Costa life

Penny Jackson on the appeal of homeowning in Spain

Six years ago, friends of Maureen Hiron thought she was looking jaded, so they thrust the keys of their Spanish flat into her hands with the instructions: "Go to Malaga airport, turn right and you can't miss it." Half-an-hour down the then-notorious coast road of the Costa del Sol Maureen and Alan Hiron turned into the development at Calahonda, between Fuengirola and Marbella. A week later, they owned a flat of their own.

After three years of holiday visits, the Hirons (Alan is The Independent's bridge correspondent) found themselves spending more and more time in Spain. "We decided we could do everything by fax and post, in a climate that is 10 degrees warmer," says Alan.

A one-bedroom flat for a working couple was soon outgrown, and the Hirons needed more space to accommodate their books and Maureen's work as a games inventor. "We now have a three-bedroom, two-office apartment. After a quiet word in the right ear we were able to knock down an internal wall," says Alan.

"You have to get to know the Spanish red tape. For anyone setting up a business here, the appropriate licences are baffling. One man, desperate for the final authorisation, was told by the police to open anyway: 'We will close you down and the judge will tell you what to do.' He did just that and was open within the week. But the Spanish are getting the infrastructure right now," Alan adds. "When we first arrived it took six months to get a telephone, now it takes 48 hours. The bus service is good; the roads have improved."

Even Marbella, whose image was in decline 10 years ago, has been revamped. Alan is impressed with the changes. "The mayor is a forceful personality and has left his mark. The gardens are beautiful. Street crime has been drastically reduced - at ratepayers' expense. But you can't have everything."

As a man who admits to being so absorbed in a bridge hand while in Rome that he failed to notice the Colosseum, Alan is a reluctant tourist. "We have seen very little of Spain and we tend to leave during peak holiday months. I can't say we lead a Spanish life, although we have many Spanish friends."

As for expatriates, there seem to be fewer of the early retired drinking themselves into oblivion, Alan finds. "They spend most of their time playing golf." He suggests that before buying, people should get to know the area. "We know one lady who never even unpacked. She bought before she arrived and hated it on sight."

The Hirons have not seen much of a change in prices since they bought. A three-bedroom flat in their development, with a 25-metre pool in landscaped gardens, would cost about pounds 30,000; a two-bedroom flat pounds 25,000. Russians with suitcases of cash may be pushing up prices of villas, but elsewhere they are stable. "Make sure you get a lawyer who is familiar with Spanish and English law, and that you are handed the title deeds," Alan warns. "Property is chargeable for certain things, not the individual. You don't want end up acquiring debts. In Spanish law a vendor and purchaser can use the same solicitor, which speeds things up. We bought within a week."

Three of the best in Spain

This traditionally designed, seven-year-old, single-storey house sits in 1.6 acres of its own terraces and garden in Alpujarras in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, 16 miles from the coast and 38 miles from the ancient Moorish capital, Granada. The house has two double bedrooms and one single, all en suite, is being sold part-furnished, and comes with its own reservoir and spring. Outside are a bougainvillaea-fringed pool and a workshop. pounds 136,000, through Prestige Properties International (01935 825772)

A three-bedroom villa at Altea on the Costa Blanca, traditionally built, has a 180-degree view of the Mediterranean and the Luis Campomanes Marina. Built on a hillside in Moorish style, with the Sierra de Bernia as a backdrop, it comes with pool and private gardens. Depending on customised extras - such as marble floors - it costs from pounds 175,000, through Ultra Villas (01242 221500). The same company also has detached villas just 100 yards from the golf club house near Alicante, at pounds 133,000, and three-bedroom semis finished in rustic, Moorish style with hand-made tiles and beams, from pounds 79,000.

This detached, three-bedroom, two-bathroom, single-storey villa is one of seven being built on the Costa del Sol. The house has views to a golf course, and a secluded, planted garden, private pool, solarium and covered dining terrace. There is off-road parking in the drive. Prices start at pounds 110,000 through the Fielding Partnership (0181-332 9939).

Buying abroad?

From the Costa Blanca to the Canaries, Spain is well represented at the International Property Show, taking place at the Cumberland Hotel, Marble Arch, London W1. You may, however, prefer to flirt with the idea of buying next door in Gibraltar - or even find a home as far afield as Florida or the Caribbean. The strength of sterling - which is worth on average one-fifth more now than a year ago - means that prospective buyers can look with confidence at overseas properties. The show takes place from 10.30am to 5pm today and tomorrow. Entrance is free.

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