Why everybody wants their place in the sun

A record number of British people are pursuing their dream of moving to a foreign country. But, as Jonathan Brown and Geneviÿve Roberts report, it's a life that's not without its drawbacks
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The Independent Online

Once the preserve of the super rich or the eccentric bohemian, living abroad, or at least the dream of it, has become something of a national obsession. For many Britons though, the fantasy of sipping wine and nibbling olives on a veranda at the end of sunny day remains just that, as the realities of isolation from family and friends, bills, schools and learning a foreign language dawn.

Once the preserve of the super rich or the eccentric bohemian, living abroad, or at least the dream of it, has become something of a national obsession. For many Britons though, the fantasy of sipping wine and nibbling olives on a veranda at the end of sunny day remains just that, as the realities of isolation from family and friends, bills, schools and learning a foreign language dawn.

Research has shown, however, that four in 10 cling to the dream, going on to "actively search" for an overseas property. This has created a massive new market of buyers, many of whom are expected to visit an exhibition from the makers of A Place in the Sun opening in London this week

The Channel 4 series, which commands 3.5 million viewers, has spawned not only a magazine, but a rash of copycat television shows and publications pandering to those intent on renovating a rundown lighthouse in the Algarve or reinvigorating a mushroom farm in the Ardeche.

Government figures show that the number of Britons buying abroad rose 14 per cent last year - to 630,000 families. Those involved in the industry believe the figure is much higher. Darren Styles, publishing editor of A Place in the Sun magazine claims it is nearer two million, equivalent to 4 per cent of the United Kingdom's population. Research commissioned by the magazine puts the number of people seriously looking at 20 million. The reason for the clamour is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the weather. Six out of ten cite the sun as their primary motivation. Half see their purchase as a holiday retreat while others regard it as an investment. But, according to Mr Styles, nearly one in three potential buyers blames Britain's "decline" - issues such as high tax and growing numbers of asylum-seekers - as the main reason for their flight. "This is the highly profitable tract of Middle England so beloved of our Chancellor that is getting set to run," he warned.

Spain remains the most sought after overseas destination. Foreigners, mainly British, outnumber the Spanish in nine out of 15 coastal areas there. France - with its estimated 350,000 British-owned homes - is expected to overtake the Canary Islands in the next few years as second favourite. Despite the prospect of EU membership, Turkey is due to lose its number four position. The former Soviet bloc countries Croatia and Bulgaria are expected to join the top ten destinations.

The United States, particularly Florida, is widely predicted to remain the most popular long-haul destination, with the English-speaking nations Australia and New Zealand rapidly catching up.

The soaring number of Britons buying abroad is largely the result of the red-hot housing market of recent years. Figures from Barclays suggest that £57bn was released from the value of British homes in 2003.

According to Richard Donnell of the estate agents FPD Savills, the passage has been smoothed by the ranks of experts on hand. There are now readily available mortgages and currency fluctuation guarantees.

Crucially, recent years have seen the arrival of the budget airlines servicing previously isolated parts of south-west France, Spain and Portugal. The return of stability to the Balkans and the opening up of Eastern Europe has bought vast new swaths of property into the marketplace.

Another factor is that the UK boom has seen second homes in the UK priced out of the reach of many.

"Most people buying a second home abroad have one eye on it being a retirement home. In the meantime they can use it as a holiday home and an investment property. But the secret of a good experience is having someone out there who you know and trust who is just a phone call away, who can sort out anything that goes wrong," said Mr Donnell.

But dreams cannot last for ever, as the experience of the once booming timeshare market shows. Sandy Gray, chairman of the Timeshare Consumers Association, says he deals with 10,000 inquiries each year, the majority of them from disgruntled buyers. He believes there are 400,000 families in the UK that own timeshares, half of whom are dissatisfied with what they have bought and who have found themselves saddled with a share in a holiday home which has become massively diminished in value.

"The high point for the industry came in 1997-08 when the ban on the taking of deposits and the introduction of cooling-off periods came into force. People have now become deeply resistant to the idea. Mention timeshares and you can empty a room in five seconds flat," he said. Timeshare owners who pay an average £8,000 for a week's share, find this reduced to just £2,000 as soon as they have bought it. The reason is the massive marketing costs which the buyer cannot recover in the secondary market place where a week in a studio apartment in southern Spain can be worth "peanuts", said Mr Gray. Scandals have helped undermine confidence, and there are the additional management and swap costs, which - buyers of second homes beware - are paid by time sharers bored by going to the same destination on holiday each year. Dreams, it seems, can turn sour in the sunshine.

Channel 4 first broadcast A Place in the Sun in September 2000. Within three years, 15 similar property hunt programmes were planned or already in production on terrestrial television alone. Not only have they made stars out of their presenters, such as Amanda Lamb, but also of the ordinary couples who go in search of their dream.

Hundreds of hours of screen time have been devoted to the phenomenon - an average of two hours and 45 minutes a week. And it is not just restricted to TV, the circulation of publications which deal in homes abroad has also soared. The circulation of French Property News more than doubled in three years from 24,000 to 50,000 copies a month.

The Curran family, Costa del Sol, Spain

Gaynor Loughnane and Chris Curran bought an apartment in Mijas, on the Costa del Sol in Spain. They are flying out to furnish the property, with their two daughters, Naomi, 14 and Katrina, four, this week.

"We always wanted a place in Spain," Ms Loughnane said. "We have been there a dozen times or so but chose to buy in the Costa del Sol because it seems to be the best place for sunshine all year round and the best place to invest. It has two swimming pools so the children are excited."

The family will initially rent the apartment out and use it as a holiday home. They are keeping their house in Sale, Cheshire, where Ms Loughnane, 42, works as a business manager for T-Mobile, and Mr Curran, 45 works as a process manager for British Telecom.

"We wanted somewhere that we could keep sun-loungers without the need to rely on other people's property," Ms Loughnane said. "Mortgages and interest rates are cheaper in Spain. It's an investment."

In the longer term though, the family are hoping to move to Spain for good. "It would be ideal to move out permanently. There is a BT office nearby, and Chris has good Spanish, so he would be able to transfer.

"Naomi has only four more years at school so we will wait until she is at university to consider a permanent move. We would keep an apartment here so she had somewhere to call home, but Katrina would complete her secondary education out in Spain."

The family are excited about their investment. "Arranging a mortgage was easy. We have got a flexible mortgage, to pay off big lumps with bonuses from work.

"Now is the perfect time for us to invest. We have only £20,000 left to pay on our home in Sale and it is worth more than £300,000.

"The apartment is next to Mijas golf course and more are being built. I imagine most of the people buying property will be English."

The Rutland family, Poitou-Charentes, France

Stuart and Antonia Rutland abandoned their life in Dorset 18 months ago and moved to Poitou-Charentes in west France.

Their daughters, Finnella, seven, and Clarisse, three, have both started school in France. "Finnella is fluent for her age in French; she has soaked up the language so quickly," Mrs Rutland said. "There are no other English people in the village. Clarisse has started school - children start just before they turn three.

"People should not underestimate the language difficulties for adults. It doesn't matter how much bravado you have, the day-to-day becomes really tough.

"But we have great neighbours. We have been made to feel so welcome."

The family are renovating their 17th-century farmhouse, which they say is "a full-time job". Mrs Rutland's parents also moved to France in November, living just one kilometre away.

"People cannot understand why we chucked in our life, with company car and £21,000 salary for a life out here," she said. "The only reason we could do this is because of the increase in property prices. But it is more expensive than I had envisaged. I would warn people thinking of moving out to calculate an extra half again on top of what they think it will cost. Everyone has a dream, but people should think seriously before making it their reality. We did not rush into it, but I would certainly think more about the financial aspect.

"Stuart is registering to become an artisan, so he can work as an engineer. He has to be insured and cover various courses, then he is obliged to work for two years.

"It seems a stupid thing to have done, leaving friends and relatives. But so much in Britain doesn't seem English any more. Our council tax in one month is what the French pay for a year, and there is so much provision for non-British people, we could not see how we could get on."

The Kenny family, Kissimmee, Florida

Moving from Ireland to Florida made Garrett Kenny, 43, a multimillionaire through property development.

"Over the past two years property in Florida has appreciated more than 20 per cent a year," he said. "This year alone, the population of Florida is expected to increase by 350,000. So almost 1,000 people move to Florida every day. Florida is cheaper tax-wise and professionally I have done very well out here. People cannot build houses fast enough."

Mr Kenny moved from Dublin in 1996 and bought a four-bedroom house with swimming pool for $164,000. The house is now worth almost $340,000.

His property business has become so successful that he moved into an $800,000 house this January with his girlfriend.

He has no regrets about moving to a hotter climate: "Waking up every morning knowing the sun is shining is a good incentive to get up," he said. "I still visit Ireland and England because I have businesses based there. The only thing that people could miss over here is a decent cup of tea."

Mr Kenny thinks that the market is changing, as more Americans are joining the British in buying property in the sunshine state. "When I started working out here I was selling houses mainly to English and Irish people," he said. "Only about 20 per cent of the market was American. The weak dollar is continuing to drive the European market.

"Now, 40 per cent of my market is American - people who want to move from Boston or Chicago - because it is cheaper here. A lot of Americans come to live here between November and March to avoid the cold weather. But I would advise people buying property not to just jump in, but really find the right location for them."