Buying overseas: A different sort of high life

Up in the hills, far from the brash Eurotrash villas, there lies another side to Majorca. Laura Latham discovers simple farmhouses and quiet olive groves
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The Independent Online

If you think Majorca is all about noisy beach resorts and flash yachts filled with celebrities – well, you're not entirely wrong, but you'd be doing the "other half" of the island a great disservice. It's true to say that this Spanish island does have its fair share of wealthy residents (Michael Douglas, Boris Becker, Claudia Schiffer and so on), and that their presence has created high demand and higher prices, but that isn't the whole story.

Large swathes of Majorca are still characterised by quiet coves and pretty countryside. Most of the cash-flashing goes on in the south-west resorts of Puerto Andratx and Santa Ponsa. In these wealthy enclaves, yachts jostle for space in the turquoise waters, and a one-bedroom apartment will set you back at least £200,000, with standard villas costing nearer to £500,000.

Development in the south-west has been so rife that there is now an investigation into whether corruption concerning building licences, previously seen on the Spanish mainland, has also been happening here. Despite this, most beach resorts are still seeing increasing levels of demand for new builds. So where can you get more space and character, not to mention peace of mind, for your money?

Anyone wanting to escape the bucket-and-spade set should head for the hills – specifically, the Tramuntana Mountains and pretty Soller Valley. Here, you can find quiet wooded hillsides, olive and citrus groves and historic towns, without the overcrowding found elsewhere on the island. "The north-west is surrounded by mountains, so building is restricted," says Thomas Crawford of the local agency Immobilaria Mas. "Plus, there are laws against building in certain areas, such as olive groves, and this has prevented a lot of development."

The lack of supply in certain places means the Soller Valley does have its hot spots. The pretty village of Deia, for example, has attracted a luxury hotel as well as a raft of wealthy expats prepared to pay prices starting from £450,000 for a small stone house. Similar properties 20 minutes away, however, can cost around half that. "Deia is fashionable," explains Crawford, "and people will pay just for the kudos of owning there."

In contrast, Crawford has country villas starting at around £200,000, historic townhouses in attractive Soller town from around £300,000, and small, rural casitas (small stone houses) with several acres of land for under £150,000.

Casitas or olivars (as they are known when in olive groves), are worth checking out for those who just want a place to get away to. These tiny one- or two-room properties used to be a base for farmers to stay while harvesting their crops.

Crawford says prices are often low because these buildings don't have road access and can't be externally enlarged or altered in any way, though the interiors can be updated, and utilities such as water, septic tanks and solar panels can be installed.

"Some agents tell buyers that you can extend the casitas, but it's not true," says Crawford. "The local authority will send people out in helicopters looking for anyone breaking the rules and force them to demolish anything illegal."

He says that most olivar buyers like being tucked away on their own land and use them throughout the summer. "The owners often live in cities and want to be isolated when they're here, and artists also buy them as somewhere to escape and work. People think having so much land is hard to manage, but because the climate is so dry, the landscape is pretty low-maintenance."

Rural villas with more facilities and easier access can also be found in the surrounding valleys. For around £350,000 to £500,000 you can get pretty three- or four-bedroom properties with a garden, pool and mountain or distant sea views – or you can get something large in need of restoration.

If you want a little more excitement, try Soller town. Just 10 minutes from the coast, there are direct trains to Palma and a local population that keeps the place lively and distinctly Majorcan.

The town offers a mix of character properties and newer apartments. Prices range from £200,000 for two bedrooms to around £400,000 for something pretty with four or more bedrooms in good condition, and from £110,000 for new one-bedroom properties. However, the town won't get overcrowded, because the local authority has imposed a ban on planning permission for at least the next few years.

The news has already made buyers move more swiftly. Crawford has seen prospective purchasers lose a property during the time it took them to buy a cup of coffee, but thinks it's good to protect the local area and its character. "People buying here want to be near the coast but also integrate with the locals and enjoy a slower, more peaceful way of life."

Buyers' guide

* For rural properties, such as olivars, the Spanish government will contribute up to 50 per cent of the cost of upgrading facilities and adding solar panels and septic tanks.

* In coastal areas where development has been rampant, including trendy Puerto Andratx and Calvia, the local authorities are under investigation for allegedly granting illegal building licences.

* Property in Majorca is probably legal if it was built more than seven years ago. If it is younger than that, check the deeds thoroughly and make sure the planning permissions are all complete and legal before purchasing.

* A raft of proposals for golf courses, roads and urbanisations caused anti-development demonstrations on Majorca last spring. Plans are now being reviewed, but check that the site of your new home isn't scheduled for future development.