How to become the proud owner of a slice of Europe

Advice on buying property abroad is at hand. By Geoffrey Pilgrem
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British agents offering "resort homes abroad" no longer force a smile when asked "How's business?" After six years of stagnation, the market is improving.

The upturn is spread around the traditional areas of interest, according to The Federation of Overseas Property Developers, Agents & Consultants. These being the Algarve, the Spanish costas and the Riviera; the Canaries and the islands of the Med; the French and Italian countrysides; and the ski slopes of the Pyrenees and the Alps. Interest in Florida is also increasing.

The recession stemmed the stream of free advice in the media about buying a home for pleasure in another country. Most of it was elementary, repetitive, and sadly necessary: don't buy a snip from a bloke you meet in a bar, even if he's the son of an archbishop and has become your lifelong buddy after the third drink.

More sophisticated advice urged careful thought about where and how you wanted to live. In which area of which country? On a coast or inland? How easy is access by road, rail, sea and air? Holiday or permanent use? An apartment? A villa, however defined? An ancient farmhouse maybe? A penthouse with the necessary built-in security? And don't forget to add the necessary percentage for local taxes and legal fees to your price limit.

Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, exposure to advice was difficult to avoid. Owning a home overseas for fun became a normal expectation for the successful and the lucky. Upwards of 300,000 British couples bought a piece of Europe during those two decades. They were all educated by the media to exercise reasonable caution. Those who got it wrong had either neglected their homework, or they hadn't used a solicitor. Or they'd simply picked the wrong place.

But during the past six years media coverage of the overseas property market has been thin. And the handbooks on the subject are out of print - and out of date. So most of today's generation of prospective buyers are starting from scratch. With rare exceptions, they are also first time buyers abroad. Short of an expensive Grand Tour, how can they educate themselves?

An international property show with a wide choice of varied locations provides the opportunity for an economical crash course. And there's one handy next weekend, if you are within reach of London's West End, at The Cumberland Hotel at Marble Arch.

"We have around 50 exhibitors," said show organiser Ian Dougall, "offering thousands of homes in hundreds of locations. They're all experts on their preferred areas and they're all looking forward to an even better year in 1997. We even have lawyers and international removals people on hand."

A selection of exhibitors have optimism in common. "There's increased interest in all our locations," said Helena Bailey of Knight Frank. "The Costa del Sol, The Riviera, Tuscany..."

Islay Currie, of Currie French Properties in Cambridge, reports that sales of handsome old rural houses throughout south-west France are again picking up. Michael Carpenter of Prime Property International of Maidenhead said: "Demand is beginning to exceed supply for luxury villas on the Algarve, although there's still a stock of middle-range property at competitive prices. Adrian Meed of European Villa Sales, Cambridge agrees, adding: "Developers with landbanks are dusting off their shelved masterplans and are again digging footings." On the Costa Blanca, three- or four-bedroom furnished villas with pools are selling steadily at around pounds 175,000 according to Peter Mustafa of Juan Porcellanes "But," he adds, "recession bargains are becoming scarce".

In the Orlando area of Florida, rental income motivates the British, says Graham Green of Ruislip-based International Property Group. A three- bedroom, two-bathroom house with a pool could be yours for around pounds 85,000.

At the property show you can pick brains, check locations, compare attractions and study specific properties. And it'll be safe to talk houses with anyone you may meet in the bar.

The international property show takes place at The Cumberland Hotel, Marble Arch, London W1 on Friday 11 October 12-6pm, and Saturday and Sunday 12 and 13 October 10.30am-5pm