Properties in Spain: in search of new horizons

Ever wanted to remortgage your house and head off to the sunshine? A year after he moved to Andalucia, Marcus Field reflects on how dreams can come true - well, almost
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The Independent Online

It's harvest time in Andalucia. I've already gorged myself on several bunches of plump, juicy grapes today, and this evening I plan to feast on roasted peppers and tomatoes from the garden, with local goat's cheese and a fig chutney made with our own fruit. We'll eat outside in a courtyard lined with ancient marble tiles and overhung with a tangled passionflower. Right now, framed by the window, I can see a clear blue sky craggy rocks, a carob tree and a bunch of vine leaves. The hiss of cicadas and birdsong fills the room.

A year ago, I was grinding away at a full-time office job in London; now, this little piece of heaven has become my home. I am still under 40, have no job, and my only worry these days is whether I will get to the shops before siesta hour. How did it happen?

According to a recent survey, more than 200,000 Britons now live in Spain, but I never expected to be among them. That is until one day last August, when a colleague showed me an internet advert for a pretty house a 25-minute drive inland from the coast in the south-eastern province of Almeria. I had never heard of the area, but the details sounded good: a three-bedroom, renovated stone house with cultivated terraces in Los Molinos del Rio Aguas, a village populated by an international community of smallholders and other creative types.

The village is off the national grid, but the advert assured me that the solar-power system would provide enough energy, and that, although there was no mains water supply, a solar-powered pump would give us water from the river for washing and other domestic needs. This, of course, would be useless in most of the arid areas of the south, where rivers only run in winter, but the Rio Aguas is uniquely blessed in the province with a year-round flow. As if all this wasn't enough, the village has the rare distinction of retaining its Moorish irrigation system.

At £92,000, the place sounded too good to be true, so I flew out with my boyfriend to have a look.

Some adjustment of northern-European expectations is necessary before you can appreciate a place like this. Unlike the new developments on the coast, the traditional country houses (known as fincas) are filled with, ahem, eccentricities: doorways are head-shatteringly low; "bedroom" is a word used loosely to mean any space where you can fit a single bed, regardless of whether it leads off another room or has windows; kitchens and bathrooms are primitive, to say the least. But the charms of terracotta tiles, gnarled wooden doors and your own olive and almond trees soon win you over. One weekend, and we were hooked. We agreed the asking price with the British vendor and began the three-month process of purchasing paradise.

Despite having no experience of growing vegetables or fruit, I quickly decided that it would be a crime to own such a house and not use it for more than just holidays. I wanted to work the land, learn to use the irrigation system, and reap the rewards. I would have to give up my job and then adapt to my straitened circumstances (it helps that two bags of locally grown produce costs around £3 and decent wine is £2.50 a bottle).

Before I resigned, we decided the best way to fund our adventure would be to extend the mortgage on our house in London and keep it until we were sure we had made the right move. This settled, we completed our purchase in December and moved down here in March.

That, of course, is the simplified version. We engaged a solicitor and used a book to guide us through the bureaucracy and tax requirements. It's crucial to check that your vendor has a complete, up-to-date deeds for the house and land. Many old properties in Spain are divided up between families, and we have since met people who have outbuildings and even rooms in their houses that remain in other hands. If your purchase is successful, it will end with the signing of the deeds in the local notario's office - a touching ceremony after which it is customary to retire to a bar for drinks and tapas.

There is certainly plenty to recommend the area close to the market town of Sorbas, where I live. The landscape is arid but strikingly beautiful (many Westerns were filmed here, including A Fistful of Dollars) and there is a national park on the coast (the Cabo de Gata) where it is still possible to find unspoilt beaches. Sorbas is a historic white town perched on a rock plateau, where few people speak English and drinks are still served with complimentary tapas. The airport at Almeria, 40 minutes away, is served by easyJet and Ryanair. People often say that they want to live away from expats, but I enjoy mixing with the international community here and already have German, American and Dutch friends as well as Spanish.

House prices have risen here, but there is still time to find a bargain. A quick look at the listings of the Sorbas estate agent Cesar (inmobiliariacesar.com) reveals a large restored farmhouse for €189,000 (£125,000); a dinky village house with a terrace at €18,000 (£12,000); and a small ruin with beautiful views and land for €60,000 (£40,000). Other prime areas include the villages around the pretty towns of Uleila and Lucainena.

In summer, the flies are maddening, and I have yet to find a paint that will stick to our gypsum walls. But I have adapted to life without TV or broadband, and have discovered new forms of entertainment instead. Now, please excuse me, I'm off to pick pomegranates.

10-point plan for buying a house in Spain

1. Buy a good book to guide you through the process, such as Live and Work in Spain, by Guy Hobbs (Vacation Work, £12.95).

2. Find some suitable houses to view on estate agents' websites before you travel. For the Sorbas area, try www.inmobiliariacesar.com or www.spanishfarmhouses.com.

3. Once you have found a property that you like, ask whether the deeds (escritura) are available.

4. Ask about the water supply. Many supplies are from wells and may be shared or not included in the price.

5. Engage a local solicitor to act on your behalf.

6. Find out about the neighbours. An international mix can provide a welcoming experience.

7. Ask how the house is heated - winter nights are surprisingly cold.

8. If you fall in love with a ruin, get a local builder or architect to check it out and give you a quote for any restoration work before you buy.

9. Consult a good guide for restoring your house, such as Finca: Renovating an Old Farmhouse in Spain, by Alec and Erna Fry (Santana, £14.95).

10. If you want the internet or satellite TV, check that they are available.

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