This week I was sent a cutting from a UK newspaper (see text) which is a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of buying property in Spain. The article centres on an elderly British couple whose Spanish villa has just been demolished by court order because it was illegally built. This, once again, emphasizes how important it is to be careful when buying Spanish property – and how vital it is to know how to avoid demolition and fines when buying property in Spain.
The fact is that buying Spanish property can be hazardous. Indeed, unlike the UK, there are numerous illegal properties (both new and old) and legal properties that have significant liabilities. These lie ready to catch out unwary purchasers, whose lives can be turned into a nightmare. At worse, you could lose your property to a demolition order or find that you have to pay a very significant sum as your contribution to an infrastructure project. You may even lose part of your land.
So, when buying property in Spain, you need to be very careful
In reality, buying property in Spain can be safe. However, you need to exercise far greater care than you would in the UK, if you are to buy a property that is both fully legal and devoid of liabilities.
Well, there are a number of reasons:
1. There are a significant number of illegal houses in Spain. In fact, building illegally has traditionally occurred in Spain, particularly in the countryside. There, properties have been constructed as cheap ‘starter’ homes or as ‘summer’ homes (to be used, more or less, only during the summer months). Many of these properties, along with being built on non-building designated land, received no planning permission (obviously) and were constructed without proper building control (equally obviously!) and therefore usually lack damp proof courses, insulation and, often, any logical room distribution, let alone good foundations etc.
2. Traditionally, illegal buildings in Spain have not been demolished even when the construction of an illegal property is blatantly obvious to the local authorities. There are many reasons for this including an erratic attitude to enforcing the law in Spain to local vested interests and ‘straight’ corruption. Also, for the town halls, illegal properties can be likened to a very welcome ‘cash cow’ to be fined, as when money is needed by a local authority.
3. Because of the illegal building of properties, many ‘estates’ have grown up in the countryside over time and lack some of the primary services (mains electricity, mains water, land line telephone, mains sewage etc). These areas are prime candidates for infrastructure projects – with the cost of the works (often very substantial) to be borne by the surrounding householders as the ‘estates’ are finally formalised/adopted by the relevant local authority.
4. Building control in the strict UK sense was distinctly lacking during the Spanish property boom. Building control officials were overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the construction going on and were unable to properly check buildings as they were erected. So, even in urban areas there are properties about which you should be wary – that may have been built too close to a road (or the beach) or that have common parts (in the case of flats) that breach building regulations or that are villas which have been extended beyond their allowable habitable area. Often such problems have yet to be revealed to the authorities and are therefore the property equivalent to ‘ticking time bombs’…
5. The standard of legal practice in Spain with regard to conveyancing is dismal and riven with corruption. Lawyers often ‘work’ for the estate agents who provide them with their clients rather than for the clients themselves. So, lawyers are sometimes economical with the truth when it comes to advising a buyer about the legal flaws or liabilities inherent in a property – in case a buyer decides not to purchase. This leaves the agent without his (usually substantial) sales commission and a reluctance to recommend the lawyer concerned – to other clients. Equally, standard legal practice is sometimes not followed and advice from a lawyer is very rarely placed in writing. In short, a Spanish lawyer’s perception of his ‘duty of care’ to his client is often extremely low.
6. Foreigners coming to Spain can be incredibly stupid when buying property. Astonishing as it may seem, many people do not even use a lawyer to do their conveyancing when buying Spanish property. Or they use a lawyer who does not speak their language fluently or one recommended by their estate agent. Or they allow their lawyer to also act for the seller or perhaps they agree to buy a property on the basis that the conveyancing will be done for ‘free’ by the developer or an interested party. Any of these crass actions or omissions will lay you open to abuse – and the possible loss of your property or a significant amount of money!
How to avoid demolition and fines when buying property in Spain
1. Be incredulous when dealing with agents in Spain. Start on the premise (which is very extreme!) that the property that you are looking at has a problem. Then force your agent and then your lawyer to prove beyond doubt that your intended property is fully legal and has no liabilities. In other words, be doubting (right from the start) rather than optimistic and driven by wishful thinking.
2. Appoint an excellent lawyer before you even start to look at property – and use a lawyer who is not connected in any way with your agent or seller (so change lawyers, if this turns out to be the case subsequently!). Make sure that your lawyer is fully qualified, registered with the Colegio de Abogados (Spanish Law Society) and is properly insured (and check that the public liability amount is substantial – and more than enough to cover the price of your intended property). It may seem impolite to ask for proof of these things but it is better to do this than find you have (like the people in the article!) used a bogus lawyer.
3. Manage your lawyer! Insist that all advice provided by your lawyer is placed in writing and make sure that he answers (in writing) these vital questions – see 10 essential questions for your Spanish conveyancing lawyer.
4. Do your research and know the difference between properties designated as ‘urbano and fully urbanized’, ‘urbano and not fully urbanized’ and ‘rustic’ properties. This is not ‘rocket science’ and could save you a great deal of trouble, wasted time and lost money. Know what you are looking at and know the warning signs (easy to see and easy to learn) that will indicate whether your intended property may have liabilities or possibly be illegally built.
The ultimate guide to buying property in Spain:
‘How to Buy Spanish Property and Move to Spain – Safely!
5. Wherever possible compromise upon what you want and buy a property that is urbano and fully urbanized.
6. Always use a first class, fully qualified building surveyor – who is insured and properly registered to work in Spain. These do exist and are usually expatriate professionals living in Spain (in Spain there is no profession of building surveying). Get a full report on your intended property and do not try to save money by avoiding the obtaining of a report.
7. Always check the exact description of your property (existing bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchen(s), sitting rooms, conservatories, garages, out buildings, pool etc. etc.) with your lawyer before signing any contract. This is vital as it is essential that the details match that of those on the Land Registry – to ensure that no un-licensed and potentially illegal building has been done.
8. Never be hurried, never try to rush your lawyer and never sign anything without your lawyer’s written approval. Remember it is always better to lose a brilliant property than buy one that is illegal or that could be demolished or that may have significant financial liabilities…
If you follow the guidelines above then you will avoid demolition and fines when buying property in Spain and be able to enjoy a superb property – and a wonderful way of life over here. Be careless or too credulous and your Spanish dream, sadly, could turn into the nightmare of the couple in the article! Truly that is not necessary…