The best places to buy property in Spain

Sunday Times, 8 January 2006

In the first of our two-part guide to the most popular housebuying areas (on the mainland), Mark Stucklin shows how to find the right region for you. Next week, part 2 of the guide covers the most popular islands for property buyers.

Want to avoid your fellow countrymen – and the Robin Hood pubs that spring up around them? Go for somewhere with a low Brit-alert score, such as the Costa Verde. Looking for a property bargain? Choose a region that scores highly in terms of value for money: property on the Costa Blanca rates better than on the highly developed and expensive Costa del Sol.

Costa Brava (north Catalonia)

Home and inspiration to the surrealist artist Salvador Dali, the “wild coast” is dramatic around places such as Cadaques, at the tail end of the Pyrenees, where pine-covered hills run down to the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean. There are also spots such as the picturesque medieval village of Pals, with its miles of wide-open beach, where you can find your own private stretch of sand in mid-August.

A little inland, the Emporda region is anything but wild: this is some of Spain’s most serenely beautiful countryside, leading to comparisons with Tuscany. It has traditionally been one of the country’s richest regions, hence the well-tended farms, affluent villages and imposing country mansions, or masias.

The location is difficult to beat. Just across the border from France, you can enjoy Gallic delights without having to live among the French. Hill-walking, mountain-biking and skiing are an hour’s drive away in the Pyrenees, while Barcelona and Gerona are close enough for culture vultures and shopaholics. You can fly into either city’s airport, or that of Perpignan in France. Soon a TGV-style fast train will also link London and Paris with Gerona and Barcelona.

Prices have risen 16% over the past 12 months, driven by bullish locals enjoying another year of good economic growth. British buyers are increasingly those with serious budgets, as Willem Boerhof, of Your House in Spain, explains. “New luxury villas in Begur costing  1.5m (£1m) are getting much more attention from buyers than the cheaper stuff. British buyers with lower budgets are drifting away as they find they can’t afford the area.

Those who can afford it are prepared to pay for something special.” Good-quality coastal apartments start at  300,000 (£200,000); villas, at £400,000. Masias in the interior start at about £550,000.

Costa Dorada (south Catalonia)

South of Tarragona, the “golden” coast is still relatively untouched, with great beaches and pretty seaside towns such as L’Ametlla de Mar. At the costa’s foot is the Ebro River delta – the biggest Mediterranean delta after the Nile – a magnificent nature reserve and a paradise for twitchers. Temperatures are about 5C warmer than on the Costa Brava, so the winter is short and mild. Inland, the Priorat, Conca de Barbera and Pendes areas are heaven for wine-lovers and foodies, and the Ebro Valley is perfect for ramblers.

“Overlooked” is the best term to describe south Catalonia, says Rita Fryer, of The Property Finders. Though property prices here have risen by only 10% during the past year, below the national average of 13.4%, Fryer thinks now is the time to invest. “When you look into what you can get for your money and what the region has to offer, you see it’s tremendous value,” she says.

Coastal apartments start at £100,000 and good-quality detached villas within walking distance of the beach are priced from £270,000. Inland, village properties start at £100,000, though you might find a 250sq m olive press to refurbish for £35,000. Rustic properties for refurbishment, with a few hectares of olive groves, start at about £120,000.

Costa Blanca (Valencia region)

This has long been a favourite destination for British buyers. The weather is warm all year, but the summer heat is more bearable than further south. Plentiful cheap flights from all over the UK are also why more than 30,000 Brits live in Alicante province: it has the highest concentration of Brits in all of Spain.

In reality, the Costa Blanca is made up of two very different coasts. South of Alicante, including places such as Torrevieja (or “Torry” as the resident Brits call it), there are huge swathes of cheap housing built to questionable standards. It may look terrible, but it certainly appeals to thousands of Brits looking for cheap beer and fags in the sunshine. Inland, around towns like Orihuela, it’s a similar story. Flats start at £40,000 and detached properties at £80,000.

North of Alicante, especially above Benidorm, you enter a different world. It’s the posh Costa Blanca, where quality apartments start at £130,000 and villas at £270,000. Buyers are affluent Spaniards and northern Europeans.

In keeping with other southern coasts, the market is down from the highs of 2003. “There are fewer buyers this year, and they are driving a harder bargain,” says David Mear, of estate agents VillaMia. “But the quality appeal of this area means we have a good long-term future.”

Costa Calida (Murcia)

Murcia is Europe’s market garden, with much of the region under plastic sheeting to ensure uninterrupted winter supplies of fruit and veg to northern European supermarkets. But with EU subsidies set to fall, Murcia is betting heavily on selling golf developments to British property buyers for future wealth and employment.

The region has come relatively late to the development game, so there is still a fair amount of virgin coastline and deserted beaches, with the obvious exception of the La Manga strip.

Inland, the landscape is expansive and wild, similar in places to the South African bushveld. Small British “Voortrekker” communities are forming in and around attractive market towns such as Lorca, Caravaca and Mula, and refurbished town houses in their old quarters can be bought for less than £70,000. The region still has an authentic Spanish feel to it, and scarcely a word of English is spoken by locals.

“After a few good years, the coastal property market is now flat,” explains Murcia-based Andrew Lupton, of Stacks Relocation Spain. “Savvy buyers have gone inland, looking for year-round communities, traditional values, good quality of life, a cheap cost of living and lower property prices.”

After four years of 20%-30% property price inflation, prices have risen by 12.8% over the past 12 months, below the national average. Small coastal flats start at £60,000; villas just a stroll from the beach cost from £190,000. A reasonably sized rural property with land can be yours for £114,000.

Costa Almeria (eastern Andalusia)

Almeria is hilly and barren, with lots of sunshine and not much rain. Sunshine and low costs mean that lots of Brits have relocated here, especially around towns such as Albox, many living on shoestring budgets. In the past 12 months, property prices have risen by 16.2%, a little above the national average, and probably due in large part to British buyers.

“The best of Almeria includes towns such as Huercal-Overa, an inland town with an attractive old historic centre,” says Lupton, who also covers Almeria. “On the coast there is Mojacar and Carboneras, just on the edge of the Cabo de Gata national park. These towns are alive all year round, which is important if you are relocating.”

Apartments on the coast in Carboneras start at £70,000. There’s a lack of detached properties, so those that are available are expensive: they are priced from about £170,000. Go 10 minutes inland, and detached properties can be found for £125,000; 45 minutes inland, and rural properties needing refurbishing cost about £55,000.

Costa del Sol (central Andalusia)

Marbella was put on the map in the 1950s and 1960s by Euro-aristos such as Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe, founder of the stylish Marbella Club. In the 1970s it became known as the Costa del Crime, as East End criminals moved there to evade the long arm of the law. Nowadays, the Costa del Sol is the most popular holiday home and relocation destination for affluent middle-aged people from all over northern Europe, as well as mega-rich Arabs and Russians. The British are the biggest group of property buyers after the Spanish (who include film star Antonio Banderas).

There’s no single reason behind the Costa del Sol’s status as the No 1 destination for British buyers. Of course, there’s a clue in the name, and the best weather in mainland Europe plays a big part in making the “sunny” coast the first choice for so many Brits. Then there’s also the best golf in Spain (40 courses in Malaga province alone), good medical services, leisure facilities, tourist attractions, infrastructure and a wide choice of properties.

Financial services and technology businesses have been taking off around Marbella and Puerto Banus, as young professionals and entrepreneurs head south for a better quality of life, and this is creating plenty of job opportunities.

As the coast has filled to bursting point, with prices to match, British buyers have started moving to the beautiful inland around Antequera, Iznajar and Gaucin, looking for country cottages (cortijos). So long as one doesn’t stray too far from the coast and keeps to low altitudes, the winter climate is still good.

Chris McCarthy, of Viva Estates, believes the market is between 40% and 60% down on 2003, but points out this is just a return to 2001’s respectable levels. Rhona Hutchinson, of Stacks Andalusia, says the coastal market is down but things are better inland. In the 12 months to the end of September, prices stagnated in Malaga province, which recorded the worst performance in Spain over that period.

Apartments on the coast start at about £140,000, though in the current over-supplied climate it may be possible to pick up bargains from distressed investors. Coastal villas start at £480,000 and inland rural properties needing refurbishment start at £140,000.

Costa de la Luz (western Andalusia)

The Huelva and Cadiz provinces of western Andalusia are now firmly established as destinations for British buyers.

The coast faces out to the Atlantic, a serious ocean that makes the Med look like a pond in comparison. There’s an enormous horizon, beautiful light, big breakers and strong winds. It’s not really the place for lazing on the beach. It is paradise, though, for those who like wetsuits, with some of the best wind- and kitesurfing in Europe. Surfers established a hip expat community around Tarifa, now one of the trendiest places in Spain, with high prices to match.

Inland, there is beautiful, verdant countryside, with hills and lakes that will appeal to those who aren’t interested in lying on a beach. And there is Seville, a city that Barbara Wood, of The Property Finders, tips as one of Europe’s hottest cities. “Seville is becoming so cool. It’s like Barcelona 10 years ago.” She sees Seville as offering some of the best investment potential in Spain.

Over the past 12 months, average prices in Cadiz province have risen by 17.6%, well above the national average and second only to Granada province in Andalusia. Many of Spain’s big land-owners have their estates here, so it can be difficult to find small rural holdings.

A refurbished two-bed flat in the old town of Tarifa will set you back £200,000. A similar property in Seville’s old town will cost about £240,000.

Costa Verde (Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria)

The northwest coast, taking in Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria, is often referred to as “Green Spain”, which can only mean one thing: rain. Many of the inclement weather fronts coming off the Atlantic ocean visit the country’s top left corner en route to the Bay of Biscay. Such weather might not impress sun-worshippers, but for many Brits it means better winters than in Devon or Cornwall, and summers that are broadly similar. Quite bearable, in other words.

A bit of rain in Spain has its advantages. The water shortages menacing the south are not a problem here, and there’s no mass tourism and overdevelopment. The coastline is wild and beautiful, and the seafood is superb. With its beaches and the breathtaking Picos de Europa mountains, the area is a paradise for outdoor types looking for a healthy lifestyle for half of what it would cost in the UK.

Clive Robbins, of property consultants Blakemore Walker, sees an increasing variety of Brits looking here, from first-time buyers who want to get on the property ladder but can’t afford homes in the UK, to young families relocating, to middle-aged holiday home buyers. Attention is shifting from Galicia towards Asturias and Cantabria, partly in response to property prices and infrastructure projects. “The motorway now runs all the way along the top of the coast from France to the Galician border,” explains Robbins. “You can get in and out of this area by car, ferry or plane, more quickly and cheaply than ever before.” An apartment in a popular coastal location such as Villaviciosa in Asturias might cost £95,000; traditional stone country houses in need of some refurbishment, cost from £55,000.

Comparative Table for property buyers

Costa Verde 
WEATHER 3
ACCESSIBILITY 5
FOOD 10
SPORTS 7
CULTURE 6
SCENIC BEAUTY 8
BRIT ALERT 2
QUALITY OF HOUSING 7
VALUE FOR MONEY 9
POTENTIAL GROWTH 8
Costa de la Luz
WEATHER 7
ACCESSIBILITY 5
FOOD 8
SPORTS 8
CULTURE 7
SCENIC BEAUTY 8
BRIT ALERT 6
QUALITY OF HOUSING 6
VALUE FOR MONEY 6
POTENTIAL GROWTH 7
Costa del Sol
WEATHER 9
ACCESSIBILITY 9
FOOD 8
SPORTS 9
CULTURE 7
SCENIC BEAUTY 6
BRIT ALERT 10
QUALITY OF HOUSING 7
VALUE FOR MONEY 4
POTENTIAL GROWTH 7
Costa Almeria
WEATHER 8
ACCESSIBILITY 5
FOOD 8
SPORTS 8
CULTURE 5
SCENIC BEAUTY 6
BRIT ALERT 7
QUALITY OF HOUSING 6
VALUE FOR MONEY 8
POTENTIAL GROWTH 6
Costa Calida
WEATHER 8
ACCESSIBILITY 6
FOOD 5
SPORTS 7
CULTURE 5
SCENIC BEAUTY 7
BRIT ALERT 7
QUALITY OF HOUSING 6
VALUE FOR MONEY 8
POTENTIAL GROWTH 7>
Costa Blanca
WEATHER 8
ACCESSIBILITY 8
FOOD 7
SPORTS 7
CULTURE 7
SCENIC BEAUTY 7
BRIT ALERT 9
QUALITY OF HOUSING 7
VALUE FOR MONEY 7
POTENTIAL GROWTH 6
Costa Brava
WEATHER 6
ACCESSIBILITY 10
FOOD 9
SPORTS 7
CULTURE 9
SCENIC BEAUTY 9
BRIT ALERT 4
QUALITY OF HOUSING 7
VALUE FOR MONEY 4
POTENTIAL GROWTH 7
Costa Dorada
WEATHER 7
ACCESSIBILITY 6
FOOD 8
SPORTS 6
CULTURE 8
SCENIC BEAUTY 8
BRIT ALERT 2
QUALITY OF HOUSING 7
VALUE FOR MONEY 8
POTENTIAL GROWTH 8

 

Island life can be really wonderful. Communities are strong, crime is low – and you are never far from the sea. So if you fancy fleeing the rat race and basking on a small island in the sun, then you won’t find better spots than Spain’s Balearic and Canary islands.

The Balearics

Of all the Mediterranean islands, the Balearics have always been the most popular with the British. It is easy to see why: as well as sporting all the usual attractions of beautiful coastlines and sun-drenched climates, they are easier to reach than Greek alternatives and are more open to foreigners than places such as Corsica and Sardinia.

Mallorca Property

Although you can argue about which is the most attractive of the islands, you can’t argue about Mallorca’s preeminence. This has always been the most affluent and sophisticated, with the best infrastructure. Its airport is one of Spain’s busiest, so access is unbeatable, and its increasingly cool capital, Palma, gives Barcelona a run for its money.

Mallorca’s historical affluence also means it has some great housing stock, so if it is luxurious, rustic charm you are after, it has some of Spain’s finest, both with and without sea views. New-build quality is high, too, as the Germans used to dominate the market and instilled a culture of building to high standards before they disappeared under the weight of Germany’s economic woes.

Easy-to-reach, high-quality properties in exquisite, sunny surroundings with awesome views don’t come cheap: Mallorca is one of Spain’s most expensive destinations and a firm favourite with supermodels, movie stars and Formula One drivers. Its marinas also draw the boating set, including Spain’s king, who spends every summer here.

Mallorca’s appeal to upmarket buyers means it has had a good 12 months, while cheaper destinations on the mainland struggled. According to Joanne Hilton of Vida Balear – Knight Frank’s partners in Mallorca – says: “British buyers with good budgets who can afford Mallorca are definitely around in reasonable numbers.” Good-quality coastal flats cost about  300,000 (£200,000); rural properties with land but needing work, from £440,000.

Many detached properties are more than £680,000; some are £7m-plus.

Minorca Property

The northernmost island is also the furthest from the mainland. The weather, especially on the north coast, is slightly fresher and windier than the others, but many regard this as an advantage in the summer months.

Mahon, the capital, has an extraordinarily deep, protected natural harbour of great strategic value that the British, French and Spanish fought over in the 18th century. The British governed Minorca for much of that period, and their influence can still be seen in the architecture, language, economy and customs.

Partly because of this legacy, Minorca developed a robust, diversified economy, and could protect its coastline and its culture from mass tourism. Quiet and family-oriented, it is unravaged by overdevelopment.

Properties and prices are on a similar scale to those on Mallorca. Buyers tend to be wealthy Spaniards and Brits. “The market for properties of  2m- 3m (£1.4m-£2m) is very buoyant, but below  1m (about £680,000) it’s slow,” says Colin Guanaria, of Bonnin Sanso estate agency. You can, however, also find small, modern two-bed flats from £140,000 and new summer-rental villas from £280,000.

Ibiza Property

Ibiza is about 75 miles east of Javea on the Costa Blanca. Its southerly location means excellent weather and, though less than half the size of Mallorca, it has a lovely interior.

Ibiza is certainly famous, but not always for the right reasons. It has always been one of the most tolerant places in Spain, even under Franco, which is why 1960s hippies flocked here. By the 1980s, it was a wacky but glamorous destination for the jet set; then, in the late 1990s, came British ravers, drinking hard, popping pills and behaving badly in public.

So long as you avoid San Antonio, on the west coast, you won’t be ashamed to be British. The island’s population has a good mix, and many Brits living here are couples in their forties or younger. Many inland properties can be reached only by bumpy dirt tracks.

The island as a whole hasn’t lost its sophisticated and youthful, upmarket appeal. Stunningly beautiful, it has a funky, world-famous nightlife: Jade Jagger and Kate Moss are regular visitors.

“Modest detached properties start at £270,000. Sought-after rural properties with land go for well over £680,000 and are snapped up,” says Deborah McNeill, of Cecilio estate agency. Basic two-bed flats walking distance to the beach start at £150,000.

Formentera Property

This tiny isle is almost completely protected from north winds by Ibiza. It’s 25 miles long, but just a few miles wide in most places, so it’s hard to find a spot where you can’t see the sea. It is also difficult to reach: you must fly to Ibiza first, and then take a ferry across, which adds to both time and cost.

The island is hugely popular with Italians, but there aren’t many Brits; those who own property tend to have done so for decades, even generations, keeping the secret of Formentera to themselves. Shopping and nightlife are limited, so tranquillity and great beaches are its selling points. More than anything, it attracts people looking for pure relaxation in beautiful surroundings. Out of season, the population drops to a few thousand, and most places are shut, so many people would find it a challenge to try and live here all year round.

It’s also Spain’s most protected coastal area, with very little new development. Limited stock in such an unspoilt setting means that everything sells quickly, and prices can only go up.

The few available apartments – in places such as Es Pujols and La Sabina – start at £150,000, but will nearly always be a walk away from the beach. Simple country homes with land but without mains utilities start at about £400,000. High-end properties cost between £1m and £2m, but rarely come up for sale.

The Canaries Property

The biggest selling point of this volcanic archipelago in the Atlantic, off west Africa’s Saharan coast, is warm weather in the dead of winter. Europe’s only genuine winter-sun destination, it is just four hours’ flying time from the UK. Blue skies, sunshine and beaches keep the tourists coming all year long.

Though there are seven islands in the group, only the four biggest – Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote – really count for overseas buyers. The others – La Gomera, El Hierro and La Palma – are spectacular, and may become popular, but are too difficult to get to at present.

Gran Canaria and Tenerife Property

Gran Canaria and Tenerife are the biggest and most developed islands of the chain, and thus the easiest to reach by air.

Gran Canaria is almost perfectly round, with a motorway encircling much of it and a mountain in the middle. Thirty-odd miles away, Tenerife isn’t quite as round, but again all the action is around the edge, with nothing much but spectacular mountains in the centre. With peaks reaching more than 11,000ft on Tenerife and 6,000ft on Gran Canaria, you can be sunbathing on a tropical beach while it snows in the mountains nearby.

There has been a British community on Gran Canaria for 150 years, but the island has been taken over by the Germans in the past 30 years. The best beach is the somewhat inappropriately named Playa del Ingles, (English beach), which the Germans dominate, though the British are making a comeback.

Tenerife, on the other hand, is much more British. Its lack of great beaches keeps the Germans away, but its good resorts are popular with the British and Irish. However, one always has to tread carefully, as it is still the worldwide headquarters of the timeshare mafia.

Lanzarote and Fuerteventura Property

Further east, just over 60 miles from the African coast, are Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. Partly laid waste by volcanic eruptions in the 1730s, Lanzarote is one of the most tortured yet beautiful places on Earth. However, it is well protected from Spain’s latest blight – overdevelopment – largely due to the vision and influence of an architect called César Manrique, Lanzarote has controlled both the quantity and quality of new development better than anywhere else in Spain. In the long run, controlling the supply of stock should help to keep property prices stable or rising.

Property lawyer Mario Izquierdo says Lanzarote is fast becoming a popular choice for younger, more active retirees, in their 40s and early 50s.

“Environmental protection, a quiet, laid-back atmosphere and beautiful natural parks make it a great place to spend an active retirement, while escaping the cold winters of northern Europe,” he says.

It is also one of the most popular destinations for Irish tourists and, latterly, homebuyers, so the Irish expat community is much more important here than elsewhere in Spain. Comfortable resorts draw both Irish and British buyers.

Fuerteventura has lovely beaches, which of course attracts Germans, but unlike Lanzarote the authorities seem keen to promote as much development as possible. Resorts and golf developments are being built and there is plenty of new or off-plan property to choose from on the island.

Stephen Eade, of the Horizon Property Group, says the Canaries have had an excellent past 12 months, better than the previous two years, and are bucking the mainland trend towards stagnancy.

“Demand from British buyers continues to be very strong,” he says. “It might have something to do with the hurricanes battering competitive destinations, such as the Caribbean.” Apartments in the Canaries can be bought from about £55,000; detached properties start at £120,000. In Lanzarote, a small, detached property with its own swimming pool can be had from about £170,000.

Comparative Table for property buyers

The Balearics
WEATHER 7
ACCESSIBILITY 9
FOOD 8
SPORTS 7
CULTURE 8
SCENIC BEAUTY 8
BRIT ALERT 6
QUALITY OF HOUSING 9
VALUE FOR MONEY 7
POTENTIAL GROWTH 6
The Canaries 
WEATHER 9
ACCESSIBILITY 6
FOOD 5
SPORTS 7
CULTURE 6
SCENIC BEAUTY 9
BRIT ALERT 9
QUALITY OF HOUSING 6
VALUE FOR MONEY 7
POTENTIAL GROWTH 8

 

© Mark Stucklin (Spanish Property Insight)

 

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About Mark Stücklin

Mark Stücklin is a Barcelona-based property market analyst and consultant, and author of the 'Spanish Property Doctor' column in the Sunday Times (2005 - 2008). He can be reached by email on ms@spanishpropertyinsight.com.