House hunting in Spain

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Dedicated research and preparation before buying a property in Spain allows you to understand the issues and identify the precautions needed to ensure that your purchase is virtually risk free. It also puts you in the right frame of mind when you come to arranging property visits. It is important to maintain the same rational, meticulous and business-like approach throughout the visiting and buying stage. This is especially true now that you might come across some persuasive sales people who don’t necessarily have your best interests at heart. It becomes more important than ever to keep you wits about you when you start visiting properties.

Having done your research, worked out your budget and prepared a brief the next step is to select the companies you want to deal with and arrange a visit to view properties. Moving from research to action doesn’t mean that the research period is over. Every stage of the process will be a learning experience and you should keep updating your brief in the light of experience until you have found the property you want to buy. You should also continue making the arrangements discussed in the previous chapter so that once you have found the right property you are ready to move with speed and efficiency.

Selecting companies and arranging to view properties
The first decision to make concerns the type of companies that you will use to find property in Spain. As discussed in the chapter on property companies, you do have a choice of company types, though many buyers are unaware of this. There are estate agents, buyer’s agents, search & find consultants, virtual property sales companies and portals, not to mention Spanish corredores in rural areas. Having read the pros and cons of each type, and bearing in mind what and where you want to buy, you need to decide which types of companies you want to deal with.
Being as the vast majority of people end up dealing with estate agents we will use them as an example of how to select companies and manage your relationship with them. However the same principals apply to any type of company offering property in Spain.

Selecting and managing estate agencies
Whether you contact agencies through exhibitions, adverts in the press, internet portals, virtual property companies, or partner agencies in the UK, there comes a point where you have to choose which agencies to deal with. This is one of the most important decisions you will make as most of the problems that people encounter when buying in Spain can be traced back to the competence and attitude of the companies they bought from.

Selecting estate agents to work with
Your objective should be to find a selection of competent, professional and honest estate agencies with mature, bilingual staff that are knowledgeable of the local property market. If you can achieve this you are unlikely to run into problems when buying in Spain (though you should always employ an independent lawyer as well). There is nothing wrong with working with one good agency alone, and in some cases this might be your only option. However from a buyer’s point of view it is always an advantage to deal with several agencies as doing so prevents any one company from controlling your access to information.

As has been said several times before there are many decent and professional estate agencies in Spain. The problem of course lies in distinguishing them from the large number of unprofessional, incompetent or unscrupulous ones. All estate agencies make the same claims about their superior service and some of the worst companies have the biggest marketing budgets, which they use to sing their own praises louder than the rest. Few buyers will have previous experience of estate agents in Spain, meaning that buyers have to take decisions on the strength of little useful information. Nevertheless there are steps you can take to increase your chances of dealing with good agents.

Probably the best way to find good agencies (and steer clear of bad ones) is through recommendations from friends and acquaintances that have had dealings with agents. The more people use recommendations, the more companies are forced to pay attention to building good reputations, which means doing right by their clients. However alongside recommendations, or if your search for recommendations from trustworthy sources (not strangers in bars on the costas) draws a blank, you can also find agents through adverts, exhibitions, and internet searches.

Regardless of how you first make contact with agents you should always try to interview them early on in the process. This will be easier to do if you meet at a property exhibition but can also be done over the phone if you have found them via an internet search or an advert. In this conversation you are looking for signs that agents genuinely understand the local property market and show a real interest in your needs. This requires that you ask the penetrating questions that force them to go beyond the usual sales pitch of dream properties, incredible opportunities, ever-rising prices and great rental returns. You should also be looking for signs of a balanced and mature viewpoint that recognises that all property decisions are trade-offs and that pros and cons need to be identified and weighed up. Ill-informed but aggressive sale people will struggle to maintain this type of conversation. Never forget that these are the people you might have to rely on for help in making one of the most expensive investments of your life.

Other than enthusiastic recommendations from sources you can trust there is no ‘acid test’ for distinguishing a good agency from a bad one at the outset. The trick is to look out for the characteristics that often distinguish the good agencies as you start dealing with different companies. With this in mind you should look for estate agencies with the ideal characteristics described in the section on how estate agents should work.

Bear in mind the regrettable fact that some agents will list attractive, well-priced properties at their websites that they don’t actually have for sale. These properties are used as ‘web-bait’ to encourage clients to contact them and arrange a visit. Upon visiting the client is told that the property has just been sold and is offered something else instead. This practise is quite widespread but difficult to prove. However if a client visits quickly and finds that several of the properties have just been sold then alarm bells should start ringing.

Managing estate agents
It is always important to stay in control when dealing with estate agencies in Spain. You are the one spending the money so it should always be clear that you are the one who will decide when to visit, what to see and what to buy.

The importance of this increases as the quality of the agents you work with decreases. The less trustworthy, professional and knowledgeable the estate agent the more you need to be in control of the situation. Unethical agents are more likely to take advantage of people who seem ill informed, disorganised and susceptible to pressure.

Avoid dealing exclusively with one agency without good reason. Work with several and make it clear to all of them that you are doing so. This demonstrates that you are not a ‘captive’ client and helps to keep the agencies on their toes. It also gives you wider access to information from different sources, which leaves you better informed and harder to hoodwink. When visiting properties it is advisable to tour with several agencies as unscrupulous agencies try to control the client visit as tightly as possible. Doing this enables them to keep the client in the dark, unaware of the alternatives (and comparable prices) and more likely to buy whatever it is they have to offer.

Always give the agents you deal with a written brief of your requirements at the start. This gives them the opportunity to give you useful feedback and demonstrate their knowledge of the market. It also makes it more difficult for them to waste your time with clearly inappropriate properties. Make it clear from the start that you do not wish to be put under any pressure to buy. You are better off missing a property (there will always be another one, maybe a better one) than making a purchase you live to regret. The agents you work with should feel that you are more likely to walk away from them than buy from them if they try to apply pressure. Also make it clear that you don’t want to hear about capital gains or rental potential unless you specifically ask.

Of course it is in your interests to establish a good working relationship with one or more estate agents. However this does require that you play your part in building the relationship and treating estate agents correctly. Along with providing a clear brief you should be honest with them regarding your readiness to buy. If you are just doing preliminary research then make this clear and don’t make them think you are coming with chequebook in hand. Make sure your finances are in order and your mind made up before you try to buy a property as agents can waste much time and goodwill with unrealistic attempts to purchase that lead to nothing. Don’t waste your agent’s time if you can avoid it and always let them know if you have changed your mind or bought through another agent. Good agents devote a lot of time and effort to their clients and should be treated with courtesy and respect.

Arranging property visits

The best way to buy property in Spain is to rent in an area for several months and use the time to view properties with a selection of local agents. Doing so gives you a good feel for the market, increases the number of properties you can view, and removes the pressure to make a quick decision that people on flying visits have to cope with.

Due to personal circumstances and time constraints, however, many people cannot afford to rent in Spain before buying and have to make do with flying visits. In this case it is important to plan each and every visit carefully (you may need several visits before you find the right property) to ensure that your time is well spent.

If you exclude holidays in Spain, which are less than ideal when it comes to looking for property, then there are 2 basic formats for visiting Spain to view properties. One is to coordinate with estate agents but plan and finance the trip yourself, and the other is to go on a subsidised ‘inspection trip’ that many companies offer.

Inspection trips
Many of the biggest estate agencies and direct-sale developers offer inspection trips of 3 to 4 days duration that are either free or heavily subsidised (typically costing the client between 50 and 150 Pounds per head). Clients are flown to Spain and put up in a nice hotel at the company’s expense, and then herded around new developments in groups of buyers with similar budgets. During the first 2 or 3 days clients will be shown 2 or more ‘projects’ every morning and afternoon, and on the final day will be expected to indicate which projects they would like to revisit. The whole point of the inspection trip is, of course, to get the client to pay a reserve deposit before returning home.

Inspection trips are sold as an easy and cheap way to view property in Spain. In theory clients only have to indicate their budget and property preferences and then pick a convenient time to visit, rather like booking a package holiday. Everything is then arranged for them and the company picks up the bill. How much easier does it get?

Well we all know that there is no such thing as a free lunch and inspection trips are no different. You can rest assured that if the company is paying for your trip it is only because it is in their interests to do so, not yours. By virtue of paying for the trip the company gains complete control over the visit, and decides exactly what you see and learn. Clients will be wined and dined and told all sorts of wonderful things about the properties they are being shown. However they will have no way of checking this information with other sources, or comparing the properties they are shown with the wider market. Inspection trips are also the perfect environment for applying various types of subtle and not-so-subtle pressure selling techniques, and can be used to make clients feel obliged to the company that is paying for the trip. And many clients report that the royal treatment they are given at the start of the trip quickly evaporates and becomes objectionable if they decide not to buy.

Some estate agencies offer personalised inspection trips in which clients are driven around visiting different developments and resale properties on a one-to-one basis with a sale rep. These trips differ in form but not in substance from the package inspection trips described above. Though clients may have more say over which properties they visit, and avoid the ‘group pressure’ element of the minibus tours, the company paying for the trip will still try to control every moment of the client visit in favour of the properties it wants to sell.

On balance inspection trips are better for the companies that offer them than the clients that go on them. They put the company in control and the client in the dark, and make it more likely that clients will overpay for mediocre properties. In this day and age of low cost travel and the internet, inspection trips are a classic false economy for buyers.

Self-arranged visits
The best way to view properties in Spain is to arrange the visit yourself. You decide the dates of your visit, book your own flights, hotel and car, and coordinate with the estate agents and developers you have chosen to deal with to organise property visits. This leaves you largely in command of the visit and prevents any one company from limiting your access to information. There is also no better way of ensuring that you see the widest selection of properties. Low cost airlines and internet sites for booking hotels and cars make it easier and cheaper to arrange your own visit than ever before.

3 or 4 day visits are unlikely to give you enough time to view enough properties and initiate proceedings if you find one that you want to buy. One of the main reasons why people run into problems is because they rush into signing a reservation contract just before heading back to the airport to catch their flight home. Try to set aside a minimum of a week for a visit, which gives you time to visit a reasonable amount of properties with several different companies, as well as spending time on other tasks such as talking to your lawyer or bank manager or simply mooching around. Exploring an area before you buy there is always time well spent.

Plan your visits carefully and have a shortlist of properties or new developments to view based on the property particulars and brochures companies have sent you in advance. This does not mean you have to be inflexible about what you visit once you are in Spain. New properties can come onto the market and your brief may change in the light of experience. However if time is scarce you need to focus on the properties most likely to suit you rather than try to see everything on the market in your price range. In this day and age of digital cameras, websites and email you can expect to be provided with detailed information and photos of properties before you visit (by good agents at least). Based on this information you should be able to identify the properties worth visiting. No system is perfect though, and photos can be misleading, so if you have time try and visit properties that might not have made your A-list.

If you have chosen to work with a buyer’s agent or search & find consultant you will need to coordinate your visit with them. Buyer’s agents will have visited all the properties on your behalf, which means that you will only see the most suitable properties. This is a big advantage when your time is scarce.