By Rupert Wright, published in The Sunday Times, October 2004
Now is a good time to visit Galicia. First, it is Xacobeo or Holy Year at Santiago de Compostela. This only happens when St James’s day falls on a Sunday, so the next opportunity will not be until 2010. At 12 o’clock and 5 o’clock they say a mass in the baroque cathedral, during which they swing a giant incense burner, rather like the bottom of a hurricane lamp, up and down the nave. For house buyers and investors, there is an even better reason to go there: this is probably the last chance to pick up a house in Spain on the sea for less than £50,000.
Sarah Allinson, a single mother of two children in her 40s, came to Galicia 18 years ago. She fell in love with the area and with a local man. They are no longer together, but she retained her passion for her adopted region.
“The quality of life is very good, the health service is excellent and the locals are very friendly,” she says. “I think the weather suits the British constitution. And the pace of life makes you slow down. In addition, the schools are great, there is no bullying, and my children are very happy here.”
Galicia is often compared to the west coast of Ireland, which is not good news for those with memories of leaden skies, anoraks and umbrellas during summer holidays. Allinson’s love for Galicia has led to her setting up BK Property, a small estate agency that helps people find a house in the region, and helps with administration and in some cases the renovation work. But Allinson insists that the Rias Bajas area around the south coast enjoys a much better climate. Here prices are higher, because it is only five hours’ drive from Madrid. However, as a place to have a second home in real Spain, this is perfect.
According to Jose Luis Garcia of the La Toja development company, there are some British buyers, but they are a tiny minority. La Toja is a small island linked to the mainland by a bridge. Popular with rich Madrileños – buyers from Madrid – there are about 900 properties on the place, a 9-hole golf course, and wonderful empty sandy beaches. According to government figures Galicia ended 2003 with average property prices of 918 per m2, giving it the 3rd lowest property prices of all of Spain’s 17 Autonomous regions, and prices that are just 61 per cent of the national average. However La Toja is the most exclusive place on the Galician coast and here prices are considerably higher with three-bedroom apartments starting at around 240,000 Euros.
Property prices in Galicia have risen for 10 consecutive years but nothing like the price rises in other Spanish regions. Over 10 years the price of property in Galicia has risen by a total of 74 per cent compared to a national average of 136 per cent, rising to over 200 per cent in the Balearics. Some people have been attracted to Galicia partly as a result of the lower prices.
“We looked all over Spain, including around Tarifa, right in the south,” says Chris Sykes, 39, a landscape gardener based in Balham. “But prices there were very expensive and it was very windy. We have some very good friends who live in La Coruña, who persuaded us to come and look at Galicia.” They came, they saw, and they bought. Based on a long summer holiday two years ago, the Sykes’s – Chris’s wife is called Eva and they have two children, Theo 7 and Luca 4 – are just finalizing the purchase of a three-bedroom house in Serres, a hamlet close to Muros, a pretty fishing village not far from Finisterre – Galician for Land’s End. “The house is pretty basic,” says Chris. “There are two rooms downstairs, a kitchen and a living room, and three bedrooms upstairs. There is also a good-sized garden that I am looking forward to landscaping, as well as a barn that could be developed.”
The Sykes’s are paying 67,000 for the place, but feel confident that it is a good investment.. “It’s just so beautiful, it’s calm, it’s like going back a hundred years. It’s a bit like Cornwall: the beaches are empty – that’s partly because the water is freezing cold.”
Sykes says that although it is a drawback that the place is quite inaccessible, this is part of its charm. There are flights to La Coruña and Santiago de Compostela, and there is a ferry from Plymouth to Santander. People who buy further south can also take advantage of Porto airport in Portugal, which has cheap flights from London. There are rumours that easyjet is going to start flights to Santiago, which will make the pilgrimage a bit easier.
While the Sykes’s are only planning to use their place for long summer holidays, Geoff Fox is moving his whole family to a large country dwelling twenty minutes inland near Pontevedra. Fox, 50, and his wife Jane, just turned 30, are planning to live there with their two young children, Charlie, 3, and Esme, 1. They bought the place at the end of 2002, but only took possession in July last year. “There were more than 40 people who owned the place,” says Fox. “So we had to negotiate with each of them to sell their share.” The house is a large farmhouse, split into different parcels. There is the main house, a courtyard ruin, and a number of outbuildings and a cottage. Fox and his wife paid 345,000 for the place, including seven acres of land. They expect to pay a further 100,000 or so to convert it, which will include making a small guest house that they will let out for holidays rentals.
“We came to the area a few times before we bought,” says Fox. “We looked in Andalucia first, but the weather is kinder here and the people are more friendly.” They have sold their house in Shaftesbury in Dorset because “we were fed up with the UK culture”. Now they plan to live and work in Galicia, and educate their children their too. Fox runs a small company providing technical support on power and cooling systems for IT firms. He aims to travel to see his customers, but return whenever he can to Galicia.
“This is undiluted Spain,” he says. “We’ve had nothing but warmth from the local people, unlike some of the arrogance we noticed in the Andalucians.”
Only those with a highly developed religious fever should contemplate living in Santiago de Compostela, for it is full of people with long hair, beards and wearing sandals. However, drive west for an hour and you reach a dramatic coastline, full of pretty fishing villages such as Muros, Rian Xo and Riviera. Carnota is especially stunning, while Finisterre is on the shipping forecast and the closest thing to living on a boat that you can get. You can pick up a house with frontline sea views in any of these places for less than £100,000. The market is so undeveloped that often there are no agents selling the houses, just handwritten signs and a phone number telling you that the place is for sale. They will often need some work, but Sarah Allinson has a team of builders who can carry out the renovation.
What should you look out for? According to Mark Stucklin, head of Spanish Property Insight, a web-based consultancy, many properties in Galicia – especially older ones – are not inscribed in the land registry so you need to take care when you buy. “You should never buy a property that is not inscribed in the land registry as it does not give you sufficient security of ownership,” he says. “If you find a property that is not inscribed you should have the vendors inscribe the property before you sign the deeds of sale. This process does not usually take more than a few months and makes your purchase infinitely more secure. Always have a lawyer check the details of the property in the land registry before signing any contracts or making any payments.”
Not everybody is convinced by the lure of Galicia. Thomasina Turner, a 35-year-old Irish woman has just spent a month looking for a place to live in Galicia. Her conclusion? “It’s the wrong part of Spain,” she says. “I don’t see any point travelling to the end of the world and finding that it is just like Ireland. I want balmy evenings and flamenco, not log fires, baggy jumpers and bagpipes.”