Quantifying British property ownership in Spain (2004)

How many Britons own property in Spain?

Or put another way, how many Spanish homes have British owners?

2004: Though I am sometimes asked it the question ‘how many British nationals own property in Spain?’ it is surprisingly difficult to answer. There is no single database, government or otherwise, containing the answer. It should be easier to answer the related question ‘how many Spanish properties belong to British owners?’ as the Spanish Land Registry should contain this information. And so it does, but not in any format that can be easily accessed to answer the question.

So, for the time being all we have are competing estimates based largely on surveys. If these estimates tended to reaffirm one another it would be easier to come to a conclusion. The problem is they don’t and they sometimes arrive at wildly different conclusions. In an attempt to try and reduce the confusion I have decided to organise the information available, and extract some reasonable conclusions based on this information. I hope that this will be of use to anyone with an interest in the subject until more definitive information is available. In the meantime if anyone has any useful input to contribute on this question I would be delighted to hear from them.

Key numbers

  • There are 174,810 British nationals resident in Spain, according to the municipal register (padron in Spanish).
  • Estimates for the number of Spanish properties owned by the British at the end of 2003 range as high as 600,000.
  • Between 40% and 50% of all overseas properties purchased by the British are in Spain.

Number of British nationals resident in Spain

Most Britons who own property in Spain own a second-home or investment and are not resident in Spain. A minority have moved to Spain on a permanent or semi-permanent basis and become resident for tax purposes (electing to spend 183 days or more a year in Spain), joining the municipal register as resident in Spain.

In 2004 there were 174,810 British residents in Spain (registered with the Spanish authorities as resident in Spain and in possession of current residency papers), up from 161,507 in 2003.

The British are the second biggest single group of EU foreign residents in Spain, comprising 30% of the total of non-Spanish EU nationals resident in Spain, behind the Romanians (207,960) and in front of the Germans (117,250).

British residents in Spain are concentrated in the provinces of Alicante and Málaga, and the autonomous regions of the Canaries and the Balearics. 66% of all British residing in Spain live in these regions. 58% of all the British resident in Spain live in either Andalucia or the Autonomous region of Valencia. However the British are also significant as a proportion of foreign residents (EU) in Almeria (58% of total), Granada (53% of the total) Murcia (47% of total), and Cádiz (45% of total).

Number of Spanish properties owned by the British

One thing is the number of British nationals who are resident in Spain. Quite another is the number of Spanish properties owned by the British, which would include holiday homes and investments.

Not all the British who are Spanish resident own property in Spain. On the one hand the number of residents includes couples that live in one property owned between them, and on the other hand there will be residents who are dependents or who rent. No exact figures are available, but it is fair to assume that roughly 40-50% of all the British who are resident in Spain own the property they live in. This implies that 47,000 to 50,000 properties in Spain belong to British nationals, who use them as a primary residency.

Moving on to the total number of Spanish properties owned by British nationals, including holiday homes and investments, the figures are no better. However various studies have been done to try and estimate this number. I would like to stress that there are no definitive figures available on this subject, and what figures do exist show considerable variations.

The most comprehensive study available was conducted by a research consultancy (AFI) on behalf of the Spanish Association of Developers (APCE). According to this study there were 1,63 million tourist properties in Spain owned by foreigners in 2002. Of these 35% were owned by the British, which equals 570,000 properties. The same report estimates that, by the end of 2003, there were 1,72 million tourist properties owned by foreigners in Spain, of which the British owned 36%, or approximately 620,000 – an annual increase of 50,000.

A separate study in 1999, sponsored by the Association of Spanish Developers (APCE) and the Spanish Institute of Foreign Trade (ICEX) – a government body – concludes that there were 1.1 million foreign owners of Spanish property in 1999, of which 33%, or 363,000 were British. Between 1999 and 2003 the number of properties belonging to British buyers would have increase, though by how much is debatable. If you assume that the British have been buying around 50,000 properties in Spain each year (as explained below) then this would take the overall number of Spanish properties owned by British at the end of 2003 to around 563,000.

The Spanish newspaper ‘El Mundo’ provides further research. It reports that in 2001 foreigners owned 1,440,000 properties in Spain, of which 35% belonged to the British (504,000 properties). It quotes its sources as ICEX and APCE. Given the growth assumption mentioned above the figure at the end of 2003 would be around 600,000 properties.

Based on these different sources and assumptions we have a range for the number of properties in Spain that belong to British nationals at the end of 2003 of between 563,000 and 620,000, of which 50,000 are primary residencies, leaving between 513,000 and 570,000 as second homes / investments.

Assuming these figures to be more or less correct, using a figure of 600,000, and taking the number of British nationals resident in Spain as a proxy then we would expect the regional breakdown of Spanish properties owned by the British to be as follows:

Andalusia 30 180,000
Valencian Region 28 168,000
Canaries 13 78,000
Balearics 9 54,000
Catalonia 7 42,000
Other 13 78,000
Total 100 600,000

NOTE however that other studies suggest the number of Spanish properties owned by the British to be significantly below the 500,000 to 600,000 range. My gut tells me that Brits own no more than 300,000 homes in Spain, if that. That’s still a lot of Spanish real estate in British hands.

A recent survey by the UK’s Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (2002-2003) reports that only 155,000 households in England have a second home / property investment outside of the UK. Based on figures provided by the organisers of international property exhibitions we can assume that Spain accounts for roughly 40-50% of the overseas property market, which would mean that 62,000 – 77,500 English households owned a property in Spain at the end of 2003. The report concedes that it is likely to be understating the true figure, and that it does not included Scottish, Welsh and expatriate English buyers, but the margin of error would have to be very wide to reconcile 77,500 English owners with 600,000 British owners.*

A study by IESE – Spain’s leading business school – and Grupo i, estimates the total stock of tourist / holiday properties in Spain at the end of 2001 to be no more than 946,999 units. Given the intensity with which new properties are being built in Spain’s coastal areas this would have increased to around 1.2 million by the end of 2003. It is difficult to believe that half of all the stock of second homes in Spain belong to the British, even if the British are buying annually 40% of all new homes in Spanish coastal areas as recently reported in a report by Barclays Bank.

And then there are some respectable sources that put the number much higher than 600,000.

The Channel 4 website (www.channel4.com) says “Spain is the number one destination for UK second homebuyers, and over two million Britons own a property on its shores.”

Number of Spanish properties bought each year by British buyers

There are a variety of estimates for the number of properties bought by foreigners each year in Spain. They vary from 55,000 to 60,000 (IESE) to 135,000 – 150,000 (other sources including AFI).

The president of the national commission of residential tourism run by the Association of Spanish Developers (APCE) claims that foreigners bought 135,000 Spanish coastal properties in 2003. If you accept the AFI’s assumption that around 35% of foreign property buyers (in coastal areas) are British this would equal 47,250 properties bought by the British in 2003.

Another figure provided by APCE / AFI is that 20,020 properties were bought by the British in the Province of Málaga in 2003. Making the assumption that roughly 20% of all British buyers purchase a property in the Province of Málaga this would imply that the overall number of British buyers of Spanish property in 2003 was 100,000.If you assume 30% then the overall number would be 67,000. The true figure may well lies somewhere within this range of 67,000 – 100,000.

A further reference point is the recent survey by Barclays Bank in which it claims that the British bought 40% of all newly built properties in Spanish coastal regions in 2003. Taking the average figure provided by the Spanish government for the last 4 years of new properties started in the main coastal regions, excluding areas such as the North coast of Spain, you arrive at 120,000 new properties each year. 40% of this figure would be 48,000 properties. This does not include resale properties. If you assume that 60% of all properties sold to the British in recent years were new build – a reasonable assumption backed up by our surveys of estate agents around Spain – then the total figure for properties sold to the British in 2003 would be 80,000 properties.

Until further research provides more accurate information we believe that the best estimate for the number of Spanish properties bought by the British each year to be 50,000 to 70,000, around 35 to 45% of the total sold to foreign buyers (of tourist properties).

– Spanish Government (Ministry of Housing, Ministry of the Interior)
– Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
– IESE Business School
– El Mundo
– Barclays Bank

*Note that the ‘Wealth in Great Britain Wave 5: 2014 to 2016‘ report from the ONS estimates that some 3% of British households own land or property overseas, some 810,000 households.

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