Another extranjero bites the dust

This personal story was sent in by email.

“Another extranjero bites the dust”

(All names have been changed)

Like many people that move to Spain we had been avid watchers of “A Place in the Sun, “No Turning Back” and similar programmes. We were particularly scathing of those who got into difficulties – how could they be so naïve? Why did they not check this or that? We said to ourselves that we would not fall into such traps little thinking that within 2 years of moving to Spain we would have made many avoidable mistakes. How did this happen? Well the story begins with our initial planning.

When I retired we decided to go for broke and sell up completely in the UK on the basis that if we were going to move to Spain we were going to commit wholly to this course of action. We sold our house near Guildford relatively quickly and also the car. With our furniture in storage and arrangements made to rent a property in Salobrena that we had not even seen we set off from Gatwick with David our 3 year old in tow and the cat Charlie.

The estate agent was waiting as planned at the rendevous in Salobrena and he took us to what would be our new home for the next 8 months right on the sea front and providing an excellent base from which to explore and learn about the local area. We had decided that we wanted a villa with 3 / 4 bedrooms set in approximately 1000 sq m of land and with good access to the local schools and shops. As it transpired this was not as straightforward as we thought it was going to be. We viewed over 50 properties several of which initially seemed to be just what we were looking for but in each case when we investigated further there were drawbacks and snags that put us off. It was at this stage that we decided on a change of strategy and this is were we headed down the path that led to our undoing.

We decided to look for two properties – a townhouse near schools, shops, bars and restaurants and a cortijo in 2500 to 5000 sq m of land to be used as a weekend retreat. The townhouse we found remarkably quickly in La Herradura that ticked all the boxes. Our abogado did the checking to make sure that all was in order and the transaction went ahead. With great relief we arranged for our belongings in store in the UK to be transported over and we moved into the townhouse that was to be our main base. The search now began for the cortijo.

This was the project of Ingrid (my better half). She set to work within hours of us moving in to our house in La Herradura rather to my consternation as I had rather hoped that we could get unpacked and settled in before moving on to stage 2 of the plan. She viewed quite a number of cortijos but it became clear that those of any quality within our budget inland from La Herradura had already been snapped up and what was left was the dross. So Ingrid widened the search to inland from Almunecar and Salobrena.

But then came our first major setback – I went to view a cortijo that Ingrid had found on the road up to Pena Escrita from Almunecar. I made this visit on a newly acquired Quad bike that was intended as a retirement toy and was very practical when I explored the various mountain tracks. Unfortunately as I was reversing out of the track to the aforementioned cortijo I misjudged my speed and shot backwards across the road and down the 6 m drop at the other side with the Quad landing on top of me. It was relatively undamaged but I sustained a fractured vertebra, broken collar bone and multiple cuts and bruises. Suffice to say the Guardia Civil and ambulancia were very efficient and got me to the A & E at Motril Santa Ana hospital in double quick time.

This was just 3 weeks after we had moved into our townhouse and the boxes were still not unpacked. I was incapacitated to greater or lesser extent for nearly six months and immobile for the first 4weeks. It was during this period of protracted recovery that Ingrid found a cortijo in the hills behind Almunecar that was in need of reform.

When we were living in Salobrena we had been introduced by a Spanish neighbour to an English hairdresser Harriet. She was very competent and cut the hair of all three of us. We used to visit her house for our haircuts and we met her 4 sons who were very pleasant and well brought up lads. As it happened her husband also English was a builder and having told her of the difficulties we were having finding a cortijo she recommended him if we wanted someone to look at a possible reform. So we arranged to meet Colin her husband. Have to say that I did not take to him but made my first mistake by not listening to my instincts and rationalising that he could not be all bad with the pleasant family that we had met.

He viewed the cortijo in Gelibra and rang us the same evening to say he considered the work needed was excessive and that we would be better buying a plot and building a new cortijo on it. Reasonable advice although before leaving the UK we had promised ourselves that we would not engage in a project.

Ingrid continued our search and eventually in Los Guajares we were shown a plot of land with a building licence attached and with magnificent views. It was also very competitively priced. This was where we made our second mistake. Entranced by the view and the easy access I rationalised and convinced myself that the plot was cheap because the only water supply at that time was the acequia and there was no electricity supply in the immediate area although posts for cables had been erected. Later it would became clear why it was cheap relative to other plots.

We showed the plot to Colin the builder and he advised that he considered it suitable to put a 50sq m cortijo on it. This plot comprised 9 terraces and the 3rd terrace down had been widened to accommodate a building. On the strength of Colin’s positive comments we went ahead and bought the plot. This purchase entailed a first registration at the Land Registry. Our abogado again did the necessary to navigate us through this minefield. A positive point here is that the legal & planning issues were all completed entirely satisfactorily thanks to the guidance of our abogado.

Then began a series of meetings with Colin & Alberto his Spanish partner to discuss the design & layout of the proposed cortijo. Invariably they were late for meetings sometimes by up to an hour. Invariably it was us that rang them to find out where they were. I even commented to Ingrid that if they were this late this often before the contract was signed what would they be like later? Our third mistake was not to seek another builder at this stage. With hindsight I believe that as I was still suffering from the effects of the accident I did not have the energy to start all over again and Colin & Alberto offered a complete package – support walls, drive, outside pipework and suchlike whereas with other builders that we had considered I would have needed to co ordinate various trades. At that time I did not have the energy but there was absolutely no reason why we could not have waited and taken our time to find a more reliable builder.

A fixed price was eventually agreed and our abogado vetted the building contract which was in Spanish with an English translation. It was at this time that the question was raised as to whether or not there was the need for an architect. I had drawn a reasonably clear floor layout and the design was for a simple L shaped block. The consensus was that an architect was not needed as the builders could build what was a very simple design without the supervision of an architect. This was our fourth mistake and a big one. When the problems arose later we would probably have had recourse to the architect’s professional indemnity policy. Without an architect in Spanish law the builder assumes the responsibilities of the archtitect and is expected to perform with all due professionalism. There are several recent cases in the Spanish Courts to support this. The builder did not have Professional Indemnity cover however, he merely had the obligatory Civil Responsibility policy which gives cover for accidents on site and similar.

Our fifth mistake occurred at this time as well. Although we had a fixed price contract which was good we did not have a detailed specification. I cannot explain why other than to say we were too trusting and weary by this stage but it was to lead to significant overcharging when the kitchen area , bathroom and plumbing were completed although as it happens this was to pale into insignificance as other problems developed.

Then came the signing of the contract. When I examined it the contract was with Alberto and not the company or Colin. When I queried this Colin said immediately that he would sign which he did but we did not amend the contract to make him a named party in the contract and so when problems arose later we had no recourse to Colin notwithstanding that he had in effect led us to the current position. This was our sixth mistake and another significant one. Again we were too trusting and too weary to start all over again although of course with hindsight it really was very silly to proceed on this basis.

The building work commenced on the day promised and the cortijo was completed just 2 days after the completion date promised three months later. This was about the only positive aspect of the whole process and the lack of detailed specification and architect’s supervision resulted in many “misunderstandings” and disputes. When the cortijo was finished and I did the final inspection before paying the final instalment I noticed a crack in the main support wall. I mentioned this to my abogado and he suggested that it should be examined by a technical architect. At this stage I did not even know the difference between an architect and a technical architect and requested his assistance in finding the appropriate person. He mentioned that his partner’s cousin Alfonso was a technical architect and he would ask him to view the cracks on an informal basis – our seventh mistake. It is already becoming embarrassing to note the number of mistakes that we made! Had we employed Alfonso on a formal basis and paid a fee then we would have had recourse to him but we didn’t. Alfonso together with the builders Colin and Alberto came out to the site and examined the wall. There was much noisy discussion but finally Alfonso opined that it was probably just settlement and it was reasonable for me to make the final payment which I did.

Within a month serious cracks started appearing in the cortijo walls. Alfonso visited again on an informal basis and suggested that I obtained a geologist’s report. This set alarm bells ringing and at this stage I did not see why I should have to pay for a report as the defects were the responsibility of the builders.

Eventually after several phone calls and the intervention of my abogado I arranged a meeting at the cortijo with Colin and Alberto. Only Colin turned up with his secretary and I had arranged for a friend Axel to attend to witness the discussion to avoid the many “misunderstandings” that had occurred during the building phase. Colin acknowledged that the problems were serious and that he would “get on the case” to sort things out. This was encouraging but as it transpired it was the last positive contribution from Colin and we began to realise why, and rue the fact, that he was not named on the contract.

Shortly afterwards Alberto telehoned to apologise for missing the meeting but to state that it was his intention to put everything right. There then followed a period of postponed meetings and unanswered telephones but again after the intervention of my abogado a meeting was convened attended by Colin, Alberto, my neighbour Vincent who came along as a witness and I.

During this period leading up to this meeting there was a strange interlude when I bumped into Colin in the street. I enquired what was happening about repairing the cortijo. Colin replied that they were waiting for a report from the technical architect who was Alfonso’s partner. When I mentioned this to my abogado he advised that Alfonso did not have a partner! When I challenged Colin he was evasive and implied that I had misunderstood what he had said.

Anyway at the meeting with Alberto & Colin they proposed a meeting with their technical architect and a geologist on site. Agreed to this but in the absence of any positive action my abogado advised that I should send a burofax to Alberto setting out the position and demanding remedial action. This was carried out after several delays. Alberto then proposed a meeting but for a whole month was unavailable and did not answer his phone.

Decided to employ my own technical architect and having found a totally independent and well recommended person Imogen I took her to see the cortijo. She was appalled by what she saw. Her report recommended demolishing the cortijo and further groundworks before possibly rebuilding. When I spoke to Colin on the phone about the report he was very evasive and eventually hung up on me. Perhaps not surprisingly when Alberto read the report he disagreed with it and said he would ring Imogen. Needless to say all this was a heavy blow less than 6 months after completion and had wide repercussions on the family and particularly Ingrid whose dream it was to have a property in a quiet rural location. It was also recommended that a geologist’s report should be obtained. I was hesitant to do this because of the high cost but realising that I would need this in any Court Action and also before any remedial work could be undertaken I arranged this as well. At this stage Alberto was still promising to put things right and instigated some minor temporary repairs pending the geologist’s report.

It was around this time that we learnt that the partnership of Alberto and Colin was splitting up. What was worse Alberto was giving up building work and returning to teaching. Colin was apparently continuing a building business but we had no recourse to him as a result of him not being named on the building contract.

When it arrived the geologist’s report was damning. This advised that the site was not suitable for the type of cortijo constructed on it and that the foundation slab was inadequate. At a meeting with the geologist he advised that he thought the cortijo was unsafe and should be demolished. Now it was easier to understand why the plot had been so cheap in the first place.

In effect the only course of action was to request my money back from Alberto. Investigations indicated that at this stage Alberto had little in the way of assets but there was one ray of hope which was the insurance policy taken out by Alberto. This was the Civil Responsibility policy. To my surprise the premiums were up to date and the policy was valid for the period of construction. A claim was made supervised by my abogado but was rebuffed by the insurance company as the policy did not cover this particular situation. Even went to a specialist lawyer in Granada who confirmed that the claim was invalid against the policy. He stated that in his view we had a very strong case against Alberto. In effect he had assumed the role of the architect and it was his responsibility to ensure that the ground was suitable for building and that the foundations were constructed properly even though this aspect of the work had been supervised mainly by Colin. The problem however was that it would cost up to 8000euros to take the case to court and the best we could hope for was an Attachment of Earnings order against Alberto. One estimate was that it would take up to 15 years to recoup the lost funds and this assumed that Alberto was in continuous employment.

So the disaster was complete but there was still one final quirk – Alberto in his teaching role headed up the team running the summer school in La Herradura this last summer. And David now 5 years old attended for two weeks and this concurrently with my visits to the lawyer in Granada. It is a funny old world isn’t it?

Needless to say we are rather more sympathetic and humble when we see and hear of other people’s property problems and what has surprised us is that there are many people with such problems. It just emphasises how careful one needs to be when plunging into the Spanish property market. If there is one simple lesson for us it is:“Be patient and always use an architect however small and simple a project may seem”

SPI Member Comments

One thought on “Another extranjero bites the dust

  • Vivien Preston says:

    Just read this account( dated 2008) in 2014. I’ve had a property nearby for over 20 years, and have heard of so many things like this. I’ve been lucky, but it’s so easy to be swayed by nice people who you think you can trust and who are competent. Would you do the same in UK? I think it’s something to do with nationality and language in a foreign country.

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