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Country property in southern Catalonia


This section is about property in the Tarragona province of Southern Catalonia, specifically in the Terra Alta, Ribera d’Ebre, and Baix Ebre districts near the town of Tortosa, where you will also find some of the most stunning countryside in all of Spain. It also covers property in the Ebro river valley and delta.

Published: January 2013

This area is in the southernmost corner of Catalonia, on the border with Valencia to the south, and Aragon to the west. It is roughly halfway between Barcelona and the city of Valencia.

Far from the Madding Crowd is how you might describe life in this corner of Southern Catalonia. The roads may be good, and you can get broadband internet access by satellite, but it’s also a step back in time. Many expats buy property in this part of Spain to escape the modern world.

The area is sparsely populated, which is hardly surprising given the mountainous terrain. Most of the land is wild hills and valleys covered in Mediterranean pines and forest. Wild boar root around in the undergrowth, and eagles soar overhead. Country towns and villages are dispersed, but connected by good roads.

The landscape is dominated by the Iberian mountain range and the mighty Ebro River. The Iberian mountain range runs down from the north of Spain, and peters out here on the shores of the Mediterranean. The Ebro– Spain’s pre-eminent river – runs some 900 kilometres from Cantabria, in the north of Spain, and flows into the Mediterranean via the Ebro River Delta, in the Baix Ebre.

Few would deny that the countryside in these parts is breathtaking. The rugged mountains, and the Ebro River winding its way through the gorges provide the spectacular scenery. Through the ages this wilderness has attracted hermits and monks in search of spiritual retreat. The same pattern is still being played out today: the expats buying property in this region are also looking for a retreat.

The landscape does not lend itself to intensive farming, or dense populations, which explains why this has never been a particularly wealthy area. This means that, with the exception of the monasteries, and the odd castle, there are few imposing historical buildings in the area. The residential legacy is one of small properties built to suit the needs of a relatively poor rural community. You rarely come across the grand masias – Catalan country houses – so common in the affluent region of the Empordá, in the province of Girona (Gerona), north of Barcelona.

Rural property inland

Back from the coast in this rural part of Catalonia the housing stock is basically made up of rural country properties, and village properties such as townhouses and flats. Expat buyers are normally interested in the country properties, rather than townhouses and apartments in the small towns and villages of the region such as El Perelló, Móra, Gandesa, Benifallet, Horta and Tortosa.

Rural properties here are often small farms, normally less than 10 hectares, given over to olives, almonds, and carob trees. Down by the banks of the Ebro River, in places where the gorge isn’t too steep, there are also farms on the riverbanks, which are usually planted with citrus trees. Waterfront properties are also sought after for fishing catfish and carp for sport.

Many of the rural properties for sale in this part of Catalonia are in a state of ruin, especially properties on the market for under 100,000 Euros. These properties need to be completely rebuilt, a process that often costs significantly more than the property itself. Rebuilding a ruin, and turning it into a comfortable home or holiday home, is not a project to be undertaken lightly. Take care to understand what you are getting into if you decide to go down this road.

Country properties here are unlikely to have electricity, mains water, or a telephone line. For electricity you may need solar panels, backed up by a generator. There is normally a cistern for water, or a well. In some areas you can get a mains water connection put in for between 1,500 and 3,000 Euros. Mobile phone coverage is reasonable, though not all properties are in range, but there is also the option of a satellite telephone connection and internet broadband, which is reasonably priced.

Rural properties, especially ruins, are often small, no more than a couple of rooms. Before buying any rural property it is important to check the planning permission with the local town hall, to find out exactly what you can build, and if you can extend the footprint of the property. Always have an independent lawyer check planning permission, boundaries, rights of way, water rights, and any other relevant issues before you sign any contracts or pay any deposits.

Many rural properties in this area can only be reached by farm tracks, which can be several kilometres long, and unsuitable for anything other than 4×4 vehicles. This increases privacy, but also isolation. It might easily take half an hour or more to reach the nearest village. One has to be realistic about whether or not this will be a problem. For many people it is a problem, or at least it becomes one with time.

There are some modern rural properties on the market, properties that have been built in the last 30 years. These are often rudimentary dwellings, in need of renovation, and unlikely to win any design awards. As time goes by, and more people buy and renovate country properties in the area, there will be a better selection of refurbished properties in good condition.

Property on the coast

The Costa Dorada, or Golden Coast, has beautiful sandy beaches, and an attractive backdrop of Mediterranean countryside and mountains.

In the north of the Costa Dorada (Costa Daurada in Catalan), starting around Cambrils, the coastline has been badly developed, with plenty of ugly apartment blocks squashed together, and then left to depreciate. But in this area, the coastline of the Baix Ebre, where the main coastal towns are L’Ametlla de Mar and L’Ampolla, there has been less development to date, though what development there has been does not bode well for the future. Nevertheless, for the time being, this area has largely escaped the blight of developers and town planners with no idea of attractive, sustainable development that integrates with the surroundings. The same cannot be said of the area just to the south of the Ebro River Delta, in Sant Carles de la Ràpita, in the Montsia district, where they are busy building more ghastly apartment blocks that nobody in their right mind would want to buy.

On this particular stretch of the Costa Dorada (the coastline of the Baix Ebre district), around the towns of L’Amettla de Mar and L’Ampolla, it is possible to buy apartments in the seaside towns and villages, and villas on individual plots in the urbanisations between and around the towns. Much of the property is resale, but there is also a selection of off-plan and just built.

There is also a selection of rural properties, similar to those described above in the section on country property, but just 10 to 15 minutes drive inland from the coast. Prices rise the nearer the coast you get. Sea views command a premium.

Other Considerations

The climate is excellent from spring to autumn, with lots of sunshine, warm but not excessively hot. The winter is mild and short by Northern European standards, with plenty of sunshine, but it is important to realise that the winter can also be cold and wet, especially up in the hills, back from the coast. A few weeks of cold, wet weather can seem worse than it is if you live in an isolated spot. Rural properties tend to be poorly insulated, and a mild winter can seem bitterly cold if you live in a poorly insulated property without central heating. It is important to install adequate insulation if you are renovating a ruin.

Rural property in this region makes a perfect holiday home for use when the weather is good. But anyone planning to relocate to a country property in this part of southern Catalonia needs to think hard about the lifestyle, the risk of feeling isolated, and how to keep busy in a meaningful and productive way. Living in a remote country cottage surrounded by spectacular countryside far from the intrusions of the modern world may seem like a dream, but for many people the reality turns out to be full of its own disappointments and frustrations. Isolation, boredom, and a lack of meaningful activity will end up getting to anyone who isn’t suited to this lifestyle. On the other hand, for creative, self-sufficient types this region could be a perfect place.

Many people move here to enjoy a better quality of life and a lower cost of living. The abundance of country properties (ruins) with a bit of land also attracts buyers on low budgets. Many have underestimated the total cost of converting dilapidated country properties into comfortable, habitable homes.

Some also make the mistake of assuming that it is easy to make a living in this region from farming, or as a tradesman. In reality it is difficult to make a living in this region, and you are strongly advised not to try unless you have independent financial resources to afford the lifestyle you want. Dreamers without money or a realistic plan will come unstuck here, as they will in most parts of rural Spain. Having said that, if you have relevant experience, and know what you are doing, it should be possible to run a viable business here, especially in niche rural tourism.

The hunting season in Spain can be a problem for many people in the countryside. You may find locals shooting everything that moves close to your property. Be sure to check out hunting rights and regulations in the area before you buy a rural property.

People with children should be aware that education here is largely conducted in Catalan. If you send your children to a local school they will be taught in Catalan, not Spanish. Spanish is taught almost as a second language.

Property and area updates

It is a buyer’s market, and properties are taking time to sell. Do not allow yourself to be pressurised or rushed into a purchase. Do all your legal checks before making any payments.

In some of the municipalities in this area, for instance Ginestar, there is a problem with illegal properties. Several hundred British and other expats are thought to be affected, having purchased rural properties that have been illegally built. Always use an independent lawyer, and carry out adequate legal and structural searches before you sign any contracts, or pay any deposits.

Be warned that planning permission to extend or renovate property can take a long time to come through – some people report waiting 18 months or longer.

Do your research into local property prices, which can vary wildly (sometimes by as much as 200,000 Euros) depending on which real estate agent you deal with. Take care when selecting real estate agents; there are some unscrupulous expat real estate agents operating in this area, targeting expat buyers.

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