Property ownership in Spain is deeply embedded in the national psyche as I have analysed over the years in my articles. Some would even call it a national obsession (followed by football and not necessarily in the same order). Property ownership is widely viewed as ‘superior’ to renting almost as a social status all unto itself (!). Several popular well-known mantras upholding such (false) belief have endured over the boom years. But the receding tide of prosperity, induced by this recession, has exposed them for what they always were – false myths:
- “Alquilar es tirar el dinero” which loosely translates as ‘renting is throwing away (good) money’
- Another good one is “nunca bajan” translated as ‘(house prices) never fall’
- And last is my all-time favourite: “siempre lo podrás vender” translated as ‘(don’t worry) you can always sell it’; yeah right!
Spanish parents are obsessed with leaving their children property when they should really be concerned on gifting them a top-notch education allowing them a chance in life to win their spurs.
Unsurprisingly, because of this historical national fixation for property ownership 83% of properties in Spain are inhabited by their owners as opposed to only 17% being rented out. Compare these (very) sad figures with a far more developed rental market in Europe which boasts an average of 30 to 40% rental occupation. Moreover, all this money that is (foolishly) ploughed into property is a wasted opportunity cost that could be better put to use in the money markets investing in companies and start-ups, creating jobs and wealth, rather than saddling with debt legions of Spanish families who now face the grim prospect of a lifetime sentence in the form of a financial millstone around their necks for the remainder of their existence. A huge change of financial culture in Spain is urgently required in line with Protestant countries (historically more financial savvy) that can only be achieved through education from an early age at school. I venture that one positive outcome of this ‘recession’ will be that scores of Spanish will now be forced to rent as opposed to buying outright.
The underlying historical reasons on this fascination are numerous and exceed the object of this article so I won’t digress. What matters is that the Government, with millions of properties standing empty and millions more of young – and not so young – workers unemployed, has finally smelled the coffee. They have been busy drafting a new law in an attempt to bolster and streamline an ailing rental market in the hope of making it more dynamic and robust.
Ley 4/2013, de 4 de junio, de medidas de flexibilización y fomento del mercado del alquiler de viviendas
Ley 4/2013 is the law published in Spain’s Official Law Gazette on the 5th of June that heralds these changes. The official line is that it brings on a slew of novelties which will hopefully bring a breath of fresh air into a stale rental market. This new law significantly amends Spain’s all-important Tenancy Act (Ley 29/1994, de 24 de noviembre, de Arrendamientos Urbanos). Popularly known by its acronym ‘LAU’.
However I speculate that the ‘real’ agenda being pushed by this law is another and I elaborate further in my conclusion below. In my opinion this is yet another patchwork law that attempts, for the umpteenth time, to do something about Spain’s chronically failing rental market – and most likely will fall flat on its face.
Major Highlights of Spain’s Amended Rental Law
- The exclusion of Spain’s Rental Act for touristic property lets. This is hands down the most significant change in my opinion made by this reform as it now purposefully leaves out what are known as ‘touristic tenancies’. The LAU used to rule on all tenancies (except those deemed as ‘luxury’ rentals). Touristic tenancies will now be ruled by Spain’s seventeen regional autonomous communities. To make it more complicated, not all autonomous regions have such laws implemented. Touristic rentals require a licence from the local administration. The matter is so complex that it easily merits its own article given the fact there are seventeen autonomous regions in Spain capable of enacting their own laws on the matter compounding it furthermore. Always making administrative matters easy.
- The legally mandatory five-year rental period for long-term rents is now reduced to a three-year period.
- As a direct result of the above, deposits must now be reviewed after the three-year period has elapsed (as opposed to the former five-year period).
- The tacit renewal is reduced from a three-year period down to one year.
- A landlord may now recover the possession of the property after a year has elapsed under certain circumstances. Unlike before, this now does not have to be expressly worded into the contract.
- The landlord may now sell the property and the new owner may terminate the existing tenancy agreement so long as it is not lodged at the Land Registry. Before this law, the new owner was forced to respect the existing mandatory tenancy until it ended. This is a very welcome measure indeed. So for all new contracts signed after the 5th of June 2013 it would be advisable for a tenant to have their tenancy agreement lodged at the Land Registry if they want some degree of protection against the owner selling the property and the new owner moving in and have them vacated. On lodging the tenancy agreement if the owners sells on the property, the new owner will be forced to respect the tenancy for the mandatory three-year period (used to be five years before this law).
- Tenants may now notify their landlords, at any moment, with only 30 days in advance of their will to terminate a tenancy provided they have already rented it for a six-month period. Before a tenant needed to wait until almost till the end of the tenancy or else face compensating the landlord for the lost rental if they decided to bail out ahead of time. Notwithstanding a suitable compensation can still be agreed. This is an advantage for tenants really, not for landlords, as it allows them more flexibility to terminate a tenancy.
- If in agreement, the let can now be forfeited for a set period of time so long as the repairs in the property are shouldered by the tenant. This must be mutually agreed.
- Both parties may now opt-out of the IPC, as the annual benchmark to increase a tenancy, and choose another index. IPC stands for ‘Índice de Precios al Consumidor’ which is a Consumer Price Index which is widely used in Spanish contracts as a benchmark to increase services in line with the annual rise of inflation.
- It can now be agreed by both parties that long-term tenants may waive their pre-emption and buyout rights (‘derecho de tanteo y retracto’) in a resale as is stipulated in section 25 of Spain’s Tenancy Act.
- Changes to Spain’s all-important Civil Jurisdiction Law, (1/2000 – LEC) to further streamline the eviction procedure. Non-paying tenants will now be given only a ten-day deadline to bring arrears up to speed. The more legal fat is stripped away, the more efficient and streamlined will the resulting eviction procedure turn out. This is frankly positive but hardly groundbreaking.
Conclusion: more beating around the bush
Although some of the above changes are indeed a positive step in the right direction, most are superficial. I remain largely sceptical of this new law because, once again, it doesn’t really address the main issues which historically hamper Spain’s rental market, and only beats around the bush.
So why on earth bother to approve a law that seemingly won’t make much of a change in the rental market? The cynic in me can’t help but think that, brushing aside negligible cosmetic changes in the overall picture, the real agenda being pushed is that of the hotel industry.
After a decade of booming construction, where thousands of new-build properties were bought en masse and let out to foreigners at large, the hotel industry has experienced massive losses as a result of all the unregulated competition from a myriad of humble property investors dotting the Spanish coastlines. It has reached the point where many first class hotels now close down during the low season, something unheard of previously. This new law – quietly but relentlessly – effectively introduces a restriction to letting by private individuals, leaving it to autonomous regional communities to rule on the fine details of what a touristic licence actually entails. Which is why I place it as the first, and most significant, point on reviewing and listing above the amendments brought about to Spain’s Tenancy Act (LAU).
One would have to ask oneself: who stands to benefit with this reform and whose interests are served by it? Cui bono? Certainly not the countless foreign small-time investors looking into buy-to-lets to make some money on the side to supplement their (meagre) income. Again an ill-conceived political measure that meddles in the economy that will prove to be counterproductive on the long-term as it will foreseeably deter would-be buyers who would have otherwise invested had they unrestricted freedom to rent. Talk about shooting oneself in the foot.
Forcing home owners across Spain to ensure their properties comply with the same regulations already imposed on hotels (minimum quality standards, health and safety, kitchen appliances etc.) is daft and may be safely labelled as an unnecessary exercise of interventionist legislation aimed to thwart or restrict the sacred use of private property (in benefit of the hotel industry). No to mention treating as equals those who are financially unequal as both hotels and private individuals stand to comply with the same set of standards if they want to attain a licence to rent. In any case, let’s not rush ahead as the fine details will be ruled by the seventeen autonomous regions so we will just have to wait and see before judging in advance regional legislations. Few communities have already ruled on this i.e. the Balearics.
Back on topic, to foster a robust rental market we’d be better off taking a bold stance and resolutely reworking the whole eviction system from the root rather than approve a string of half-hearted piecemeal laws which honestly will scarcely make a dent on matters. What would *really* kick-start the rental market in Spain would be chiefly:
- Change the predominant Spanish mentality towards rental and ownership achievable only through an early education at school. Rental must stop being demonised by society at large and accepted as a perfectly valid option in life. State and private schools should teach finance to children. A long-term goal.
- Have non-paying tenants evicted in less than ten days from a property instead of having to wait for months on end or even years to make it happen. A short to medium-term goal reworking the legal (procedural) system.
These two measures would greatly help to nurture and consolidate a budding rental market in Spain. Granted, it wouldn’t happen overnight. It takes considerable time to change people’s mentality. Besides, there are far too many legal constraints and guarantees safeguarding non-paying tenants’ rights. What about the landlords I ask? Long eviction periods lead to tenants trashing properties, to landlords losing rental to offset their mortgage repayments (which in turn may even lead to a repossession of the rented property), besides unnecessarily increasing tenant eviction legal fees paid for by distressed landlords. This nonsense should clearly be put to an end.
The rental sluggishness in Spain can largely be pinned down to landlords being afraid of renting out properties given how biased historically laws are in favour of (non-paying) tenants. This is the crux of the problem – fix it and you are half way there to pave the way to a robust rental market.
It is Spain’s ruling political class who wield the power to alter matters if they willed it – but I guess they don’t have the backbone for change; too unpopular and ‘politically incorrect’ or maybe they are simply complacent with the current status quo. Real statesmen do, at all times, what’s best for their country no matter the unpopularity or electoral cost. Because they have a long-term vision of matters with their hearts set in the country’s future prosperity as opposed to career politicians who take decisions on the hoof based on short-term opinion polls. Piecemeal attempts from career politicians will only further the pain and foreseeably set back recovery by several years.
But hey, politicians and lawmakers, in general, are also entitled to make a (very) nice living by drafting and publishing half-baked laws, such as this one, to justify their outrageous public stipends and perks whilst the rest of the country languishes bearing the brunt of an unending ‘recession’.
“Off with their heads!” ― Lewis Carroll. Alice in Wonderland.
English writer, mathematician, logician, Anglican deacon and photographer.
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