Barcelona apartment renovation case study

Barcelona apartment renovation and refurbishment case study project

I’m about to start renovating an apartment in the Right Eixample district of Barcelona to use as a family home. I’ll be writing about the experience as the works progress, to help others understand the challenge of renovation in Spain. I also hope to learn from readers who know more than me about renovation.

I’ve finally bought a property in Spain, with a big mortgage on my balance sheet for the first time in my life, making me feel grown-up at last. The property is a 3rd floor flat on the right side of Barcelona’s Eixample (Eixample Dreta) with approximately 215 square meters of floor space in need of total renovation.

My plan is to renovate the apartment as a family home to move into by the end of August 2017. As the flat needs complete refurbishment I’m allowing eight months for the work to be done after kicking off at the beginning of January, but hoping it will be done in six. If anyone has any opinion on the time-frame for a total renovation I’d love to hear from them.

Why now? I sat on the sidelines during the last boom, though to be honest I didn’t have the financial wherewithal at the time to buy even if I’d wanted to. I finally bought at the end of 2014  because I thought the timing was right (and still is), and have now got a mortgage to do the renovation. I believe that mortgage financing conditions are as good as they are going to get in my lifetime, and I expect that that house prices will rise in Barcelona, as will inflation in Spain. So to my mind it makes sense to do this now.


I’ve taken out a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage from CaixaBank with a headline rate of just over 3% that can be reduced by meeting conditions like taking out insurance with them. The final interest rate is still more expensive than taking out a variable-rate mortgage today, but I just can’t believe interest rates will remain so low forever. I’m betting they will rise above the fixed rate of interest I am paying at some point in the not-too-distant future. And with inflation in Spain currently running at 1.5% (December data from the National Institute of Statistics), the real interest rate I am paying today is less than 0.5%.

I’ve been banking with CaixaBank for the last 16 years, and the conditions for this mortgage looked so good to me I didn’t bother shopping around. CaixaBank have a network of offices around Spain specially geared up to help foreigners who need banking products and services like mortgages in Spain. These branches are part of the HolaBank network run by CaixaBank. You can find out more about HolaBank clicking the banner below. For the record, HolaBank advertise at this website, but that didn’t influence my decision.


I’ve already selected a builder, and have a detailed budget to go through to see what savings, if any, can be made. Then we start the building work, hopefully in early January, and I’ll be posting updates and learning here, in the hope that others benefit from the information, and I benefit from the input of others.

Barcelona apartment renovation and refurbishment case study project

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Thoughts on “Barcelona apartment renovation case study

  • My husband and I bought a two bedroomed apartment in the centro historico of Malaga in Jan, 2014. We contracted a builder to refit two bathrooms, extend the kitchen and refit and replace two windows. Thank goodness we had a contract. The contractor didn’t seem to think that what was stated in the contract actually applied and also he was very poor at quality assuring the work. He seemed to feel that if we did not state any dissatisfaction with the work then the work was fine. We also experienced problems with an international company that supplied and fitted our kitchen. They only seemed to respond to our ongoing complaint when we threatened to take them to a department set up by the EU which is willing to intervene in these sorts of disputes once everything else has been exhausted.

  • Congratulations Mark! The manazana view looks wonderful – a classic old building. We came close to buying a place there in that same district on Roger de Lluria, but we found another unit that we liked more close to Vila Olimpica. But I love your neighborhood – so vibrant an very much in demand.

    The number one thing you need for this is patience and maybe putting a marriage therapist on speed dial on your phone just in case.

    Kidding aside, if you have it in your budget, do insulate the walls, certainly any exterior facing walls and put in double pane weather resistant windows. We’ve saved a fortune in gas and electricity for heating and cooling – our bills have never topped 80 euro for two months, and, as we are a 10th floor penthouse with no common walls, we have exposure in every direction.

    Also, any soundproofing you can add, even on your floor so you aren’t annoying your neighbors may have a big payoff, sanity-wise.

    On the manazana side, with those beautiful windows, you may have a humidity problem – it’s best to find out now if you do and deal with it before you paint. Maybe you can ask your neighbors about what problems they’ve had.

    The planning on my remodel was took about 18 months but we were partly to blame. The actual work was suppose to take 4 months, but the initial work took about 6 and then we spent about a year having a lot of things redone, including major work, as some of the workmanship was really bad. Fortunately, the architect, who also acted as the general contractor for the work, decided to comply with our wishes and make almost everything right.

    What I recommend is that you view the project’s progress daily. Review all products that you order when they arrive. We ended up with tiles we never ordered, an oven that is one step below what I wanted, etc. Also, insist that if something doesn’t work, such as water heater or HVAC system, that the technician is called. We wasted a lot weeks while incompetent people ‘tried this then tried that’ to get things to work and finally when an expert showed up, they could fix things in 5 minutes.

    I can make a recommendation for cierramientos – a company outside of Barcelona, but they do fantastic work and back it up. Let me know if you are interested and I’ll PM you. Ditto for interfono or videofone and also, if you need a nice kitchen. I’d be happy to share the ‘brands’ of some of the products we used as well.

    Again, congratulations!

    • Mark Stücklin says:

      Thanks for you advice and kind words Gary. I’m already rowing with my wife about what we want and we haven’t even started. I think we might have to get a professional in to help us manage the whole thing, and advise us on interior design. Otherwise we’ll be dealing with a million problems in constant conflict. I’m going to turn the galleria on the manzana side into a terrace with folding back accordion windows, which I haven’t seen done before, so that’ll make an interesting story. I know the building well so no humidity problems. All great suggestions. I’ll get in touch for your exterior joinery and other contacts when I get a bit further forward. Got my kick-off meeting tomorrow morning at 9am. Good thing you didn’t buy on Roger de Lluria. It’s an up street so very noisy, and a bit corporate if you ask me. You’re much better off in the area you chose.

  • Mark! Well done! Go! Go! Go!

    If you do it by August, “Give the gentleman a coconut, Charlie”. If there is anything left to do by Aug, say goodbye to August, see you in September.

    I’ll kick off by saying that there is very little of any of the building trades which I myself cannot do and have done – tiling, sparks, plumbing, design bathrooms/kitchens instal sanitary ware. I’ve gone beyond being able to put up shelves, which, incidentally, in a vox pop of young women, they reckon beats having a 6-pack …

    I am coming to the end of the builders’ bit of a TOTAL renovation myself. Only 80sq m though. But the last big installation, the AC (which is also the heating, much needed …. g’dammit! – sparks has perpetrated a run of no-shows, three weeks-worth now!

    He’s a subcontractor to my builder, Jose, who is gold on legs. Sparks started off really well, too. So on-it and expert and ‘professional’ that the joke became that my gestoria had got a crush on him. I have a photo of his face as his mate tells him this.

    Then sparks started playing hard/impossible to get, I reckon as a result of a tasty cash deal that appeared after the blanked-out week of Dec 5-9th. (All my gang took all three puentes between the two weekends and the two fiestas. Another week lost). And after the 9 days hols, no sparks. A Christmas wad was going down south, in my view.

    Jose is mortified at the behaviour of sparks. It has taken a very stiff talking-to, with the threat of me, the client, fuming in the background, cranking up my gestoria to work out penalty reductions in the fees.

    So the programme, reasonable as it may seem now, is vulnerable to fiestas and associated puentes, to the whole gang going off to another job, which builders everywhere do, to subcontractors failing to honour the programme your chief has given you….

    But before then there’s papeles. What about your ‘obras mejores/menores certs? Is all in order? When I bought my flat in Jan ’16, I was told that my project was ‘obras menores’ and no paperwork was required. Even in May, The Architect said that there was no cert required. Then, in June, one was invented! “Declaración de Responsibilidad: Tipo ll”.

    The builder would not start before he had seen, with his own eyes, this cert signed off. He himself caused two weeks to be lost because after I filled in the owner’s section, he sat on it for a fortnight before sending it back, saying the rest was not for him to fill in but ‘An Architect’. As it was all PDF, sending it back only required hitting ‘reply’.

    Back to The Architect, with whom I had parted company, an amicable separation due to the level of his fees being entirely inappropriate for the property and project. Think chicken tikka masala being delivered by Merc 500 series. The Tipo ll is a stitch-up between the Ayunt and The Architects’ Assoc. Well, in Valencia it is, anyway. The form has to be filled in by An Architect, sent to the Archtects’ Assoc for their rubber stamp. In late July this meant The Architect telling me he would send it to me in the first week of Sept. This turned out to mean the last week in Sept.

    And the expense! This useless, pointless bit of paper cost me €726 inc IVA to The Architect and €460 no IVA to Ayunt. One element of the Ayunt’s fees is fixed – the cost of the rubber stamp. The other is a % based on the quotations for the project, which you have to submit with the form. You have to go to the Ayunt office in person to do this. There is, as ‘es normal’, room to slim your quotes down a touch …

    Don’t mention the floor! I made the mistake of mentioning to The Architect that I was going to have a layer of tiles removed from the kitchen floor, as a second layer had been put over the originals, giving a different level in the kitchen to the floors in the rooms either side of it. This gave him the opportunity to charge €150 + IVA for a ‘load calculation’ although he knew – and agreed – that the load on the floor would be less, as I was removing tiles and replacing with laminate!

    The very last two jobs Jose had to do was instal the calentador, connecting the gas and commissioning the hot water system and … replace the shower panel which I had brought from UK, it being a manly 9mm thick rather than the puny 5-6mm thick Spanish ones.

    Jose and Jordi ‘El Perfecionista’ had screwed the cross rail bracket to the top rim of the panel with no pad between the screws and the glass. One fatal nip more on a screw and the panel, in safety glass like 1960s/70s vehicle windscreens, had collapsed on them in a thousand pieces. Three days lost sourcing and buying in another one.

    And finally, for Jose, when he turned on the basin hot tap in the bathroom, came back to check that the calentador had fired up on auto – wet plaster! Water drops round a screw! Jordi ‘El Perfecionista’ had scoreda direct hit on the hot water pipe!

    Oh! It’s a barrel of laughs, this reformar malarkey.

    Now I have to clean up The International House of Dust, continue to fit the kitchen, paint the place and, once painted, Jordi ‘El Perfecionista’ will return to lay the laminado and hang the doors.

    Then I can drive my furgoneta back to UK for a second load of kit, including the beds.

    By the way, I have loads of photos, from the hole in my finger from winding the allen key doing up the kitchen cabs, to the hole in the pipe, to scenes of utter devastation, when demolition was peaking.

    • Mark Stücklin says:

      Hi Chris,

      Always a pleasure to read your comments, and in this case even more so as your advice is super interesting to me at this juncture. This is going to be very much an ‘obra menor’ job for reasons you can probably work out. I think that “Declaración de Responsabilidad: Tipo II” is a Valencian thing, but I need to look into it. Luckily, the architect is my father-in-law, and the builder is keen to stay in the right side of my suegro for business reasons, so I hope that helps. But I realise there are a million ways for things to go wrong and lose time, for which reasons I’m considering hiring a professional project manager and interior designer to do it all for me. I prefer to be a observer and reporter, not a protagonist. I wonder what my wife will make of that. I’ll be reporting about all the challenges as the works progress, and asking advice, so keep tuned.

  • Hi Mark, it certainly looks an interesting project; you should end up with a fantastic home.. I have done several new builds on the Costa Brava, and a few light renovations. I assume that you have needed a full project, approved by the town hall, so will be forced to do it to full modern standards. A good thing as it should prevent you from taking short cuts to make savings. (Not that you would of course!).

    The most useful person on our builds has been the Aparejador (Technical Architect), mandatory for new builds. He draws up a bill of quantities, gives them to builders for quotes; assesses the quotes and bargains on prices; oversees quality control and checks that invoices are correct before payment as work progresses. All for about 5% of the build cost. As he is working with many builders he knows the good ones and in order to get the best prices we assess each skill separately and take them on independently. A building company comes as a package and each will be more expensive in some areas and cheaper in others. So we can negotiate in each area. This saves about 10% of a project.

    It looks like you’re further down the road than this, but I would still recommend having independent oversight: someone who can spot possible problems or poor practices not obvious to a layman. I find it difficult in speaking sharply to tradespeople as I don’t want to spoil our relationship, I prefer to let a professional, who they respect, take the flack.

    I assume that Barcelona works much like our province, Girona, in that having given approval the planners do not visit until final inspection, so they don’t give any guidance during the work phase, unlike the UK where sign-offs are done in stages – Another reason to take on a professional. Sometimes the architect will do all this, but I find that generally they are more interested in the larger issues such as proportions and finishes; – quite right too! In fact they should work together.

    Another thought: unless you are incredibly confident in the builder, don’t pay anything up front. It puts you on the back foot throughout the project and you lose so much bargaining power. It’s better to make many small payments if he needs cashflow, and quite honestly if he cannot get credit from his suppliers, how stable a business does he have?

    Sorry if I’m teaching Grandmother to suck eggs but we’ve had our problems and mistakes and learnt by them.

    Good luck


    • Mark Stücklin says:

      Hi David, thanks for your tips. Some great advice to bear in mind. Right now it all feels a bit overwhelming but I guess that’s normal. I think I need to hire a professional to help me, but probably not a technical architect. We’ll see.

  • Chris Nation says:

    Mark, I think you are going to have to create a separate blog or something for this, because there seems to be a growing crowd of interested spectators and many, inc me, going to come up with words of wisdom or otherwise. There is a famous Henri Cartier Bresson photo of people staring through holes in hoardings round a building site in Paris. These days, they even install mesh ‘windows’ because people do seem fascinated and drawn to see what’s going on. We are!

    I feel like an athlete (hahaha!) just finished the 400m and is getting his breath back on the infield as the suckers set off on the 10km!

    Payment. When I had a boatyard and a customer commissioned a substantial job, the payment regime went like this :- 1/3 up front to get the thing going and purchase of stuff. 1/3 at agreed half time. Remaining 1/3 MINUS 5% at agreed conclusion. The retained 5% was for the customer to feel comfortable asking for dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s. Once everybody’s happy, pay the retained 5%. You could split this regime into 1/4 or 1/5, as you see fit. But do get some payment programme boxed off right at the beginning.

    Professional help. You do need to make sure that there is a clear command and control line. It does help to think about how The Army does things. Each element has a commander who answers to the commander of the next biggest unit. What you do not want is to find you have two people who each believe they are bossing one decision. It’s a bit late but it seems you’re married into that situation already! At least with pros, you can sack them. After I parted company with The Architect because the project did not warrant his level of management/expense, I sacked a project manager/translator before he could do any more harm and managed the thing myself. We got round my execrable Spanish with Google translate and diagrams illustrating what I wanted or expected the result to be. I have drawn a diagram of a cable entering a wall with no drip loop and another one with a drip loop. Big X by none, big tick by drip loop. No need for discussion if and when sparks decided he will finally honour a promise and turn up.

    We are all agog …

    • Mark Stücklin says:

      Thanks Chris. I think I can do it all in this blog, just create a new category for the job so it’s easy to separate this ongoing story. I had a long meeting with the builder this morning. We have agreed to do the work in two phases, first phase walls, floors, carpentry, plumbing, heating and lighting, second phase installations, fixtures and fittings. Each phase will contain invoice milestones, so lots of small payments as the work is completed. He will be the boss of works, no confusion in the chain of command, and we will have a dedicated team of builders on the job until finished. No messing around. Work starting 18th January. So got a few days to get prepared…..

  • One more bit of advice. As a perfectionist, I liked the architect because he too seemed to be a perfectionist. Forget that. Things will go wrong, and at some point, the project will exceed the time to completion estimate and the cost estimate. So you’ll be paying more and waiting longer for work that may be OK or even good at a macro level, but with details not done correctly that may drive you crazy. Promises will not be kept. But it is usually small stuff.

    Thankfully, I abandoned my perfectionism early on, otherwise I’d be confined to an asylum where I couldn’t hurt myself or others.

    It is now 2.5 years since the initial project completion date. Some things are really not to my liking, but I am just now able to overlook the small stuff and appreciate the overall design and some of the architect’s ideas that were implemented.

    If our architect was not a close friend to family, we certainly would have sued him. And he did try to make up for his neglect but most of that was too late. But if we had sued him, some of the work wouldn’t have been fixed, and we would still be living the nightmare of the construction as lawsuits move at glacial speed in this country.

    Maybe this doesn’t apply to you Mark. But just in case. . .

    Our place is only 86 meters square but it was a complete gut – all walls, windows, doors, floors were removed and replaced. We did leave on of the two load-bearing walls, but

    • Mark Stücklin says:

      My architect is my father-in-law, so let’s hope it all goes smoothly! That said, we aren’t changing any walls or spaces (it’s obra menor), so we don’t really need an architect. He’s helping more on fixtures, fittings, furniture floor plan, lighting, that sort of thing. Nothing can go too wrong on that front, but tempers can fray of course…

      I’m too pressed for time to be a perfectionist on this job.

  • hey, brilliant move Mark, great location too…. Gary’s advice is spot on; sound and temperature insulation is the most important aspect of your project…….check out passivhaus ………..

    ps also, stick to your budget, it’s easy to get carried away

  • Chris Nation says:

    Mark, my Sparks was within inches of being fired last Weds. My gestoria talked me out of it because although he had failed to show, he was also due Thurs with the guy who would abseil down the lightwell to secure cables and tube.

    After a false start, IE 2 hrs late, they showed up!

    “Chris … Muchas trabajas ..” Yeah. Muchas trabajas here, Victor.

    But later that day the AC was fired up and commissioned. What a head banger.

    Tradesmen now finished until I have painted all round. The Jordi “El Perfecionista’ will return to lay the laminado and hang the doors.

    Four days till 1st anniversary of completion.

    Bargain sniper. You must be assembling a list of purchases. Sign up for getting email flyers of special offers and flash sales. There’s a site call Alertas Tendeo that keeps tabs on Brico Depot/Mart, Bauhaus, Leroy Merlin etc. Useful savings to be made if you see something you will need, down the line.

    • Mark Stücklin says:

      Thanks Chris, that’s a great tip. I will definitely sign up for those alertas. One of my key plans for reducing costs is to source materials by hunting bargains, as I don’t want to compromise on quality. I want to do this house up once in my life, so it’s got to last until I leave feet first.

      Hope you get everything sorted?

  • Congrats Mark ! This is great news and we also bought in Eixample Dreta, for us it was a neighborhood that has everything we needed with great room to appreciate in value (we bought on Pau Claris.) I can’t say we had the “courage” of buying a flat to renovate for all the reasons described in the earlier comments, but I’m sure financially it would make more sense. Looking forward to reading (and seeing) how the renovations go!

  • Mark Stücklin says:

    The good news is, the budget has dropped by €10,000 because of a error in the sums that I hadn’t spotted. On Monday I’ll be going through the phase I budget line by line with the builder.

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