Research and preparation allows you to understand the issues, know about the pitfalls, and take the precautions that help reduce your risks when you move onto the next stage; house-hunting in Spain.
It also puts you in the right frame of mind when you come to arranging property visits. It is important to maintain the same rational, meticulous and business-like approach throughout the visiting and buying stage. This is especially true now that you might come across some persuasive sales people who don’t necessarily have your best interests at heart. It becomes more important than ever to keep your wits about you when you start visiting properties. You cannot imagine how persuasive good salespeople can be, and we are not talking about a holiday, or even time-share – we are talking about bricks and mortar in Spain, probably one of the biggest investment decisions of your life.
Having done your research, worked out your budget and prepared a brief, the next step is to select the companies you want to deal with and arrange a visit to view properties. Moving from research to action doesn’t mean that the research period is over. Every stage of the process will be a learning experience and you should keep updating your brief in the light of experience until you have found the property you want to buy. You should also continue making the arrangements discussed in the previous chapter so that once you have found the right property you are ready to move with speed and efficiency.
Selecting companies and arranging to view properties
The first decision to make concerns the type of companies that you will use to find and buy. You do have a choice of company types, though many buyers are unaware of this. There are estate agents, buying agents, search & find consultants, virtual property sales companies and portals, not to mention corredores in rural areas.
Being as the vast majority of people end up dealing with estate agents we will use them as an example of how to select companies and manage your relationship with them. However the same principals apply to any type of company offering property in Spain.
Selecting and managing estate agents
Whether you contact estate agents through exhibitions, adverts in the press, internet portals, virtual property companies, or partner agencies in the UK, there comes a point where you have to choose which agencies to deal with. This is one of the most important decisions you will make as most of the problems that people encounter when buying in Spain can be traced back to the competence and attitude of the companies they bought from.
Selecting estate agents to work with
Your objective should be to find a selection of competent, professional and honest estate agencies with mature, bilingual staff that are knowledgeable of the local property market. If you can achieve this you are unlikely to run into problems when buying in Spain (though you should always employ an independent lawyer as well). There is nothing wrong with working with one good agency alone, and in some cases this might be your only option. However from a buyer’s point of view it is always an advantage to deal with several agencies as doing so prevents any one company from controlling your access to information.
As has been said several times before there are many decent and professional estate agencies in Spain. The problem of course lies in distinguishing them from the large number of unprofessional, incompetent or unscrupulous ones. All estate agencies make the same claims about their superior service and some of the worst companies have the biggest marketing budgets, which they use to sing their own praises louder than the rest. Few buyers will have previous experience of estate agents in Spain, meaning that buyers have to take decisions on the strength of little useful information. Nevertheless there are steps you can take to increase your chances of dealing with good agents.
Probably the best way to find good agencies (and steer clear of bad ones) is through recommendations from friends and acquaintances that have had dealings with agents. The more people use recommendations, the more companies are forced to pay attention to building good reputations, which means doing right by their clients. However alongside recommendations, or if your search for recommendations from trustworthy sources (not strangers in bars on the costas) draws a blank, you can also find agents through adverts, exhibitions, and internet searches.
Regardless of how you first make contact with agents you should always try to interview them early on in the process. This will be easier to do if you meet at a property exhibition but can also be done over the phone if you have found them via an internet search or an advert. In this conversation you are looking for signs that agents genuinely understand the local property market and show a real interest in your needs. This requires that you ask the penetrating questions that force them to go beyond the usual sales pitch of dream properties, incredible opportunities, ever-rising prices and great rental returns. You should also be looking for signs of a balanced and mature viewpoint that recognises that all property decisions are trade-offs and that pros and cons need to be identified and weighed up. Ill-informed but aggressive sale people will struggle to maintain this type of conversation. Never forget that these are the people you might have to rely on for help in making one of the most expensive investments of your life.
Other than enthusiastic recommendations from sources you can trust there is no ‘acid test’ for distinguishing a good agency from a bad one at the outset. The trick is to look out for the characteristics that often distinguish the good agencies as you start dealing with different companies. With this in mind you should look for estate agencies with the ideal characteristics described in the section on how estate agents should work.
Bear in mind the regrettable fact that some agents will list attractive, well-priced properties at their websites that they don’t actually have for sale. These properties are used as ‘web-bait’ to encourage clients to contact them and arrange a visit. Upon visiting the client is told that the property has just been sold and is offered something else instead. This practise is quite widespread but difficult to prove. However if a client visits quickly and finds that several of the properties have just been sold then alarm bells should start ringing.
Managing estate agents
It is always important to stay in control when dealing with estate agencies in Spain. You are the one spending the money so it should always be clear that you are the one who will decide when to visit, what to see and what to buy.
The importance of this increases as the quality of the agents you work with decreases. The less trustworthy, professional and knowledgeable the estate agent the more you need to be in control of the situation. Unethical agents are more likely to take advantage of people who seem ill informed, disorganised and susceptible to pressure.
Avoid dealing exclusively with one agency without good reason. Work with several and make it clear to all of them that you are doing so. This demonstrates that you are not a ‘captive’ client and helps to keep the agencies on their toes. It also gives you wider access to information from different sources, which leaves you better informed and harder to hoodwink. When visiting properties it is advisable to tour with several agencies as unscrupulous agencies try to control the client visit as tightly as possible. Doing this enables them to keep the client in the dark, unaware of the alternatives (and comparable prices) and more likely to buy whatever it is they have to offer.
Always give the agents you deal with a written brief of your requirements at the start. This gives them the opportunity to give you useful feedback and demonstrate their knowledge of the market. It also makes it more difficult for them to waste your time with clearly inappropriate properties. Make it clear from the start that you do not wish to be put under any pressure to buy. You are better off missing a property (there will always be another one, maybe a better one) than making a purchase you live to regret. The agents you work with should feel that you are more likely to walk away from them than buy from them if they try to apply pressure. Also make it clear that you don’t want to hear about capital gains or rental potential unless you specifically ask.
Of course it is in your interests to establish a good working relationship with one or more estate agents. However this does require that you play your part in building the relationship and treating estate agents correctly. Along with providing a clear brief you should be honest with them regarding your readiness to buy. If you are just doing preliminary research then make this clear and don’t make them think you are coming with chequebook in hand. Make sure your finances are in order and your mind made up before you try to buy a property as agents can waste much time and goodwill with unrealistic attempts to purchase that lead to nothing. Don’t waste your agent’s time if you can avoid it and always let them know if you have changed your mind or bought through another agent. Good agents devote a lot of time and effort to their clients and should be treated with courtesy and respect.
Arranging viewing visits and inspection trips
The best way to buy property in Spain is to rent in an area for several months and use the time to view properties with a selection of local agents. Doing so gives you a good feel for the market, increases the number of properties you can view, and removes the pressure to make a quick decision that people on flying visits have to cope with.
Due to personal circumstances and time constraints, however, many people cannot afford to rent in Spain before buying and have to make do with flying visits. In this case it is important to plan each and every visit carefully (you may need several visits before you find the right property) to ensure that your time is well spent.
If you exclude holidays in Spain, which are less than ideal when it comes to looking for property, then there are 2 basic formats for visiting Spain to view properties. One is to coordinate with estate agents but plan and finance the trip yourself, and the other is to go on a subsidised ‘inspection trip’ that many companies offer.
Many of the biggest estate agencies and direct-sale developers offer inspection trips of 3 to 4 days duration that are either free or heavily subsidised (typically costing the client between 50 and 150 Pounds per head). Clients are flown to Spain and put up in a nice hotel at the company’s expense, and then herded around new developments in groups of buyers with similar budgets. During the first 2 or 3 days clients will be shown 2 or more ‘projects’ every morning and afternoon, and on the final day will be expected to indicate which projects they would like to revisit. The whole point of the inspection trip is, of course, to get the client to pay a reserve deposit before returning home.
Inspection trips are sold as an easy and cheap way to view property in Spain. In theory clients only have to indicate their budget and property preferences and then pick a convenient time to visit, rather like booking a package holiday. Everything is then arranged for them and the company picks up the bill. How much easier does it get?
Well we all know that there is no such thing as a free lunch and inspection trips are no different. You can rest assured that if the company is paying for your trip it is only because it is in their interests to do so, not yours. By virtue of paying for the trip the company gains complete control over the visit, and decides exactly what you see and learn. Clients will be wined and dined and told all sorts of wonderful things about the properties they are being shown. However they will have no way of checking this information with other sources, or comparing the properties they are shown with the wider market. Inspection trips are also the perfect environment for applying various types of subtle and not-so-subtle pressure selling techniques, and can be used to make clients feel obliged to the company that is paying for the trip. And many clients report that the royal treatment they are given at the start of the trip quickly evaporates and becomes objectionable if they decide not to buy.
Some estate agencies offer personalised inspection trips in which clients are driven around visiting different developments and resale properties on a one-to-one basis with a sale rep. These trips differ in form but not in substance from the package inspection trips described above. Though clients may have more say over which properties they visit, and avoid the ‘group pressure’ element of the minibus tours, the company paying for the trip will still try to control every moment of the client visit in favour of the properties it wants to sell.
On balance inspection trips are better for the companies that offer them than the clients that go on them. They put the company in control and the client in the dark, and make it more likely that clients will overpay for mediocre properties. In this day and age of low cost travel and the internet, inspection trips are a classic false economy for buyers.
The best way to view properties in Spain is to arrange the visit yourself. You decide the dates of your visit, book your own flights, hotel and car, and coordinate with the estate agents and developers you have chosen to deal with to organise property visits. This leaves you largely in command of the visit and prevents any one company from limiting your access to information. There is also no better way of ensuring that you see the widest selection of properties. Low cost airlines and internet sites for booking hotels and cars make it easier and cheaper to arrange your own visit than ever before.
3 or 4 day visits are unlikely to give you enough time to view enough properties and initiate proceedings if you find one that you want to buy. One of the main reasons why people run into problems is because they rush into signing a reservation contract just before heading back to the airport to catch their flight home. Try to set aside a minimum of a week for a visit, which gives you time to visit a reasonable amount of properties with several different companies, as well as spending time on other tasks such as talking to your lawyer or bank manager or simply mooching around. Exploring an area before you buy there is always time well spent.
Plan your visits carefully and have a shortlist of properties or new developments to view based on the property particulars and brochures companies have sent you in advance. This does not mean you have to be inflexible about what you visit once you are in Spain. New properties can come onto the market and your brief may change in the light of experience. However if time is scarce you need to focus on the properties most likely to suit you rather than try to see everything on the market in your price range. In this day and age of digital cameras, websites and email you can expect to be provided with detailed information and photos of properties before you visit (by good agents at least). Based on this information you should be able to identify the properties worth visiting. No system is perfect though, and photos can be misleading, so if you have time try and visit properties that might not have made your A-list.
If you have chosen to work with a buyer’s agent or search & find consultant you will need to coordinate your visit with them. Buyer’s agents will have visited all the properties on your behalf, which means that you will only see the most suitable properties. This is a big advantage when your time is scarce.
The visit is a crucial part of the process that you need to organise and manage well if you wish to find the property best suited to you on the market. If you do not prepare thoroughly for your visit you are more likely to waste time with inappropriate properties, and end up choosing a mediocre property from a mediocre selection.
There is an important point to make at this stage about looking for property. Of course you want to buy the ‘dream’ property, the ideal property, the best there is given your budget – doesn’t everyone? But don’t fall into the trap of searching for the ‘perfect’ property, as it may not exist. And even if it did exist it would have to be on the market during your search, which is asking for a lot of luck. To avoid certain frustration you should try to find the best property on the market rather than the perfect property full stop. Perfectionists will always want to see one more property just in case it is the one, but the chances are they will end up with nothing, or have to compromise in the end and lose out to higher prices.
The reality is that compromises nearly always have to be made when buying property, and the secret to success lies in getting the balance right. So do what you can to identify the property best suited to you on the market (given your budget and time constraints) and then decide whether or not you can live with the compromises it involves. If you can’t then you have to carry on searching, though after multiple visits you may reach a point of diminishing returns (where the cost of searching outweighs the potential benefits), not to mention estate agents who don’t want to deal with you any longer. Remember that if you find a nice property that you can live with, you will end up turning it into your home and then won’t want anything different. The anxiety of wondering whether there was something better on the market will soon be forgotten. Where to draw the line is up to each individual, but once you go beyond 3 or 4 fruitless property visits you might have to re-examine what you are trying to achieve and how you are going about it.
Having laboured the point that perfectionists are likely to be frustrated whilst realists with clear priorities will know where to compromise, we can now turn to the question of how to get the best results from viewing properties. First of all we will look at how to manage resale property visit, and then turn to the special considerations involved in visiting new developments when buying off-plan.
To get the best results from viewing properties you need clear objectives. The obvious objective is to identify one or more properties that you could consider buying. Having done so you then need to gather as much information as possible during viewings before proceeding to make an offer. Detailed information gathered during a visit will be of enormous help to you if you proceed to make offer – this cannot be stressed enough.
However there is another important objective, which is to understand the market for your type of property and get a feel for current prices. Because properties are so unique it is impossible to calculate the exact price for a property. However you can use the asking prices of comparable properties (similar characteristics in the same area) to get a rough idea of the going market price, which then allows you to judge if a property is reasonably priced. Best of all would be to know the price at which comparable properties have recently sold, but for several reasons this is difficult in Spain. An estate agent should be able to give you some idea of recent sale prices for comparable properties, but it does require that they tell you the truth, which it may not be in their interests to do. Nevertheless some idea of the market price is essential if you are to avoid overpaying for a property, and for this you need to see a good selection of comparable properties from different agents. Hence the importance of arranging your own visit and getting the broadest picture of the market. People on inspection trips can be kept in the dark and have no way of knowing if the properties they are being shown are reasonably priced when compared to the market.
Time is scarce and you need to make your viewings count so make sure you go well prepared. Experience shows that it help enormously to take the following items: digital camera, measuring tape, compass, local map, notepad & pen, bottle of water, sun cream and hat (if visiting in the heat).
Focus on the best, eliminate the rest
Even with the best preparation in the world you are bound to see a number of properties that don’t interest you in the slightest. Look around them but don’t waste time with them, as you want to focus your time on the properties that do interest you. Even so it helps to see these properties as it gives you a better picture of the market and more material for drawing comparisons. It is a great help to store all the information from you visits in a comparative table that makes it easier for you get an overview and draw conclusions.
With a bit of luck you will see one or more properties that you could consider buying, which we will call target properties. When you identify target properties the inspection becomes serious. You need to gather as much information as possible on target properties to help you make the right decision, and if you find more than one target property you will need information to rank them in order of preference. There will of course be an important emotional element in your decision – there always is when buying property for personal use – but you also need hard information to help you make the best decision. This information is also necessary to help you estimate how much money, if any, you will need to invest in refurbishing a property once you have bought it.
You are likely to know on the first visit if you are looking at a target property or not. If you like the property based on the first walk around, and could see yourself living there, then it’s a target. It’s more than likely that you will be able to revisit (if you have the time) so this may not be your only chance to inspect it. However work on the assumption that this is your only chance to look around, just to be on the safe side.
The information you are gathering during these visits should not be confused with the legal and administrative checks – the due diligence – that needs to be done when you move on to making an offer on a property and negotiating with the vendor. Those checks will need to be done by a lawyer or surveyor or other qualified professional. However you can get much more information from your viewings than many people realise. It all depends upon how you go about it.
You need to inspect target properties in great detail, which can be a problem with the estate agent and vendor looking on. But think about how much money you are being asked to pay and how much they will earn and then just get on with it, regardless of the looks you might get. It may help to make it clear that you are very serious about the property, as they will see it as less of a waste of time.
When inspecting a target property you want to carry out as many of the checks discussed below as possible. Take notes of everything you observe, and make quick sketches or take digital photos where possible. Not all of these checks may be applicable in your case, and some of the checks can be done after the visit and don’t require that you are physically present in the property.
Property structure & condition
Identify supporting walls and check their condition. Look for serious cracks or other signs of distress in main structural features (supporting walls, beams, retaining walls, pool casing, etc.). Even an untrained eye should be able to tell the difference between obvious structural faults and mere cosmetic problems (hairline cracks in plastering). The trick is to identify and scrutinise the structural elements. Simply knocking on a wall with your knuckles is often enough to distinguish a dividing wall from a supporting wall. Structural problems are the most complicated and expensive to resolve, so it is important to identify signs of them. Bulging walls are a bad sign. Sagging roofs are another bad sign that might indicate the need for major building reforms.
Though it doesn’t seem to be much of a problem in Spain – at least you don’t hear about it much – always bear in mind subsidence. Subsidence is often caused by changing water content in clay soils, which causes the soil to swell and contract, thus undermining a property’s foundations. Changing water content can be caused by a falling water table or by trees and bushes absorbing water during an unusually dry spell. Subsidence can also be caused by water leaks that wash away soil under the foundations of a property, in this case when the soil has a high sand or gravel content. Naturally low water tables and a dry climate might explain why Spain doesn’t appear to have much of a problem with subsidence, but keep it in mind. A professional survey is required if you have any doubts about subsidence, and is a good idea in any event.
Pay attention to the roof. Is it a pitched roof or a flat roof? If a pitched roof what condition are the tiles in (or other surface materials)? If it’s a flat roof can you get onto it to check the waterproofing? Look for signs of a leaky roof both inside and outside the property.
Damp is another important issue to look out for, which can affect newly built properties just as much as resale properties. It is usually easy to spot as nearly everyone has seen the effects of damp in their lives. Damp can rise from the soil through the foundations, can come through the walls or can come down from leaky roofs or other sources of poor drainage. If you see damp you need to try and estimate the cause based upon its location in the property. It can always be treated with damp proofing, but this can be a big job depending upon the cause and location of the damp. It may not be a big problem but you do need to identify if there are any issues with damp before proceeding.
Also look out for signs of infestations, such as woodworm in interior or exterior carpentry, or droppings from other pests. This can always be treated but better to know in advance what you are getting into.
When inspecting a target property you need to form an opinion of the overall condition of the property. If you were to buy this property, what, if anything, would you need to do about the following? paintwork, plastering, wallpapering (uncommon in Spain), flooring & tiling, joinery, draught proofing, insulation, exterior surfaces and weatherproofing, to mention but some of the most obvious issues. If you think you can live with the property ‘as is’ then you will not have to spend any money on these issues. However in many cases you may need to invest in some cosmetic improvements, which means setting aside a budget to do so. Bear in mind that the Spanish are not as concerned as northern Europeans about property upkeep, especially when it comes to exteriors.
When inspecting a property one has to consider the area’s climate as this determines the pressure the property is under from the elements. The climate also determines the importance of features such as central heating and air-conditioning.
Properties in southern coastal areas of Spain (roughly speaking anywhere south of Valencia and including the Balearics and Canaries) benefit from a mild climate without the killer combination of water and frost that does the most damage to properties. Properties in these areas do not need to be as sturdily built as in other areas of Spain, and even cheap, flimsy and badly built properties will more or less survive in this climate (which explains why there are so many cheap and flimsy properties to be found in southern coastal areas). However even in southern coastal areas you would be well advised to find out about local weather patterns (rainfall, sunshine, temperatures, humidity and wind) and consider how well the property’s construction and features adapt to this climate. Some properties are always better suited than others.
Properties in the north and interior of Spain have to withstand weather extremes and need to be built accordingly. The interior is typically baking hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter, for which a sturdy construction is required and other features that mitigate the effects of the elements (central heating and air-conditioning). This type of climate explains why so many of rural Spain’s properties have thick, sturdy walls and small windows, to keep the heat out in the summer, and in the winter. Unfortunately this also makes for rather poky interiors.
Rain is the order of the day in many parts of the north coast, and British buyers will understand this weather well, along with the property features needed to cope with this.
It is also very important to consider the orientation of a property, hence the importance of having a compass with you when you visit (estate agents have been known to lie about the true orientation of a property).
Orientation determines how much sun the key living areas receive, especially in the winter. Northern orientations are the worst, as they tend to face into any bad weather and get the least of the sunshine (for instance northern orientations on the Costa Brava face straight into the Tramuntana wind and get the full force of the bad weather when it hits). Northern orientations mean that patios and terraces – the outdoor living spaces you most want to use – will often be in the shade for many months of the year and be too cold to use in the spring and the autumn. They might also only get midday sun in the summer. This shows how orientation has a big impact on the ‘utility’ of a property (the quality and amount of benefits you can get from living areas). For greater utility you want a southerly or variations of a southerly orientation, though the optimum orientation depends upon the location and surroundings of a property, not to mention where the best views are in relation to the property. There may be a trade-off between sunshine and views.
Plumbing. Spanish builders tend to set pipes in walls, making it difficult to inspect the plumbing. However keep an eye open for all exposed piping, and observe the quality. Look under the kitchen sink and in utility rooms, where pipes can often be seen. Run taps and listen out for any sounds of distress in the plumbing system, and keep an eye open for any signs of leaks. Leaking pipes can cause havoc in a property, especially when owners are absent for long periods of time. Special attention needs to be paid to the plumbing in older properties and the age of the plumbing system can have an impact on your insurance premiums (newer plumbing = cheaper insurance premiums). Ask to see the water meter.
Drains & sanitation. Look for signs of blocked drains and sinks that don’t drain well or smell. Confirm how the sewage is dealt with – septic tank, cesspit or mains sewage. If a septic tank or cesspit then where is it and how old is it? Septic tanks or cesspits tend to be the norm in rural areas but they can also be found on urbanisations. If a property has a septic tank then how viable is a connection to the mains? And will a connection to the mains become obligatory at any point? as has happened on some urbanisations.
Central heating & hot water. Identify the system used to heat water (oil / gas / electricity). Gas heaters are the most common in Spain, in which case is the gas on the mains or delivered butane tanks? Does the property have central heating, and if so how is it fuelled? If the central heating runs on oil then inspect the oil tank and confirm how oil deliveries take place. Pay special attention to the water heater that feeds the hot taps. How old is it? How is it maintained? Run the hot water taps in the kitchen and all bathrooms to see how quickly hot water arrives, and how hot it is. Old or faulty water heaters can be expensive to replace. If you are looking in areas where the winter is cold (interior and north) then how extensive is the central heating and what condition does it appear to be in?
Electrical installations. How well distributed are plugs, and what system are they on (modern 220 volts or older 110 volts)? How functional and attractive is the installed lighting system, if any? Inspect the fuse box, try all the light switches and try to get a general feel for the condition of the electrical system. Electrics are one of the hardest issues to understand for laymen but that doesn’t mean to say that you can learn anything about the electrical system from a visit. It should always possible to form some sort of opinion as to the condition and quality of the electrical system, based on what you can easily see, and there are some obvious things to look out for. Look for neat, well kept and well signed fuse boxes, check the meter is working and well kept, observe if any electrical wiring is open to view, if so how neat and well maintained is it? Old electrical installations are in issue in rural properties, and electrical systems, along with the plumbing, are the two biggest internal risk factors of a property (electrical fires and flooding). The age and condition of the electrical installations can also have an impact on your insurance premiums.
Telephone, broadband & TV points. Observe how well distributed all the TV and telephone points are (if the property has a telephone connection). Pick up the phone and check for a dialling tone. If you are going to need a broadband connection to the internet, as many foreigners do, then ask if the property has broadband access (this is determined by proximity to telephone exchanges). If the vendor cannot answer this you can always check broadband access online at Telefonica’s website (www.telefonica.es) using the address of the property. If broadband access is not possible via the telephone system you do have the option of satellite broadband access from various providers.
Air-conditioning. As everyone knows, the interior and south of Spain get very hot in summer, sometimes unbearably so (40ºC and up). Therefore pay attention to the systems in place for making life bearable in this heat. Air-conditioning is the most obvious, and you need to observe how it is distributed and, if possible, switch it on to see how well it works. High-spec properties will have a built in air-conditioning system that distributes cold air to some or all of the main rooms. More common, though, are independent air-conditioning units placed in different rooms. You need to clarify the system, how it is controlled, and how well it works. Whether or not air-conditioning is essential depends upon many factors, including your tolerance to heat and the overall configuration of the property (how cool it is without air-conditioning, how open to the breeze, how well orientated to make use of shade, and so on). Most new properties now come with air-conditioning as standard whilst most old properties do not have it.
Most new properties in the south of Spain are now fitted with a split system that provides air-conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter. How good the results are depends upon the quality of the system. However it should be said that split systems don’t provide very agreeable heating in the winter, though this is not a big issue for properties in southern coastal areas.
Kitchens & bathrooms
Pay special attention to kitchens and bathrooms, as they are highly functional areas that depreciate the quickest in most properties.
In the kitchen ask if you can turn on all the fixed appliances to check they work (oven, hob extractor, cooker, etc.), run the taps, and check the waste disposal facilities. How sturdy are the fixtures? How easy do they appear to keep clean and maintain? Is the kitchen space well distributed from a functional point of view and what is the kitchen’s relationship to related areas such as the dinning room and outside eating areas?
In the bathrooms run the taps, turn on the shower, and flush the lavatory. Is the lavatory bowl cracked at all and does the cistern flush and fill well? Showers are much more common than baths in Spain and a power-shower with a big showerhead and ample space can be a big selling point. From a functional point of view do the bathrooms appear to be well arranged? What surface materials are used and what condition are they in? How many bathrooms are there per bedroom and are they conveniently placed?
Kitchens and bathrooms of resale properties are often in poor condition and may need some sort of refurbishment. When visiting a target property you should be trying to estimate whether or not any refurbishment will be needed. If you are just looking for a holiday home you may be able to make do with some industrial cleaning and perhaps some resurfacing. However if you are looking for a more permanent home then you might have to consider a full refurbishment, as kitchens and bathrooms can have a big impact on the enjoyment you get out of living in a property.
Your measuring tape will come in handy in the bedrooms. Are they big enough for the size of beds you use and is there enough room left over for typical bedroom furniture once the beds are in? Are there fitted cupboards and if so in what condition? When looking at bedrooms try and determine how well insulated they are from light and noise.
Overall utility value
It is a fact of life that some properties are better arranged and laid out than others. Some properties are poorly distributed due to environmental constraints, though that is not in itself a good excuse. Whatever the surrounding constraints (space available, lie of the land, building regulations, etc.) on a property’s design, poor distribution can always be traced back to the lack of vision of the original architect and the client who commissioned and accepted the design. It is always a pleasure when you come across innovative and intelligent distributions that extract the maximum value from living and storage spaces, and where this happens it adds considerable value to a property. When visiting a property note how the living spaces are arranged and whether on not this makes sense. How do key rooms and living spaces link up and how convenient is this arrangement? Where are the natural light sources and are they intelligently used to ensure the maximum amount of natural light? Do walls and room arrangements create dead space or is space generally well utilised (never forget, you are paying for square meters of usable space). What storage space is there as storage space, or rather the lack of it is often an issue? Efficient use of space, plus well-positioned fixtures such as fitted cupboards and shelving, add value to a property. Also think about how the arrangement of living spaces suits your particular family requirements, both now and in the future. When visiting target properties never forget that you will have to furnish the property you end up buying, so as you visit a property think about how easy it would be for you to furnish it.
Though Spain is in general one of the safest countries in Europe, security is always an issue. Holiday homes that stand empty for much of the year need to be well secured, even though people don’t tend to leave much of great value in holiday homes. When looking around a target property make a note of how well secured doors and windows are, as these are the obvious entry points. Is there a security door? Are there strong shutters or bars on windows? Basically how easy would this property be to break in to? Also find out if there is an alarm installed. All these issues have an impact on the insurance premiums you pay.
The security of a property is also determined by its surroundings. Properties in gated developments with 24-hour security are obviously the most secure. However there are other issues such as proximity to other neighbours, residential profile of the area, and so on to be considered.
Garden, pool & parking
If you plan to buy a property with a private swimming pool and you have never looked after one before then you should spend a bit of time online learning about pool systems and maintenance. There are different types of pool structures, filtration systems and cleaning methods. When buying a property with a swimming pool you need to find out as much as you can about the pool as it can be a source of unexpected costs and hassle, for instance if you have to change the filtration system. Inspect the filtration system and try and evaluate its age and condition. Try to judge how easy the pool is to maintain. Does it have a cover? Is this automatic or manual? Are there many trees around that will dump their leaves in the pool all day? Is there a submersible cleaning robot included with the property, or any other cleaning equipment? Pay attention, also, to the structure of the pool. Can you see any cracks in the visible structure that might go down to the interior casing? What type of surface material is used around the pool and what condition is it in? Note that chemicals are the biggest cost of pool maintenance (and labour if you outsource the maintenance). Infinity pools are the most expensive to maintain because they tend to lose more water to evaporation, which means more topping up. The water costs are modest assuming there is a connection to the mains water. However in times of drought there can be restrictions on water use that affect swimming pools.
If the property has a private garden you need to evaluate the work involved in maintaining it. Newly built villas often include an automatic watering system but this is rare in older properties. The garden layout and the plants used will determine how much work and watering is needed. Gardens that use a blend of dry materials and local plants are usually the easiest to maintain and don’t need much watering. Gardening enthusiasts may welcome a big garden with lots of plants to look after but others may not see it that way. It depends upon your interest in gardening and the time you will have available for looking after the garden. If you are buying a holiday home with a garden you have to consider how often you will visit and the time you will have available to dedicate to a garden. Fortunately it is nearly always possible to hire someone to look after the garden.
Many resale villas have a garden but no pool, and buyers are usually told that they can build a pool if they wish. If you are visiting a target property that doesn’t have a private pool then you need to identify where about in the garden a pool could be situated, and of what size. Digital photos of the garden are most helpful to this end. However even if you judge that there is adequate space in the garden for installing a pool, you would need to have the planning permission checked before proceeding to buy a property on this assumption.
Parking is nearly always an important issue so pay attention to the parking arrangements of a property. If there is a private garage or carport how big is it and how secure? (car theft can be a problem in some areas). Is it adequate for your expected needs? Does it enjoy unimpeded access and would it be easy to manoeuvre in and out of? If there is no private parking then how parked-up does the street appear, and does it look as if finding parking would be a problem? Unless you are looking to buy an apartment in the centre of town you are very likely to need a car in Spain. This means that the ease with which you can park, and load and unload a car, will be a reasonably important issue in determining how convenient life is. Imagine returning from the supermarket loaded up with shopping, or from the airport loaded up with suitcases; how easy will those moments be given the parking arrangements of the property you are looking at?
When visiting a property it is important to walk the boundaries of the property and see all the boundary points with your own eyes. Obviously this doesn’t apply when buying an apartment but is very important when buying property with land, especially in rural areas. Boundaries are one of the biggest causes of disputes, and buyers often come away from a property visit with a mistaken idea as to what is included in the property. This is sometimes because estate agents or vendors imply that the property is bigger than it actually is, and sometimes because buyers have not paid enough attention to identifying the boundaries. So walk the boundary if it is at all practical to do so, have the estate agent or vendor point out every boundary point, and take as many photos as are necessary to clarify this issue. This reduces any chance of misunderstanding or confusion, and makes it more difficult for you to be misled. If you proceed to try and buy the property you will find this walk and any photos you took of great help in interpreting the maps and deeds that make up the formal description of the property. Quite often buyers of rural property find that the title deeds and other official documents do not match the land they were shown, and walking the boundaries makes it easier for you to spot when this is the case.
Furniture, fixtures & fittings
When visiting a resale property you need to establish exactly what is included in the offer price. Some resale properties are offered for sale with a certain amount of furniture included or even fully furnished. Others will be stripped bare when the vendor vacates the property. You need to pay close attention to this issue as you may find it to be a significant point in the negotiations, at which point you may only have your notes from the visit to help you. Use the visit to clarify exactly what stays and what goes, and what can be negotiated over in the price. This includes kitchen and laundry equipment, white goods, interior furniture, shelving, lighting, mirrors, garden & pool furniture, and garden & pool equipment. Anything you buy over and above the permanent fixtures should be included in an inventory that will form part of the purchase contract. Be aware that some people who thought they were buying a furnished property have taken possession only to find the property completely gutted, with even some of the permanent fixtures having been removed. This is more likely to happen to people who fail to pay detailed attention during a visit, and fail to have it clearly documented.
When visiting a target property you need to learn as much as you can about the immediate surroundings as they can have a big impact on the quality of life that the property offers. It makes sense to do this research on your own once the visit has been completed, as you don’t need access to the property to do it.
First of all you want to identify and plot on a map the facilities in the area. Doing so helps you identify how much value the area has to offer and compare the area value of one property to another. Obviously there won’t be much difference between 2 properties on the same street, but even properties just a few kilometres apart can have a very different area value.
Find out where all the useful and desirable facilities are located. This includes supermarkets, fresh food markets, health food shops, bakeries, newsagents, tobacconists, post office, banks, restaurants, hotels, gyms, cinemas, police stations, schools, hospitals or clinics, access roads and public transport points, not to mention other desirable destinations such as beaches and golf courses. These are the sorts of things that people need or like to visit frequently and easy access is always a big asset to a property. Your particular needs will determine how much value you give to the proximity of these kinds of facilities, but remember that most people value proximity to most or all of these facilities, which adds value to any property that is well positioned.
Along with establishing the proximity of local facilities there are other important area issues to bear in mind and which you should clarify during your visit. Think about the lie of the land and ask yourself whether there could be any hidden problems related to it. Some urbanisations have been built on the flood plains of rivers, and rather unsurprisingly they are flooded every decade or so. Urbanisations with these sorts of problems are rare, but where they do exist they are often marketed heavily to foreign buyers, as locals won’t go near them. Drive around the immediate area looking for any physical features that might indicate any risk factor such as flooding, fires, or waste pollution. These are all relatively minor risks but they do exist. The vendor is unlikely to mention them and estate agents may not even know about them so it’s up to you to do your own research.
Local building works are another issue that need to be considered. It is no secret that there is a lot of building going on in Spain and it is likely to continue for years to come. If you are considering buying a specific property and want to be aware of how any building in the area might affect you, then you have to do some research on this front. Future heavy construction in the area can cause considerable disruption with noise, dust, and the comings and goings of heavy vehicles, not to mention ruining the views. So drive around the area and try to identify if there is any land where building work might disrupt life in the property you are considering buying. Generally speaking disruption is only caused when building takes place within sight or hearing distance, but some people have found that their urbanisation is used as an access road to big building projects further afield, so do bear this in mind.
When evaluating a property it also helps to get a general fee for life in the immediate area. Drive around at different times of the day, including at night. Try and get a feel for how noisy the surroundings are, especially at night. Explore the area within 15 minutes drive in all directions and if possible talk to residents in local bars or restaurants about life in general and life at different times of the year. Everything you can find out about the immediate area is useful, and you can expect little of this kind of information from the vendor and your estate agents.
If you are looking at a property on an urbanisation or development you also need to find out as much as you can about the community bylaws. If you proceed to buy you should have the opportunity to find out more from the community administrators before buying, but it helps to find out what you can at this stage as it may be relevant to your decision as to whether to make an offer. Ask the vendor or estate agent about any restrictions as to use of facilities or other conditions that might affect your, for instance rental restrictions, pets and so on.
Wherever you buy a property the neighbours are always an important issue. How important depends upon how close they are and how much you will want to or need to interact with them. It is not easy to find out much about the neighbours before you buy and there is no easy solution to this. Nevertheless you should use a visit to find out as much as you can, and every scrap of information helps. Find out what you can from the vendor though the vendor will always be inclined to present the neighbours in a positive light for obvious reasons. Listen out for barking dogs, screaming children or the neighbour practising on the drums (noise can be a big issue in Spain). You never have much to go on but it’s always worthwhile keeping your eyes and ears open as to what is going on ‘over the fence’ during a visit. If you are not easily embarrassed you might even consider paying the neighbours a visit at this stage, though this is highly unusual and might not go down well.
Generally speaking, unless you are looking at a property that involves living at very close quarters to other properties, you won’t need to worry too much about the neighbours. However this situation changes drastically if there is any need or right of access between the properties. Though these issues would also need to be clarified by your lawyer during the due diligence were you to proceed to buy, it helps to identify any such potential issues at this stage. So during a visit clarify if you have to cross anyone else’s land to access the property, or if anyone else has a right of way over the property for any reason. Also check whether surrounding properties play any role in the access to utilities such as water and telephone lines, or conversely whether surrounding properties depend upon the property you are viewing for access to these utilities.
Most properties on urbanisations, or in other built up areas will have standard utility connections, which means mains connection to water, electricity, telephone and probably gas. Utility connections, or the lack of them, are more of an issue in rural areas, where many properties depend upon private wells for water and generators for electricity. Always check the utility situation when visiting, and think hard before buying a property without an established connection to the electricity grid. Doing so means you are likely to go mad listening to your electricity generator all day.
If you are going to negotiate for a property the more you know about the vendors and their reasons for selling the better. If the vendor is present when you visit then try and engage them in light conversation. Your hidden agenda is to find out what you can about the property, their circumstances, and their reasons for selling, without of course appearing too nosey. You want to get an idea of how long the property has been on the market and how much of a hurry they are in to sell. Vendors who are impatient to sell will be more inclined to consider a lower price for a quick sale. Also try and establish the nationality of the vendor as this may condition their attitude to negotiations. Spanish vendors often tell agents the net price they want and leave it up to the agent to add on whatever they can in commission. When this is the case agents are likely to defend the highest price possible, as their commission is the first in the firing line when the negotiations start. So if the vendor is Spanish then the chances are that when you push hard on the price you are in fact pushing hard on the agent’s commission.
Off-plan property visits
Off-plan properties pose a problem because they only exist on paper, which makes a physical inspection before committing impossible.
In essence, though, the issues you are trying to clarify when visiting new developments are similar to those for resale properties. The difference is that you have to work on the basis of documents provided by the developer rather than by physically inspecting the property. However there are also some additional issues to clarify that are specific to off-plan properties, which we will discuss below. The emphasis, as always, should be on obtaining the maximum amount of useful information from your visits to enable you to take the best decision.
When visiting new developments for sale with the intention of buying off-plan you will likely be shown plans, specification documents, artist’s impressions, models, price lists, and in some cases a show home. In the majority of cases you can also visit the site where the property will be built, though it may depend upon the progress of the works. If you visit a development that you like the look of, and the properties on offer match your requirements, then you need to pay careful attention to all the documentation and material you are shown.
This material serves two purposes. On the one hand it should provide all the key property information (size, quality, interior finish, price, delivery, etc.) along with helping you visualise the finished property and its surroundings; the better it does this the easier it is for you to make a decision. On the other hand it also tells you something about the developer’s professionalism. If you are given detailed and thorough information on a visit this is a good sign. Some developers lack professionalism and it usually shows through in the information they provide and they way the handle client visits.
Never forget that the documentation and information you gather by the end of your visit are your only guide to what the finished property will be like. If the material you are shown when buying off-plan is vague or patchy, the chances are you will end up with a property quite different to what you were expecting, usually for the worse. Only consider buying on developments where you are given sufficiently clear and detailed information.
If you end up buying on a new development then the promoter’s professionalism and approach to business will play a big part in how successful your purchase turns out to be. You will be relying on the promoter to deliver what you are expecting in the time frame agreed, so the importance of the developer’s reputation cannot be exaggerated. It is a sad fact that there are some poorly-run and unscrupulous promoters operating in Spain – British as well as Spanish – whose only objective it would seem is to get as much money from the client in return for as little as possible.
Use you visit to find out what you can about the developers of the projects you visit, though you only need to go depth if you decide to buy. This can be done before, during and after the visit. Try and talk to previous clients of the developer. Do some internet searches on the developer using terms that include the developer’s name, the development name, and terms like ‘problems’. Every detail of contact with the developer (the way staff are presented and behave, brochure presentation, etc.) says something about the way the organisation is run. It doesn’t matter if the developer is big or small, what matters is their business philosophy and professionalism.
You will need to see plans and layouts that indicate scale, provide room dimensions (metric scale in Spain), and show the precise location of fixtures. Plans should also indicate what the total built and usable surface areas will be, including those of porches and terraces. When looking at plans think about functionality, practicality, utility (living spaces in which it will be a pleasure to be), privacy, natural light sources, and orientation towards wind and sun. When looking at plans people often fail to appreciate the reality of room sizes that correspond to measurements on the plans – usually on the side of disappointment at how small they turn out. If necessary measure out important rooms like the master bedroom and living room outside on an open space to get a better idea of proportions. Also compare room dimensions in relation to known sizes of things like beds – will it all fit comfortably?
When looking at apartments off-plan make sure that you shown a plan of the overall building that identifies the exact location of each apartment. Many people buying apartments off-plan have complained that what they were led to believe was a corner apartment, or sea-view apartment, turned out to be located elsewhere in the building come completion day. Cynical developers do this on purpose, calculating that once it is too late to change most buyers will just accept the new situation. The only way to avoid this is to see a plan of the building, and not just a plan of the apartment you choose.
You will need to be show specifications that list exactly what is included with the property (fixtures & fittings in kitchens, bathrooms, alarm systems, etc., providing brand names where appropriate), the quality of materials to be used, surfaces, colour schemes, and so on.
When buying a detached property with pool and garden pay just as much attention to how exteriors are covered in the plans. On delivery will the drive, garden and other exteriors look like an abandoned building site or will they be landscaped? The spec should detail to what extent landscaping will take place. When buying a property with communal gardens and pool ask for plans and a description for these areas as well.
If a show home is used in the visit then clarify the relationship between the quality of the show home and the property you are being offered. Clients are often show exquisite show homes, finished to a high quality, tastefully decorated and kitted out with the latest home technology. Clients are then sorely disappointed when the property they are delivered bares no resemblance to the show home. In some cases developers are not trying to deceive clients, just impress, but in the process expectations are raised and disappointment is inevitable. On the other hand there are also those cynical developers who intentionally mislead clients by using show homes of a higher quality than they intend to deliver. Therefore if you are shown a show home you have to clarify how representative it is of the property you are considering, and confirm this by checking the specifications you are given.
You need to have the payment terms made very clear. How much are you expected to pay, when, and corresponding to what on-site build progress? The following table gives a typical breakdown of stage payments:
|Reserve||3,000 – 6,000 Euros|
|Private contract||20% to 30% of the price (plus VAT @ and less the reserve payment already made)|
|Other stage payments||It all depends upon the promoter and the type of property you are buying. Many promoters do not ask for any other payment beyond the initial one of say 25% until completion, when the remaining 75% plus VAT becomes due. Other promoters may ask for up to 50 % or 75% to be paid in stages whilst construction progress, with the remainder settled at the end.|
|Final payment at signing public deeds||Whatever outstanding amounts (including VAT) are paid at the time of signing the public deeds of sale before Notary.|
A common payment structure for an apartment purchased off plan with a price of 300,000 Euros plus VAT would be as follows:
|Private sale contract||25% + VAT less reserve payment:
75,000 + 12,000 – 3,000 = 84,000 Euros.
|Other stage payments||None|
|Final payment at signing public deeds||75% + VAT
225,000 + 36,000 = 261,000 Euros
|Total Payments||348,000 Euros|
Stage payment protection
Developers are obliged by Spanish law to insure your stage payments and keep them in a separate account from working capital. This is to ensure that, should the developer fail before completing your property, you will not lose the money you have already paid. Though it is mandatory there are developers who do not comply with this law as it represents an extra financial burden for them. You want to clarify the stage payment protection arranged by the developer during your visit. However this will also be something that your lawyer should check during due diligence. You should never buy off-plan from a developer who cannot demonstrate that your individual stage payments are guaranteed.
Many developers arrange a mortgage that you have the option of taking over. If this is the case you will need full details as to the terms and conditions of the mortgage. Note that you are not obliged to take over the mortgage, though doing so will probably save you some arrangement fees. However this potential saving needs to be evaluated in terms of the overall mortgage. Saving a few hundred Euros in arrangement fees but paying dearly over the rest of the mortgage’s lifetime is a raw deal. You should always compare the developer’s mortgage with other offers before taking a decision, which means you need to gather information on the mortgage during your visit. If you don’t take over the developer’s mortgage, the developer will probably have to pay some cancellation fees, so you may be put under pressure to do so.
During your visit you will need to find out about delivery dates and penalties should dates not be met. This information will also need to be included in the private contract that you sign if you proceed to buy. Also ask the developer what procedures will be used to keep you informed of construction progress. This question will probably be met with a look of astonishment but that doesn’t mean to say you shouldn’t ask. After all how hard is it for a developer to email a monthly progress report (with milestones signed off by an architect) plus photos to buyers? The more demanding buyers become, the quicker developers will have to improve to meet these demands.
Be sure you understand exactly what communal facilities will be available to you should you proceed to buy one of the properties you are being offered off-plan, and the terms and conditions of using those facilities.
Ask the developer to demonstrate the status of planning permission of the project you are visiting. Your lawyer will have to confirm this during the due diligence but it helps if you clarify it at this stage. You don’t want to waste time with projects that do not yet have planning permission. Many people have bought into projects that don’t have planning permission and many of them have come to regret it.
Example contracts & contractual documentation
If you visit a new development that gets you seriously interested then use the visit to ask for the example contracts that you will be expect to sign if you proceed. You will need your lawyer to check over these contracts, along with all the rest of the contractual documentation (plans, specifications, payment terms, payment guarantees, licences and so on – all explained in the chapter on buying) before you pay or sign anything. Therefore the earlier you are given this documentation the better.
In all likelihood you will be expected to sign 2 private contracts when you buy a property off plan from a developer. First of all a reserve contract to accompany the reserve payment, followed 30 days or so later by a private sale contract and the corresponding payments you have agreed with the developer. You should always try and avoid having to sign the first of these contracts, and certainly resist any temptation – or pressure – to do so on the spot when you visit. The contracts you sign are explained in detail in the section on buying.
Before you buy on a new development it helps to have an idea of the community and social life that the development is likely to offer. After all the people you are surrounded by once you have bought can make a significant contribution to your enjoyment of life, especially so when spending time abroad. Try and find out a bit about the breakdown of buyers by nationality, age, family status and so on with a view to deciding if this is the sort of community you are looking for. Try to establish if it is predominantly a holiday development that will be deserted out of season. If possible talk to other buyers on this development.
Security on new developments
New developments with a common security policy can offer better protection to owners than can other types of property. Find out from the developer what provisions will be made for security, if any, though many developers will leave this decision up to the community of owners once it has bee established. A new development with a year-round residential community will offer better protection than a holiday development, for obvious reasons. The ideal solution is a gated community with 24-hour security.
Services and facilities
Some new developments have a golf course, health & fitness club, clubhouse, hotel, shops and restaurants on site, whilst others have no facilities whatsoever. The more facilities you have access to greater your chances of enjoying the property, and the easier it will be to sell your property when you need to. Social facilities also create an environment for social interaction and making friends, especially important for people with children.
Other less obvious facilities include provisions for access to broadband connections, cable and satellite TV. These can all be arranged on an individual basis but developers can facilitate access in many instances.
Some developers make arrangements to help buyers with property management, for instance house and garden cleaning, maintenance and rental. Generally speaking these kinds of services are only provided on larger developments. These issues represent an important part of owning property in Spain, and should be clarified during your visits.
Bear in mind that some developments may have bylaws regulating certain aspects of property ownership and other issues, though more often than not the community of owners, of which you will form a part, decides these issues. It is always worthwhile checking on any bylaws during a visit.
Developer sales material
Make sure you keep a copy of all the sales and marketing material you are given when visiting developments. Developers use this material to encourage you to buy, and if you do proceed to buy you need to keep the brochures, leaflets, etc. that you have been given until after you have successfully purchased. This material needs to be kept just in case the developer doesn’t deliver on the plans or promises contained in this material, in which case you may be able to use it to win compensation. Do not throw away this material until months after you have successfully completed.
Conclusions on visiting properties
It should be clear by now that property visits are an opportunity to gather much more information than many people typically do. The more information you obtain from visits the better placed you are to select the right property for the right reasons. Doing so also enables you to make more accurate estimates of the buying, refurbishing and maintenance costs, and puts you in a better negotiating position if you decide to make an offer.
If you do see a property that you want to buy then just bear in mind one question that tends to slip people’s minds at this stage, and that is how easy will the property be to sell when you need to move on? Well built, modern properties in good locations have the biggest pool of demand over time and are the easiest and quickest to sell when you need to.