Many people buy property in Spain to be close to the beach. Others want to spend time in the larger cities such as Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia. There is, however, a fairly large group of people who don't want to be able to hear their neighbours or even see them if they don't really want to. They want to purchase property in the Spanish countryside.
Before buying property in the Spanish countryside, it's important to understand something about how Spanish people have lived for generations and the way in which they've used the countryside. People who live in cities often come from the countryside. They may have been brought up in a small village, perhaps with as few as 300 inhabitants, and then went away to study or work and never move back. They'll go home at Christmas and at Easter and perhaps for a local fiesta, and they might even buy a house in the village once they can afford to do so. Other Spaniards may have been born and raised in cities but look to buy village properties so as to be able to leave the city at the weekend or in the summer. The types of property they purchase are usually houses that have been built in or very close to the village.
Northern Europeans, on the other hand, often consider the countryside to be the fields surrounding the villages where the Spanish people live. They see huge expanses of land, rolling hills and beautiful scenery and think 'wouldn't it be great to spend time here by the pool with friends, throwing dinner parties, playing tennis and having a wonderful time'. They may even find three or four acres with a house built on the land and a huge swimming pool with crystal clear water. Owning and living in a property like that is, for many people, living the Spanish dream.
The trouble is the fields surrounding the villages are agricultural land. That’s why the Spanish don’t tend to live there. Historically, the Spanish farmer would live in the village and set off every morning for his fields, whether to work the land where he might have had olive trees or almond trees, or perhaps even peaches or oranges, or perhaps to look after his sheep, his goats or his cows. As shelter from the rain and the wind, the Spanish farmer might build a small farm building usually from stone. That’s why one can travel through the Spanish countryside and see what are called casitas or little houses scattered across the landscape.
Northern Europeans have tended to develop these casitas so that instead of a footprint of 20 square metres, they now have a footprint of 100 square metres or more. Sometimes they do so on the basis that they are increasing the size of the farm building. The trouble is they then put windows in the extension, a bathroom or two, a kitchen and convert the water reservoir into a swimming pool. This might be done with some sort of planning permission, but not with planning permission for a dwelling. If it were so easy to obtain planning permission for dwellings in the countryside, the Spanish would be doing it en masse. So when you find a beautiful countryside property, you need to think to yourself when was this property built? Was property planning permission obtained? Can I see a copy of the planning permission? Has any owner of the property ever been fined for building without permission? Is the property susceptible to a demolition order, because that is the most serious consequence of not building with the proper permissions together with a sentence of imprisonment in the most serious cases, and a certain fine which may be very high indeed. You also need to ask yourself can you be sure that the planning permission was granted lawfully?
There have been a number of cases all over Spain where the mayor or another public official of the town hall granted planning permission for a house in the countryside, but without following the rules themselves. The consequences could be just as serious as building without planning permission at all. Although if you own such a property and have to demolish it or pay a fine, then you ought to be able to make a claim against the town hall to cover your financial loss.
Because Northern Europeans are so keen on countryside property, there are a number of Northern European estate agents, often Brits, who have set up in business to sell the countryside properties to their fellow countrymen. Many of these estate agents act fairly and provide prospective purchasers with full information about properties that they’re viewing. Others, however, are less scrupulous and hide the truth. The trouble is you don’t know who you’re talking to.
It’s a good idea to spend time viewing countryside properties online before making a first trip out to Spain to look at them. However, many people seem to be visiting Spain with a view to buying the property that they’ve seen online, as long as everything is as they’ve been told by the estate agent in emails or perhaps on the phone. My view is that it makes sense to identify properties online but also to visit estate agents in the towns and villages to be found in the area that you are looking in, to see all sorts of properties. Some agents may not speak great English but they’ll make themselves understood and what’s really important is the property itself.
In the UK or in other parts of Europe, most people wouldn’t dream of buying a property without a lawyer being involved to one extent or another. In relation to Spanish countryside property, it is essential to have a lawyer on your side. Once you’ve identified a lawyer who you feel you can trust and you’ve found a property that you like, you need have no further contact with the estate agent. Provided you can communicate with your lawyer in English which is essential, he or she will be able to continue negotiations with the agent and with the seller on your behalf. Your decision as to whether to purchase or not should be influenced not by the estate agent, but by your lawyer’s advice and by the advice of any architect or surveyor you may employ to provide you with a structural survey of the property. In that way you can look for countryside property with confidence in the knowledge that you’ll only buy a property that is safe. Of course, you may need to spend some money on legal fees along the way as some of the properties you like may not be viable for one reason or another, but in the vast majority of cases it’ll be money well spent.