Local lore attests that ‘Que mar bella’ was the exclamation Queen Isabel la Católica made when
travelling along the southern coast of Spain during her reign. Thus, Marbella was christened.
Contemporary visitors might struggle to concur. Like much of the southern coast of Spain, modern living and infrastructure have rendered Marbella’s charm hidden from view. The Marbella Club, which in its heyday was the alternative playground to the stuffy French Riviera for European aristocracy and film stars, now stands on a four-lane highway. And although a Lamborghini might be spotted purring down the once achingly fashionable promenade of Puerto Banús, the stag- and hen-party brigade stamp out any embers of glamour.
Expectations of a renaissance are, however, gathering momentum. Since the publicised misdemeanours of the Sres Gil and Roca, the new mayor of Marbella, Ángeles Muñoz, is coming down hard on anyone who strays a hair’s breadth (or a brick’s breadth) out of line. The first two illegal blocks have received a demolition order, and all planning issues now go through the Junta de Andalucía in Seville. With time, this clean-up will give the property market a much-needed boost.
Interestingly, some fans of the area haven’t been shaken by the bad press that the Costa del Sol has received—the European glitterati still flock to its shores. ‘Since the beginning of the year, about eight houses worth in excess of €5 million have been sold in La Zagaleta, the area’s smartest address,’ says Michael Corry-Reid of Aylesford International.
In all of Marbella and Sotogrande, more than 100 houses valued over €4 million have been sold since January. ‘Houses are taking longer to sell, but there’s no distress at the top of the market,’ says James Stewart, Savills’ associate in Marbella.
This will surprise those who have been reading headlines pointing to near total collapse of the market, and, undeniably, the Spanish market is in bad shape. Mark Stucklin of www.spanishpropertyinsight.com isn’t mincing his words: ‘The market’s in a slump, and I dare say we’re closer to the beginning than the end.’ His belief is underlined by several factors, not least reduced mortgage lending, rising unemployment and high-profile developers goinginto administration over the summer.
However, some agents remain unshaken. ‘We’ve been through difficult times before,’ says Mr Hornung of Marbella Club Real Estate, ‘but this time there’s a key difference: the Euro. In the early 1990s, the peseta f luctuated dramatically, discouraging investors. The Euro is a more stable bet.’
Of course, the strength of the Euro is one of the contributing factors to the slowdown of the market: everything is 20% more expensive than it was last year. Having said that, Marbella was never a cheap destination. Before the advent of no-frill airlines, the average price of a flight was about £250. Today, there are 29 scheduled flights to the Costa del Sol every day from London alone. Furthermore, when Delta tentatively began a weekly flight between New York to Malaga in April, it had to quadruple the frequency because demand was so high.
‘Southern Spain went out of fashion with the arrival of long-haul destinations, but if the price of oil remains high, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to spend £5,000 for a weekend. Malaga is so affordably accessible,’ explains Edward Hill, who runs an advertising agency in Marbella.
Barbara Wood of The Property Finders (www.thepropertyfinders.com; 0800 622 6745) has focused on the Andalucían market since the early 1980s. ‘I’ve been driven to distraction in the past nine months. There has been no attempt by the British media to underline the difference between utter rubbish and what we all know and love. All the garbage that’s gone up has just reinforced how good the good areas are.
‘There hasn’t been an oversupply in the prime areas, so you can’t expect to get 40% off the price, but there’s now more choice and you’ll find people who have to sell.’
Since the launch of gated residential development Sotogrande in 1962 by American entrepreneur Joe McMicking, a number of ‘safe bet’ areas have followed suit. In terms of on-site facilities, however, no other development comes close to Sotogrande. It’s an adult’s playground with five golf courses, a golf academy, polo grounds, a marina, a riding centre, an international school, beach clubs, tennis clubs and a sailing club. It’s also attempting to re-create the lost glamour of Puerto Banus by opening a large new designer shopping centre at its port, Blue Sotogrande.
Clearly, this is a high-end buyer’s market. ‘Look in prime areas and don’t stray from there,’ advises Miss Woods. ‘Bargain hard, walk away if necessary,1 accept no compromises and you should now be able to pick up a complete steal.’