Country houses for sale

Andalucia’s tough planning restrictions

In last month’s column Paul Hudson, my colleague in Italy, raised the question of whether people who are searching for the quintessential country property really have thought through all the issues of such a purchase, posing the question that some wouldn’t be better suited with a property in the centre of an historic town. When you are exhausted and in need of a rest, a country house in the hills, miles from anywhere and surrounded by the kind of deep silence that really doesn’t exist anymore in northern Europe, seems almost irresistible for a holiday home.  But after a few days, with recharged batteries, what then? And if you have moved permanently how long before a 20km round trip to the nearest shop becomes tedious?  

So this month I thought I would look at the rural market in Andalucía, which has all but been ignored by the property media since the market stalled: a complete reversal compared with a few years ago when the dominant topics were wrecks, ruins and renovations in the country and how to find them.  But in the last few months I have been revisiting the rural market after being retained by clients to find a country house with at least ten acres of land for a budget of £800,000, within 45 minutes of the coast, no more than 45 minutes from an airport and close to a village with all daily essentials.

While parts of Andalucía do remain very isolated and difficult to access, infrastructure improvements during the last ten years have transformed the interior of the region and access to the coasts and airports is on fast roads or motorways.  In Andalucía there is no need to choose between peace and seclusion or good access and 21st century amenities – you can have them both.  Of the 15 properties that I located during my search that met the criteria, all of them had the required seclusion without being isolated; shops and restaurants were within 10 minutes drive in all cases; in the typical whitewashed hill-top villages that Andalucía is famous for; where children still play in the streets and nobody locks anything.  After short-listing 7 properties, my clients opted for a 6 bedroom house with over 30 acres in central Andalucía, 35 minutes from Málaga airport and, once a new stretch of road is complete in about 12 months’ time, only 30 minutes from Marbella.

But this search highlighted some big changes in the rural market that potential buyers must take on board: the days of finding a ruin and doing it up to suit are over. Unless the property is already big enough for your needs and already has a swimming pool don’t buy under any circumstances.  This is because that the fallout from the Marbella Town Hall planning scandal uncovered in 2006 has had an impact across the whole of Andalucía and indeed, the whole of Spain; only last week more corruption was uncovered, this time in Catalonia, leading to some very high profile arrests.  

But the upside of all this is that, across the board, existing planning laws are now being rigorously enforced; the town halls know that they are being scrutinised by the regional government in Seville and are doing things by the book.  This means that very few of the thousands of dilapidated properties in Andalucía are suitable for purchase.  For example, a new rule states that a house may not be rebuilt if the roof has already fallen in.  Another says that properties may not be extended beyond the original footprint so you will only get permission to renovate the existing and registered square metres.  Very few rural properties boast a swimming pool and those that don’t are less attractive to buyers as permits for new permanent swimming pools are no longer being granted, although above-ground pools are acceptable as they are deemed temporary.  I recently enquired if an existing but damaged pool could be relocated to a much better location within the grounds and the answer from the local town hall was a very definite no, it had to stay where it was so my clients didn’t buy the property.

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The other side of the coin is that a well-located, large property with its roof intact, with a pool or a water storage tank that would convert into a pool, is now a very desirable object and will become even harder to find in the future.  And although many of the renovations carried out in last five years or so were cheap and shoddy some beautiful refurbishments of real quality can be found if you prefer a property that is already done.  But anyone looking in the Andalucía countryside must accept that things have changed for good; the ‘anything goes’ attitudes of the past are not going to return.  Teams of Guardia Civil investigators are now fanning out across Andalucía and, in alphabetical order, are visiting every rural town hall to identify illegalities.  These could be new properties built on rural land, for which a licence was granted by the town hall but it contravened existing planning regulations or,  and this is very common, the licence was for an agricultural building and quite legitimate but during construction it morphed into a house.  Other infractions being investigated are those cases of small ruins being extended into large houses and some demolition orders have already been issued.  Without doubt they have a big job ahead of them; they have already been at it for several months and they haven’t got to the letter B yet. 

Barbara Wood (+44 (0)1908 218753; +44 (0)7714 219091; and Rita Fryer established buying agents The Property Finders in 2003 after gaining long experience in the Spanish real estate market.