Imagine the scene. You’re putting the finishing touches to the Christmas tree when there’s a knock at the door and a Spanish police officer cheerfully hands you an envelope. But it isn’t a Christmas card, rather a demolition order for your beloved Spanish retirement home.
That’s what happened on December 22 to John and Muriel Burns, a retired couple living in Albox, a rural town in Almeria in south-east Spain. Two years earlier another retired couple, Len and Helen Prior, were the first British expats to witness their Spanish home demolished without warning and without having been invited to be part of the legal processes. The Spanish supreme court in Madrid has now ruled in their favour but they are yet to receive any compensation.
It’s easy to dismiss such stories with a cynical grunt and a cliché about expats just not doing their homework but in this case it’s simply not true. In the same area, another seven British families were served with similar demolition notices for properties bought in all good faith but which are now deemed by the Andalucía regional government to be illegal. How can this happen?
Let’s look at the facts. It is estimated that British expats own more than 600,000 properties in Spain, the highest number situated in Andalucía and in the Valencia region. During the Spanish property boom back in the nineties, thousands of Brits jumped at the chance to buy new dream homes in the coastal and rural areas.
Property agents would bend over themselves to offer them an all round service coordinating between developer, local lawyer and council planning official to secure the deal. In the case of the hapless eight in Almeria, their illegal new builds on rural protected land had been approved by the local Albox council which had even issued the appropriate building licences. The Andalucía regional government then revoked the licences as illegal and ordered the properties to be demolished.
This is just the tip of the iceberg and it does not just affect British expats. Thousands of illegal homes have been built in the last twenty years, 15,000 for example in Chiclana, Andalucía, many of which are owned by Spanish residents.
It seems that British expats are in a lose, lose situation when buying property in Spain. If they purchase on the coast they are likely to find themselves in hot water with the arbitrary ley de costas, the retrospective coastal law inaugurated in 1988, and if they buy new properties in rural zones, they might find themselves caught up in a property scam such as that which has occurred in Albox in Almeria.
Historically buying property in Spain has never been straightforward. Some British buyers are still licking their wounds after the collapse of the Spanish construction industry when thousands lost early stage payments with companies such as Martinsa-Fadesa which went into administration leaving British investors’ dreams in tatters.
Others found their legitimate rural properties being requisitioned in what was known as “land grabs”, when they were suddenly re-classified as urban zones and handed over to big developers.
While the Spanish supreme court and the European Court of Human Rights decide what to do about the whole sorry mess, the Andalucía regional government has, with no trace of irony, backed a new real estate network hoping to lure British expats to buy in the region. It promises to offer “quality, legal assurances and innovation” to foreign buyers.
For those awaiting the imminent demolition of their homes, there is no immediate comfort. The only hope is that with the intervention of the European court the corrupt perpetrators of these scandals will soon find their chickens coming home to roost.
An expat action support group, Abusos Urbanisticos Almanzora (AUAN), can be found at www.almanzora-au.org .http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/expat/annanicholas/10136431/spains-property-shame/