New laws require landowners with waterfront properties to produce hard-to-find paperwork that proves their home was built legally
British expats who own waterfront property in Portugal face losing their homes if they are unable to locate documents that prove the land has been privately owned for 150 years.
The Portuguese government is targeting properties built on valuable waterfront land that is within 50 metres of the ocean or 30 metres of other waterways such as lakes and rivers. It claims it wants to protect the environment and crack down on illegal buildings. It reintroduced an old law in 2005 that allows it to reclaim land if property owners fail to produce records proving long-term private ownership by July 1 this year.
Many home owners claim Portugal’s land registry archives are not comprehensive and the necessary documents simply do not exist. They argue the land registry approved their purchase of the land, so the government should not have the power to seize it.
Residents lobbied against the law and last month the government agreed to limit the new rules to any property built after 1951. It also scrapped the July 1 deadline.
The requirement, which applies to local and foreign residents, is most likely to come into force when people want to sell their property, but the government has the ability to demand the documents at any time.
Under the law it can choose to reclaim the land, impose additional taxes on owners or give them the right to live in the property under a 30-year lease.
Jersey-born Paul Abbiati and his Portuguese wife Iva bought a seafront three-bedroom property for €150,000 in 2008 in the fishing village of Paul do Mar, on Madeira Island.
He said his ownership papers have been stamped by the land registry and a notary acknowledging the sale was legal. However, last month he was forced to search for documents proving the land has been in private ownership since 1864.
“I, and other private home and landowners in the same situation, have spent hours and much money trying to discover documents proving private ownership in Government archives but it’s impossible," he said.
“There are thousands of ordinary people affected by this, not just the wealthy. There are local fishermen with houses dating back 300 years that are unable to find the documents they need.”
He said he complained to the European Commission, but was told he had to battle it out in the Portuguese legal system.
The situation is being compared to Spain's notorious "land grab" law, under which hundreds of expatriate Britons lost homes on the Costa Blanca in the early 2000s.
Under a loophole in the law, known as the Ley Reguladora de la Actividad Urbanista (LRAU), property agents could compulsorily purchase prime rural land by saying it was for urban development.
In 2005 the European Commission wrote to the Spanish government saying that the law breached EU regulations as well as human rights statutes.