Max: I am very pleased to host Josie as a guest writer for the Freedom Farm Blog. She and I are both moderators over at the Living Off-Grid in Spain Facebook group. Josie will be tackling the immensely important and tricky subject of what you should know before you buy an Off-Grid property in Spain.
We all dreamed the dream. Some of us are yet to realise it whilst others have made it. You should know however, things are changing in Spain regarding purchasing property and reforming (renovating). For some of us it could mean the dashing of those dreams either before or after we hand over our hard earned money.
You’ve found your idyll, and boy can you just see yourself there sipping a glass of wine on an evening watching the sun go down… this property is everything you want. What if everything you want doesn’t appear on the “escritura” (deeds) or “nota simple” (preliminary deeds)? What if it doesn’t mention there ever being a house on the land on the Catastral? “Oh but it’s ok” you are told by the estate agent “don’t worry, it mentions the casita (maybe) so it’s all okay”. Except technically, no it isn’t. A casita is nothing more than a temporary shelter, (for when the land owner came up to work on the land) and a tool shed. They were never meant to be lived in permanently. Plus, few are big enough to swing a cat in, much less live all year round. Your friendly estate agent waxes lyrical about how you can easily extend the casita with no problem, right up to building a new home. Just like that, because it’s so easy to go and get retrospective permission. At which point he will undoubtedly tell you a few success stories and even offer to introduce you to a few former clients who have followed their dreams as you can. Years ago that may have been the case, but now the authorities are clamping down and they have a secret weapon. They have “Google Earth”, and with just a click of the mouse button, they can check how long the pool, the terrace, and the house has been there – and you have been rumbled.
Some folk will tell you that they have lived here x number of years and not once have they ever heard of anyone being made to demolish their homes. Unfortunately times are a-changing, and some authorities are starting to demand you demolish it at your own cost, and clean up the mess to boot, whilst others are doling out a fine or multiple fines as the years go by. It happened to a friend of mine: they paid the first fine, thought that was that, that they were now legal, only to be fined every couple of years for the same building.
But let’s get back to the point of this piece. The table below gives you an idea of how many years need to pass, according to each Spanish autonomous community, before the illegal building works are potentially “TOLERATED” by the local authorities. The list holds true only if no prior complaints have been filed before. In other words, no one complained or noticed.
Autonomous Community Statute of limitations in years
Balearic Islands..8 years
Canary Islands..4 years
Castilla y León..4 years
Castilla-La Mancha..4 years
La Rioja..4 years
Let us learn the important difference between “tolerated” and “legal”: tolerated is of things endured, while legal is lawful. Unfortunately, that could mean you might still get a fine, or worse told to knock down your building even after the specified number of years have passed. Is it fair? Not for you. Not when you have bought your property in good faith. Your only defense is to be certain what you are buying is 100% legal, no ifs, buts, or maybes. Let’s assume the property has a building on it that has been there for hundreds of years. It’s in need of reform (renovation) – surely no one will object to your fixing it up. As the law stands, you have to have permission to reform/renovate. Flying under the radar is not as easy as it once was because of that wonderful invention I mentioned before called Google Earth. Not to mention the Rural Agents and that ever-present irritant… the nosey neighbour.
I’ve mentioned before a friend of mine who repaired the roof of a casita without permission because he simply didn’t know at that time he needed it. Months after he’d finished (it was close to a year if memory serves me right), he received notification from the ajuntament that he was being fined 2 or 3 thousand euros for the illegal work he carried out. Luckily he avoided having to pay the hefty fine, but he was left with no alternative but to forget his dreams because they told him he would never get permission now for any kind of new build/reform on that plot of land.
Damn if this post isn’t all doom and gloom, but take heart. Spain, like most countries, designates land into categories, and this might help or hinder you depending upon one’s viewpoint.
Suelo Rustico – Rural Land or Plots
Rural land, also called ‘suelo no urbanizable’, is governed by the national land law (Ley de Suelo), and by the land laws of the autonomous regions.
Suelo no urbanizable – Some rural land is protected (areas such as Parc Natural are designated as such), and can’t be built on. So do check where that Parc boundary lies!
Suelo Urbano – Urban Land or Plots are urbanised, serviced plots on housing projects with access roads, water, and electricity. These housing projects are known as urbanisations (urbanizaciones) in Spain.
Some rural land can be built on if certain conditions are met. “Yay!”, I hear you cry. Firstly, you must own a minimum plot size of 10,000m2 and that’s not always a problem, especially when land is cheap. Secondly, what you build must be for “agricultural purposes” which is their way of saying an almacen, not a house. It is a common misconception that this provides an easy loophole because you can build an almacen, live in it, and convert it x number of years down the line into a legal dwelling. Many people in the past have done it this way, but as I have said things are changing and the authorities are clamping down. So be warned. It is also important to note that, as with almost everything here in Spain, what applies in Extramadura may not apply in Galicia or Andalusia, as regulations governing building on rural land vary from region to autonomous region. My advice is to check, then recheck, before you hand over that cheque. Never rely on the sellers/estate agent’s word (estate agents are unregulated in Spain, so basically they can tell you anything with impunity). Always check what can and can’t be done with the local authorities before you commit to buy.
But how do you do that?
One way is by making a simple visit to the town planning department of the ayuntiamento and asking them. If you can’t speak Spanish and they can’t speak your language? You can use the services of a translator (person) or if all else fails, use Google translate. Write down what you want to ask and hand it to the officer. Just a few minutes out of your day could end up saving you money and heartache.
Need help! We offer a service for prospective buyers that includes a full work up of all information available on the property you are thinking of buying. The report costs €30 and takes 2-3 days to complete. We also make site visits starting at €65 that includes taking photos and videos of the property. Click “download” on the documents below to see some examples of reports we have prepared in the past. Photos and videos are accessed through a link at the bottom of the document.
We can also translate for you, either in person or on the phone, or even just make phone calls on your behalf. Perhaps you would like us to call the local council in your village to ask important questions about a property you are thinking of buying? We can provide you with recordings of all phone calls we make on your behalf and summaries in English/Italian/Dutch. The best part? Our assistance starts at just €20 an hour. Contact us for more information!
How to Live Legally in the Campo, on rural land. “fuera de la red” or “off-grid”.
One way is you can buy a property that already has a house (casa/casita) on it. But hang on, didn’t I just say that doesn’t mean anything? It actually means a lot if the house (casa/casita) appears on the land register (Catastral) and/or appears on the deeds. (Escritura, Nota Simple) and more importantly if it has a “cedula d’habitilidad” or if you prefer a “habitability certificate”.
This is an administrative document that confirms that the house meets the basic conditions to be inhabited. If you are wondering what are the basic conditions that your home has to meet, this will depend on the autonomous community in which it is located and the year of construction.
Getting a mortgage or loan in order to purchase your dream property.
If you have found a corner of paradise that you want but you don’t yet have enough money to buy it and build your dream home, you should know that banks rarely lend money for land and if they do it is never for the amount you are being told it is worth.
For example: many years ago when prices were at an all-time high, we looked at a finca of 3 hectares of orange and peach trees. We were told and shown it generated an income of €12,000 a year (however they neglected to mention that was before tax, so it went down a bit with that plus running costs). It had a ruin on it which was in terrible shape, but with work it had potential. The one really big selling point was that it had, to a limited extent, water. The asking price was €180,000. That seemed a little high but we intended to do some insistent haggling once we had done a bit of research. As we looked into it further we discovered that the land was valued (even with its income/water) at less than €30,000. We also found out that we could only borrow a maximum of 20% of the total value. Sadly we had to say “thank you but no thank you”, forget our dreams of being orange and peach magnates, and turn our sights elsewhere. It is worth noting that the banks don’t rate rustic land as having a great deal of value.
Caravans and other temporary dwellings.
Now that you have your piece of land and you are waiting for the renovations to begin, you have decided it might be a good idea to live on-site and keep an eye on things. You’ve probably heard that static caravans and more importantly wooden chalets don’t need permission, and once upon a time that used to be the case, but the law is changing and people are being told to remove even small caravans. So bear that in mind, and check with your ayuntamiento (local council) about the rules.
Thank you for reading this far! I hope I haven’t shattered your dreams of living off-grid in Spain, because it is possible to do so. All you need to do to make your off-grid dream a reality is pay attention to the details. Don’t get carried away with enthusiasm and forget that Spain is a country with a complicated bureaucracy and a long history of disputed land sales. Keep your wits about you, do your due diligence and in no time you will be living happily ever after, sipping that glass of wine on your terrace, enjoying the view, and thanking your lucky stars you learnt the difference between suelo rustico and suelo urbano!
Best of luck!
Josie, Max, and everyone else at Living Off-Grid in Spain.