Following news of the EU resolution into “rampant construction” in Spain, Jon Robins of the Observer takes a look at the situation in Albox – one of the towns in the spotlight of MEPs in Brussels.
“I HAVE sold up in the UK, invested my life savings in this piece of ground, and the house that stands on it,” says Bob Naya, a 62-year-old British man living in Almería in the south-east corner of Spain. “Now my home faces demolition.”
Bob Naya spent about 150,000 euros on his home in the sun in Albox and he stands to lose his entire investment. He is one of hundreds of expats who unknowingly bought houses that had been built illegally. These properties now cannot be sold, and could even face the bulldozers.
Many of Bob Naya’s friends and neighbours were sent into a panic when the Almeria civil court recently ordered the demolition of 11 such properties in the inland town of Albox.
Those houses were built on suelo no urbanizable (land not designated for urban construction).
The court also ordered building on the Almanzora Country Club to stop, bringing a halt to work on 1,500 houses.
The pressure on those who came out to the south of Spain with the hope of a retirement in the sun on their modest pensions has been unbearable. Mr Naya, a former local government officer, has set up a residents’ group called Abusos Urbanisticos Almanzora No and in two months 200 members have signed up.
“My wife could not take the stress and strain of it any more. She has gone back to live in England with our daughter,” says Mr Naya. “Many Brits out here are physically ill and suffer from all kinds of anxiety syndromes caused specifically by this situation.”
Irwin Mitchell Abogados, the Spanish branch of a British law firm, recently hosted an advice clinic at Albox town hall, together with Naya’s group; 100 concerned residents, all Britons, turned up.
The firm specialises in class actions; so far, 40 ex-pats have signed on to its books and two or three new clients arrive each day.
“Unfortunately, British buyers have been caught up in a fever over the last few years, as properties have been dirt cheap,” says one of the firm’s partners, José Maria de Lorenzo.
So how does your Spanish dream home become the stuff of nightmares? Illegal in this context means the property is without a licence, or the correct licence, or that it does not meet the planning regulations.
At the most extreme that means a breach of the country’s criminal code, and sanctions can range from fines to imprisonment.
However, according to the law firm, the most severe punishments are to be reserved for developers and government officials. A number of regional officials have already been sent down for taking bribes over the granting of licences.
“What appears to have happened is people have been giving bungs to the local authorities to actually issue licences when they should not have,” explains Peter Esders, a partner with the British-based International Law Partnership, which covers the Spanish market.
“On the face of it, the purchases look perfectly legal. They have the proper stamps and seals. When people carry out the relevant searches, it looks as though they have planning permission.”
The bad news is even a diligent lawyer would probably fail to spot the scam. He adds: “No solicitor is going to check behind a planning permission. You just cannot.”
Esders says the good news is that the extent of the scandal has been revealed and the authorities are now tackling the problem.
“People should have a lot more confidence in the area,” he says.
And, unsurprisingly, estate agents are keen to calm nerves. “The problems are largely historical now,” insists Chris McCarthy of Viva Estates in Almeria, which has about 3,500 properties for sale.
“There are people with very real problems but I think that is going to be resolved. This part of Spain is currently about the safest area to buy in because everybody now has to be extremely careful.”
None the less, there is concern at how many Britons have rushed into buying properties without proper advice.
“Most people, when they are buying abroad, tend not to use an independent lawyer. I find that amazing,” says Esders.
He suggests there are a number of reasons for this. For example, buyers possibly mistakenly believe the Spanish notarial system offers protection.
“People think the notary public is signing a deal off, and that is all they need; but the notary does not check they have planning permission,” he says.
Agents and developers also routinely advise would-be buyers they can rely on their lawyers. But the agent’s commission on a new-build property can be as much as 20 per cent, giving them a vested interest in seeing the deal go through, reveals Brian Marson, a British property law expert who moved to Marbella in 2003 and set up Legalanswers, a legal practice employing locally qualified lawyers.
“Unfortunately, when people get off their plane at Málaga, they have left their brain at Gatwick,” he says. “The sky is blue, everything is lovely and people want to believe what they are told.’
“The idea was to retire, enjoy the life, and live the dream,” says Mike Phillips, a 63-year-old former electrical engineer who moved with his wife, Jan, to Albox in 2004. “Instead, we are living in a nightmare and trapped in a house we cannot sell.”
The couple spent 205,000 euros on their villa, but their problems began before their home was even finished, when “the builders went into liquidation,” Mike recalls. However, the big problem was that the couple’s home was built without the proper licence.
The couple blame their Spanish solicitor, whom they say “misled them from the start.”
“Our solicitor assured us that although the house was suelo no urbanizable, licences were not a problem,” Mike says.
The contract stipulated if the builder failed to obtain licences, the purchaser would get a refund. That was little consolation, however, as the builders disappeared.
The fact the property is illegal under local law has not stopped the couple having to pay hefty costs, including 11,000 euros for electricity and water to be supplied.
It transpired the couple’s land was half of a parcel of land owned by the builders. When they went bankrupt, the couple was effectively forced to spend 30,000 euros buying the other half because parcels could not be split under local law.
“Now I have 5,350 square metres of land, half of which I cannot do anything with,” says Mike.