Doing It Yourself
Harry King retired from corporate life in Britain to live in Spain. He would do so all over again if faced with the same decision, and now lives in Alicante. He is the author of a number of books including Going to Live in Spain, Buying a Property in Spain and Buy to Let in Spain.
Foreigners purchasing a property in Spain predominantly buy a new home bought off plan, or a resale home. There are however three other combinations:
- picking a plot of land and model property design from an agent, developer or builder;
- renovating a ruin – the classic rural finca;
- going it alone, building it yourself, on rural land.
Building or redeveloping a home is not something to be taken on lightly. It is not a case of buying land, approving a design, appointing a builder, going away and maintaining telephone contact. You need to be personally involved or, failing that, to ensure the project is managed by a local architect or building engineer. Before starting on a project of this scale appoint a good abogado, one who can recommend a builder and an architect and who can also assist with a building permit and planning application.
PLOT OF LAND WITH A MODEL PROPERTY
There is little difference between this approach and buying a standard property off plan. A plot of land will be a choice from a plan. The house type will be a choice of several options available from a builder – type A, or type B, etc. With some thought and attention to detail a dream house is possible but personal supervision of the building programme is absolutely necessary – location of the plot, position of the property on the plot and adherence to the building specification.
RENOVATED OR RESTORED HOUSES
Many people like the idea of returning a derelict ruin to its former glory. Restoration is less popular than building new, because it is usually more expensive and there are limited opportunities to acquire a cheap, suitable shell building. Do not purchase a picturesque tumbledown farmhouse only to discover that renovation is way beyond personal skills and means. You could also get hopelessly bogged down in trying to get planning permission and satisfying all the requirements of building regulations. It is all too easy to become entangled in red tape if not conversant with Spanish laws, nor speaking the language fluently.
Whatever the disrepair of a building, the process starts with the purchase of a property. It may be run down. It may even be a ruin. It is probably in the country but can be a terraced house in a Spanish town. Either way, the starting point is the purchase of a resale property.
Carrying out checks
Since the external structure of the building will probably be altered a number of checks need to be carried out before purchasing. The most obvious is to check with the planning department at the town hall to find out exactly what can be done. Demolish, rebuild, extend upwards or outwards, or simply renovate, are the options. With a town house, renovation and an upward extension are probably the only possibilities.
In the country do not assume anything is possible. In fact the height, size and number of properties per 1,000 or 10,000 or 30,000 square metres is regulated by a town hall planning department and it may only be possible to extend the footprint of a property by a small amount. Ten thousand square metres of land is a normal requirement for rustico properties (country land with no building designation with a water supply) and 30,000 square metres for land without a water supply.
Check utility supplies. If none, how much will it cost to install them? Important questions need answering about supply of electricity and water, sewage disposal, TV reception, telephone and communication systems.
In the UK it is normal to have a building survey on a property prior to exchange of contracts. Some UK surveyors operate in Spain, providing a survey to cover all structural elements, such as the roof, walls, doors, windows, floors, outbuildings, garden walls and external and internal decorative state. Damp tests will be carried out by an electronic damp meter to each individual room in the house, and comments made on general services such as water, electricity, gas supply and drainage.
Not many people use a surveyor in Spain. They will probably be Spanish and a survey costs around 1,000€ plus additional translation costs. People embarking on a building project normally have enough confidence in their structural knowledge to trust their own judgment and those who don’t should not be embarking on such a large project in the first place.
Assuming all these checks are satisfactory it is now safe to purchase the property and proceed to the next step of obtaining a licencia de obra (building licence) from the local town hall.
Before purchasing either urban or rural land a number of vital enquiries have to be made. Most important is the planning status attached to it which may prevent development. For example it may be designated an area of beauty or for a specific purpose only. With areas of outstanding beauty, retaining natural charm is often a key issue with planning departments. Asking planning authorities to change this designation is difficult. On the other hand planning applications are almost automatic where an area has been approved for urbanisation or general housing development.
Look for a town plan called the Plan General de Ordenacion Urbana (PGOU), the municipal building plan. Drawing it up involves both local and regional government, with the latter not always approving the usually overambitious plans of the former. It involves political, social and legal considerations. A town plan is not a static document. It can involve strategic planning and detailed consideration of individual planning applications. Looking at a plan is one thing, understanding it is another, more complex issue, with specialist help often necessary.
The purchase of rural land has further complications. Where are the boundaries? Are there any rights over the land? What can it be used for? All these factors have to be checked before proceeding. While the boundaries may be marked by paint on rocks, numbers, or metal stakes in the ground, this is useless if a defining piece of paper contradicts these markers.
Lastly where crops and trees are growing, or land is used for agricultural purposes, check the water rights. Check the road access for winter rain. Are there any tracks or rights of way across the land? Are there any building developments or roads planned close by? Will the property be overlooked by any other higher development obstructing the line of sight? Do adjoining neighbours have any prior purchasing rights?
Contracts and checks
Buying land is much the same as buying a house. It needs a contract and an escritura and a visit to the notary. It requires the payment of IVA which in the case of land is 16 per cent (remember it is only seven per cent for a property). It also requires pre-purchase checks and the one check that nearly always ends in some discussion is about boundaries of rural land since they are often described in vague terms. If problems exist with boundaries an official surveyor (topografo) can survey and measure the land thus identifying its boundaries and size. The findings form part of a new escritura. Thereafter the way to proceed is to compare the escritura (assuming one exists) with the catastro certificate (a map with boundaries). There needs to be officially recognised boundaries and a statement of the exact square metres in both documents. While they may not agree initially, this can be corrected upon purchase when a new escritura and a new catastro description are brought in line.
All done and correct? It is now safe to purchase the land and proceed to the next step of obtaining a licencia de obra (building licence) from the local town hall.
BUILDING LICENCE – NEW AND RENOVATED PROPERTIES
Officially titled licencia de obra – a building licence – this document can also be called a building permit or permiso de obra. It is necessary to have a building licence to build a property on a piece of land in the country or in the town. It is also necessary for renovating an older property.
Previous checks at the town hall will have given an assurance that there is no objection in principle to being issued with a building licence, which is the equivalent of planning permission. When discussions took place the issue of local building codes will have arisen, such as the distance between the boundary and any other building, the distance between a wall and a road, the number of storeys and what about any established urbanisation approval?
You need to understand the applicable building codes before submitting final plans. It may be that approval of building licences can be influenced. A Spaniard accompanied by a local architect and builder known to the town hall planning people will gain maximum flexibility from the codes. Foreigners, who are often accustomed to obtaining planning permission for as little as a garden shed, like to keep to the rules but find the whole planning system wearisome and unless accompanied by a local architect or Spanish solicitor they are unlikely to be able to grapple with the issues involved. To obtain the required building licence, a detailed set of plans with a building specification, called a memoria, must be submitted for approval.
Delay often accompanies the final issue of a building licence. It is the point of no return for local authorities. Final approval may be referred to Provincial or Comunidad level if the project involves a change from rustico to urbano designation or the district does not have an approved Plan General de Ordenacion Urbana (PGOU). Building licences come so much quicker when renovating a ruin compared to building new – a ruin is unsightly and in the eyes of the planners best upgraded. Lastly, one person frequently called to assist a private person is the local Mayor. Remember they usually want the project to succeed and, of course, a personal vote.
Do you really need an architect?
There are two main ways to obtain a building plan. One method is to go to a local builder who will have a stock of house types which can be altered to individual requirements. The second method is to have plans drawn up by an independent architect, local or from anywhere in the EU, in line with individual tastes and requirements.
A good architect can match financial limitations to budget, sort out muddled thinking, design a home and steer a project through the planning stages. The best way to find a good architect is by personal recommendation. Find one who has worked on a similar project, where examples of their work can be seen and references obtained.
There is pressure for the appointment of architects. It reduces the number of unsightly designs and removes some responsibility from the town hall to other qualified individuals. In fact architects’ drawings are necessary to obtain a building permit and an architect signs off the completed building. The minimum architect’s fee is set by their Colegio de Arquitectos at six per cent of the estimated construction cost. However, as is the way in Spain, the estimated cost of construction will be reduced by around 20 per cent in all official documents. The actual construction cost will be around 75 per cent of the finished market value. An aparejador (building engineer) is the architect’s right hand man. They supervise building construction on the architect’s behalf with a charge of 1.5 per cent of estimated construction cost.
If it goes wrong
Builders often say ‘you can build anything you want here. If it goes wrong we will pay the fine.’ Don’t believe it! The statement may be accurate, it may be made with the best of intentions, but it is not correct or contractually binding. Some people deliberately build without permission. If the town hall does not object within seven years, it is approved. If permission has not been granted, or an alteration has breached planning rules, a fine of five per cent of the alteration value is imposed, provided the modification is deemed satisfactory and can be legalised. Blatant breeches accrue a fine of 20 per cent and the building is demolished.
Along the Mediterranean building is taking place at a prodigious rate. In some popular areas planning authorities have special deals with a developer. Land is re-zoned to permit greater building in exchange for part of a developer’s profits going to increase the town’s revenue. This does raise a few eyebrows, especially where a mayor or councillors have an interest in the land, but it is not illegal. The best that can be said is the extra income assists all residents in reducing taxes.
The architect prepares a memoria de calidades (building specification). While many items, such as concrete, bricks and electrical wiring, are standard, many are not: roof tiles, floor tiles, wall tiles; electrical fittings, bathroom fittings and kitchen fittings; doors and windows! Getting the memoria correct is important as a builder uses it to prepare a competitive quotation. Any changes or extras made later will cost more, usually a lot more, as they are no longer competing.
A modern Spanish house is built to a high specification with little wood used in its construction. It is a strong property, of concrete and brick, which tends to carry sound easily. Water pipes are set unobtrusively in the walls which may cause problems should they leak. A major feature is a low maintaince finish on both inside and outside walls. Spanish houses are designed to achieve coolness in summer. This requirement is aided by the use of window shutters to block out hot summer sunlight.
If a builder fails to meet a building specification they are accountable in law. The Ley de Ordenacion de Edificacion makes a builder legally responsible for ten years for any damage resulting from foundations, load-bearing walls and other structural elements. They are responsible for three years for damage caused by construction material defects, and one year for the external finish. An architect is also responsible for ten years for incorrect instructions and undetected defects in the land such as subsidence.
The memoria, used as a basis for quotation, should also be incorporated into a building contract as a basis for payment. As large a fee as possible should be paid on completion and the smallest fee paid up front. A building contract should be similar in style to a contract for an off plan property with emphasis on what is included, method of payment and giving a definite completion date with penalties for late completion. Like a purchase contract this is a key document, not to be considered lightly, and should be checked first by an abogado.
All builders have an insurance policy to cover any liability to the public and their employees. It should also cover the possibility of going bankrupt before completing the property. The number and details of this policy should be stated in the purchase contract but often are not, creating some suspicion that insurance may not have been arranged. Strangely it is small builders who are more likely to go bankrupt as larger builders have bank guarantees and bank managers checking their cash flow. The financial consequences of a builder going bankrupt can be serious but time delays, while an alternative builder is found, cause additional frustration.
The balance of an architect, an aparejador, a memoria and a building contract all checked by an abogado should give total safeguard to anyone going it alone. An alternative to all this is just to let the builders in or to build it yourself. You know exactly what you want, are confident of costs and specification. This is not recommended, but when reforming a town house with little or no external modifications, it is often done.
The perils of shortcuts
Many people think they can take shortcuts. Never mind the rules. Who do they meet? A cowboy, a term usually associated with people who offer services in return for a sum of cash, then either disappear, or carry out such horrendous work that the client ends up spending more to rectify the damage.
In the UK many of these cowboys are named and shamed on television. Trading standards officers investigate and some cowboys are prosecuted for the slipshod work they do, or for overcharging customers. But what about Spain, where there is little effective trading standards control? In almost all the cases, a victim has paid thousands of euros to have building work carried out before realising they are being taken for a ride. They meet with aggression from the people who carried out the work: ‘Try and sue me, this is Spain and you won’t get anywhere’.
In a lot of cases, people prefer to put the experience down to bad luck rather than pursue the matter through the courts. In some cases they realise they have appointed a builder without due care and attention. Very few pursue the matter through the courts, partly through embarrassment and because of the possibility of throwing good money after bad.
To avoid this go by the rules, but if absolutely determined to appoint a builder for a small job, check the credentials of the person being considered. If they are a registered builder then they will be able to show valid FVA documentation. Secondly, any good builder will show work they have previously done and allow an independent conversation with their clients so that their credentials are verified. Beware of hidden extras because there should not be any. If changes take place to a specification they should be by mutual agreement and be included on an amendment sheet to the contract. Lastly, at no time pay large cash sums of money up front.
Once the building is complete we are back to the procedures outlined in Chapter 6 Purchasing a Property, starting with the Certificado Final de la Direccion de la Obra and the Licencia de Primera Ocupacion through to the notary and the escritura.