I suppose this must be a legacy of the Thatcher years, but when I grew up and started work in the 90s UK owning one’s own home was simply a natural thing to aim for, a normal step on the path to middle-class maturity: graduate, embark on a career, and get started on the ‘property ladder’. The emphasis was very much about this idea of a ladder – real estate could be expected to do nothing but steadily increase in value, interest rates were regarded as predictable… Even if you over-leveraged yourself massively with your first-rung starter home, your mortgage payments as a proportion of income would tend to decrease as your career linearly progressed… What could possibly go wrong?
So anyway. That was the British way, our homes, our castles. And I guess it’s important to remember that despite the horrendous upheavals of the past decade a great many people did brilliantly out of this model prior to that, and lots of the second homes of early retirees in Spain were funded this way – cashing out the equity for a place in the sun. I am not bitter that we missed the big shedloads-of-equity, final-salary-pension gravy train by a generation, but for most working families now the reality is very different.
When we first came to Spain nearly 5 years ago, our plans were that we would rent for a year or so to see if we really meant it, and then we’d probably buy a house – put down roots in our new home, establish our castle complete with moat and drawbridge of course, and feel truly settled. However here we are again 5 years on and happily renting. Right now, I don’t see that changing in a hurry, and there are lots of reasons for that.
We came close, after about a year in Spain and our second short term let, we were very far from living the dream at that point. It was our first full winter here, and that alone had to be experienced to be fully believed, in a north-facing villa with no heating. It also leaked like a sieve, and every time the rain started the kids knew the drill and leapt into action with every kitchen container deployed… constantly bleaching black mould off the walls and emptying pans of water, and at the same time being bullied and harassed by landlords who wouldn’t fix the problems and continually expected us to pay for things that were contractually their responsibility.
We loved Spain and wanted to stay, but we felt oppressed and out of control of the highly-porous roof over our head – so naturally our thoughts turned to buying property. Great time to buy, we were told, and so it seemed there were many bargains to be had, even without selling our UK house. A lousy time to borrow however, we soon discovered – raising a mortgage for anything other than a bank repo was going to be terribly expensive and difficult. No financial footprint in Spain, no evident source of income in the UK, no deposit without remortgaging at a horrific rate in the UK – we were caught betwixt and between and found it very hard to find a lender to touch us. When we finally did the whole process was so complicated and difficult it initially blinded us to the wisdom of it, a process that would have left us mortgaged up to the hilt both ends – the very opposite of the freedom and flexibility we wanted.
Eventually commonsense won and thank goodness it did. Part of the reason for this was finding a nice new house to rent, with landlords who were actually pleasant and reasonable human beings. The house wasn’t new, things went wrong sometimes – we talked, we had dinner, we got stuff sorted, everyone was fair and honest, and a good friendship developed in the end. They restored our faith in good landlords.
But more than that we realized we were actually perfectly happy renting, and enjoying the flexibility that offered us. That feeling a place was home to us and where we loved to be, did not have to require owning the deeds to it. And when a year or so later the perfect school opportunity arose, we were free to look for a place that best suited us then in another town, without the hassle and very considerable expense of having to sell and buy a house.
Right now the house we live in is just right – close to school, next to the beach, next to the park the children love… in many ways I’d say I’d happily stay here forever, but who knows what the future brings? Occasionally it can be frustrating to think things like, well if we could it would be great to knock through here and alter that, like those 90s TV makeover shows we grew up on, but by and large its OK as it is. We live with the quirks and enjoy the many benefits.
If something major goes wrong, someone else pays to fix it. If our children one day move to their own places, we can get somewhere smaller. If something drastic happened to affect our incomes or futures we could pack up and go – the sheer flexibility is a massive trade-off against the lack of security. When people say ‘is this place even legal, this close to the beach?’ we can shrug and say well, nobody seems to mind at the moment. And yes we do know the landlord could decide to sell up, force us out, put up the rent, or whatever – he doesn’t seem so inclined right now, and this is legally our only home in this country so our position is quite strong.
Yes, if we had a mortgage on this place we would be paying less for it each month probably, but at huge opportunity cost to lack of flexibility, and the rental income from our place we still own in the UK obviously helps a lot to offset that.
Perhaps it is because we are simultaneously also landlords back there, I think we are good and reasonable tenants. We don’t keep the place like a show home, we have 2 kids and a cat and I am sure we give any place a fair degree of ‘wear and tear’ – when we left our last place we negotiated to buy the sofas our cat had left looking far from new, and we are not exactly keen gardeners either.
But we do basic repairs and maintenance ourselves, keep an eye on the neighbours and report any plot encroachments, palm infestations, or security issues promptly. We don’t make changes to anything structural, and we look after the minimal furnishings supplied… We keep the place safe, clean and above all pay the rent and bills every month on the day without fail – because all of these things matter to us on the other end, and that last one most of all.
We have never rented through an agent, always ended up dealing directly with owners, which suits us fine – although we prefer to use an agent to manage our place in the UK, we are happy to manage our own let here and make our own arrangements to find a plumber or whatever. Apart from the one bad landlord referred to above we have always had good experiences with this arrangement.
A lot of people say you never get your deposit back in Spain, well again with that one exception we always have, and we have never paid more than a month’s deposit either. We have met some lovely agents some of whom I will gladly recommend to new arrivals, but they’ve never shown us what we need at the right combination of time and price, and it’s fair to say others have seriously wasted our time (“So, where is the 4th bedroom?” “Oh, I thought you could have your office here on the naya..” “Oh I know it says no pets but you’d probably be fine…” etc)
I don’t think any of the four houses we have lived in here have been advertised for long term rental anyway, I have found them all by networking, exploring, calling houses that are ‘se vende’ or else advertised for holiday lets – a lot of holiday rentals are way down on income in recent years and many owners are definitely open to the idea of a longer term arrangement for guaranteed return. Just ask, and explain what kind of tenant you would be and what the advantages would be for them.
So will we ever buy in Spain? I am not sure. We love it here and want to stay, but for us putting down roots in a place no longer means personally investing in bricks and mortar, and keeping our options open.