Over the last few years we have heard an increasing number of, perhaps apocryphal, tales of UK citizens “not recognising” the country they grew up in. Tales of people feeling alienated in their own country and looking for a way out.
When you decide that you are nearing the end of a busy working life, your family have fled the nest, or you simply want a better quality of life for your family, inevitably your mind will wander to questions of whether there is a better quality of life to be found elsewhere.
We’ve all attended those “lifestyle” shows at the NEC or Olympia where the prospect of 330 days a year of sun, a milder climate for arthritic bones, a golf course for every day of the week, international quality schooling and a magnificently diversity of influences are dangled carrot-like beneath our noses.
Many of us have said, “Can I have some of that? Yes please…!”
Well, nearly three years ago, together with my wife and three kids, we decided that a home in Wandsworth, south-west London and a partnership in a Mayfair law practice had passed their sell-by dates and we needed a new dream.
My wife, who has been coming to the South of Spain regularly since early childhood, is a very accomplished Spanish speaker. Exposure – so to speak – to a succession of Spanish au pairs in London had broken me in, so the location of our transition was fairly obvious. We’d move to the Costa del Sol.
After three fruitless and costly attempts to purchase a house in the Nueva Andalucía area of Marbella, we decided to rent – culture shock number one.
We rented a five-bedroom villa with a splendid garden and the all-important crystal blue swimming pool. It was exceptional for the first months after our arrival in the mid-summer but, as the glorious autumn came and went, our first winter reminded us that the majority of older properties in the developed South of Spain were constructed primarily for summer use.
That stunning white marble floor throughout the house had a refrigerating quality in the high summer – it has exactly the same quality in mid-winter. And let me tell you when you are used to 35-degree summers, 8-degree winters feel really cold. Those romantic log fires in October became braziers of necessity in January.
Lesson One – If you are going to relocate and live in Spain all year round, choose a newer property that has either underfloor heating, hot and cold air conditioning and/or tiled or wood floors rather than marble in the main reception rooms. Alternatively, buy an extremely ancient cortijo or finca with metre-thick walls and stone floors.
For the eleven months we lived in the house in Nueva Andalucía we used that beautiful crystal blue swimming pool for no more than four months. In November to December – when we made no use of it – an error by me in setting the pool’s heating device resulted in a €600 electricity bill! When regular electricity bills were a little over €100 a month it came as quite a shock.
Lesson Two – Live on an urbanización where you have communal pools, tennis and padel courts.
Our first experiences of gastos domésticos – or those usual home bills which required settling monthly – was our second jolt of culture shock. Where else would we have happily queued in the bank to be told that we were only able to pay an electricity bill over the counter before 10.00 am and only on Tuesdays and Thursdays after the 10th of each month!
Lesson Three – direct debits – pago domiciliado – what an invention…
The quality of schools in “our” part of Spain is, perhaps, among the best anywhere in the world. The problem is lack of spaces.
We decided early on that EIC in Elviria was best for our three. Their success record spoke for itself, the atmosphere is warm but very professional and the management excellent. After a brief need to occupy my eldest elsewhere whilst a place became available, in September 2004 all three, dressed in the familiar blue and white, started at EIC – a mere 20 minutes or so from San Pedro de Alcántara.
Lesson Four – If you want to get your kids into a good school – and there are a few – you need to book early.
Moving to the beach in San Pedro de Alcántara nearly two years ago was literally a breath of fresh air. Our new home, also rented, is a bungalow with four bedrooms and suits us perfectly. Or at least it did until my wife, who has a lifelong passion for riding, decided to accept the kind offer of a school mum to ride in La Cala. This is 30 minutes up the Coast, past the kids’ school, towards Málaga. There soon followed my kids’ passion for a pony, which became their Christmas gift and then, much to my surprise, my own passion for a life in the saddle. I have started to take lessons.
The toll on our time travelling along the Coast has meant that we are now due to move in the next month or so to the East of Marbella, nearer to the school and the stables.
Lesson Five – If you are uncertain about the precise location of your dream home, wait and rent – whilst you establish where life takes you. Renting is becoming increasingly competitive and the traditionally lower yields on rented property means that a long-term rental may deliver you a more valuable house more cheaply than purchasing the same property outright. The only caveats being whether you buy for cash or settle on one of the newer style mortgage products which are helping to close this gap.
I spent 23 years in the UK as a lawyer in industry and then, prior to three years ago, for the last 12 in private practice. I had a fairly keen understanding of being a client and an adviser. My confrères in the Spanish market didn’t habitually appreciate the notion of “the client is king”. It struck me that there was a gap in the market for a British-style operator. As a result I created what I am told is the first relocation-focused business to operate in this part of Spain.
It’s called The Rights Group SL (TRG) and it assists clients who have a limited amount of experience of Spain in short-circuiting the process of deciding with whom to work. Through its one-stop-shop, the TRG Network, it helps clients to determine who’s best to represent their interests in Spain – not just their legal interests but also their accounting and tax, their mortgage, insurance, currency, wealth planning and house building issues.
We have noticed over the last few months a significant growth in its business. This, we suspect, is as a direct result of UK TV and media pieces which have focused on those unlucky individuals who have been misinformed, ill-advised, or have become the victims of conflicted interests.
TRG’s second but equally important role is to project manage clients’ dealings in Spain and to “drive” the clients’ chosen professional advisers, as necessary. TRG representatives effectively become the client’s eyes and ears in Spain. They ask the right questions, get the required answers and, in tandem with the chosen advisers, keep the client fully informed at all stages – using electronic communication where possible.
Lesson Six – Let someone with current experience of the market place help you to minimise the risk of you making mistakes!
What kind of “relocator” are you? We have identified that most people who choose Spain as their first home fall into one of three categories:
- The retired or semi-retired couple looking for a greater quality of life and the ability to offer their family a great vacation opportunity. Let me tell you that your grandchildren, and the rest of the people with whom you had only a nodding acquaintance back in your home town, will want to come and visit you when you live in the sun.
- The “nomad” expat whose work takes him/her to far-flung corners of the globe. They have usually lived an expat life in the Middle or Far East for a number of years and home base is less important but the UK is not an option. They do want a foothold in Europe, and for some reason France and Italy do not really appeal. They tend to spend perhaps three or more months a year “at home” in Spain and often buy homes for cash earned in tax free zones overseas. Sometimes these relocators may also be a blend of 1. and 2.
- The family lifestyle relocator, where the breadwinner works either in Spain, the UK, or overseas and the location of the family home can be a question of choice – the quality option. Typical amongst this group are airline pilots and petro-chemical engineers.
Whilst the Spanish Costas were once the privilege of the self-made millionaires and dubious characters, they are fast becoming very welcoming to those seeking to improve their lives whilst not severing their routes to income in their home market. This means that a business person can locate themselves as well in Marbella as in Maidstone.
As the economy develops on the Costa del Sol so does the job market. A barometer of this is the number of recruitment companies establishing roots here and the variety of publications and websites dedicated to ensuring that those who want to work can.
The local market is still property, golf, and tourism based. We have noticed businesses starting to emerge that serve the expat markets in the printing, restaurant, magazine publishing and motor vehicles sectors. Above all there is a sense of “frontier” about activities here. It encourages an entrepreneurial spirit and, unlike the UK, the barriers to entry are not as prohibitive.
With the cost of many properties on the desired Costa del Sol reaching the heights equivalent to many a metropolitan home in the UK, this glorious coast has become a “first home” market, where those who relocate regularly do so on a year-round basis. The market is entering a reality phase where prices are stabilising and real value for money is starting to be obtained.
With an increasingly sophisticated mortgage market where, although self certification is not yet possible, many can buy their dream villa, finca or cortijo with a chunk of equity from the sale of a UK property plus a mortgage from a Spanish lender at an annual rate in the region of 3.25%. Loans of up to 80% of value are common and these come with defined periods of interest-only payments.
Unlike more recently discovered areas in the former Eastern Bloc, Maálaga, Almería, Jerez and Granada airports all remain within the magical three hours from the UK – perfect for combining a couple of meetings in London, Manchester or Glasgow and catching the midweek game at Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford or Ibrox Park before the morning flight back home.
The infrastructure is exceptional, the roads, the broadband – with many newer hotels and restaurants installing WiFi capability – and the simple variety of life from skiing in Sierra Nevada to lounging by the Urbanisation’s crystal blue gurgling water, to walking the dogs along the many kilometres of beautiful beaches (with a handy poo bag, of course).
This is a new coast – it doesn’t have the “age” of the Côte d’Azur and some of the developments have questionable architecture but where else can my kids be on the beach in the morning, skiing in the afternoon and riding into the country at dusk. Unlike the Côte d’Azur we do genuinely have over 300 days per year of sun and the temperature never dips below 5°!
Whatever your life stage, I am confident that you and your family will experience a new lease of life, often out of doors, and you’ll wonder for ever more why you didn’t do it ten years ago.
© Mark F R Wilkins 2005 (Marbella)