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Expat couple win ‘hollow victory’ over house demolition

The British couple who have been living in a garage since their dream villa was demolished over so-called planning irregularities eight years ago have won their bid for compensation. But they are not happy about it.

Expat couple win 'hollow victory' over house demolition
Len and Helen Prior at the gates of their bulldozed villa. Photo: AUAN

Len and Helen Prior, both 72, made headlines when in 2008 they became the first British home owners in Spain to see their property demolished over so called “planning irregularities”.

Last week, after an eight year legal battle, during which they have been camping out on the plot of their flattened villa, they finally got the court ruling they had been waiting for.

A court ruled that their local town hall had been wrong to send in the bulldozers and ordered Vera council to pay them compensation of €425,185.43 plus interest.

“Unfortunately it simply isn’t enough, considering we asked for €600,000 in compensation for the house and €200,000 for moral damages we have suffered.” Mrs Prior told The Local on Monday.

“We have been fighting through the courts for over eight years so once we have paid our legal bills we will only have pennies left.”

The nightmare started one morning in January 2008 when the couple saw a bulldozer approaching the gate of the beautiful two-storey villa they had built in a rural part of Vera, on Spain’s Almeria coast.

Because despite having the correct planning permission from their villa from the town hall, the regional government of Andalusia had revoked the licence and ordered it to be town down

They were given just a few hours to remove their belongings from the villa, ironically named “Tranquillidad” in the expectation that it was here the couple would peacefully spend their retirement after selling up in Wokingham Berkshire and relocating to sunnier climes.

Instead, they were powerless as they watched their dream turn into a nightmare. Mr Prior collapsed as the bulldozer moved in and they watched the €400,000 villa reduced to rubble.

“We worked hard all our lives to enjoy our retirement and instead we have endured a hell,” Mrs Prior said. 

Since the demolition the couple have been living in a garage on the plot with a collection of rescued dogs while they battled their case through Spain’s complicated justice system and blame was passed between town hall and regional planning authorities.

Despite a ruling by Spain’s constitutional court ruling that declared that their house had been demolished illegally it has taken until now for the couple to win compensation.

But they have yet to see any money.

“We have been told that Vera town hall can appeal the decision to award us compensation so we could still be in for months more legal process before we even see any of that money,” admitted a resigned Mrs Prior.

“It won’t make any difference now anyway as once the legal bills have been paid we won’t be able to afford to go back to the UK or buy anything else here.”

The couple have been instrumental in ensuring that no similar fate will befall other homeowners.

Last July they saw Spain’s lawmakers introduce legislation to protect homeowners who bought in good faith from having their homes demolished until compensation was agreed in advance.

The couple, who are grandparents to six and have three young great-grandchildren, said the compensation ruling has brought them no solace at all.

“We still can’t believe this happened to us. There are a hundred houses around us in the same situation yet we are the only ones his happened to. It’s fair to say that it has utterly ruined our lives.”

The AUAN, the pressure group representing hundreds of expat homeowners in the Almeria region whose properties have been declared illegal called for the state to finally do right by the Priors.

“Enough is enough. The Calvary of the Priors had lasted for nearly ten years. They did nothing wrong except to trust the Spanish State and its legal system,” demanded Maura Hillen, a local councillor and president of AUAN.  

“Now is the time to pay them and to put an end to their odyssey, which is so harmful and damaging for them and for everyone who lives here,” she said.

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EXPLAINED: What you need to know about locksmiths in Spain

If you get locked out, have a break-in or need to change or fix the door lock at your home in Spain, here are the rates and advice you need before calling a Spanish locksmith (cerrajero).

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about locksmiths in Spain

Like anywhere, locksmiths are generally expensive and the price can vary greatly depending on the service you need and where you are.

It also depends on when you need them, as it’ll cost much more to call them out on a Saturday night than a Monday morning, for example.

Nor would it cost the same to open your front door as it would a reinforced security door.

But locksmiths don’t just make copies of keys and bail you out when you’re stuck outside your flat.

They also offer a whole host of different services including, but not limited to, opening safes, creating master keys, installing security doors, anti-drill doors, cutting specialist locks that reject copied keys, and even unlocking the boot of your car.

How much does a locksmith cost in Spain?

Given all these variables, the price can range massively.

According to Cronoshare, the average price for a nationwide call out in Spain can start from €80 anywhere up to €400.

On average, for a basic service, you can expect to pay anywhere between €40-€70 an hour for the labour, with the price of changing or installing a basic lock anywhere between €80-€200. 

For basic door openings, it depends on the situation you find yourself in: for doors locked with a key, which is a more complex task, prices average around €200, and for doors that are jammed or slammed shut, slightly cheaper in the €80-€100 range.

For an armoured or security door, prices can start at around €300.

In short, a general rule is that the more complex the task is, the higher the prices.

And as always, prices can vary depending on where you are in Spain, the quality of the locksmith, the time of the day and week you need his or her services, and if its a public holiday or not. 

So, as always, compare prices to try and find the most economical solution without skimping on quality.

As such, the following rates are estimations taken from average prices from locksmith.

Weekend/holiday rates

Where prices can really start to add up, however, is when you have an emergency situation requiring a locksmith’s assistance at the weekend, on a public holiday, or outside of normal working hours.

And if you live in Spain, you probably know there’s quite a few of those days throughout the year.

If you really need a cerrajero on a public holiday or during non-working hours (usually defined as anything between 8pm-8am) prices can reach €300 or €500 due to the fact you’ll have to cover the cost of travel, which starts from around €40 plus the increased rate.

Then you must also include the price of labour to the flat rate, which is usually somewhere between €40 and €70 an hour regardless of when you call them out.

Key vocabulary 

We’ve put together some of the basic vocabulary you might need if you find yourself needing a locksmith while in Spain.

el cerrajero – locksmith

la llave – the key

la llave de repuesto – the spare key

la puerta – the door

la cerradura – the lock

la bisagra – the hinge

día festivo – public holiday

cambio de bombín – change of cylinder lock

puerta blindada – armoured door

coste de mano de obra – labour costs

quedarse afuera – get locked out 

puerta cerrada de un portazo – door slammed shut

puerta cerrada con llave – locked door

Tips relating to choosing a good locksmith in Spain 

If you’ve just started renting a new place or have bought a property, it’s advisable to change the lock as you don’t know who has keys to your front door. If you’re a tenant, try to negotiate this with your landlord as it’s in both of your interests that only you two have keys to the property.

If there has been a burglary in your property while you’re living in it and there’s no sign of forced entry, then there’s a very big chance that the burglars had a copy of your keys, and you should definitely change the locks. 

If you’ve lost your keys and you think it happened close to your home, again it’s advisable for you to change the locks.

One of the best ways to avoid being locked out and having to cough up a hefty sum is to give a spare set to someone that you trust that lives in your town or city in Spain. 

When it comes to choosing a locksmith in Spain, you should make sure he or she is a reputable one. Asking friends and family first can be your first port of call.

If not, make sure you read reviews online if available to get any insight beforehand.

In order to avoid any nasty surprises, ask them on the phone for a budget (presupuesto) for all the costs attached to their services before accepting.

Be wary of cerrajeros that automatically want to change the whole lock when a simpler and less costly option is possible. 

Usually they should offer you a contract for you to read carefully before signing. It should include a three-month guarantee for the potential new lock or at least a breakdown of the costs.

Make sure that they are not charging you an excessively high price if it’s an emergency, as this is not actually legal.

There’s also asking them to prove their accreditation with the Unión Cerrajeros de Seguridad (UCES).

Weekend and holiday rates can be higher nonetheless, so consider your options and if it’s worth staying with a friend or family member for a night to save some money. A trustworthy and honest cerrajero will let you know about the money you could save if you choose to wait as well.

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