Property in Spain: What I wish I’d known before buying a rural retreat to renovate

After reading an article in a Sunday supplement, Stephanie de Leng dreamed of upping sticks from Liverpool to a rural retreat in Valencia. But the journey wasn't straightforward. Here she shares with The Local what she's learnt along the way.

Property in Spain: What I wish I'd known before buying a rural retreat to renovate
How the property looked when Stephanie bought it.

I am not a great person for regrets, believing firmly that even negative events usually turn out for the better. That said, there are a number of avoidable mistakes I made before and after I bought a ruin in rural Spain.

It starts with the fact I was looking for a fantasy well away from the modern world with three stipulations that puzzled most agents. Please, no electricity supply in view, not near to the sea, and no McDonalds!

I searched from Girona down to Valencia and found this more difficult to satisfy than I originally thought. Many ruins with spectacular views and no electricity were in protected zones where any type of renovation was strictly forbidden.

Often access was hair-raising and you found yourself literally clinging to the side of a steep mountain like a goat. If not, then invariably a hideous pylon passed nearby – often above the ruin without it receiving any benefit.

Eventually I found the breath-taking El Maestrat, an area stretching between the upper provinces of Castellon and Teruel higher up. One of the last unspoilt regions of Spain, Unesco has praised it for its unrivalled air quality.

Planning permission is not generally a problem as the local towns are desperate for re-population. I found the people here welcoming, and instantly knew that this was where I wanted to be so here are the first three things that I did right:

  • I bought close enough  to a lively village so that I could forget the milk and go back to get it without much ado.
  • I made sure that there was sufficient flat space around my ruin to construct terraces, plant trees (350 to date) and maybe install a pool.
  • I didn’t fall for the trap of believing anything agents said about planning permission and I got proper planning permission.

Don’t rush

I found my dream after looking at a multitude of “you must be kidding places”. And for exactly this reason I made the following three mistakes:

  • I was so desperate to buy “Masia Lavanda” when I eventually found it that I offered far too much – the locals got wind of my folly so considered me fair game forever more.
  • I listened to the advice of the estate agent and hired her recommended builder. He turned out to be a crook. She turned out to know nothing at all about him!
  • Said builder fleeced me of €23,000 for an inadequate building project. This resulted in the forestry service issuing proceedings against me as my project did not include “an impact on the environment” survey. An additional unnecessary €4,000 wasted!

All of this was my fault in the end. I thought I could micro manage from Liverpool where I had a busy career (to pay for this!) and just drop in three days a month without speaking a word of Spanish. So this is the next advice:

  • Get to know your forestry officers. They are likely to be sympathetic to your needs if you consult them.
  • Don’t do anything to your ruin before you have got to know it well.
  • Take an intensive Spanish course and download podcasts for the car.
  • Take the stars out of your eyes. The opportunists can see them. 

Over two years I went through various builders, or pretend builders and then finally faced facts:

  • You have to be there!
  • Absolutely, never, ever, no matter what a good idea it seems at the time, hire someone you have met in a bar.
  • Always get an itemised quote and go through it with a fine toothcomb.

Learn Spanish and join in the local community 

This is where Spanish is essential. Many builders under-quote just to get the job. When you complain, they will point to their quote and yes, what you thought you had asked for in your pigeon Spanish, simply is not there.

So eventually I did face facts and, age 49, I gave up my established career in Liverpool to move to Spain. This what I got right:

  • My ruin had a separate small casita on the land that was charming and habitable so I saved a fortune on hostel fees and learned what I actually needed in the process.
  • I applied (after the quotes so that they were not inflated) for a EU eco grant and received it!
  • I started to write a blog about the local area that opened many doors – in other words, I joined in.

In direct contrast to the above I will fully admit, never having been part of a village with its incessant gossip and small town politics, I wish I had known how to avoid becoming the target of this gossip, in particular amongst the British ex-pats. My strong advice is:

  • Be polite, but distant until you can assess the local community and the various personalities. It will save a lot of heartache.

Brexit woes

Maybe the biggest “what I wish I knew” has to be that never in a century of Sundays did I imagine that the United Kingdom would leave Europe.

If I had, I would have spent less time starring dreamily at the unpolluted skies and more time finding out which paperwork I needed to fill out in Spain. Like so many others, I just did what I had to do when it hit me in the face. We were part of Europe weren’t we?

  • I delayed becoming a permanent resident for 4 years. If I hadn’t I would have been able to apply for Spanish citizenship before the Brexit deadline.  
  • I just received my first speeding fine after 10 years. I thought I had done well. However I wish I had got one 6 years ago as this little indiscretion revealed I was supposed to change my UK license for a Spanish one within 6 months of acquiring permanent Spanish residency. So I have been driving illegally in Spain for 6 years.
Anyway, all said and done, I am very happy here, my off-grid eco build has been finished, and I feel very fortunate indeed in view of what is happening in the world today. So that is my last piece of advice. No matter what goes wrong, and
something will, realize how very lucky you are.
Check out the photos of the finished project: 

To follow Stephanie de Leng and her adventures in rural Valencia check out her blog.

Member comments

  1. Why can’t anyone see this? It is not nice and also please look at my further blogs, especially recipes. Even my husband can’t not subscribe! Quite upset

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How to turn a bar, office or shop into a residential property in Spain

Commercial properties in Spain can be a lot cheaper than residential ones, but it’s not as straightforward as buying a former restaurant, office or shop and moving in. Here are the steps to follow and what you need to be aware of.

How to turn a bar, office or shop into a residential property in Spain

One of the tricks budget property hunters in Spain have been using in recent years is buying a local (commercial property), oficina (office) or nave (industrial unit) and transforming it into a vivienda (residential property) to live in or let out. 

It’s a trend that’s roughly doubled in big cities such as Madrid and Barcelona in the last five years. 

Buying a commercial property can work out to be 50 percent cheaper than a flat or house in Spain and there can be other advantages such as it being more open plan than Spain’s typical corridor-themed apartments as well having more money to invest in the renovation. 

Is it possible to turn a commercial property into a residential property in Spain?

Yes, in theory it is, but it’s not always possible. The rules relating to a change of property’s usage from commercial to residential or vice versa are determined by each municipality in Spain, so before you rush to buy un local, you have to do your homework first and be aware of some of the most common pitfalls.

It could be that the limit of residential properties per hectare has been surpassed already, or that without some major changes the property doesn’t meet the standards of size, rooms, space, height, layout, ventilation, air extraction or light of the town or city hall. 

It isn’t the most straightforward process and depending on the property and the individual municipal rules in place, it might just not be possible to live in the property or rent it out to others.

Living in a commercial property is illegal and may cause you problems such as not being able to activate water and electricity or register your padrón at the town hall.

Despite all the paperwork needed, flipping a bar or office and turning it into a home usually works out cheaper than buying a residential property in Spain. (Photo by ANDER GILLENEA / AFP)

Don’t be discouraged however, as in many cases it is possible to change the use of a property from commercial to residential and in regions such as Galicia authorities are currently facilitating the process to address the matter of empty abandoned stores and the lack of well-priced accommodation for young homeowners.

What are the steps to follow in Spain to change a property from commercial to residential?

Check the statutes of the community of owners: In order to make any changes within the community of neighbours, permission must be requested in advance. Beforehand, you can ask the comunidad president for a copy of the community statutes to see if the change of use from commercial to residential is mentioned.

READ ALSO: ‘La comunidad’ -What property owners in Spain need to know about homeowners’ associations

Request permission from the town hall: After getting the green light from la comunidad, you have to go to the ayuntamiento (town hall) of the town where the property is to find out if it’s possible to add another residential property to the finca (building). 

Even if this is confirmed, it doesn’t certify that the change of usage from commercial to residential is allowed, for which the town hall will ask you to provide an architect’s proyecto técnico or feasibility report based on municipal urban laws. You will only be allowed to swap from commercial to residential if the project meets the safety and habitability requirements of the Technical Building Code (Código Técnico de la Edificación).

Get the Building Licence: Known as licencia urbanística or permiso de construcción in Spanish, this is an official document required by the town hall for you to carry out a construction or renovation project. In other words, you’ll need this municipal authorisation to begin work on your future residential property, whether it’s major work or minor . 

Get the Certificate of Habitability: Once the renovation work is complete, you’ll need the cédula de habitabilidad to be able to move in or let the property out . The conditions for this are regulated by each regional government and again it’s an architect who must prepare a technical report in order for a town council technician to issue the certificate of habitability.

The certificate we need for the change of use is that of primera ocupación (first residential occupation), which has to include the usable surface area of ​​the home, rooms, address, location, maximum inhabitants etc.

How much does it cost to transform a commercial property into a residential one in Spain?

If for example it’s a 80m2 property with two rooms, the total would be about €50,000, according to property websites Idealista and Habitissimo, with the bulk covering renovation costs (€500/m2= €40,000) and the rest going to cover permits, architecture costs and taxes.