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 find temporary accommodation in Spain when you first arrive

One of the most common questions people moving to Spain ask is where they can rent temporary accommodation while looking for somewhere more permanent. This can be particularly tricky, but we've found some of the best places to look.

How to find temporary accommodation in Spain when you first arrive

So you’ve sorted out your visas, you’ve done all your packing and have either sold or moved out of your home, but when you arrive in Spain you’re not exactly sure where you’re going to stay.  

Of course, it’s not the best idea to sign a contract ahead of time for a more permanent place before you’ve actually seen it in person. Photos don’t always accurately represent what the house or apartment looks like in reality and you won’t really be able to get a feel for the neighbourhood without being there. 

On top of this, rental scams are rife in some places in Spain, particularly in the bigger more popular cities like Barcelona. Often people will place an ad (which usually looks too good to be true) and get you to wire over a deposit to secure it in advance, but here’s the catch – the place doesn’t usually exist.

This is why it’s important to never hand over money to secure a place to live in Spain before you’ve actually seen it in person and you can get the keys as soon as you sign the contract.

But, finding a place to live in a new country can be difficult and it can take time, so while you look for somewhere, you’re going to need temporary accommodation for a couple of months. This can be tricky too because often temporary accommodation is geared towards tourists and you’ll be paying tourist prices too.

While Idealista and Fotocasa are two of the most popular sites to look for accommodation in Spain, when you only want somewhere for a couple of months, there’s no point looking there, as most places will have yearly contracts.

Keep in mind with short-term rentals for a couple of months, you’re going to be paying higher than the average monthly rent, however, for this, the apartments are usually fully furnished, including kitchen utensils, wi-fi already connected and offer you the flexibility of shorter contracts.

Short-term rental agencies

Specialised short-term rental agencies are the best way to go, which will allow you to sign contacts for less than the typical one year. These types of agencies are usually found in Spain’s big cities that are popular with foreigners, such as Madrid and Barcelona.

Trying searching in Spanish too by typing alquiler de temporada or alquiler temporal plus the name of the city or town you’re looking in. This way you may be able to find places that offer better value. 


In Barcelona, check out aTemporal an agency that started up precisely to fix the problem of trying to find accommodation in-between tourist accommodation and long-term rentals. They rent out apartments for anywhere from 32 days to 11 months.

ShBarcelona is another agency that specialises in these types of rentals and have properties all over the city.

READ ALSO – Moving to Barcelona: A guide to the best neighbourhoods to live in


In Madrid, try DFLAT, which was created by two professionals from the Instituto de Empresa University after discovering the difficulties professionals and foreigners found when looking for an apartment in Madrid. Sh also has a good branch in Madrid.  


In Valencia, Dasha Living Space has both short and long-term fully furnished flats available and  Valenvi Flats also offers rentals for between three and six months.

READ ALSO – Moving to Valencia: A guide to the best neighbourhoods to live in


While the nightly rate of Airbnb apartments is typically too expensive to rent for a couple of months, you may be able to find some deals. Often when you input dates for a month into Airbnb, you’ll find that several places have a monthly discount offered. Also, some owners will do a deal for a couple of months. If it’s winter for example and they know they’re not going to get many tourists anyway, they may be willing to negotiate.


Like Airbnb, the properties on Vrbo are rented out directly by the owners. While the site is also mainly focused on tourists, some owners may negotiate outside of the tourist season.


If you’re willing to try something a little bit different, then housesitting could be the way to go. This is where you live in somebody’s house for free, in exchange for looking after their pets and their property.

Often people only need someone for a few days, but sometimes you’ll see house sits available for a month or longer. This is perhaps a better option for those who are flexible on where they might want to live and are trying out a few different places. It’s also better for those wanting to live in smaller towns or villages rather than the bigger cities, as there are fewer postings for these popular locations. Trusted Housesitters and Mind My House are good options.