Building abroad

With plots and old wrecks going for a song in some foreign locations, it’s tempting to snap up a bargain without checking out local laws and customs. But these will make or break your project

With plots and old wrecks going for a song in some foreign locations, it’s tempting to snap up a bargain without checking out local laws and customs. But these will make or break your project.

I’m sure this is a familiar scenario: you’re on a blissful holiday – in the Mediterranean heat, perhaps – and a stone ruin hovers into view. The price advertised in the local agent is €50,000 (approx £42,853). And you find yourself thinking, ‘Why not?’

With land prices high and good plots a rarity in the UK, building or renovating abroad is highly appealing, whether for your holidays, to let, or just to create the good life. ‘You can find staggering bargains for plots outside the UK,’ says Fiona Frost of property investment company Property Frontiers. ‘In the US, there are ridiculous prices – you can get a good plot in California for £20,000.’ In continental Europe, there’s a great supply of neglected agricultural buildings – locals usually preferring to live in new-builds.

Yet, before the fantasy crystallises, it’s wise to sound a klaxon of caution. ‘Not only do foreign buyers come up against all the usual red tape – planning, legal work, finding contractors – they also have to factor in language pressures, travel time and a different set of laws,’ says Frost. Not all are as adaptable as grand designers Doug Ibbs and Denise Daniel, who learned builders’ French pretty quickly after buying a £36,000 ruin in the Limousin area of France and turning it into Chez Jallot. Most would be advised to employ a third party. Architect Vicky Thornton, who self- built her dramatic French home, Petit Bayle, says: ‘A bilingual project manager is very useful, especially if you can’t be out there all the time.’ James Pembroke, who renovated an olive mill in Puglia, Italy, reckons the manager should be local. ‘It’s not enough to have A Level Italian – they’ll speak in dialect and you won’t understand.’

Anyone considering a foreign purchase needs to tick a must-do list. You should figure that while purchase costs might be small, legal and tax costs might escalate to about 10 per cent of the property value. You should study all the local peculiarities: ‘In Italy, for example, it’s hard to get planning permission,’ says Frost. Thornton adds that in France you must present a special application for any building close to a church.

And you should establish a good reason to build – which in most cases is to have a holiday home that pays back via letting. In which case, adds Frost, make sure the local conditions are sound: ‘We advise people not to bet on low-cost air routes – they can disappear.’ Never get swept away. Come back out of season. Think twice.

Some British self-builders try to gain comfort by importing architects, managers and even builders. Beware, says Thornton. ‘First, it’s important to get an architect registered in France for permissions,’ she says. ‘Also, if you bring builders from home, you won’t get to know local providers or draw on local traditions.’ Her own contractors, for example, are highly skilled in the local stonework. Unlike the UK norm, Ibbs and Daniel relied more on their builder than their architect. ‘They don’t have the same role as in the UK. We’ve known people who have wasted money employing British architects.’

Pembroke admits he was lucky, but advises: ‘Make sure your finance is tight across borders: it seems to be difficult to get an Italian mortgage for a UK resident, for example. And find someone trustworthy over there. We couldn’t have done it without our fantastic local project manager.’

Even so, Thornton recommends going over once a month during the build. ‘It’s important to adjust your mindset away from the UK,’ she says. ‘In rural France and Spain they don’t programme things in the same way.’ You can’t expect contractors even to have a computer (‘It’s extremely useful to have someone who can email over pictures,’ says Pembroke).

With all these variables, there’s even more chance you risk losing that crucial, motivating vision. ‘We know people who are still restoring 20 years or more after buying,’ says Daniel. So remember to keep time for leisure in your new place. Spending every holiday miming in builders’ yards is not going to help, and there’s nothing like some local fun to re-ignite the spark


Words Oliver Bennett
Illustration Nick Edwards

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