FINDING THE HOUSE
It was in the spring of 1991 that circumstances became favourable for us and that we finally decided to move to Spain. Wendy had just returned from a riding holiday in southern Spain, at San Martin Del Tesorillo, not far from Gibraltar, and she now felt ready to make the move. l had long wished to live in Spain and, if we could sell our house in England, the financial situation would be right.
At the time we were running a small guest house in Cumbria, at Garrigill near Alston, a small market town in the Pennines. Because of the need to keep the guesthouse open, we decided that I would go and do a preliminary reconnoitre of possible areas by myself that autumn, Wendy remaining behind to look after the business. We decided to look at southern Spain, somewhere inland sway from the Costas.
Flying out to Málaga, I spent two weeks exploring the region between east of Almeria and Gibraltar, and with the aid of notes and photographs brought back a record of the countryside and its towns and villages. The area includes semi desert land, mountains, lakes, sub-tropical fruit farms, almond and olive groves, vineyards and, around the western end near Gibraltar, open farmland where bulls are reared. It is an area of rich diversity with countless small villages and towns, most of them being the ‘pueblos blancos’ or white villages for which the region is famed.
To see the area it was necessary to travel up and down the main coastal road, the N340, which at that point runs east to west beside the sea, and drive inland and back at points along the way. lt was also possible on occasion to travel east to west inland on the N342 which runs from Sevilla to Granada via Ronda. Ronda is a popular and beautiful hill town which boasts the oldest bullring in Spain and was the birthplace of bullfighting.
Once home again, we set about contacting agents who dealt in property in the region. We also visited a solicitor in Sheffield who specialised in Spanish legal matters to get an idea of the necessary steps we would have to take when we purchased a property and made the move. We started to learn about Spanish house deeds or ‘escrituras’ or indeed of the usual lack of them on many properties, Spanish taxes, residential qualifications, how to transport pets and many more complexities. We also decided on a broad specification of our requirements to send to estate agents. We decided that the plot should be situated someway inland and not be inside a town or village, but a reasonable way outside and be big enough for us to keep a couple of horses or mules on. The house itself could be a ruin needing rebuilding, an older property needing refurbishing or even a newer house already habitable. We put our house on the market and awaited results. All this had to be carried out whilst running the guesthouse and it was late summer before were able to contact agents in Spain with our requirements.
In the autumn I once again flew to Málaga by myself, this time with a list of agents to visit and properties to view. Several of the agents who said they had suitable properties had in fact only coastal villas with no land on their books. Why they felt we would be in any way interested in these was beyond me, but it was a total waste of my time going to visit them.
One agent in Mojácar took me to a site a few kilometres inland situated near a small valley. The plot of land for sale, he explained, ran for a short length of this valley and included both sides of the valley and the level area at the bottom, about three acres in total. The place to build the house, he told me, was at the bottom on the level area. The shallow valley was in fact a dry river bed, a fact he obviously thought I was unaware of. These dry rivers have no water in them for most of the time but every so often, perhaps every few years when there is a heavy storm in the sierras, they flood many feet in depth, carrying all before them. When dry they are often used as roads, the previous year one such near Motril had been the subject of a flash flood, which had carried away a car driving up it, drowning its occupants. Thanking the agent for his advice, I declined to see any more of his properties and left him standing on the edge of the ‘valley’.
When driving up a valley to the north of Almuñecar on the minor road to Ortega, I saw a house with a ‘Se Vende’ or ‘For Sale’ sign. The house was on the side of a steep hillside overlooking the road. As no one was at the property, I made a note of the telephone number on the sign. I rang the owner that night and arranged to meet him at the property the next morning. The house was small and basic but quite adequate and had five acres of fruit farm included with it. There were all kinds of fruit imaginable from apples, plums, pears and the like to the more exotic fruits such as bananas, avocados, grapes, medlars, custard apples, oranges, lemons, nectarines and peaches. There were in fact three kinds of avocados and three kinds of bananas, one of the banana types having having a straight fruit rather than a curved one. Part of the plot was a barren hillside with some low scrubby trees on it that unbelievably had a preservation order on them and which could therefore not be touched in any way. We did not take this possible purchase any further as, tempting though the fruit farm was, it was not really what we were looking for.
Whilst touring the area the previous year I had seen a parcel of land for sale which bordered a lake near Ardales to the east of Ronda and I returned there to see if it was still available. There was still a Se Vende sign on a board on the land so I made a note of the telephone number but when I rang the number that evening I got the ‘number unobtainable’ tone.
Whilst near Motril I looked at three houses but none were really suitable, two being too near the coast with little land and the third also having a smallish plot and being, in part, a carob store. This store, which was on the first floor over part of the house, was not part of the sale.
In the end only two properties that I visited were at all suitable, both on the books of the same agent, and both near Gaucin, a small town to the west of Ronda.
Once back in Cumbria, we studied the details together and decided to go ahead on these two properties near Gaucin. Wendy therefore flew out to Spain for the weekend to look at them in the January of 1993, to see if she liked them. Her flying to Spain for the weekend much amused her colleagues whom she worked with in the health service!
When she returned we decided to offer on one of the properties, as she did not really like the other one. It was an old Spanish stone-built farmhouse with its own spring, a small orchard, and two or three acres of open pasture land. The agents unfortunately then went on holiday in Morocco for about six weeks and on their return told us that the house had been taken off the market, and that we had not acted quickly enough! As you can imagine we were not amused, and these were English not Spanish agents.
This debacle led us to the conclusion that we should shut the guesthouse and that Wendy should take some leave from work, not to run the business as she normally did when I was away, but for us both to go out to Spain together to try to find another property. This would save any delay between viewing and offering on a suitable purchase.
We therefore contacted three agents, one in Sedella, a small village east of Málaga, and some thirty kilometres inland from Vélez-Málaga; one just to the west of Málaga who dealt in properties around Ronda; and also the agent near Gaucin who had lost us the previous property.
We once again therefore flew out to Málaga, this time together, in 1993. We went first to the agent in Sedella who showed us around thirteen properties, nine of them for sale, in one day. The ones for sale ranged from total ruins to a new build, the ones not for sale were to show us various features of local styles and problems. Wendy made notes on each one we visited and we took Polaroid pictures of each one. That night we sat down in the hostel in Sedella and tried to sort them all out. We each selected three we liked, this produced a short list of five, as we had one in common. We then managed to reduce this to two which we revisited the next day on our own.
One was a semi-ruin set on a three acre plot of bare hillside overlooking an unmade road. Such roads are common in rural Spain and although unmade are still maintained by the local authority. The other was a newish build set in a three acre almond grove below another unmade road. The house itself was almost complete with the exception of the bathroom, that wasn’t plastered, and the living room ceiling which was also not finished even though the house was fully furnished. The house had an underground water storage tank which was fed from roof drainage, there being no mains water so far from the village which was about three kilometres away. There was also no mains electricity, the house having a solar panel which ran a twelve volt system. The drawback to this property was, in Wendy’s eyes, the small wood burning stove in the living room which was ‘tinny’. I pointed out it this was easily replaceable. The main advantage of the property was the fact that it was liveable in and therefore easily visited until we could move.
After much thought we decided to offer on the new build which in fact belonged to a Welshman. A fax to Wales by the agent brought acceptance of our offer by the owner. We decided therefore that there was no purpose in visiting the other two agents and looking at yet more properties, so rang them to cancel our appointments. We turned the rest of the two week stay into a holiday, opening a bank account locally and acquiring a solicitor.
In June the purchase was complete and we owned our future home. All that now remained was to sell our house in Cumbria.