“There was no pressure to buy and the agents couldn’t have been more helpful”
Imagine you’re just about to make the first move towards turning your dream into reality, the dream of moving to Spain. The adverts are in the papers every week, but this week you’ve decided to take the plunge and go along to a property exhibition. You’re not going to commit yourself to anything straightaway but in any case it’ll be an interesting day out, it’s in a nice hotel, you’ve got nothing else planned for this weekend and all you intend to do at this stage is to have a look at what’s on offer and at what sort of prices.
The properties being advertised are on the Spanish costas and you already know one or two people who’ve got places out there, either to live in or to rent out. Maybe you’ve been on holiday to Spain many times already, and you know that there are areas which have over 300 days of sunshine a year. As you look out at the rain and hear the wind howling, you imagine what it must be like to get up every day to unbroken sunshine, with the sound of the birds singing in the trees and a gentle breeze wafting in from the Mediterranean onto the terrace of your villa as you enjoy a leisurely breakfast.
You may have had this dream for years, but until now that is all it has been - a dream. At last though, you feel you might just do something about it. Perhaps you’ve paid off your mortgage and know you can get a good price for your house. Perhaps you’ve had some redundancy money, an invalidity pension, you’ve been advised by your doctor to go to a warmer climate or you’ve sold up your business. Maybe you are still working but think you can work abroad, and at the same time give a better future to your family. Or perhaps your children have grown up and don’t need you around any more. Whatever the original reason for the idea, you’re now at the moment in your life when you could do what you’ve always wanted to do, and sense that perhaps you should before it’s too late. So now you’re going to take the logical first step by going to see and hear what the professionals have to say.
As you walk out of the driving rain into the smart hotel foyer, the first impression is good. The exhibition is in a spacious lounge where several different property companies have colourful display stands full of glossy brochures and complimentary gifts. Nobody rushes you and you browse around at your leisure. You don’t feel any sense of pressure at all and everyone is very pleasant. Most of the agents seem to be perfectly ordinary people, often married couples who’ve obviously done the same thing that you are thinking about, and are now there to show others how they can make their dream a reality as well.
All the display pictures are of houses, and what beautiful houses they are! As they haven’t yet been built, the pictures are only computer graphics, of individual house models, and groups of houses in small neat rows before a backdrop of mountains and sea. The brochures detail the layout, specifications, materials and features of each design. There are houses with open-plan dining and living areas, two or three bathrooms, porches, sun terraces and balconies, small manageable garden plots, a swimming pool. Every detail is clearly laid out and explained, so there is hardly any need to ask questions.
You enquire about prices, and they certainly start well within your range. You may ask what extra costs are involved, and you will be told to budget for around 10 per cent of your chosen house price.
When you ask about different locations they tell you that the houses are “thirty five minutes from Alicante airport” or “a ten minutes drive to the sea”. And what else do you really need to know at this stage? The best thing would be to actually go and see the area for yourself.
You wander around drinking free orange juice and collecting plenty of brochures to look at later on at home. One or two houses particularly catch your eye – just the sort of thing you’ve always dreamed of. In the corner of the room there is a video playing and a few seats laid out in rows. You sit down and watch the scenes of the Costa Blanca itself. There are magnificent aerial shots of the Mediterranean coastline, lemon groves and castles, golf courses and promenades, people drinking on bar terraces, people strolling along in the sunshine. As you leave you pick up more information leaflets and an application form for an inspection trip, but no one has tried to sell you anything. The product is selling itself.
So what is an inspection trip? Well, it depends on which company you choose to go with as to how it all works out, but usually for as little as about one hundred and fifty pounds you can have a three, four or five day visit to Spain, where you are escorted around to see examples of the houses you can buy. You will stay in a good hotel, you can ask to look at as many different houses within your price range as you wish, you are wined and dined, you are taken to restaurants and bars to eat and drink all at the company’s expense. In fact you don’t have to pay out a single penny. A luxury mini-holiday for practically no cost, with absolutely no pressure. Very tempting!
So imagine that the next day you pick up the phone, and guess what? You find that booking an inspection trip is the easiest thing in the world! And a few weeks later you are on the plane, flying off to Spain at someone else’s expense, full of apprehension and excitement, determined not to be fooled, determined to make full use of the opportunity and determined to make the best decision you can, a decision which will affect the rest of your life. You’re not going to rush into anything, but on the other hand, now you’ve got this far, you’re not going to hang back either. Up until now you have felt comfortable with everything the property company has told you. They seem to understand where you’re coming from, they talk common sense and they make no obvious attempt to try and persuade you. They answer your questions, although you can’t think of all that many because so much is already answered in their information packs and leaflets. They seem to be straightforward in telling you what they have available and at what cost. They ask you about your preferences to help find the right property for you, and they seem willing to spend as much time as is necessary for you to get it right. You have the feeling you are in safe hands and start to relax.
And relax is one thing you are encouraged to do throughout your visit. No expense is spared to make you feel pampered and special. When you arrive at the airport an agent is waiting for you to take you off to your luxury hotel. If you are with one of the larger property companies, you will be part of a group of between 30 to 50 people, who will all be assembled on the first morning for an introductory chat. You discover that other people are feeling the same as you are, that they are here for similar reasons and with similar reservations. You are divided into small groups usually with others who are looking for property within a similar price range as yourself and assigned to your agent or agents, often a husband and wife team, who will accompany you throughout the whole of your stay. If you are with a smaller property company, you will get more individual treatment and possibly a less intense time of it, but with the big boys, there are no holds barred.
Every day after breakfast, you will be with your agents and group of fellow visitors for the entire day. They will take you to locations with superb views and charming surroundings such as golf clubs, beach side bars and lively squares with shops and restaurants. If you request a stop at a bar or to look at some shops, they will oblige. They will be courteous, patient and attentive. You will be bought lunch, with all drinks included, in good quality restaurants. They may escort you back to the hotel for two or three hours “siesta” time, where you can have a nap or bathe in the hotel swimming pool, and will pick you up again at about 7 p.m. to accompany you all evening until you are back in your hotel room, wined and dined, at about 11 p.m. or midnight. At some point during your trip you will be taken to a hypermarket of the sort that is not yet common in Britain, which contains cheap and plentiful fresh food as well as electrical appliances, sports equipment, household goods of all kinds, clothing and shoes all for reasonable prices. You will probably also visit the tobacconist, whether you smoke or not, to buy cigarettes at half the UK price. In other words you will be shown all the good things about Spain, the things that are most likely to convince you that it is the most perfect place to spend the rest of your life.
In between all the sights, delicious food and good company, you will be taken to a series of pilot homes and shown the areas of land where new houses and apartment buildings are to be built. These will be selected for you, and you will be able to take as much time as you need to look round and ask questions. If you want to go back to a house you can, your only restriction will be the interests and needs of your fellow visitors. The agents will be friendly, chatty and helpful, and will come across as really nice people. They will be happy to answer your questions, and anything they can’t answer they will promise to find out for you. Your attention will be drawn to qualities of individual homes and small residential estates, and away from the huge conglomerations of houses that they are situated in. You will be driven rapidly past the large tracts of wasteland and open countryside already assigned for similar types of construction. You will probably assume that the small estates you are shown will be inhabited all the year round, and that there will be a least some Spanish people nearby. Neither of these things might be true. You will be given approximate completion dates for the properties, dates which will probably be a lot more approximate than they would have you believe.
There are one or two things you will not find out or realise during your visit. One is that many of the selling agents accompanying you will be very new to Spain themselves. Some will not have had sales experience before and will be following strict guidelines in everything they do. Others will be experienced sales people, but in other fields. Basically they will use the same techniques,, but they will have learnt them selling frozen food or quality knitwear rather than selling homes in Spain, the difference being of course, the degree of significance to the rest of your life. Very few of the agents will speak more than a minimal amount of Spanish, and even fewer will have any real knowledge of the local area or way of life. Some of them will have been taught enough Spanish to order food and drinks for the sole purpose of impressing their clients. Most of them will have very little idea about the official processes you will have to go through once you’ve made your move. Nor will they know much about the details of the contract you will be asked to sign, and will only have the builders’ word about the site plans in place for the surrounding land. They will probably have no notion at all about local authority plans for the area. From the point of view of the big companies it is better that the selling agents who accompany you know very little of this background information. Many of the agents are genuine people, and some of the information you ask about might be rather uncomfortable, so what the agents don’t know, they won’t be able to tell you.
There is almost no end to what sort of facts might be uncomfortable. Perhaps a sewage works is planned for the land opposite. Perhaps your unbroken view of the sea will have disappeared before the first brick of your property is laid. Maybe the area designated for a shopping centre hasn’t actually been approved. That lovely stretch of water might be a breeding ground for mosquitos, those trees might harbour processional caterpillars which can endanger your health, and even the life of your pets. Although everything looks glossy and above board, perhaps the land you are being shown has not yet got all its building licences in place. This could be for a number of reasons, from land disputes with farmers, right-of-way disputes with shepherds, environmental claims being put forward by ecological groups, local by-laws about building norms or more sinister goings-on between local landowners and politicians. And if these problems aren’t solved by the time your house is completed, you will not receive the deeds to your home, neither will you have the infra-structure in place which is the responsibility of the local authorities, in fact you won’t have an official address which local bureaucrats will recognise, nor a phone line, nor a postal service. But these problems are for the future, and of course they might not apply to you. You might be one of the lucky ones who actually manages to end up with what you think you’re buying. The trouble is, you have no way of knowing one way or another, and in their defence, the individuals who are showing you around probably have no idea either. Of course you might be on an inspection trip with a property company which is genuinely concerned for your welfare, makes sure that everything is in order and warns you that you have one or two hurdles ahead once you move to Spain. These companies really do exist and are plagued by the bad practices of others. But how are you to know which ones they are? There are associations of estate agents in Spain which apply some control over their members, but membership is voluntary and many property companies simply do not bother to join.
So, what guidelines are many of the selling agents who accompany you on your trip actually following? Well, first of all, they will have been told not to let you out of their sight. The biggest fear of their bosses is that you will be “poached” by a rival company, so it is not an excess of friendliness that keeps them at your side at all hours, but strict instructions to keep you under surveillance at all times. If you express an interest in taking a stroll around a shopping centre, they will either offer to come with you, or if you insist on being alone, they will be instructed to tail you. The agents of some companies are not allowed to show you where you are on a map. Of course this is not too much of a problem for them because they themselves might only have a vague idea of where they are in a wider geographical sense, and there are often no local maps available anyway. You will be taken to unfamiliar places with no indication whatsoever of what town or district they belong to, how far they are from the nearest services like doctors, hospitals, schools, public transport, shopping centres or even how far away the sea is, or in which direction. It is not in the property company’s interests to furnish you with this information, and you will be so disorientated by so many visits, interspersed with such good living, that you will probably cease to question too closely.
But what questions might you ask? Perhaps you will enquire about how much income you can earn from rentals if you don’t move to Spain straightaway. You will be given some comforting statistics about how much your property can be rented out for per week, with no mention of seasonal variations or just how difficult it is to compete for customers in a saturated market. If you have children, you will want to ask about schools, and you will be told that there are several nearby, that children pick up the language easily, that you can enroll them when you arrive. No mention will be made of bureaucractic difficulties at registration, schools saturated with non-Spanish immigrants, and shortages of places, nor the inevitable culture shock that your children will have to overcome. You may enquire about starting up a business. Yes, you will be told, many people have done this, and there are people here specialised to help you. The high failure rate will not be mentioned – after all, your agent is not self-employed and will probably have no idea. Services and amenities – oh yes, the local authority are obliged to provide them for all residents – no mention of over-stretched funds, or just how difficult it is in some areas to even register yourself as a local resident. What about crime? Well yes, crime does exist, but then there’s crime everywhere, you just have to be careful. Perhaps the company has an extra package on offer for fitting grilles and alarm systems, just in case. You ask about problems. What problems? The sun is shining, you’ve got a beautiful home, you’ve got money in the bank, what problems could there possibly be? Many companies offer all sorts of additional services such as lawyers, rental agencies, banking, furniture packages, even postal delivery to make sure that you feel they are catering for every contingency. In fact, they seem to have thought of all your needs before you think of them yourself.
The bigger the property company you go out with, the more likely you are to be shown properties built by the big local builders. The reason for this is that the big local builders are the ones that offer the biggest commissions to the agents in exchange for the volume of sales they bring in. The principle isn’t difficult to grasp, and the effect is that you as an individual will not be shown houses that might be cheaper, better built and in nicer areas. The big companies are also not interested in selling you a resale property. It’s more trouble than it’s worth for them, and for lesser gains. If you insist on looking at resale properties, a common tactic is to take you to one or two run-down, over-priced examples in order to put you off. A very common event is to find that the starting price quoted at the property exhibition referred to “phase one” of the residential estate. These have now been sold and they are now on to phase four. Well, naturally, prices will have risen in the meantime – after all, this is such a popular area that prices are going up all the time. Another favourite sales gambit works as follows: if your trip lasts four days, you will spend three days being shown around very nice properties that are just beyond your price range. On the last day, you will finally get to see something you can just afford. The effect is that this will seem like a real bargain, and in your relief you embrace it, whether it’s really what you wanted in the first place, or not.
By your last day there is a good chance that you have been won over. Despite all the house visiting, you may well have had one of the best holidays of your life. You have spent three days in a fantasy world, with absolutely nothing to worry about. You feel relaxed, well fed and well watered. The weather’s been kind to you, the service has been outstanding, alcohol and bonhomie have been plentiful. By now you feel that your agents are close personal friends, you have a sense of solidarity with your travelling companions, and as your thoughts turn back to home no-one can blame you for feeling that this is the life you want for yourself, and not that grey, cold, wet country where all your problems are waiting for you. To make the decision process easier for you, some companies allow you to “hold” any property, and as many properties as you like, without commitment for 24 hours. This gives you a bit of time to think, eliminate possibilities one by one and return to one or two houses, before you make your final make a decision. But, just as no one has to persuade children to buy a bagful of sweets, you will have seen enough of the good things of Spain not to need any persuasion. No one will have pressurised you, no one will have tried to convince you of anything, and quite possibly, no one will have knowingly lied to you either.
So, imagine now that you are at the end of your trip, and you are told that it’s entirely up to you whether you go ahead with your move or not. You’ve thoroughly enjoyed yourself, you’re comfortable in the knowledge that no one is trying to persuade you, you like the people you’ve met, you feel that the agents are genuine people who are talking your language. You shouldn’t feel any sense of pressure, but curiously you do. You can’t put your finger on it, but in fact the pressure is coming from inside you, from your own thought processes. You want to make the move for all sorts of reasons, in fact, it makes perfect sense as a solution to all your particular circumstances. The path has been made as easy for you as it possibly could be by experienced professionals who are attentive to your every need. Everything has been packaged and presented in a clear, sensible and attractive way. All your questions have been given an answer. Perhaps you’ve even seen the exact house you really want at a price you can afford, and you have already reserved it, just in case. And as you have been told that prices in the area are rising all the time, it makes sense to strike while the iron is hot.
So yes! You’re going to buy, and in deciding this you are joining about sixty per cent of your travelling companions who make the same on-the-spot decision day in day out, week in week out, month in month out while on an inspection trip. You are joining the thousands of people who choose to move their homes from the UK to Spain, and who do so with scant knowledge of the country, the language, the area or any of the obstacles they are going to have to overcome. And you’re making this momentous decision involving a large part of your life savings, based largely on trust of people you have known for less than a week. You feel a range of emotions, from excitement to panic, relief to dread. You are asked if you wish to pay your deposit there and then, or if you would rather wait until you get home. You decide to sign up there and then, and thereby set in motion a series of administrative processes which further commit you to your chosen path. And after what seems like a long time, you’re finally on the plane back home, already working out plans to complete your first down-payment, imagining what your friends and family will say and full of wonder at the decision you have made.
A few points to bear in mind about inspection trips
Bigger is not necessarily better.
Some people think that a bigger company is less likely to go bust or run off with your money. There is little real evidence for this, on the whole they do not give you a better deal.
You are the customer.
Be as awkward as you like, you’re the one with the money they want to get hold of.
Ask questions and insist on proper answers. Think about what you would ask if you were buying a house in the UK and ask all the same things, remembering that, for you, as a foreigner in a foreign country, the pitfalls are likely to be greater.
They are not being generous.
In the long term, they will make enough money out of you to cover the costs of your trip, and the trips of the people who don’t end up buying, ten times over. You are under no obligation to them.
Don’t accept all their extra services and packages. If you do you will be paying more to cover bonuses and commissions. Most of these services can be obtained cheaper and better elsewhere.
Employ an independent lawyer for conveyancing. The company’s own lawyer is acting in the company’s interests, which are not necessarily yours.
Talk to people who have bought on inspection trips. Many of them will tell you that if they had known then what they know now, they would not have done it.
Do not make a decision on the spot. Go back home, talk about it and weigh up all the pros and cons in the cold light of day. Don’t be deceived into thinking that you might miss the boat, there will still be plenty of houses to choose from in six month’s time.
Do not make plans around a given completion date. These dates are often highly inaccurate, it is not uncommon for a house to be ready up to a year late.
Remember that computer graphics are not real life. Tidy paths, gardens, play areas and swimming pools might be low on the builder’s agenda once the houses have been sold.
Budget for well over the 10 per cent costs recommended by most property agents. Amongst other hidden expenses, you may have pay for several months’ accommodation while waiting for your home to be completed.
Think through some of the prices you’ve been quoted. If you’ve been quoted a percentage on the house price to cover legal costs – think about just how much money that adds up to, and whether it sounds reasonable.
Go back to the same area on another inspection trip, or better still, under your own steam. Get a sense of the place, meet people already living there, compare prices, compare areas. Go there at different times of year to see what the differences are in weather, temperature, traffic, population.
Look around at resale property. Do not believe that new builds are cheaper, this is not always the case. Consider buying privately.
Remember, it’s not what they tell you on inspection trips that’s the problem, it’s what they don’t tell you.
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