Buyer's Guide
Costa Tropical

"Martin was very patient with all my queries and guided me by the hand. The communication was excellent. Now I read horror stories of people who have not been so fortunate, and I thank the day I met him."

Rural or urban land: the rules

Perhaps you have often thought about buying a piece of land and designing your Spanish dream home yourself, away from the coast and further inland where it is said to be a much cheaper option. However, Buyer Beware - obtaining planning permission might not be so easy to arrange. It is important that you realise and are aware of the fundamental differences between rural and urban land, first; and second, to be sure of both the local planning build ratio allowance and also the regional criteria for construction.

All too easy these days many foreigners buying land in Spain think, and are led to believe, that what the locals says goes for everyone – the problems arrive when you come to register the full build of your new dream home; especially on rustic or agricultural land. In Spain, every regional government has its own system of dealing with new build developments, whether they are defined as rustic or urban. In Valencia and Andalucia there have been many changes in the last two or three years that affected buyers and have benen often widely publicised "horror stories."

In Valencia the controversial Land-Grab issue has been overruled, much to the relief of the many homeowners, amongst them many who were foreigners. The Andalucian government has also realised the trend for foreigners to buy cheap land, and consequently have started to put pressure on local town halls to be stricter with granting planning permission - especially in agricultural areas. Buyers of rural land, especially, are often left waiting for months for permits, and which can be extremely frustrating for those keen to get on with their projects. Here, at I am often asked the question… "Am I free to build on this (or any other) land? "

The short answer at first is no, before you buy any land you must check that it will be eligible for a building permit. Any plot classed as a 'finca rustica' has been zoned as agricultural or rustic land and that means that it will fall into any one of the three categories of Protected, Restricted or Building land.

Urban land is simpler to define as it is land that is within the local planning scheme approved by both local and regional government. As a general rule of thumb, in our area the present cost is between 250 to 450 Euros the m2; depending on location, services available, sea view, land incline, etc. However in order to grant building permission the proposed building must comply with certain criteria and again here there is variation between rural and urban planning regulations. Generally the plot should be able to connect to utilities, drains, water and electricity. The building must comply with certain European directives, including 10 year build guarantee, and more recent (from September 2007) should be at least 20% energy self sufficient to encourage the persdonal provision of solar and wind energies. Finally you should check with the local planning authority the ratio of build to land – town centres for example allow up to 100% while outland districts may only allow 25%. Your Spanish lawyer and architect will be able to advise you on this matter in far more detail.

Rustic land is far more problematic. The golden rule here is to remember that it is the regional government directives that dictate the land registry protocol and not the local town halls. This is especially signisficant if you are registering your new dream home in the countryside rather than converting an existing registered cortijo "in ruin". The Junta de Andalucia (regional government) states that (new) buildings built on rustic plots are minimum 7,000m2 of land to a ratio of 100m2 built single storey property (and this is below 300m above sea level). Above 330m then the land required increases to as much as a 30,000m2 plot size for the same build volume. Other issues too affect the qualification of the rustic lands status; dry land, irrigated, olive or almond groves, fruit trees, agricultural use and so on all compromise the registration of your building. Rural plots in our area generally start from 6 Euros the m2 (for dry land) to as much as 60 Euros or more for fruit farm land. It is, at this moment in time, not uncommon to find that in some cases where the seller is trying to register their dream country property, then they may have to prove their employment status as a farmer or agricultural worker in Spain, before being granted building permission or ratifying the built property. In order to meet such a stringent ruling, the seller may find that they are also subjected to a whole set of economic and social issues that affect their legal, fiscal and residential status both in Spain and in their home country. Consequently making the task of registartion both frustrating and complex.

While local town hall authorities can give building permissions at the present time for new builds on smaller rural plots usually around 3,000m2 to 4,000m2; like in Jete, Otivar, and Itrabo; the problem arises after the build when the land registry declines to stamp approval of the licence, since by the Junta directive there is insufficient land in order to justify the registration of the full build to be legalised. It is our understanding that in Spain, wooden/timber homes are considered as temporary dwellings – however recent changes suggest that local town hall planning discretions are in play. In Almunecar, for example, permission for timber homes on rustic plots is granted but only as an 'apero' (agricultural use dwelling or storeroom for tools) and the maximum registered size of such a build is just 50m2 to get the licence endorsed.

You need to be a realistic when you buy in rural Spain, and also be aware of the lesser known issues, like - mortgage problems (bank valuations of country properties are much lees than urban properties), rights of way for neighbours, hunting rights on land close to the plot, irrigation and access to water rights, and septic tanks are just some of the additional issues that need to be considered. If after all considerations, you are still keen to build on a rural plot then you need to find a good architect, preferably one that has been recommended locally. The architect will put together the plans of your proposed home and help you to submit these plans, with the application and the fee, to the town hall, and often using your lawyer as a point of contact. This application will cost between two to eight per cent of the estimated construction costs, and is an autonomous fee each rate dependant on the town hall authority. Again, and generally speaking, inland based local authority rates are much cheaper. The average time span for the application is between three and six months after applying, assuming that all is in order and compliant with building regulations and local directives - after all, and remeber too, that you won't see brightly painted or flamboyantly decorated houses in the traditional Andalucian white villages of Spain's Costa Tropical.

Finally, and since 2010, many provincial authorities having actively decided to curb planning development in traditional historic, or culturally significant areas. To this extent some local authorities will now insist that prior to planning approval, submitted (and architect authorised) plans must first be channelled through the environment/culture department of the regional authority before being granted. This can delay the planing process by several months, and needs to be considered. Here in our part of Spain, the most affected areas are the San Miguel district (casco antiguo) of Almunecar and the old town of Salobrena; all the typical white village homes that surround the hill top castle's. At present there are strict rules concerning colour, appearance, extensions and construction of new properties; and because the areas are pitted with historical evidence and various remains then in certain cases and prior to licence approval, the authorities will request that excavations are made which will be performed by specialist archeologists - and paid for by the land owner!

Edit 11.2013