Andreu’s blog

Where in Spain and what property to buy for foreign residents

I watched this YouTube video of Nate Murphy where he talks about the house he bought and renovated in Catalonia. He discusses the cost of buying the house and the investment in time that he put into it. He bought a derelict house that was unlivable, the adjacent barn and a little bit of land for 80 000 euro. The land is big enough to grow a vegetable garden and some fruit trees. He then spent 4000 hours renovating the house. He mentions that it took about a year, so I assume that he worked full time, long days and weekends, and that he possibly also counts the time used by friends who helped. I did not hear the cost of materials in the video.

The house is located in a tiny village in the Catalan pre-Pyrenees about 2 hours drive from Barcelona. He doesn’t name the village in the video. It was a little fun challenge to discover it. When I watched the video I recognized the general area where the village is located, but I was unable to pinpoint the exact location. It took a search in Google Maps trying to match the satellite view to the drone footage to locate it.

There are four points I want to consider to decide where and what to buy. My family situation, what am I going to use the property for, what is my budget and my preferred location. In Nate’s case, he uses the house as his permanent residence or base between travels. It is just him and his girlfriend, no kids. I guess he spent around 70 000 in materials, plus his own time. That puts the total at roughly 150 000 euro not counting the 4000 work hours. Assuming a very cheap hourly rate of 15 euro, his time contribution is worth another 60 000. His house is located in a scenic area and close to climbing walls. Being almost isolated can be considered as a bonus if you are looking for solitude, but makes you dependent on a car for almost everything. You have to drive to shop, to go to a bar or restaurant, to visit the doctor and access other basic services. The nearest big town with all the services is la Seu d’Urgell, at 45 minutes, and Barcelona is two hours away.

How do you find a semi abandoned house? He mentions visiting the places in person and asking about the owner of obviously empty houses. In his case, he already had friends ho lived there, so it was easy. When I have been to similar places, I have noticed that often there are for sale signs with a phone number on many such properties. I have been able to find listings of similar properties in the two main real estate portals in Spain as well. They are Idealista and Fotocasa. You can select a general area, choose “house” in property type and set a low top price, like 100 000 euro.

The reasons I can think of to buy a property in Spain being a foreign resident are as follows:

Nate ended up spending around 150 000 euro and a lot of time on his house. You can’t buy anything for that amount in Barcelona. On the other hand, you can buy a big new apartment in some smaller towns, like Benicarló, that still have all the services one may need. In fact, not long ago, I checked a two bedroom apartment there. It was new, with a big terrace and nice views over the Serra d’Irta mountains . The asking price was 60 000. No need to renovate anything. Nate would have had enough to spare to buy a big olive grove nearby and no need to invest any time. I felt stupid for just having spent 70 000 euro and most of my free time for a couple of years renovating an apartment there, even though I had gotten it for free, as it belonged to my parents in law. Nate mentions in the video that the price is a bargain compared to Great Britain, but It doesn’t seem so compared to price levels in Spain. Furthermore I suspect he is comparing oranges to apples, because truly desirable mountain locations in Spain , like Baqueira are way more expensive, and not at all cheaper than the UK if one takes into account average income levels in both countries.

I am not against renovating oneself, as it can be quite fun. After all it can be a hobby, like there are car enthusiasts who spent countless hours restoring old cars, but it is not especially cost effective if you have other work alternatives. If you do it on the free time, it can feel like a burden in the end. I would rather spend more time with my kids than renovating a house.

When choosing a location, if the purpose of the house was to use it myself, I would consider activities one can engage in in the area and proximity to family and friends. I’d rather play tennis than go rock climbing. Therefore a location with a tennis club within a reasonable range is a must. Nate likes rock climbing, so the location he chose is perfect for him. He also mentions in the video that some friends already own a house in the same village. He covered at least two factors; activities and proximity to friends when choosing his location. If one plans to move to the new house on a permanent basis, job opportunities in the area may be an important factor to consider too. Needless to say, the job market in such isolated places is very small, but maybe one can work remotely if there is good internet.

To sum up, intended use, budget and desired location with regards to activities nearby, family and friends are the factors that I would base my decision on when buying a house in Spain as a foreign resident.

Nate did very well for himself considering his priorities, but one must admit that most people have a different set of priorities and are in a different phase in their lives that call for different choices.

I am most familiar with Catalonia and northern Castelló areas. Within those areas, my matrix of choices wold look something like this.

Buy to rent

Budget < 100k. Not worth it. The going rents for the kind of property one can buy in a second tier city with this budget is so low that it doesn’t compensate for the hassle. One needs to rent out several properties for it to be worthwhile.

Budget < 250k. Buy an apartment near Barcelona but not in the city itself. Maybe in Hospitalet de Llobregat or in el Maresme along the coast, maybe as far north as Mataró.

Budget > 250k. An apartment in Barcelona can be a good investment. Be careful with new regulations that restrict rent increases. Properties in the big cities like Barcelona and Madrid tend to appreciate over time more than elsewhere and prices rebound faster after crises.

Buy to use as holiday house. Rent via Airbnb when not using

For a holiday house, I would seek places that are less than 2 hour drive from Barcelona airport. I think that places further apart would require too much travel planning to be used often. This eliminates some really nice places, like the western Pyrenees, but still leaves plenty of good options.

Using Oalley I get the following map of locations within two hour or less from Barcelona airport.

Area within a 2 hour drive from Barcelona Airport

Here the question is if one prefers the beach, the mountains or just somewhere quiet an unspoiled. Prices will also vary a lot, with popular places being quite expensive. The landscape is so varied in this 2-hour area, that there is probably something for every taste. I personally like the dry farmland in la Segarra county. It is a mostly unspoiled hilly farmland landscape dotted with small villages. Many of them were built around a castle. The area is very hot in summer, but dry. A townhouse there is very affordable, even more if one buys one that needs renovating. Restoring a small castle is a possibility and asking prices start around 300 000 euro.

Buy as a permanent residence

I would personally want a place where you can walk to a shop or a restaurant and has access to any service within a reasonable distance, maybe half an hour, max. Fortunately, there are many places that fit the bill, again, with all kinds of budgets to choose from. If you like Barcelona, maybe the city itself is out of reach, but Vilassar de Mar is just 35 minutes away from the city center by train and prices are much more affordable.

Another aspect to consider is that your permanent residence becomes the starting point of travel to your holiday house. You can take this into account so that access to a desired holiday location becomes more convenient.

Last updated: 2021-11-15