Two British couples have seen their dream Spanish villas demolished, after losing a decade-long battle to keep them. Peter and Margaret Hegarty and Frank and Janet Doel were duped by developer and a former mayor into buying houses that had been built illegally. Despite ten years in the courts, they have now lost everything.
The Daily Mail reported that the Hegartys, a retired couple now living in Winchburgh in west Lothian, had bought a £140,000 three-bedroom villa in Cantoria in Spain in 2005. They spent 35 years of their savings plus Peter's redundancy pay on their dream home in the sun, and looked forward to enjoying the retirement they had worked so hard for.
It was only later that they learned they had been conned by a property developer, and the mayor at the time, Pedro Llamas, and that the properties were built illegally because the land had been classified as rural rather than urban.
The Daily Express reported that Llamas was found guilty of falsifying documents in 2012, and given a suspended sentence. He and the developer were ordered to pay compensation to the couples. However, they declared themselves bankrupt and never paid a penny.
Campaigners say that these couples are far from alone. There are 300,000 properties in the country which have been built illegally, around 4,000 of them are owned by Brits who dreamed of retiring in the sun.
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This is a dreadful example of how vulnerable buyers are when they are purchasing property in a country where they don't speak the language and they are not familiar with the legal process.
In this instance, there was no way for the couples to know they were buying an illegal property, because of the forged documents. However, if you are planning to buy overseas, there are five key steps which will help protect you from the most common pitfalls.
1. Employ an independent lawyer
You should consider a British property lawyer who specialises in your chosen country, deals in property purchases there regularly and speaks the language fluently. Don't assume you can rely on a lawyer recommended by the developer.
2. Take time to understand the process
The lawyer should investigate the planning consent, licences, property title and ownership. They should also ensure get an independent valuation. Check your lawyer is carrying out every step so you are confident that no stone is left unturned.
3. Do the maths
You need to calculate all the costs - including any country-specific fees and taxes, and any deposit you have to pay in advance. You also need to factor in currency movements, and consider securing a fixed exchange rate in advance from a specialist so you are not exposed to last-minute changes.
4. See a mortgage specialist
If you are borrowing for the purchase, you should use a mortgage broker in the UK who specialises in mortgages for your chosen country. You may have to pay a fee for their services, but they should be able to secure a competitive deal and explain the terms of your mortgage clearly.
5. Investigate your developer and your estate agent
Look into the companies involved before you even think about looking at the properties themselves. Check their reputation online and speak to past clients - in person. You also need to ask for details of their services in writing in advance so there aren't any nasty surprises.
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