How rustic is your property?

March 2, 2009


The recent arrest of the Mayor of Alcaucín, Málaga, on corruption charges that include allowing building on terreno rústico, points the spotlight at a problem that is and has been recurrent certainly on the coasts if not all over Spain for a number of greedy years. Most of the buyers of holiday or retirement homes in these places are expats looking for a place in the sun. By expats I mean of any nationality, though in the most recent case in Alcaucín, they were mostly British.

The Spanish media is full of headlines on the subject. In Sunday’s edition of El País, an in depth analysis of this case had a separate item titled: Los residentes extranjeros, principales compradores (Foreign residents, the main buyers) in which the first paragraph reads: “They came to Spain for the sunshine and a garden they couldn’t afford in their home country. Their ignorance of the law and a lack of scruples on the part of builders, intermediaries and public officials did the rest.”

The article quotes a British buyer, “To us, rústico means rustic, of the countryside, not a synonym for land that can’t be built on.” And therein lies the crux.

The Junta de Andalucía and eight municipalities in the Almanzora area of Málaga, which contains Alcaucín, have counted over 3,000 homes built on terreno rústico an official designation that means You Can’t Build on It / Green Belt / No, No, No – or any other such approximation. But then, if your builder or developer knows his way around your local Town Hall, he may well have built on what is ‘about to become’ urbanizable land. How does he know that?

Many if not most of the smaller municipalities in Andalucía and other ‘sunny’ places, are operating under a Plan General de Ordenación Urbana (PGOU in it Spanish acronym, roughly translatable to General Urban Ordination Plan – or Town Planning Regulations) that dates back to 1987 or thereabouts. Things have changed since then, of course, particularly during the Aznar years in government -but not always- when developers appeared to be able to do whatever they liked with few consequences that couldn’t be settled with a little finesse. The result is plain to anyone who has ever seen those vast developments on what would otherwise be open countryside. The photo that illustrates this article is a prime example in Seseña, Toledo, where there isn’t even a coastline and the massive development has naturally run into all kinds of trouble in the present economic climate. We don’t know how many expats might have bought there, but that, too, was built on a PGOU that is ‘in the process of change’, a change that has been conveniently a-changing since the 1980s but that allows for hefty ‘commissions’ to be had from those same developers and builders, many of whom are now in jail, or should be.

One question arises about these purchases, one that has arisen all too often over the years: When was the last time you bought a property in Britain (or anywhere else in the northern part of the EU, for that matter) without a proper survey being done beforehand? It is true, though, that a survey in Spain can be extremely dicey: Is the surveyor being paid by the developer? Are the proper documents easily available from the Town Hall? Can you trust the surveyor, and if you do, can you understand what he says? And if you’re working through an estate agent, how much do you know about him or her?

(c) Alexander Bewick 2009


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