FOUR WALLS: A place in the sun

FOUR WALLS: A place in the sun - Many of us dream of owning property abroad, whether a villa in Italy or a chunk of sun-dappled Balearic, Greek or Caribbean island. We love the idea of somewhere exotic that we can call home, where our own toothbrush greet

by RORY ROSS, a freelance journalist and property owner
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Many of us dream of owning property abroad, whether a villa in Italy or a chunk of sun-dappled Balearic, Greek or Caribbean island. We love the idea of somewhere exotic that we can call home, where our own toothbrush greets our arrival.

For those of us encumbered by massive solvency, buying abroad can make financial sense. If world war three breaks out, it's good to know you've got a few gold bars stashed away in a plot of land in Chile. Such broad-range, long-term strategic thinking, tinged with paranoia, underlies the forging of great global fortunes.

For the rest of us, fantasising about taking the children out of school and gearing up for timeshare in Sotogrande, the weak euro is helping turn our dreams - sorry, our own broad-range, long-term strategic thinking - into reality. Low-budget airlines mean it is now cheaper to fly around Europe than take a train beyond the M25.

When a four-bedroom house in Shepherd's Bush can translate into an idyllic French retreat and enough money to retire on, you ask yourself if there's ever been a better time to realise that dream.

Well, that time has never existed and probably never will. You only have to look at how much convicted timeshare fraudster John Palmer swindled out of gullible Brits to see that when it comes to buying abroad, your dream can prove a nightmare.

'You have to be very brave to buy on the Continent,' advises one friend who swapped genteel poverty in Battersea for restricted circumstances in Tuscany 10 years ago. 'Research your property very carefully, and make sure you have at least the basic language skills. French and Italian bureaucracy is notorious. If I'd foreseen the problems, I'd never have moved, although I'm thrilled I have. Better to rent - which, of course, is what many Europeans do.'

One thing that divides us from the Continentals - besides the Channel - is our attitude to property. We are compulsive traders of bricks and mortar. If in doubt, we buy. But across the ditch, the same family often hogs the same house for generations.

In France, where the Code Napoleon makes inheritance laws incredibly complex, a house can belong to 20 cousins at once. Try rounding them up for a quick sale. We won Waterloo, but Napoleon made very sure we couldn't take over even the smallest bit of French countryside.

In return for low, stable prices, the fees on the Continent are outrageous.

In France, the solicitor and the agent are often one and the same - and can take as much as 11%. 'Foreign estate agents are scumbags,' says one financial adviser with a house on Formentera. 'They see an Englishman approaching and rub their hands in glee. Many British buyers are badly advised. Buying abroad can be a far greater financial drain than expected.'

Culture shock can also be a problem. Some people never bother to acclimatise to the local way of life and end up as bored expatriates or Ronald Biggs.

Andalusia is full of disillusioned, alcoholic Marks & Spencer executives who thought Spain was wonderful, but now find it filled with equally bored alcoholic M&S executives. I'd rather spend my retirement in the back of a lorry in Dover than put up with that lot.

'Never buy too big,' says my friend in Tuscany. 'It'll take twice as long to do up and will be twice as difficult to sort out. You must fathom the native mindset with great broad-mindedness. You must learn that yes means maybe, and maybe means no.'

We complain about Britain, just as we romanticise about life abroad.

But why, if abroad is so glamorous, do so many foreigners sacrifice so much to live here?

It all comes down to the weather. Being English, we have to store up images of idyllic, hot summer days, otherwise we wouldn't tolerate the absurd English weather, prices, transport, etc. We see ourselves sitting in the sun, but easily overlook what has to happen for that to be possible.

And on the back of that dream, a million timeshares have been launched.

The message is clear: be careful what you dream of, because it might become reality.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime