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Dreaming of Spain

Thursday December 14, 2006

Lee Young

In the 30 years or so after first intrepid Britons packed their suitcases and headed for cheap and cheerful package holidays to Spain, it is estimated that more than half a million British people have made Spain their home. The majority are pensioners or people nearing retirement, and most have followed the tried and tested route and settled in one of the many expatriate communities along Spain?s 1,000 km coastline, one that stretches from the Atlantic in the west to the warmth of the Mediterranean in the east. Indeed, vast housing complexes ? urbanizacions ? have been constructed along almost the entire coastal strip, to provide accommodation for the increasing numbers of Britons (and other north Europeans) who are looking to live permanently in Spain.

If you include those owning holiday homes, it is estimated that in excess of 1 million households are owned by extranjeros. Moreover, this figure looks set to be dwarfed in the next decade, as more and more Britons ? 50,000 per year ? relocate to Europe?s southernmost peninsula.

Hidden within these overall statistics, however, is a much less visible but still sizeable population of British expatriates often with significantly smaller budgets than their coastal compatriots. Highly influenced and enthused by images of the many reality television programmes showing families happily relocating to Spain, these people too want to live the dream. With few reservations, little in the way of language skills or research about their country of destination, they throw caution to the wind and set about selling their modest homes, take their teenage children out of school and give notice to their employers that they are quitting to head off to a new life. Consisting mainly of couples in their 40s or early 50s, most are desperate to leave the drudgery and stresses of daily life in the UK.

With limited budgets, the majority will head inland where properties are readily available and, importantly, prices are more within their reach. While these might be positive aspects of buying away from the inflated costs of the coastal areas, the downside is that little ? if any ? English is spoken and local indigenous unemployment is among the highest in Europe.

Finding a home is a relatively straightforward process, with other similarly disposed expatriates having set up estate agencies to supply homes to this growing population. Having escaped the crowded and polluted towns and cities of the UK, the majority of these newcomers favour rural locations where the air is clean, spectacular mountain vistas abound and the concept of a crime rate is an alien notion. Many families end up buying old and isolated cortijos, or village houses, long since abandoned by the Spanish who want all the conveniences that modern life has to offer.

To our British newcomers, the houses for sale possess considerable charm, with original wooden beams, shuttered windows and Roman tiled roofs. Although inexpensive by UK standards, the purchase of an old property like this is likely to relieve any new settler of anything between ?75,000 and ?150,000 depending on the condition.

Revisiting these newcomers 12 to 24 months after arrival, one finds that life is not what they might have expected. With mouths that constantly need feeding, utility bills to pay and without the luxury of a regular income for many months, our intrepid newcomers are beginning to come face-to-face with the reality of their situation. Unable to earn a legitimate income doing their previous jobs, they resort to the informal economy by undertaking odd jobs for other expatriates. The problem is that so have another few dozen similarly placed Britons, and the already meagre wage rates are forced down by competition.

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